Who’s to blame for the coalition crisis during corona?

Why Israel’s democracy has not been shut down but has been shut up.

Health Ministry inspectors speak with a woman who is in self quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera, Israel March 16, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/RONEN ZEVULUN)
Health Ministry inspectors speak with a woman who is in self quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera, Israel March 16, 2020
The menorah that stands across from the Knesset is not only intended to remind members of Knesset of the heritage of most of them.
It is there because it is a sign of unity. The menorah that was built for the Tabernacle had to be crafted out of one sheet of pure gold.
Seeing the menorah as they drive up to their workplace is supposed to remind the MKs that they are one. In case they didn’t get the message before they came in, their seats in the Knesset plenum are arranged in the shape of a menorah, too.
There is one more reason for the menorah: The olive oil that lights it is a reminder that throughout the history of the world, Jews have had great accomplishments when they have been put under tremendous pressure.
When the 120 members of Knesset arrived at the building to be sworn in on Monday, they saw the menorah. When they entered the plenum in groups of only three due to new Health Ministry restrictions, they saw the shape of the empty seats.
The unprecedentedly somber swearing-in ceremony with no festivities was a painful reminder of all the chaos and suffering facing Israel and the world during the international coronavirus pandemic.
So why did all that not make them compromise? Why, after two-and-a-half weeks since the March 2 election, does Israel still not have the national-unity government of Blue and White and the Likud which polls have found Israelis overwhelmingly favor, and is the only coalition that can be formed in the current makeup of the Knesset?
Not only is there no coalition yet; for the first time ever, there was not even enough of a consensus to form the Arrangements Committee, which decides how to allocate temporary committees that enable the basic functioning of the parliament until a coalition and a government are formed.
No, despite exaggerated reports, the Knesset has not been closed down, though there were those who called for it. New restrictions were added on who could enter the building, but more than two-thirds of the MKs came to the building on Wednesday, taking a risk of contracting the coronavirus.
It was not shut down. It was shut up.
The plenum was opened twice on Wednesday, at 11 a.m. and 3:15 p.m., and then immediately halted both times, because agreements had not yet been reached on how to form those committees. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein was the only speaker. The clops of his hammer began the meetings and ended them moments later, to the outraged gasps of the MKs who sat below him.
SO WHO is to blame for the scandalous stalemate? Plenty of fingers have been pointed around at the usual suspects, depending on the point of view of those pointing.
The following are the suspects, their indictment and their defense, so readers can be the judges:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Charges: Bribery, fraud, breach of trust and using the coronavirus to stay in power to evade justice.
Netanyahu’s critics say that everything he does is connected to his own personal good in remaining in office and remaining out of court. They say that is why he is taking a leading role in fighting the virus and calling nightly prime-time press conferences.
They look at the 1:30 a.m. Justice Ministry announcement on Saturday night which delayed the start of his trial and at the delays in the work of the Knesset as similar acts intended to enable the executive branch - namely, Netanyahu - to govern alone. They say that to that end, he empowered his coalition negotiating team and Edelstein to stall for as long as they could, ignoring the fact that the other bloc has a 61-seat majority.
There are also charges of racism, because one of the reasons Netanyahu gave for the stalemate in the Knesset in an official Likud statement he released was that he will not permit any Knesset committee to be given to “supporters of terrorism.”
Defense: He is the most experienced leader Israel has by far, so he must be the one to get Israel through such troubled times. By law, he remains caretaker prime minister until someone else forms a government, and because no one else can, he is unquestionably in charge.
Netanyahu’s was not the only trial that was postponed that night. The courts, like nearly every other institution in this country, are working at a limited capacity right now, and that is understandable.
The defense of his actions in the Knesset will be listed below under Edelstein, whom Netanyahu has supported completely. No explanation has been given as to whether “terrorism supporters” includes every Arab MK, including Aida Touma-Sliman, who headed the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of Women for four years with no significant controversies. Netanyahu’s associates admit he was just getting in a dig at Benny Gantz for cooperating with the Joint List.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz
Charges: The main charge against Gantz is indecisiveness.
He wants to keep his party together, which means acting tough against Netanyahu and playing hard to get. It has also meant pursuing a minority government he cannot pass, seeking to oust Edelstein and to pass legislation that could end Netanyahu’s career. None of those things can be done if a unity government is formed that is initially led by Netanyahu.
He seems to be in denial that the Likud won three more seats than Blue and White and the right bloc rose from 55 seats to 58, which is a solid victory.
For all those reasons, his Blue and White Knesset and coalition negotiating teams have not been compromising – and even when they have, they denied it later on.
Defense: Gantz is the leader of the largest political bloc and has been empowered by President Reuven Rivlin to form a government. That gives Blue and White the right to control the Knesset speaker post, the Arrangements Committee and to pass any bill that can muster a majority. He also has every right to threaten such steps as leverage in coalition negotiations.
The fact that Gantz cannot build a minority government is because at least three MKs in his bloc have rebelled. And while MKs Yoaz Hendel, Zvi Hauser and Orly Levy-Abecassis say they are keeping their past promises not to sit in a government backed by the Joint List, it is their party leaders who make that decision, and they must accept it.
Gantz has acted with poise since the election, supporting the government’s efforts to fight the coronavirus, in a sign that more compromises for that purpose lie ahead.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein
Charges: The longest-serving prisoner of Zion has brought Soviet practices from Siberia to the Knesset. He has paralyzed our parliament and put a stranglehold on Israeli democracy.
He claimed to “negotiate” between the Likud and Blue and White, but he was far from an honest broker. He has an interest in preventing a vote to oust him from office, and in serving as Netanyahu’s arm in the Knesset to keep him in power, too.
Edelstein has stopped being the statesmanlike figure needed in a sensitive post in such a time. Staying in office too long has made him into a shameless bully.
Defense: While there are many politicians whose views have bounced back and forth over the 15 months of elections and failed attempts to form governments, Edelstein has stayed consistent: He supports a national-unity government.
He tried to mediate between the Likud and Blue and White after every election, and he did not always take his own party’s side. This time also he sought a weeklong “political ceasefire” in which Knesset committees could be formed and start overseeing the government’s efforts against the coronavirus.
It was Blue and White that rejected compromises, because it has not given up its false hope of forming a minority government. Edelstein was right to stall, not for personal reasons but because the Knesset committees and his own post should be decided only when it is clear exactly what government Israel will be forming, which could be set by when the Knesset comes back on Monday, if both sides put the public first.
President Reuven Rivlin
Charges: He has not done enough to press Netanyahu and Gantz to compromise. He legally had two more days to appoint Gantz to form a government. Why didn’t he make him sweat a bit and squeeze more out of him, instead of announcing the appointment the moment the last of the eight Knesset factions left his office?
Defense: The old poor widower didn’t ask for any of this. It is not his job to interfere in politics. It is his job to try to build a national consensus, and he has done that, even appearing desperate and pathetic at times. He spoke out at the President’s Residence, at the Knesset, on Facebook and on Twitter. What more can he do?
The Coronavirus
Charges: The killing of nearly 10,000 people around the world and the economic, educational and medical disasters in Israel are the subject of plenty of articles in this paper. The charge here is that it has interfered in Israeli democracy. It is hard to run a parliament when you cannot have more than 10 people in a room, and the virus has been used by all sides as an excuse not to stop arguing but to argue more.
Defense: There is no defense. Nothing about the virus can be justified in any way.