Ahron Shapiro on Israel’s new government, coronavirus response

Apr 28, 2020 | Ahron Shapiro

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Senior Policy Analyst Ahron Shapiro was interviewed by ABC Newsradio’s Glen Bartholomew on April 28, 2020 on the latest Israeli political developments, and on the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

ABC Newsradio host Glen Bartholomew: The Labor party in Israel has voted to join the coalition government formed by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his former rival, Benny Gantz. The two men agreed last week to work together to fight the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it’s caused after 17 months of political paralysis. The deal looks to have ended the country’s unprecedented political deadlock that has seen three elections in less than 12 months. Ahron Shapiro is a policy analyst with the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and has been watching it all unfold. And he joins us now from Melbourne. Ahron, good afternoon.

Ahron Shapiro: Good afternoon, Glen.

Glen Bartholomew: It has been a long time coming. Do we finally have a workable government in Israel?

Ahron Shapiro: Well, sort of. We’ve reached a stage where Netanyahu and Benny Gantz have agreed to a government, but that government hasn’t been formulated yet. And there are actually a couple of legal hurdles that have to be overcome before such a government is born.

Glen Bartholomew: All right. Let’s look at that. How did it happen? How did they come together?

Ahron Shapiro: Well, it was right before Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom Hashoah, which was just about a week ago. There had been a deal that had been tentatively on the table for a while and both sides were saying, what’s going on? Why aren’t we signing this? There were some details that were – they were both trying to get their last things in this deal, to go their way. In the end, at the moment of truth, they did sign it.

It is a very long and complicated deal, which is 14 pages long. Forty-one clauses long. And that’s just to talk about a way that they can work together. It talks nothing about what this government is going to do.

Glen Bartholomew: Gantz had vowed never to serve in a government under Netanyahu. Was it this pandemic that brought about the about-face?

Ahron Shapiro: Very much so. I think there were a couple of things here. Back in September in the previous election, Gantz emerged in a much better position. At that time, there was a deal on the table where Netanyahu would serve first for the first six months and then leave. In the most recent election in March, Netanyahu did better. And for that reason, the deal that was eventually worked out was much more in Netanyahu’s favour. And now, instead of six months, it became 18 months with Netanyahu and then another 18 months with Gantz.

And the reason for all this, that Gantz didn’t agree to it even in September and does now is coronavirus. And they are actually going into a national emergency government for the first six months before they go into a formal unity government.

Glen Bartholomew: Will there be unity in six months? A big question, I guess. So we do effectively have this rotating power-sharing deal where notionally we might see a couple of prime ministers, so-to-speak.

Ahron Shapiro: Well, there is the really fascinating thing, and this is unprecedented. It’s one of the things that the courts need to look at. Instead of having – in their previous time that there was a unity government in the 1980s, they had a situation where you had a Likud prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and then the deputy prime minister was Shimon Peres, and they switched after a time. Well, this time around, being deputy wasn’t good enough. They actually call them alternate prime ministers, which means that both Netanyahu and Benny Gantz will have prime ministerial residences and security details. And what does it all mean? This isn’t really in Israeli law. So they have to create laws that will make it work and the courts will say whether or not this is really legitimate.

Glen Bartholomew: So not over yet, off to the high court. All right. How have the Gantz supporters reacted to his move to effectively join forces with Netanyahu?

Ahron Shapiro: It depends who you ask, his party’s split – because, as you said, he had promised not to let Netanyahu go first while he was under indictment and he had to, he said for the good of the nation at this time of emergency, had to go back on that promise. Some people were very understanding and actually he took 17 members of his party, of the Blue and White party with him into the government.

But the rest of his party, mainly the factions of Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon. They couldn’t abide by that. They left. A lot of the Gantz supporters feel short-changed. They feel lied to, but you can see both sides.

Glen Bartholomew: Just when you thought you’d seen it all in Israeli politics are now negotiations did stall at one point because Netanyahu demanded more influence over judicial appointments. What does all this mean for Netanyahu’s indictment on those corruption charges?

Ahron Shapiro: All right. This is interesting because the emergency government has an agreement that says that all public servant appointees will be frozen and remain in place for six months. And that does help Netanyahu, because the government we’re coming out of was a Likud government, certainly, now for six months, everything will stay in place and there won’t be any big changes in the justice ministry. But after six months – the justice ministry has gone to Blue and White to a man named Nissenkorn.

And so he is going to be able to make some overview, he’ll have some oversight over the Netanyahu case and the Likud will have limited ability to influence it after the six months. But the thing about the judicial appointments, which goes beyond Netanyahu’s case, because the idea that of the court overstepping its bounds is very, is a very hot issue, especially among people on the right. So the judicial appointments issue is they’re supposed to have somebody on the Knesset committee from the opposition and they’re not doing that in this agreement.

And this is one of the things that the High Court will also have to look at.

Glen Bartholomew: All right. Some extraordinary stuff that it is, I guess, extraordinary times. Israel, I think, has had around 15,400 Coronavirus cases and more than 200 deaths. How do you rate its response to the pandemic? How’s it fared?

Ahron Shapiro: Well, I think it’s mostly good, and there is a lot that Israel can be proud of. Now, the health minister is a controversial figure. He’s outgoing now, he’s now saying he’s going to leave. His name is Yaacov Litzman. People may recognize this man from the Malka Leifer debacle with us, but he’s actually leaving. And he, he can’t really take all the credit for Israel’s response. Actually, there’s a director-general of the Ministry of Health under him, named Moshe Bar Siman Tov, who’s done a great job.

But Israel’s done well, especially when you compare it to the countries in Europe nearby, Israel was the first to institute lockdowns and tracing apps and quarantine ahead of all the countries around it. And for that reason, it’s doing really well. Israel is now preparing to open some primary schools. It’s now finding ways out. It’s having an exit strategy. I think overall, Israel can be very proud of itself. I think Australia’s doing better, but Australia’s in a different part of the world.

But for Israel’s place and time, I think it has done a really good job.

Glen Bartholomew: All right. Let’s see what the High Court makes of this putative government deal. We might talk again, Ahron. Thanks very much.

Ahron Shapiro: Thank you, Glen

Glen Bartholomew: Ahron Shapiro, policy analyst with the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, making sense of the current state of Israeli politics for us.



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