Update from AIJAC
On Monday afternoon Israel time, acting Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz signed an agreement to form a national emergency government, apparently putting an end to an extended period of political turmoil in Israel, including three elections in a year, and 17 months without a duly elected government. While AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro offered a quick analysis yesterday, this Update looks in more depth at the very real complexities of the Netanyahu-Gantz deal, and what this new Israeli government will probably look like.
We lead with a thorough exploration of the deal’s key terms from Dov Lipman, a former Knesset member turned political analyst. He describes the new agreement’s convoluted provisions regarding rotation of the premiership between Netanyahu and Gantz, its plans to turn the “emergency” government into a formal unity government in six months time, the division of ministries, and the compromises it contains on issues like appointment of judges and a proposed annexation of areas of the West Bank. He also discusses where the smaller parties in the Knesset will find themselves under the Likud/Blue and White arrangement expected to formally come into effect next week. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Next up is Herb Keinon, long-standing diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, who makes the case that, for all its flaws and complexities, the Netanyahu-Gantz deal is still very much in Israel’s national interest. He stresses Israel’s need for a government that can deal firmly with the coronavirus crisis and especially its economic fallout, given that interim governments cannot even pass a proper budget, and also address urgent defence and security challenges. He further discusses why a fourth election would be disastrous and makes the case that there is a good chance that Netanyahu and Gantz would be able to make this odd government work reasonably effectively. For his views in full, CLICK HERE.
Finally, we offer you some insightful points about the new coalition deal from veteran Israeli journalist and pundit Shmuel Rosner. He points out that for all convolutions of the deal’s provisions on rotating the premiership, what will actually happen in 18 months time when Gantz is scheduled to become PM will likely depend heavily on the political calculations at the time, as will what happens with regard to the discussion of West Bank annexations. Rosner also makes the point that for most Israelis, the key virtue of this new deal is that it avoids yet another election. For these and other perceptive insights from Rosner, CLICK HERE. Rosner also had a second piece on the deal in which he describes the new government as a camel-opotomous – a creature both oddly built and slow and ponderous – yet argues it is nonetheless necessary.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Some other good analysis of the prospects and difficulties of the new government comes from Haviv Rettig Gur and David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, and veteran journalist Ben Caspit.
- More discussion of the unity deal’s provisions with respect to possible annexations in the West Bank.
- More on the much-discussed effects of the coalition deal on Israel’s legal system from Yonah Jeremy Bob.
- Anna Ahronheim on how the Israeli military will react to having Gantz become the third Defence Minister to take charge in a year.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC’s statement on the new Israeli national emergency government.
- In addition to Ahron Shapiro’s analysis noted above, top Israeli journalist and recent AIJAC guest Ehud Yaari spoke about the new emergency government with Bev O’Connor on ABC News 24 last night.
- Oved Lobel analyses why the world has ignored the fate of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, an Iranian dissident murdered in Turkey by agents of the Iranian government in a way highly reminiscent of the much higher profile killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
- An AIJAC webinar tonight at 7:30 pm about the Israeli political scene, as well as peace prospects with the Palestinians, featuring former Knesset member and leading Israeli intellectual Einat Wilf, and viewable on Facebook.
Ins and outs of Israel’s unprecedented national emergency unity government
Details on the forthcoming new Israeli government, to be formally signed next week after Yom Ha’aztmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Its first order of business will be to pass legislation to set the Netanyahu-Gantz rotation in motion.
BY DOV LIPMAN
JNS, April 21, 2020
Israel’s 15-month political stalemate, which led to three election cycles within the course of a year, has come to a close with the signing of a unity government deal between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, and Blue and White Party head Benny Gantz. The two sides are calling it a “national emergency government” in large part to manage the ongoing coronavirus crisis, which has stymied Israel along with the rest of the world.
Both leaders posted tweets upon the signing. Netanyahu wrote that the deal is a fulfillment of his promise to form a “national emergency government that will work to save lives and the livelihoods of the citizens of Israel.” Gantz tweeted that “we prevented a fourth election. We will protect democracy. We will fight the coronavirus and care for all Israeli citizens.”
Knesset member Yariv Levin, lead negotiator for the Likud now slated to serve as Speaker of the Knesset in the new government, told JNS that “this emergency government is the right thing at the right time. We need unity to deal with the country’s health and economic challenges.”
The unity deal, which is structured as six months of an “emergency government” to be followed by a more permanent one, established Netanyahu as prime minister for the first 18 months, during which Gantz will be Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, followed by Gantz taking over the premiership for 18 months, during which Netanyahu will be Vice Prime Minister.
Knesset member Moshe Ya’alon, of Yesh-Atid-Telem, which used to be part of Blue and White with Gantz but split off due to Gantz’s partnering together with Netanyahu, attacked the deal, telling JNS that “this government is bad for Israel.”
He insisted that “Israel needs leadership that will rehabilitate Israeli democracy with checks and balances between its branches. Instead, we now have a dictatorship of one person: Netanyahu. Israel needs a leader who sets a personal example with no corruption. But now, we have a leader who only cares about himself and not the people.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addresses a largely empty Knesset for the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset. Present is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and Supreme Court president Esther Hayut on March 16, 2020. (Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.)
The deal will be formally signed next week after Yom Ha’aztmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, to be celebrated on April 28-29. The first order of business will be to pass legislation to set the Netanyahu-Gantz rotation in motion.
While Israeli law allows a prime minister to serve while under indictment, it prohibits a minister from doing so. A law will be passed to enable Netanyahu to serve as vice prime minister (the official title is “acting prime minister”) when Gantz becomes the prime minister, despite the fact that he may be in middle of his trial at the time.
The two sides will also pass a law that says that if either of the two decides to leave and collapse the government, the leader of the other party becomes prime minister automatically, and the new election would not be held for six months. This law addresses the fear in Blue and White that in order to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister, Netanyahu will simply pull Likud out of the government as the first 18 months come to an end, which would leave the coalition with a Knesset minority and lead to an election.
The agreement dictates that the emergency government won’t move forward with any significant legislation not related to the coronavirus crisis with one exception: Israeli sovereignty over Jewish communities in the West Bank.
Levin told JNS that “we have a historic opportunity to apply our sovereignty in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and it is best to do so with a wide, unity government.”
Blue and White, which had been against such a move has compromised and agreed that from July 1—assuming that there is American support for it—Netanyahu can bring a vote for annexing parts of the West Bank to the Knesset for a vote and that this legislation will be expedited by the Knesset committees. Blue and White members will be allowed to vote according to their ideology, though a Knesset majority will be required for this move.
During the first six months, the government won’t fill the vacancies of key positions, such as state prosecutor and police commissioner. During the next six months, the two sides will negotiate the platform for the remaining 30 months of the government’s term.
The agreement does address the controversial issue of the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox (haredim) to the Israel Defense Forces. The sides have agreed to pass a law that gives the government the power to set the annual quotas that must be met by this specific segment of Israeli society, a victory for the ultra-Orthodox parties that wanted to maintain such control.
The unity deal was signed after compromises were reached on the two issues of greatest contention between the two sides: judicial appointments and the court ruling against Netanyahu serving as prime minister.
During the last five years, the justice minister has come from the conservative camp, and significant reforms were made to the system in an attempt to appoint conservative judges to the bench.
The compromise made on judicial appointments centres on giving a key role to Tzvi Hauser, a Knesset member elected as part of Blue and White, but with both right-leaning views and a history of defending the independence of the court system.
Blue and White demanded that former labor-union chief Knesset member Avi Nissinkorn be appointed justice minister. To counter the left-wing influence over the ministry and to continue the move towards more conservative judges, Likud demanded veto power over judicial nominations. The two sides agreed that Knesset member Zvi Hauser from Gantz’s camp would serve on the committee for judicial appointments. Hauser is a conservative who served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary in the past and who has a strong voice for judicial independence; he is also vocal against right-wing attacks on the courts, making him a committee member who satisfies both sides.
This element of the agreement was attacked harshly by the opposition with Knesset member Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid, tweeting that Blue and White has “agreed to allow the criminal defendant to appoint the judges that will adjudicate his affairs.”
As was expected, appeals were filed with Israeli’s Supreme Court, asking its justices to prohibit Netanyahu from forming a new government and becoming prime minister while under indictment. Netanyahu asked Gantz to agree that if the court prohibits him from doing so, then Blue and White would support a law to circumvent the court’s decision and allow him to serve.
Gantz compromised, agreeing that if the court issues such a ruling then that will automatically trigger a fourth election with Gantz serving as interim prime minister. The court has asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Netanyahu, Gantz, Likud, and Blue and White to submit their replies to the complaint by Thursday at 2 p.m., after which a hearing on the issue will be scheduled.
Largest cabinet in Israeli history
The coalition agreement dictates that the government will start with 32 ministers divided equally between the two sides.
Blue and White will hold the Ministries of Defense; Foreign Affairs (for the first 18 months); Justice; Immigration and Absorption; Culture and Sport; Communications; Agriculture; Strategic Affairs; Tourism; Social Equality; Science and Technology; and Diaspora Affairs. They will also create a new Ministry for Minority Affairs, which will be led by a professional minister from the Arab population.
The Labor Party will be joining the government as part of Gantz’s camp and be given the economy and welfare ministries.
Likud will control the Ministries of Finance, Public Security, Transportation, Housing, Environment, Intelligence, Regional Cooperation, Periphery, Energy, Jerusalem Affairs and Foreign Affairs for the second 18 months. In addition, Likud will hold the position of Knesset Speaker for the full 36 months. Likud will give the Ministries of Interior, Health, and Religious Affairs to the ultra-Orthodox parties that are part of Netanyahu’s bloc.
A question mark remains regarding the Education Ministry. At the moment, the right-wing Yamina Party, led by current Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, is not joining the administration. Likud will head the Ministry of Education, but it will be available for Yamina should the party choose to acquiesce in the government.
The agreement gives Gantz’s bloc control over the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in addition to the House Committee, which controls the Knesset agenda. Likud will head the Finance Committee and the special committee handling the coronavirus crisis. Netanyahu retains control over who will serve as ambassador to the United Nations, the United Kingdom, France and Australia for the entire lifespan of the government. The ambassador to the United States will be chosen by whoever is prime minister at the time.
The 72-seat coalition will expand from 32 to 36 ministries after the initial six-month emergency government, making it the largest government in Israel’s history.
Dov Lipman was elected to the 19th Knesset in January 2013 as a member of the Yesh Atid party, making him the first American born MK in 30 years. He holds a masters degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of seven books about Israel and Judaism.
The coalition government is far from ideal, but is necessary – opinion
Israel needs a government right now that has wide public legitimacy to take the dramatic fiscal steps that will be necessary to emerge from the crisis with an economy still intact.
By HERB KEINON
Four hundred and eighty days, three extremely bitter election campaigns and billions of shekels later, Israel finally has a government.
With a record of up to 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers from the Left to the Right – with rotating prime ministers, including one who will split his time between the cabinet room and the courthouse, and another who has exactly no ministerial experience – this government is nobody’s dream.
But, as the Rolling Stones once sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.”
And an emergency government at this time – even a badly inflated emergency government – is definitely what the country, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and facing an economic catastrophe of epic proportions, needs.
The last thing in the world that Israel could afford right now was to careen toward a fourth election, something that would cost billions of shekels more and – at a time when national solidarity is needed – preoccupy the nation with negativity and nonsense at a time when more than a quarter of the workforce is unemployed and hundreds of thousands of people are in the grips of severe financial anxiety.
Israel needs a government right now that has wide public legitimacy to take the dramatic fiscal steps that will be necessary to emerge from the crisis with an economy still intact.
Israel needs a government that will be able to pass a budget.
Israel needs a government with authority and legitimacy to decide whether to annex the settlements and the Jordan Valley before the November US elections and the possibility that US President Donald Trump will be turned out of office.
Israel needs a government able to decide critical defense and security issues – such as how to handle rocket fire from Gaza or Iranian entrenchment in Syria – without every IDF action raising questions of whether it was really needed, or just done to score political points.
Israel needs a normal, functioning government. The national emergency government agreed upon on Monday night will give it, if all goes as written and planned, a functional government.
Normal it won’t be.
A rotation agreement is not normal. A government of this size is not normal. Two prime ministerial residences – one for the acting prime minister, and another for the deputy – is not normal. Hopefully, it will be functional. And given the political stalemate since December 26 2018, when the Knesset dissolved itself sending the country to new elections, functional – at this time – would be good. A half loaf is better right now then no bread at all.
The current arrangement to rotate the premiership recalls the unity government headed by Shimon Peres (left) and Yitzhak Shamir (right) negotiated in 1984.
And history has actually shown, with the Yitzhak Shamir-Shimon Peres unity government in 1984, that a rotation government can function, and actually do pretty well. That government pulled the IDF back to a security zone in southern Lebanon and put the brakes on runaway inflation. But it will take goodwill by both sides, by both partners.
And that goodwill is not something that the public has seen exhibited by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in large amounts. The fact that it took so long – even as the coronavirus upended life in this country – for Netanyahu and Gantz to be able to draw up an agreement shows the level of distrust and lack of goodwill. Hopefully, now that the deal has been signed, Netanyahu and Gantz can muster that goodwill.
One impetus for doing so might be the fear of facing the electorate again any time soon.
Despite recent poll numbers that have been favorable toward Netanyahu, he has no interest at this time in being blamed for the breakup of this government and a return to the ballot box.
Netanyahu has gotten fairly good grades from the public for his handling of the crisis up until now, but there is palpable anger among self-employed and small and medium-sized business owners – many who have voted for him in the past – that will likely be expressed in the creation of new parties to run in the next election. It is better for Netanyahu to have another 18 months as prime minister in the bag – especially with his trial set to start in May – than risking it all by going back to elections at an extremely volatile and potentially explosive political moment.
And Gantz has everything to gain by this arrangement actually working.
Had no agreement been signed, he would have gone to the elections having gone back on his most important campaign promise – not to sit in a government with Netanyahu – and having had lost half of his original Blue and White Party in the process. Gantz did the right thing for the country in a time of emergency by reversing his position on sitting in a Netanyahu government, but badly hurt himself politically in the process. New elections now for him would be political doom.
But if Gantz now actually proves himself as a defense minister, and if the rotation agreement is carried out and he is able to do well in the role of prime minister for 18 months, he will have completed a remarkable political turn-around.
Those are all big “ifs,” but at this time he has nothing to lose.
After three nasty campaigns, the trust is low. But both men – for their own political self-interests, to say nothing of the interests of the country – have good reason to actually want to make this abnormal, behemoth emergency rotation government work.
Israel’s Unity Government: Netanyahu Signs Off On His Own Expiration Date
By Shmuel Rosner
Jewish Journal, April 20, 2020
For many Israelis, the biggest virtue of the new government will be that it prevents yet another election, after three elections in one year.
It was not easy, but they finally signed the agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz agreed to form a government. Likud and Blue and White will become partners, joined by two Charedi parties, two members of Labor, two former members of Telem, and one member of Gesher. Yamina, the right-religious party, is likely to stay out of the coalition. With six members, four of whom believe that they deserve to be ministers, there is not enough room for this party (and its too big of an ego). More than 30 ministers will sit at the table — politicians with a strong incentive to keep the coalition of about 70 together. At least for a while.
A few notes on the agreement:
1. Gantz is slated to become the next prime minister after 18 months with Netanyahu at the helm. Blue and White lawyers spent much of their time devising a legal framework that will prevent Netanyahu from denying Gantz his right. Can this legal safety net hold? It is too early to know, but very few people believe that Netanyahu intends to let the general be prime minister. And while there’s no doubt that Gantz hired good lawyers, the political system has a way of circumventing legal obstacles. What happens in 18 months will be determined by the political calculations and the preponderance of power at the time of decision. Agreements between politicians are no more than suggestion.
2. Remember the many pundits who claimed — pretending to know — that Netanyahu will “never sign” the agreement, and does not want unity? They were wrong. But that will not stop them from pretending to know what’s coming next. Why were they wrong? They were thinking with their ideology, not their information. The truth was simple: Netanyahu wanted to keep his options open until the last minute and then decide. When the moment arrived, he calculated that a year and a half of certainty is better than four years in doubt, because even though Likud rides high in the polls, going into an election with 20% unemployment is risky. Too risky.
3. Blue and White agreed that Netanyahu could initiate annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria in the early summer. The assumption concerning this move ought to be similar to the one about unity. Netanyahu wants it, and also understand that there are risks involved. He will not make a final decision until the actual time comes. If circumstances allow — the coronavirus crisis, relations with the Trump administration and other factors – Israel might be on track to annex parts of the West bank.
Strong disagreements over the process of appointing judges to Israel’s Supreme Court led to some key compromises in the final coalition agreement.
4. The debate concerning the legal system and its responsibilities was one of the main stumbling blocks during the round of negotiations. Within Likud (and Yamina) there are people who believe that the time has come for reforming this system. Blue and White decided to play defense and use the issue as an excuse to join the government (we must save the court). Ultimately, the parties reached a compromise for a simple reason: Netanyahu never made the fight against the court his highest priority. In fact, for many years he was one of the most conservative leaders within Likud when it comes to the court. Similarly, Gantz is not fully convinced that all complaints against the legal system are completely off the mark. This was more a fight over pretense than content.
5. At least in theory, Netanyahu just signed the date of his own expiration. Psychologically speaking, this could be a significant step.
6. And no fourth election. That’s the main thing. Israel needs a year or two of quiet.