Netanyahu’s Fifth Government: Securing Legal Immunity and Annexing the West Bank

On 17 May, a week before his trial was due to begin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to form his fifth government in alliance with the leader of the Blue and White Bloc, Benny Gantz. This cabinet was formed following a severe political crisis lasting for about a year and a half during which Israel was ruled by a transitional government and three parliamentary elections were held following the failure of the Netanyahu-led camp to obtain a parliamentary majority enabling it to form a government.

Background

In light of the political and partisan polarization in Israel––with the anti-Netanyahu camp refusing to participate in a government headed by the incumbent prime minister who has been indicted in three corruption cases and the personal dispute between him and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman––the Knesset twice dissolved itself. Elections were repeatedly held due to the inability of any of the big political parties to form a new government. But this time Netanyahu succeeded in forming a government with himself at the helm after his opponent Benny Gantz broke his pledges not to participate in a government headed by the long service prime minister. After failing himself to form even a minority government with the support of the Arab list, Gantz cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for his change of heart. This followed the refusal of two Knesset members from his list to give a vote of confidence to a government reliant on Palestinian Arab support.

Accordingly, Netanyahu and Gantz reached an agreement to establish an emergency government to deal with the pandemic, and to replace the former’s caretaker government. The new government is to be shared equally between them, with both alternating in leadership, and Netanyahu heading it for the first eighteen months followed by Gantz for the same period. This compromise dealt a major blow to the anti-Netanyahu camp and weakened the possibility of an alternative to his rule, which has extended since 2009. It has also torn apart the Blue and White alliance and provoked the Yesh Atid Party led by Yair Lapid and the Telem Party led by Moshe Yaalon to exit the bloc. Gantz has retained the name Blue and White with the remaining members of his parliamentary list, who count for 15 of the 33 seats won by the bloc in the last Knesset elections. Gantz has become a hostage to Netanyahu, not daring to cause a crisis that may lead to elections after breaking his promises. His only interest now is to become prime minister after a year and a half.

Cabinet Composition

The government was formed as a coalition between Likud and Blue and White, consisting of 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers divided equally, each securing 18 ministers and 8 deputy ministers. Eight parties and party remnants participate in this government, five of which belong to the Likud camp and have 54 deputies in the Knesset, and three belong to the Blue and White camp, with 19 deputies in the Knesset. The Likud camp parties participating in the government are: Likud (36 members in the Knesset) with 14 ministers, Shas (9 deputies) with two ministers, Yahadut HaTora (7 deputies) with one minister, the Jewish Home Party (one deputy) with one minister, and the Gesher party (1 deputy) and also represented by one minister. The Blue and White camp consists of the Blue and White Party (15 Knesset members) with 12 ministers and the right to add two more ministers in the coming period, the Labor Party (3 deputies) with two ministers, and Derech Eretz, founded by Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser recently (2 Knesset members) with one minister.

This government, distinguished by Netanyahu’s insistence on remaining in power at any cost, is characterized by a set of features, the most important of which is Israeli expansionism, as it plans to annex large areas of the occupied West Bank after receiving open US encouragement to annex settlements. It is also the largest government in the history of Israel, with 36 ministers in addition to 16 deputy ministers. Notably, the government has undergone the broadest merger and breakup process, establishing new ministries and sections of ministries while merging others, not for professional considerations, but as a bribe to entice the coalition partners. Furthermore, the Basic Law of the Government and the Basic Law of the Knesset were changed in order for these schemes to be compatible with the conditions for the establishment of the government coalition. It is the first government in the history of Israel to be formed by a prime minister under an ongoing indictment in three corruption cases whose trial begins next week.

The formation of the government was accompanied by extensive party splits, spurred by Netanyahu’s great efforts to establish a coalition large enough to form a government that would save him from judicial indictment. The Blue and White list was dismantled as Gantz departed it; Knesset members Yoaz Handel and Zvi Hauser defected from the Telem Party in the Blue and White alliance to form Derech Eretz; the head of the Jewish Home Party, Rafi Peretz, defected from the Yamina alliance; and the Labor-Gesher-Meretz coalition disintegrated into three parties.

Netanyahu’s Concessions and Gantz’s Gains

Netanyahu’s aim from holding three elections within a year was to secure a Knesset majority that would enable him to form a government solely from his camp in order to enact laws that guarantee him legal immunity and prevent him from being brought to trial. He also hoped to be able to influence the makeup of the institutions related to his trial, such as the Supreme Court, the prosecution office, the government’s legal counselor, and the police. But his failure to obtain the required parliamentary majority led him to lure Gantz and persuade him to join his government. Netanyahu’s most tempting offer was to automatically rotate the premiership without requiring a new vote in the Knesset and to form an equally divided security and political cabinet. He also granted the Blue and White alliance control over the security, foreign, judiciary, and other important ministries. Most Knesset committees came to be headed equally between the two parties.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu realizes that Gantz’s mere acceptance to participate in the government, even if it is a rotating government––the fulfilment of which is doubtful––will eliminate the possibility that Gantz or his party will emerge as an alternative to him. During the last decade, Netanyahu gained extensive experience in political maneuvering and often managed to displace his potential rivals by luring them to positions in his government, as he did with Shaul Mofaz, head of the Kadima Party, Ehud Barak, head of the Labor Party, and Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid. At the same time, Netanyahu was keen to prevent a challenger from within Likud, surrounding himself with members who did not threaten his leadership and whose main criterion for appointments and promotion was personal loyalty to him and willingness to defend him (especially in the corruption cases) and attack the judiciary, the public prosecution, the Supreme Court, and the police.

Netanyahu was forced to concede the Ministry of Justice to the Blue and White Party despite its importance in relation to his trial case; but he included, in turn, two important conditions related to that trial. The first is the right to veto the appointments of the government’s legal advisor and public prosecutor. These positions are directly related to his trial, which began on May 24. The second is that he secured a guarantee from Gantz that three of the nine members of the committee that appoints judges will be from among his supporters who want to shake up the composition of Israel’s Supreme Court in order to install the most right-wing and religious judges. This will hand Netanyahu the right to reject the appointment of any judge of the Supreme Court because of his background; the appointment of any judge requires the approval of at least seven members.

A Government for Annexation and Judaization

Netanyahu appears determined that his government will annex large areas of the occupied West Bank in the coming months, suggested by his campaign and after the formation of his government as well. This is the essence of Netanyahu’s project on the Palestinian issue since coming to power (in 2009) with the Barack Obama Administration no longer standing in his way. Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States has allowed the US to adopt the extreme Israeli position on the Palestinian issue, especially regarding annexation and settlement.

In light of a debilitated Arab and Palestinian position, Netanyahu believes that Israel has a surplus of strength that would enable it to embark on annexing large areas of the occupied West Bank, subject to an agreement with the Trump administration on the timing, extent and details of the operation. In addition, Netanyahu is convinced that this agreement is within his reach. After securing an understanding with the Trump administration, Netanyahu sought to create consensus (or near-consensus) in Israeli society, and between political forces on the annexation issue. But there remains a division in Israeli society and among the political forces regarding the size and timing of the annexation, and whether it should be done unilaterally.

The coalition agreement between Likud and Blue and White stipulates that decisions are made and laws are enacted with mutual understanding between Netanyahu and Gantz, and that each of them has the right to block any government decision; but Netanyahu was able to exclude the subject of annexing areas in the occupied Palestinian West Bank from this agreement. In other words, Blue and White has the right to oppose the annexation, but it is not entitled to prevent this decision. Netanyahu and Gantz also agreed that the decision-making process regarding annexation, or non-annexation, be carried out in the “inner” security cabinet (16 ministers), after listening to the military and security establishments’ assessments of this issue and before presenting the idea to the expanded government for discussion. If the government approves the annexation, the matter is to be presented to the Knesset to pass such a decision. There are also opposition parties that support the annexation (such as Lieberman and Yaalon’s parties). It is not clear, until now, whether the annexation decision to be taken by the Israeli government will include the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea region and all settlement blocs, or whether it will include part or parts of these regions.

Conclusion

Netanyahu, for ideological, political, and other reasons related to his trial, is moving to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank before the end of President Donald Trump’s term in January 2021. He also believes that Israel––if it gets the support of the US administration––can embark on the annexation process regardless of the position of the Palestinians, Arabs, and the rest of the world.

It was proven that the decisions to annex Jerusalem and the occupied Golan Heights were made when Arab and international conditions were supposedly “better” for Syria and the Palestinians. And here is the US administration agreeing to the two steps retroactively (this does not mean, of course, that Syria and the Palestinian people have given up their right, just as it does not mean that the annexation has become legitimate). Netanyahu is betting on Israel’s ability to contain any Palestinian reaction, in light of the Arab, regional, and international conditions, where the world is busy dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic. His estimates are that the reaction of Arab states may not be more than statements of condemnation, something Israel can manage.

But if the Arab states and the Palestinian Authority are willing to go further and take real measures to prevent Israel from annexing  any land––such as cutting relations with it (both secret and public), ending Palestinian security coordination, and ceasing commercial transactions, especially those related to importing gas and communication technology––then Netanyahu will be forced to reconsider and refrain from doing that.

An earlier version of this paper was published on May 21, 2020 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.