The Coronavirus Crisis May Assure Netanyahu’s Survival

As of April 7, the coronavirus had infected over 9,200 Israelis and killed 65. While the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus has brought the world to a standstill, it may well have provided a political lifeline to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose career in Israeli politics was thought to be on its deathbed following accusations of corruption and influence peddling. His main rival, former Chief of Staff Benjamin Gantz, appears to have decided to join him in a national unity government, although the negotiations over its formation regularly experience breakdowns and setbacks born out of purely political calculations.

Gantz’s Unexpected Reversal

As a former army officer, Gantz lacks the political savvy of Israeli politicians. His coming onto the political scene in Israel two years ago was akin to serving as a political placeholder, one who could confront Netanyahu’s monopolization of power. Although he does not have charisma or a vision, he comes with a military background that would make him a politically safe candidate. Indeed, Gantz did not take bold or controversial positions. He did not run for office on a platform to reorient the economy or relations with the Palestinians. He also did not have a history of political baggage or personal scandal. All he really had to do was to hold a place at the top of a political slate, running as an alternative to Netanyahu in name only. In fact, his slate was so generic as to adopt a name based on the colors of the Israeli flag: Blue and White.

The Blue and White campaign that Gantz led was focused on removing Netanyahu from office. The slate’s argument was that Netanyahu posed a unique threat to Israel and that all other matters could and should be set aside to resolve this most pressing challenge. Netanyahu was destroying the Israeli order, they argued, through corruption and gaming the system. The Blue and White Party wanted voters to understand that Netanyahu was making fundamental and negative changes to Israel.

Despite his legal troubles, including being the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted, Netanyahu was able to convince enough Israelis that it was important to back him and his agenda so that Gantz could not form a government. Three times ballots were cast and three times deadlock was the ultimate result.

In what is arguably an unprecedented Israeli political retreat, Benjamin Gantz has done a complete about-face and is working out a coalition agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu, leaving the Blue and White slate in chaos.

But now, in what is arguably an unprecedented Israeli political retreat, Benjamin Gantz has done a complete about-face and is working out a coalition agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu, leaving the Blue and White slate in chaos. In fact, his party comprised a motley crew that included politically diverse Israelis—from the right-wing former defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, to the secularist former finance minister, Yair Lapid, to the seemingly apolitical military brass such as Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi (who preceded Gantz in the post). The only thing that united them was removing Netanyahu—and now Gantz just gave up on pursuing this shared goal.

How It Happened

How did three elections that were entirely framed as referendums on Netanyahu result in a likely broad coalition government in Israel? Three components produced this result.

First, the third election once again ended in a deadlock and neither camp––Netanyahu’s Likud coalition and Gantz’s Blue and White alliance––was able to form a government on its own. The result was quite disappointing for Gantz and a clear sign that he hit a ceiling of support. At the same time, and despite Netanyahu’s legal troubles that only escalated throughout the elections, support for Netanyahu did not weaken. In fact, in the third election, Netanyahu got his best results even though he was only two weeks away from standing trial. That trial, however, would not take place because Israel’s Minister of Justice (and Netanyahu ally) Amir Ohana postponed it, ostensibly due to the coronavirus crisis in the country.

The second factor is the coronavirus pandemic. Netanyahu’s trial, along with much of public and private life in Israel and around the world, has been upended by the COVID-19 crisis and the public health response to it, which has led to massive home quarantines. In addition to grinding economies to a halt, the deadly and unprecedented nature of this threat has forced governments around the world, including in Israel, to make the response to it their top, if not only, priority. Under such conditions, there is no time, space, or public appetite for politics. With no end in sight to the coronavirus crisis and with governments focused on mobilizing effectively in an effort to save lives and stop the spread of the disease, it would not look good for Gantz to be trying to make political deals and take down the current government. The pressure for continuity and a smooth transition to a unity government was amplified by the virus.

With no end in sight to the coronavirus crisis and with governments focused on mobilizing effectively in an effort to save lives and stop the spread of the disease, it would not look good for Gantz to be trying to make political deals and take down the current government.

Third, there was a drama around the Knesset speaker and an effort to try to pass laws that would bring down Netanyahu. Gantz did not have the mandate to govern, even if the Arab Joint List could have given him a strong enough support to get the first shot at forming a coalition. However, some of his own list members refused to participate in a minority government backed by the Joint List. Although he could not form a government, Gantz could still try to mobilize the anti-Netanyahu Knesset members—who made up more than half of the chamber—toward legislative action that could limit or bring down the prime minister. To do so, they would need the cooperation of the Knesset speaker (or at least to have him out of the way). That figure, Netanyahu ally Yuli Edelstein, refused to budge. He rejected calling for a vote for Netanyahu’s replacement and even defied the Israeli High Court’s order to do so. Instead, he resigned as the whole country was shutting down because of the coronavirus, aiming to prevent any immediate action to replace him. That was when the real reversal came to the fore and Benjamin Gantz was elected Knesset speaker—not with the support of his own bloc but with the support of Netanyahu’s. He had agreed on joining a coalition government with Netanyahu that could include nearly 80 members of the Knesset. Seventy-four MKs, including Netanyahu’s block of 58, voted for Gantz to be Knesset speaker.

What Does This All Mean?

Gantz’s decision immediately led to the split of the Blue and White slate. As its leader, Gantz had said he would not sit in a government led by an indicted prime minister; however, he simply changed his mind and abandoned his political partners for a chance to be prime minister down the line. The reported deal between Gantz and Netanyahu would see the latter remain the premier for the first 18 months before they swapped roles. During this time, Netanyahu would remain immune from prosecution; with a large enough coalition, he could possibly pass legislation while prime minister to make him immune beyond that time frame as well. For his part, Gantz would assume control over certain powerful ministries in the interim. He justified his decision by saying: “We are facing a global challenge on an extraordinary scale, one that is forcing us to change the way we think and the way we live …. Because these are unusual times, and they call for unusual decisions.”

At present, Benjamin Gantz might be in the unique position of having secured a path to the premiership while destroying his political career at the same time. He did not have a political base, a political resume, or a natural constituency. What attracted voters to him was solely the promise not to do what he just did. Should there be another election (as it is simply a matter of time), Gantz would likely suffer significantly. This hearkens back to the electoral history of one of his former partners, Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid Party had a significant and surprising result in the 2013 election and garnered 19 seats as a new party. But after joining the Netanyahu government then, many voters came to see him not as an alternative but as yet another version of the same set of politicians. In the following election, in 2015, Lapid’s party was cut down to 11 seats. Gantz is likely facing a similar trajectory now. He has jettisoned his political partners and his voters and done so based on the word of Benjamin Netanyahu, a man he has spent the last year and a half telling Israelis can’t be trusted. With each deadlocked election, Netanyahu has been buying himself 3-5-month stays of execution at a time. To be sure, 18 months is an eternity of political time for the prime minister. It is hard to imagine any scenario when at the end of those 18 months—if Gantz is still in the government—Netanyahu would voluntarily keep his end of the bargain and give his seat over to Gantz.

With each deadlocked election, Netanyahu has been buying himself 3-5-month stays of execution at a time. To be sure, 18 months is an eternity of political time for the prime minister.

For Netanyahu, this deal is a tremendous victory. Not only does he get to continue as prime minister but he does so with a great degree of stability for another year and a half. In the process, he has divided and conquered the opposition bloc and delegitimized their most well-known leader. He moves forward with significant leverage over Gantz because the latter has less leverage now. Even if Gantz were to leave the governing coalition, it is not clear if members of his whole slate would follow; and even if they did, they would be in a weakened position to challenge Netanyahu in an election. For his part, Netanyahu has to cede some power to Gantz in the government, offering his party important ministries; at the end of the day, however, Netanyahu is the one who is running the show and setting the agenda. He gained a new lease on life while weakening his opponents. It is hard to imagine a better scenario for him, given how fraught his prospects seemed mere weeks ago when he had an impending criminal trial and lacked the seats to form a government.

Some Political Stability Ahead

For the next government, this deal likely means there will be a short-term period of stability, something Israeli politics has not experienced in a few years. At the same time, governing policy is likely to continue its rightward drift. Netanyahu still has to appease his right-wing base and allies, to whom he committed to continue settlement expansion and pursue annexation in the West Bank. Without Yair Lapid, whose faction is among the remnants of the pile of rubble that was the Blue and White slate, and without Avigdor Lieberman to have to contend with in government either, Netanyahu might have less of a fight on his hands over issues of secular-religious divides that have threatened to collapse governments in the past.

For other parties, this deal will have important implications as well. For the remnants of the Blue and White Party, some like Moshe Yaalon might end up leaving politics altogether. Others like Yair Lapid will have to reconstitute a base as an opposition party. Avigdor Lieberman will likely also sit in opposition as will the Joint List, which will have to wrestle with the fallout of recommending Gantz to form a government, one that turned out to be led by Netanyahu.

For the remnants of the Blue and White Party, some like Moshe Yaalon might end up leaving politics altogether. Others like Yair Lapid will have to reconstitute a base as an opposition party.

The Labor Party, which has served as a force in Israeli politics since the founding of the state and was one of the two leading factions for decades, is now effectively dead. In the last election Labor, led by Amir Peretz, ran in a combined slate with the Meretz Party and another faction; now, however, it has sought to dissolve that agreement so it can join the coalition government led by Netanyahu as well as to join in a merger with Gantz’s list.

In sum, the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic have created the conditions in which the former Israeli military chief of staff, who battled Netanyahu for three elections, chose to fight no more. If differences over cabinet positions and annexation are ironed out and the coalition government deal goes through (as it seems it will), this should usher in a period of stability in Israeli politics for the short term during which the government will seek to advance the agenda of Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. A top priority item will be the question of annexation of at least part of the West Bank. With only a few months remaining until November, when the United States holds presidential elections, Netanyahu and his allies will argue that the unique window of opportunity for Israel to grab all it can might be closing and thus it will have to act fast. They will likely find a lot of Israelis who will agree with them.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here