In an extraordinary day at Israel’s Knesset on Thursday, in an acrimonious session that split his party, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz initiated moves to enter a national unity government with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud.
According to reports, under their agreement, Netanyahu would continue to serve as PM for the next 18 months before handing over the reins to Gantz, who would reportedly serve as Foreign Minister, initially.
Other details of the deal reports say are being discussed are Blue and White member and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi replacing Naftali Bennett of the Yamina party as Defence Minister, and Gantz loyalist Yehiel “Hili” Tropper to serve as Justice Minister, replacing Likud’s Amir Ohana.
This deal looks set to put an end to a year-long political impasse which has seen no duly-elected government in Israel since December 2018, and an unprecedented three inconclusive elections in 11 months.
The march towards a national unity government began on March 12, when Netanyahu called for the formation of such a government in order to meet the challenge of the emerging coronavirus crisis, and Gantz agreed in principle.
As I blogged on March 13, it seemed at that point that a national unity government was “inevitable”, and despite all the political trials and tribulations that have happened since, this appears to have been correct.
At the time Netanyahu made that call for unity, the number of Israelis who had tested positive for coronavirus was just over 100.
By this Thursday, that number had reached 2,693 and was expected to continue to rise. Gantz cited this medical state of emergency as his justification for now pursuing a national unity government on terms that he had rejected in the past.
Blue and White had insisted that it would never join a government led by a prime minister under indictment. Netanyahu is currently facing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, although his case, like all court matters, has been postponed due to restrictions on gatherings imposed to combat the spread of coronavirus.
In splitting the party, Gantz and another leader within the party, Gabi Ashkenazi, exposed the disagreement among the four party leaders (also known as the “cockpit”) on this crucial issue. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem factions were fully committed to the demand that Gantz must serve first in any prime ministerial rotation scenario while Netanyahu’s trial continues. They have been prepared to cling to this demand at all costs. Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael (“Israeli Resilience”) party and Gabi Ashkenazi have clearly come to see things differently.
Hindsight is 20/20
Over the past few days, Israel has seen considerable political drama surrounding the role and actions of the Speaker of the Knesset, who was the Likud’s Yuli Edelstein until Wednesday, when he resigned under pressure from Israel’s High Court. The constitutional crisis that Edelstein had touched off is beyond the scope of this blog, but without going into too much detail, Edelstein had been throwing roadblocks into an effort by Blue and White to replace him with one of their own, MK Meir Cohen.
Blue and White’s stated goal was to push through legislation aimed directly at Netanyahu that would prevent someone being asked to serve as Prime Minister while under indictment. This would only have taken effect after the next election – but after three elections in a year, a fourth election in September looked highly possible.
The Likud vowed that a move to replace Edelstein with Cohen to facilitate this agenda would destroy any chance for a national unity government. On Thursday, Gantz shocked Lapid and Ya’alon and saved the national unity government option by putting himself up as candidate for Knesset Speaker instead of Cohen. Presumably, Gantz will now remain Speaker until the negotiations for a national unity government are completed.
The interesting thing is that, in refusing to convene a vote to replace himself, Edelstein repeatedly argued that he needed to remain the Speaker to preserve the national unity government negotiations.
Hindsight would appear to partially vindicate Edelstein’s motives, though not necessarily his highly contentious actions, since it is plausible to believe Edelstein was acting based on knowledge that negotiations between Gantz and Netanyahu about entering into a national unity government were serious and could bear fruit.
In the end, for Gantz to offer himself as candidate for Knesset Speaker, while bizarre on the face of it, achieved the same goal – preserving a national unity government option that is acceptable to both the Likud and a large portion of the Blue and White party.
At the same time, it undermined Lapid and Ya’alon – not to mention Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party, which had fully invested itself in the plans to use legislation to push Netanyahu out of the prime minister’s office.
No turning back
Gantz’s decision to ignore his Knesset colleague’s efforts to install MK Cohen as Knesset Speaker was seen as an ultimate act of betrayal by most of the 61-member “anyone but Bibi” political camp of MKs that recommended Gantz over Netanyahu for prime minister, leading to Gantz being given a mandate to form government by President Rivlin.
At this stage, it is impossible to imagine Gantz restoring trust in him among parties of the left. If a national unity government agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu is signed, Gantz’s political future will depend on whether Netanyahu fulfils his promise to surrender the Prime Minister position to him in 18 months.
As prime minister of a country still recovering from the devastation of a pandemic, Gantz would be in a position to try to earn back support from the left. But September 2021 seems a very long time from now, for Israel and for the world.
But for now, with a little luck, Israel will soon have a government that will be able to pass a new budget, defend itself from external threats from a position of unity, and perhaps even begin a process of political healing to go hand in hand with managing and hopefully recovering from the pandemic.