On April 20, 2020, after weeks of tense negotiations and petty haggling typical of Israeli electoral politics, Likud Party Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) Party leader Benny Gantz finally agreed to end the political deadlock that has frozen Israeli politics in its tracks since 2018. Many Israelis were hoping that this “emergency national unity government,” coalescing in the aftermath of three bitterly fought national elections, would be the effective answer to all their economic, political, and social crises. However, it is already clear that the new arrangement has quickly deteriorated into a political tool to serve the narrow personal agendas of Machiavellian politicians.
Key Elements of the Deal1
The 14-page agreement between Likud and the remnants of Blue and White is a complicated document riddled with political loopholes and legal traps that require interpretation by Talmudic scholars, rather than political analysts. Nonetheless, the following is an abbreviated list of key provisions:
- The government will serve for 36 months, with Netanyahu remaining prime minister for the first 18 months and then handing the position over to Gantz … Each man will be the other’s “acting prime minister.”
- The transfer of power will happen automatically, without requiring a separate vote or decision.
- The government will initially have 32 ministers—divided equally between the Netanyahu- and Gantz-led blocs … After six months … the government will swell to 36 ministers … making it the largest government in Israeli history.
- For the first six months, the coalition will focus on tackling the [coronavirus] pandemic, and will not pass major legislation that does not relate to the crisis … the sides will [thereafter] negotiate the platform for the coalition for the rest of its lifespan.
- [After] July 2020 … Netanyahu will be allowed to have the government and/or the Knesset vote on annexing parts of the West Bank.
Typically, Israeli coalition agreements leave many questions vaguely answered or totally unanswered. The Netanyahu-Gantz document is not an exception.
Typically, Israeli coalition agreements leave many questions vaguely answered or totally unanswered. The Netanyahu-Gantz document is not an exception. For example, what would happen should Netanyahu get indicted in the next few weeks on earlier charges of corruption and be declared unfit to continue serving as prime minister? Clearly, as stipulated, the Knesset would have to be dissolved and Israelis would have to face the surreal situation of an unpredictable fourth election in a year. Similarly, what would be the outcome of a potential political split over divergent and irreconcilable interpretations by both coalition partners regarding the nature, extent, and political fallout from the anticipated annexation vote in July, or shortly thereafter?
Israel More Divided Than Ever
Although the radical nationalist camp and the ultra-Orthodox religious right—currently led by the Likud—seem quite satisfied with this shaky arrangement for avoiding a fourth election and giving Netanyahu a new lease on political life, other Israelis—on the left and center—are not. The dissatisfaction of that camp is diverse, deep, and multilayered.
Indeed, the depth of these differences renders the term “unity” rather superfluous in the concept of a “national unity government.” On Saturday, April 25, thousands of Israelis braved the coronavirus restrictions and demonstrated in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to express their opposition to Netanyahu maintaining his position as prime minister while he is officially indicted on charges of corruption, fraud, and breach of trust. This was not the only concern by the opposition against the agreement, which they suspected of seeking “to rescue Netanyahu from his legal troubles.”
First, the agreement split the Blue and White alliance over what was perceived by Benny Gantz’s former partners in the Yesh Atid and Telem parties as a betrayal by the retired general of their joint campaign platform to oust Netanyahu and not to establish a unity government with him. Yair Lapid did not mince words when he accused Gantz of committing “the worst act of fraud in the history of [Israel].”
Second, critics of Netanyahu over his political corruption charges were disappointed in the fact that Gantz, by signing a national unity agreement with Netanyahu, has in practice sheltered him from future prosecution by becoming “the indicted prime minister’s chief protector and defender.” The political destinies of both former antagonists are now tied: they will either swim or drown together.
Critics of Netanyahu over his political corruption charges were disappointed in the fact that Gantz, by signing a national unity agreement with Netanyahu, has in practice sheltered him from future prosecution.
Third, the coalition agreement, according to some legal experts, went beyond marginalizing the Israeli court system by sheltering Netanyahu against prosecution: it weakened the Knesset as the country’s legislative body charged with overseeing governmental actions. Haaretz quotes a legal figure as saying, “Netanyahu’s goal might be to play for time, to keep the Knesset busy with complex legislation instead of moving ahead on legislation against him, and will lead in the end to a blowup and the dissolution of the Knesset.”
Fourth, the agreement was criticized by the remnant of the peace camp in Israel, led by Peace Now, for fear that Netanyahu has outmaneuvered Gantz and other coalition partners by “prioritizing a fringe concept that lacked national consensus” like the annexation issue. The language of the agreement, they argued, left the Likud in charge of foreign policy and Palestinian policy, even if Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White became foreign minister. Any serious challenge to Netanyahu on the issue of peace talks with the Palestinians, after July 1, is apt to derail the coalition and lead to an “apartheid-like state with two different classes of citizens: Israelis and Palestinians.”
Hagai El-Ad, Director of the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, questions the veracity of Blue and White’s claim of pursuing the preservation of “democracy and the rule of law” through their coalition with Likud. In an op-ed piece addressed to Benny Gantz, El-Ad writes, “nothing separates Kahol Lavan from Likud when it comes to the cynical use of democracy as a hollow label, including dealing with the Palestinians not as human beings but as political merchandise in coalition negotiations.” He accuses the unity government of contributing to “Perpetual rule over millions of subjects without rights.”
Arab Voters Disregarded
Heartened by their unprecedented election victory on March 2, Arab voters in Israel led by the Joint List were hopeful that Blue and White might depart from traditional Israeli discriminatory practices and include Arab legislators in the new government, in return for political support. However, their misplaced hopes were quickly dashed by Gantz’s decision to join Netanyahu in a unity government, one that openly excluded Arab citizens—who constitute 21 percent of the population—from the governing process.
For the shocked Arab public, Netanyahu—one of the most racist Israeli politicians ever—has won the day. This will have serious and lasting repercussions for future relations between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel.
For the shocked Arab public, Netanyahu—one of the most racist Israeli politicians ever—has won the day. This will have serious and lasting repercussions for future relations between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Arab Joint List, accused Gantz and his party of wanting “to treat us like a mistress.”
In an opinion piece entitled, “For Israel’s New Government, Arabs – Out, Corruption – In,” Palestinian columnist Odeh Bisharat wrote in Haaretz, “My sad conclusion is that the parties which before the election espoused a ‘just-not-Bibi’ line effectively support his divisive messages, which harden Israel’s identity as a closed nation-state with a bunker mentality.”
The Demise of the Labor Party
Ironically, the Israeli Labor Party, the principal political party that dominated Israel’s politics for its first 25 years of existence, became the first political victim of the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition deal. Although the party has been suffering severe bleeding both in terms of membership and credibility for decades, its humiliating defeat on March 2 and the incoming government makeup finally served as the coup de grace that put Labor out of its misery.
Although the [Labor] party has been suffering severe bleeding both in terms of membership and credibility for decades, its humiliating defeat on March 2 and the incoming government makeup finally served as the coup de grace that put [it] out of its misery.
In spite of repeated historic commitments not to do so, and very emotional opposition pleas by legislator Merav Michaeli to avoid committing political suicide by joining Gantz in the unity government, the April 25 party convention voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining Likud and Blue and White. With a miserable record of three seats won in the Knesset, Labor has reached the end of the line and had no choice left but to step into the abyss of Israeli politics.
Party leaders tried desperately and unconvincingly to justify their suicidal move by claiming that they would serve as a safety valve within the government on socioeconomic issues and, as Itzik Shmuli stated, to “put the brakes” on any attempt to undermine democratic practices in Israel.
Annexation Is the Ultimate Test
Is the Netanyahu-Gantz unity government deal a toothless and momentary marriage of convenience or a lasting and iron-clad arrangement? Several issues inherent to the understanding between the two leaders are likely to emerge and undermine what is essentially a weak and unstable plan. The lack of trust between Netanyahu and Gantz is a potential breaking point. So is the possibility of a legal conviction of Netanyahu by the courts and the political fallout from such a conviction. But a third and most likely scenario relates to the issue of Israeli annexation of Palestinian land. Emerging differences between the two coalition partners could become the massive rock on which the coalition ship is apt to crash.
By delaying the issue past July 1, the two camps succeeded in kicking the can down the road for a few months. Beyond that, they are in for a rude awakening. The issue of annexation is not a domestic Israeli decision simply awaiting approval by the Trump Administration. To the contrary, it is a complicated regional and international issue with legal and geopolitical implications that are beyond the abilities of Washington or Tel Aviv to dictate on their own. Notwithstanding naïve remarks by US officials such as the recent pronouncements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his minions at Foggy Bottom that annexation is “an Israeli decision,” the issue will involve factoring in local Palestinian reaction, the regional Arab position, and serious warnings by the United Nations and several European allies against annexation. That does not bode well for Netanyahu’s plans, which are based solely on Trump’s whimsical approval.
1 These elements are quoted from the following article: https://www.timesofisrael.com/annexation-rotation-et-al-key-elements-of-the-netanyahu-gantz-coalition-deal/