As if Coronavirus Wasn’t Enough, Israel’s Constitutional Contagion Is Out of Control as Well

President Reuven Rivlin threw a monkey wrench into Israel’s already paralyzed political machinery on Sunday. Contrary to widespread expectations, Rivlin refused to extend Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz’s mandate to form the next government and at the same time indicated that he would refrain from passing it on to Benjamin Netanyahu.

If the Knesset then fails to resolve the political impasse within the three weeks allotted by law, the hitherto-inconceivable will occur: Israel will head into its fourth straight elections, following three inconclusive ones.

Rivlin’s move surprised Kahol Lavan, which had viewed the extension of Gantz’s mandate as inevitable. It enraged Likud, which views Rivlin’s seeming refusal to transfer the mandate to Netanyahu as an abuse of presidential powers. And it flummoxed experts and analysts who found themselves navigating uncharted constitutional waters without so much as a compass to guide them.

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In announcing his decision, Rivlin did provide a narrow escape route from the mayhem of his own creation: If the sides reach agreement on national unity before Gantz’s mandate officially expires on Monday at midnight, he would reconsider his decision. But, as Rivlin noted, talks on the proposed alliance between Likud and Kahol Lavan have broken down, with no indication that they can be revived.

The breakdown in the negotiations between Likud and Kahol Lavan occurred ostensibly because of disagreements over Netanyahu’s last-minute demand for veto power over senior legal appointments. Many political observers believe, however, that Netanyahu’s decision to reopen previously agreed elements in the negotiations provided further proof that he had no intention to establish a coalition with Gantz in the first place.

After all, national unity talks have already splintered the opposition, whittled down Kahol Lavan to half its original size and undermined Gantz’s standing as an equal partner to Netanyahu. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, he can already credit himself with “mission accomplished.”

However Rivlin’s apparent refusal to transfer the mandate to Netanyahu plays havoc with the prime minister’s game plan. It theoretically throws his fate into the hands of 120 Knesset members, most of who are, in the eyes of paranoid Netanyahu, weak and untrustworthy. Rivlin’s move allows Gantz to retain control of vital Knesset committees and to keep threatening Netanyahu with legislation that could bar him from running in future elections.