Dec 16, 2020 | Amotz Asa-El
Jury-rigged from the start, it held together for a scant seven months.
Only created last May, Israel’s 35th Government seems to have reached the end of its journey after the Knesset approved a bill to disband itself on Dec. 2. The Knesset’s House Committee subsequently tabled a bill for a new election, suggesting it be held on March 16.
The political saga that preceded the vote appears to have left its protagonists little choice but to march toward yet another general election, Israel’s fourth in hardly two years.
Technically, Israelis will likely be called to elect the 24th Knesset a mere 23 months after they elected the 21st, because their government failed to pass a state budget.
Furious over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s disregard for repeated demands to introduce a budget as required by the coalition agreement, Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, Blue and White, decided to support an opposition bill to disband the Knesset.
Just what motivated Netanyahu’s inaction is a matter of interpretation. Netanyahu claims constraints caused by the coronavirus pandemic made it better to work for a while without a long-term budget’s fiscal brakes.
There is logic to this argument, considering that the coalition agreement said the budget would be biannual, a commitment that became difficult to meet given the sudden need to provide aid to shuttered businesses and support to nearly a million newly jobless people.
However, the coalition agreement was written when the pandemic was already raging. Blue and White argues that Netanyahu inserted the clause stipulating a biannual budget in order to create a pretext for prematurely disbanding the coalition he was building.
Yet what drove Blue and White was not differing interpretations of the coalition agreement. It was frustration and distrust.
The coalition deal signed last April between Netanyahu and Blue and White’s leader Benny Gantz was the most complex in Israel’s political history.
Though Blue and White and its two satellite parties brought only 17 lawmakers to the coalition – as opposed to Likud’s 36 with another 16 from three satellite parties – the agreement gave both the Likud camp and the Blue and White camp 16 cabinet seats each. In addition, Gantz and Netanyahu were to rotate the premiership between them, with Netanyahu going first and then Gantz getting the top job in Nov. 2021.
Moreover, Blue and White received both the Defence Ministry, the most powerful and prestigious position in any Israeli government after Prime Minister, and the high-profile Foreign Ministry.
It was a shaky structure from the outset, and distrust animated the coalition’s work pretty much from day one, when Blue and White’s demands that the Government appoint a state prosecutor and police commissioner to fill vacancies in both crucial posts were left unanswered. Both positions have been filled by interim substitutes throughout the Government’s short tenure.
Gantz’s sense that Netanyahu was deliberately foot-dragging on practically all issues was heightened by Likud’s failure to allow the ministerial legislation committee to assemble. Blue and White increasingly felt they were being manoeuvred to stand in the background as extras in a show Netanyahu was producing, directing and starring in.
Perhaps most painfully, Netanyahu kept Gantz in the dark concerning the normalisation agreements he crafted with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – with the assistance of the United States – and didn’t even have Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz’s number two in Blue and White, attend the signing ceremony at the White House.
Increasingly, Blue and White’s leaders also felt Netanyahu had no intention of fulfilling the rotation agreement, preferring instead to return to the polls sometime before the handover to Gantz in November next year.
These were the circumstances that ultimately led Gantz to put his foot down and announce that he and his party would support the opposition’s bill to disband the Knesset.
Ugly though this divorce is, the outgoing Government can boast one significant cooperative achievement.
A so-called “Corona Cabinet”, headed jointly by Netanyahu and Gantz, met regularly, monitored the medical situation, managed a lockdown system, created compensation packages, and purchased in advance the vaccines that will hopefully end the pandemic that was this Government’s original raison d’être.
In this regard, the outgoing coalition upheld a 53-year tradition, whereby Israel responds to national emergencies with unity governments. That is what happened in the 1967 Six Day War, in the 1984 economic crisis, and in the 2001 war with Palestinian terror known as the Second Intifada.
However, the political ailments that predated the medical crisis that gave rise to this Government will not be cured by its demise, and in fact will likely only become worse.
Israeli politics was initially thrown into turmoil by Netanyahu’s legal entanglements. Three separate charge sheets against him involving allegations of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust have created an unprecedented situation whereby an Israeli prime minister is in office while under criminal indictment.
Netanyahu’s response, a flat denial of all charges and an insistence on remaining in office, created a constitutional crisis. His rivals insist an indicted prime minister must step aside until his legal situation is resolved. His supporters say that if any indictment forces the departure of a prime minister convicted of no crime, this would amount to giving the judicial system the ability to overturn the will of Israeli voters at any time without having to actually prove any malfeasance.
The sense of historic crisis has been further exacerbated by Netanyahu’s insistence that he has been the victim of a conspiracy which encompasses the judiciary, the media, and the police.
Following Netanyahu’s indictment, the political plot thickened as the veteran PM lost the support of three key conservative allies.
First, following the 2019 election, Netanyahu lost former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Beitenu (“Israel our home”) party when he repeatedly refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition. Then, in last winter’s election, Netanyahu lost Naftali Bennett, also a former defence minister, after Netanyahu refused to appoint him health minister to lead the coronavirus response.
Finally, Likud lawmaker and former education minister Gideon Sa’ar announced his resignation from the Likud on Dec. 8 in order to run independently as head of a new party, expected to be called “New Hope”. Once a Netanyahu protégé, the 54-year-old Sa’ar is popular among Likud members and was widely seen as a leading contender to succeed him.
Sa’ar will be joined by Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and Knesset Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Zvi Hauser, both former Netanyahu aides who ran as part of Blue and White, and then created their own faction.
In losing Lieberman, Netanyahu lost some of the Russian-speaking electorate. In losing Bennett, Netanyahu risked losing some of the modern-Orthodox electorate. In losing Sa’ar, he risks losing some of Likud’s core supporters.
Given the coalition arithmetic which always applies in Israel, whereby amassing 61 seats from disparate parties is the key to government, it was Lieberman’s departure from the Netanyahu-led conservative bloc that lay at the root of Israel’s repeated electoral indecision since Dec. 2018. Ideologically, however, Lieberman’s critique of Netanyahu is not focussed on his personal conduct, but on his concessions to the ultra-Orthodox sector on various issues, especially exemptions from conscription.
Bennett, meanwhile, has also largely avoided discussing Netanyahu’s legal situation, attacking instead his performance, claiming Netanyahu mishandled the pandemic twice: first, by refusing to let the IDF lead the response to COVID-19, a task for which it had both resources and contingency plans; and secondly, by imposing a sweeping lockdown which, according to Bennett, unnecessarily debilitated thousands of businesses.
Sa’ar, meanwhile, charges that under Netanyahu’s rule all internal debate within Likud came to an end and the long-established party instead became the Prime Minister’s personal cheer squad.
Before Sa’ar’s announcement, polls suggested that Bennett’s Yamina (“Rightward”) faction – which currently has six Knesset seats – could win more than 20 seats, and thus become the second-largest faction. Sa’ar’s new party is expected to syphon off some of that electorate, and also possibly further shrink Likud, as well as take votes from Blue and White.
The first question the approaching election raises, therefore, is whether Bennett and/or Sa’ar would be open to joining a centrist coalition to unseat Netanyahu.
On the one hand, that would be disagreeable to many of their potential voters. On the other hand, any deal Netanyahu might offer them for their support would likely appear unreliable to them, especially considering what happened between Netanyahu and Gantz. Furthermore, if both Bennett and Sa’ar were to enter a coalition with centrists, conservatives could not credibly accuse either of them of betraying the Right by abandoning Netanyahu.
Another key question is what will happen with Gantz and his estranged political partner, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) party.
Lapid went into the last three elections as Gantz’s key colleague and second-in-command in Blue and White. The pair parted ways in the wake of the pandemic, which Gantz thought demanded a broad government, while Lapid insisted a narrow government without Netanyahu was both obtainable and imperative. Both men now say they are open to a reconciliation, but only if the other will agree to follow his lead.
Whatever the centre’s ultimate configuration, between them Gantz, Lapid, Sa’ar, Bennett and Lieberman look likely to collectively command too many Knesset seats for Netanyahu to remain in power, unless he can somehow find a way to win support from at least one of them. If that is indeed the result of the upcoming Israeli poll, Sa’ar’s jab may prove to have been for Netanyahu’s career what Brutus’ famous stab was to Julius Caesar.