Australia/Israel Review


A Government at last

Apr 29, 2020 | Amotz Asa-El

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Netanyahu and Gantz make a deal

 

It’s over. No, the coronavirus pandemic is not over, and its economic impact and social challenges may hardly have begun. 

However, the 12-month political deadlock in Israel, during which these major medical/economic crises occurred, has finally ended after Israel’s two largest parties – Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White – signed a coalition agreement, following three inconclusive election campaigns and seven weeks of unedifying talks. 

According to the deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for 18 months, and Gantz will then succeed him for 18 months, after which the next general election will be held in early 2023, unless Netanyahu and Gantz decide jointly to schedule it closer to its legal deadline of early 2024. 

After creating, through new legislation, the entirely novel political position of “Alternate Prime Minister”, the pair will serve as each other’s defence minister (assuming Netanyahu’s legal travails allow him to), and become the other’s automatic, and only, replacement. Both sides will have an equal number of cabinet ministers which they are free to allocate to their satellite parties. 

Calling itself an Emergency Government, this coalition will focus on combating coronavirus, an effort which Gantz and Netanyahu will lead personally and jointly. 

Blue and White’s Gabi Ashkenazi – Gantz’s predecessor as IDF chief of staff – will be foreign minister, while Likud’s Yisrael Katz, the current foreign minister, will become finance minister. In addition, Blue and White will get the justice portfolio, which has become pivotal in the wake of Netanyahu’s legal entanglements, and Likud will get the Knesset speakership. 

The deadlock this deal ends began at the April 9 2019 general election, in which each major party won 35 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Netanyahu’s decade-old right-wing coalition unravelled at that time, after former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and his secularist Israel Beitenu party abandoned it, citing Netanyahu’s retreat from a bill that would have expanded the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF. 

Israel consequently went to a new election the following September, in which the centrist Blue and White won one seat more than Likud, but still could not form the centre-left coalition which its leaders hoped would end the Netanyahu era. 

There was another possibility at that time: a broad government, based on the precedent of 1984’s inconclusive election, after which the two major parties of the day – Likud and Labor – agreed to share power, rotating the premiership between their leaders. 

Netanyahu, who at that point had yet to be formally indicted on the corruption charges that were pending against him, offered Blue and White a rotation government. Under this scenario, he would have relinquished the premiership once indicted, but Blue and White’s four leaders turned that offer down, saying they would not serve in a government headed by a suspected felon. 

It was a decision Netanyahu’s opponents would soon regret, because in the next election they forced, on March 9 this year – the third within 11 months – Likud emerged with three more seats than Blue and White, though once again neither of the two parties could form government without the other. 

Worse, from Blue and White’s viewpoint, Likud grew its vote in that election, increasing its representation from 32 to 36 Knesset seats. This came despite Netanyahu’s formal indictment between the second and third elections. 

This circumstance alone caused some in Blue and White to conclude they must compromise and enter a broad government, in order to put an end to what Gantz and his colleagues portrayed as a Likud-led assault on the judicial system. 

A confederation of three parties established only last year, the Blue and White coalition’s debate on this dilemma had hardly begun when the coronavirus crisis upended the world and undid their union. 

On the rational side, the split was over political strategy. 

Split down the middle: (From left) Blue and White’s Ashkenazi and Gantz joined the government, while Lapid and Ya’alon refused

Former finance minister Yair Lapid and former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon wanted to first conquer the legislature by appointing a Knesset speaker from Blue and White with the support of the Joint List, a party whose mostly Arab members oppose the idea of a Jewish state. Lapid and Ya’alon’s plan was to proceed from there to the establishment of a minority government and then seek its expansion. 

However, Gantz and Ashkenazi argued that the pandemic changed everything, and demanded a unity government. Polls indicated that this was also the will of most voters, including Blue and White’s. This was on top of the reluctance of Gantz and Ashkenazi to rely, even momentarily, on the support of the Joint List.

Beyond these dilemmas, there appears to have been some personal circumstances that led to a gap in emotional intensity between members of Blue and White’s estranged leaders. Lapid and Ya’alon were both personally humiliated by Netanyahu, the former in 2014, when he was fired as finance minister, and the latter in 2016, when he was removed as defence minister. Gantz and Ashkenazi, who worked under Netanyahu as IDF commanders, carried no such baggage. 

Emotion aside, when faced with his colleagues’ refusal to enter into an emergency government under Netanyahu, Gantz decided to part with them. The faction therefore split down the middle: Gantz was supported by 17 of his faction’s 33 lawmakers, and the rest followed Lapid, who will now be Leader of the Opposition, leading the Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) faction. 

Gantz also brings into the coalition two of Labor’s three lawmakers, headed by Amir Peretz, who served as defence minister in Ehud Olmert’s government, and before that as head of the Histadrut labour federation. 

The 68-year-old Peretz will serve as economics minister, and his colleague Itzik Shmuli, 40, will be minister of welfare. More significantly, Peretz and Gantz announced they had plans to merge their factions, a move which may presage a deeper consolidation. Gantz also intends to appoint an Arab-Israeli citizen, yet to be named, as minister for minority affairs. 

There has been considerable commotion on the emerging coalition’s opposite side as well.

First, lawyer and social activist Orly Levy-Abecassis, who ran with her Gesher Party on the same ticket as Labor and the far-left Meretz, has veered right, returning to where she was born and raised, as the daughter of former Likud leader and foreign minister David Levy. She will now become a minister representing Likud. 

Second, and much more dramatically, Netanyahu seems prepared – as of this writing – to leave incumbent Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and his right-wing Yamina faction out of the new coalition. 

The reason for such a move, if it materialises, would be twofold: first, the outspoken Bennett has been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side – recently criticising the government in which he was a senior member for its handling of the coronavirus crisis, as he similarly did back in 2014 when he spoke out against the then-government’s management of that summer’s fighting in Gaza while it was still raging. 

Secondly, Yamina currently holds three important portfolios – defence, education, and transport – even though it only has six elected lawmakers. Vacating those ministries would allow Netanyahu to give Likud members more booty out of what little has been left for them after Netanyahu gave Gantz 16 ministries to allocate. 

Still, even without Yamina, the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition will include a solid 72 lawmakers, and thus provide the stability Israeli politics has craved since late 2018, and even more so since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The new coalition’s agenda will obviously be dominated by the pandemic, which is also what brought the deadlock to its end. 

The pandemic caused Gantz to retreat from his demand that the indicted Netanyahu clear the scene until the charges against him were resolved, and the pandemic made Netanyahu seek a partner with whom to share responsibility for the tough decisions it demands.

Until he made his move, some pundits thought Netanyahu was actually seeking yet another election. This impression was underscored by polls that indicated the public was largely satisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, and that support for Likud was consequently rising.

Netanyahu had indeed responded to the crisis faster than most other world leaders. Israel stopped flights from China and neighbouring countries earlier than others, and was also quicker to impose social distancing, all of which resulted in comparably lower rates of contagion in Israel, compared with most of Europe and the US.

Even so, with the Israeli jobless rate suddenly exceeding 24%; with school closure increasingly unsettling parents; and with small business owners vocally demanding they be allowed to reopen their stores, Netanyahu likely knew that the current positive polls might well prove meaningless by the time an early election rolled around in August. 

Now he will be handling the crisis together with Gantz, and if public impatience and dissatisfaction grow, as they likely will, he will not be held solely accountable.

The pair will be joined in this effort by Katz, the designated finance minister, who incidentally grew up with Gantz in the same small farming community south of Tel Aviv, Kfar Ahim, which means, perhaps proverbially, “village of brothers”. 

An efficient administrator and powerful party boss, the 64-year-old Katz will be tasked with making deep budgetary cuts, including possibly slashing public-sector salaries, in order to finance compensation for the unemployed and for the private sector’s losses in the wake of the pandemic. 

The three will nominally manage the crisis, together with the Health Minister. Yaakov Litzman, one of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox loyalists, currently holds that position, but if he keeps the job, the others will likely effectively sideline him. Litzman has been criticised for being ineffective as an administrator, focusing largely on sectarian issues like delaying social distancing in synagogues, and is alleged to have flouted his own ministry’s social distancing guidelines. Litzman also faces allegations of interference in the case to extradite former Australian Jewish school principal and accused child sex offender Malka Leifer to Melbourne. However, Litzman has reportedly requested to move to housing.

 

Beyond the coronavirus crisis, the new coalition will be tested on two more fronts: the politicisation of the judicial system and the Trump Administration’s peace plan released in late January. 

Regarding the judiciary, Netanyahu will stand trial while Blue and White runs the Ministry of Justice, which oversees the court system. 

This means that Gantz’s designated justice minister, Avi Nissenkorn, a 53-year-old lawyer and former chairman of the Histadrut labour federation, will be tasked with undoing the legacy of Likud’s Amir Ohana. It has been alleged Ohana tried to use the pandemic to delay Netanyahu’s trial, and before that, broke precedent by trying to install his own candidate as State Attorney, while rejecting the candidate of the non-political Attorney-General.

According to the details of the Netanyahu-Gantz deal, all senior civil service appointments, except for certain Ambassadorships, will be made by consensus. 

This provision will first be applied to Nissenkorn’s appointment of a new State Attorney. Other positions, such as a new Inspector General for Israel’s Police and an Ambassador to Washington, will test the new coalition’s harmony soon after it is sworn in sometime in early May. 

Concerning the Trump peace plan, Netanyahu insisted on applying its recommendation that Israel extend its sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and certain other parts of the West Bank, by passing a law to this effect. Gantz agreed, but only if the legislation was approved in advance by Washington. 

Whatever transpires on this front, particularly if it is Palestinian violence and strong diplomatic protests from Jordan, might also test the new coalition’s effectiveness and durability. 

Yet more than anything else, Israel’s 35th government seems set to be remembered for signalling the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu era, which began with his return to the premiership in late 2009. 

For better or for worse, Netanyahu’s current premiership now appears to have a formal expiration date, September 2021 – more than a dozen years after he returned to Israel’s top job. 

If the deal holds up until then, Gantz can say that, in the short year since he entered politics, he has left an imprint on Israeli political history deeper than most other Israeli politicians made even after decades in Jerusalem’s corridors of power. 

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