Israel's political deadlock continues as deadline looms — so what happens next?

The deadline for Benny Gantz to form a government expires at midnight Wednesday local time.
Image: Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White party, speaks during a rally commemorating the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Tel Aviv,
Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, speaks during a rally commemorating the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 2, 2019.Corinna Kern / Reuters

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By Saphora Smith and Paul Goldman

Israel's former army chief of staff Benny Gantz had only hours left Wednesday to form a government or admit he has failed to do so, risking extending the country's political deadlock and an unprecedented third national election in 12 months.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political rival must form a government before midnight Wednesday local time (5 p.m. ET.)

An end to the uncertainty looked further out of reach Wednesday after would-be kingmaker and former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman shut down speculation that he would join Gantz in the government.

"I did all I can do to get a liberal unity coalition. We're not selling our principles for any price," Lieberman told reporters. He also ruled out joining a Netanyahu right-wing government including ultra-religious parties.

If Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party, announces he has enough support to form a government at the last minute, he will be given seven days by President Reuven Rivlin to put it together.

But if he fails, for the first time in Israel’s history, the president will initiate a 21-day period in which any member of Parliament can become prime minister if they muster the 61 signatures needed to achieve a majority in the Knesset. If this period elapses, Israel will return to the polls.

“The country has so many issues that need to be addressed, not just international ones, regional ones and those to do with the Palestinians but also domestic ones, the identity of the country, the relationship between religion and the state,” said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University in London. “The country needs a government.”

Issues facing Israel's next prime minister include security threats, a budget deficit, relations between Israel's Jewish majority and its Arab minority, as well as those between secular Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

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“[What is] at stake is are we going to be a moderate stable liberal democracy or less of one,” Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, said.

“Netanyahu is heading an increasingly hard-line right-wing coalition and if he forms the next one, then they may take Israel in a truly hard-line direction,” he said.

This could include annexing parts of the West Bank unilaterally and continued settlement activity there, and continuing to play on tensions between Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations to rally Netanyahu’s base, he added.

Among the options left is for Gantz to join forces with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party to form a government of national unity. This would mark a major U-turn for Gantz who had sought to distance himself from the scandal-plagued prime minister.

Netanyahu, who has dominated Israeli politics for decades, is waiting to see whether the country's attorney general will indict him on fraud and bribery charges in three corruption cases. He denies any wrongdoing.

“The elephant in the room is the potential indictment of Netanyahu and the promise by Blue and White not to sit with him in case he’s indicted,” Mekelberg said.

A second option would be for Gantz to form a minority government with the support of Arab parties. If Gantz manages to form a government without Netanyahu, it would likely spell the end of the prime minister’s decadelong grip on power, ushering in a new era in Israeli politics.

A worker hangs a massive election campaign billboard that shows the Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019.Oded Balilty / AP file

Netanyahu, dubbed "King Bibi" by many for his dominance over Israeli politics, first became prime minister in 1996 and served for three years. After losing the next election, he left politics, only to return in 2002 as foreign minister and then as prime minister in 2009. He then won subsequent elections in 2013 and 2015.

Following the inconclusive Sept. 17 election, Netanyahu failed to form a government last month, after which the mandate was transferred to Gantz.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement Monday that the United States would no longer consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a violation of international law sent a clear message to lawmakers such as Gantz and Lieberman that they should “take the hint” and reconcile their differences to avoid a third election, according to Mike Evans, a member of President Donald Trump's evangelical advisory team.

Evans told NBC News that the potential U.S. recognition of the West Bank as being part of Israel was at stake.

“He [Pompeo] just said the settlements are no longer illegal. What does that tell me? That tells me there’s a very strong possibility that the next things he’ll do is recognize Judea and Samaria,” he said, referring to the West Bank.

"But if Gantz blows it and pushes it back to the third election because he has personal issues, or Lieberman has personal issues, they could lose everything," he added.

Evangelical Christians in the U.S. are an important part of Trump's base and many are also staunch supporters of Israel, feeling a religious connection with the Jewish people and the Holy Land.