Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fifth government looked set to begin its term in April, after he reached agreement with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz on an emergency unity coalition, bringing an end to more than a year of unprecedented political deadlock in Israel in a move that led to the breakup of Gantz’s Blue and White Party.
Under the emerging coalition deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for 18 months with Gantz as defense minister, and, in October 2021, Gantz will take over as prime minister for the remaining term of the government.
The government is not exactly a unity coalition as it will include all the right-wing and religious parties in the Netanyahu bloc and only a maximum of 15 members of Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, plus the two rebel MKs, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, who split from Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem to join Blue and White as an independent faction called Derech Eretz. However, Gantz will receive an equal number of portfolios for his party as for the entire right-wing bloc, leading to a scenario in which almost every Blue and White MK will be a minister. Gesher MK Orly Levy-Abecassis broke off from Labor-Meretz to join the government.
The Likud will also have the finance portfolio and the Knesset Speaker’s position, whereas Blue and White will receive the defense portfolio.
Labor was also considering joining the coalition but there was significant opposition within the party to such a move.
Blue and White’s main campaign promise ahead of the March 2 election – the third in a year – was that the party would not sit in a government headed by Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges and whose trial has now been delayed until May.
Gantz was given the mandate to form a government on March 16 by President Reuven Rivlin, and Blue and White conducted negotiations with the Likud on forming a unity government while maintaining that other options were still being considered.
But the coronavirus changed everything and public pressure mounted for an emergency unity coalition to deal with the crisis. Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz had a realistic chance of forming a minority government and the prospect of a fourth election in the middle of an unprecedented health and economic crisis was unconscionable.
Gantz’s dramatic U-turn came on March 26 when he was elected Knesset Speaker to replace the Likud’s Yuli Edelstein, who had chosen to resign rather than implement a High Court ruling for a vote to elect a new speaker, in what some commentators described as the most significant clash between the judicial and legislative branches in the country’s history. Gantz will resign as speaker once a unity government is formed.
The move ensured time for the completion of the coalition talks, and effectively blocked any move by the majority of 61 anti-Netanyahu parliamentarians to pass a bill that would prevent a candidate who has been indicted on criminal charges from serving as prime minister.
Blue and White was a loose alliance of different factions with one main aim: ending the rule of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Two of the party’s top-four leadership – dubbed “the cockpit” – responded to the emerging coalition deal by leaving Gantz.
“Gantz decided to crawl into Netanyahu’s government without a fight, betraying our voters,” said former finance minister Yair Lapid, pulling his Yesh Atid party out of the party, saying that Gantz did not succeed in deposing Netanyahu nor in keeping the party together. He compared Gantz to a man who “ran a marathon, led, and a moment before the finish line sat and broke down crying.”
Another cockpit member, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, head of the Telem Party, joined Lapid, accusing Gantz of committing political suicide, describing his decision to join Netanyahu’s government as “unfathomable and disappointing.”
Yesh Atid and Telem will merge as a 16-member opposition faction called Yesh Atid-Telem.
Israel Resilience MK Gadeer Mreeh, the first Druze woman in the Knesset, announced she would not join a coalition led by Netanyahu, citing her opposition to the “racist” Nation State Law.
On the other hand, MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, an Ethiopian immigrant who joined Yesh Atid ahead of the 2013 elections, announced she was joining Gantz.
“Gantz is a leader who put Israel before everything – it’s not just a slogan but a fact,” she said.
The fourth cockpit member, former top general Gabi Ashkenazi, stuck with Gantz and will serve initially as foreign minister and then defense minister when Gantz becomes prime minister.
“These are not ordinary days and require extraordinary decisions,” Gantz said after being elected Knesset Speaker, citing the coronavirus crisis. “But don’t be mistaken – I would never compromise on the principles for which more than one million citizens voted. Netanyahu knows this well. Every crisis also contains an opportunity. We will make the most of this opportunity to promote and strengthen unity.”
Gantz noted that hundreds of thousands of citizens had recently lost their livelihood; hundreds of thousands of elderly citizens were at home alone, isolated from their families and afraid for their lives; hundreds of thousands of young couples did not know how they would pay rent or make their mortgage payment during this emergency, and they were all looking to the leadership, calling on it to safeguard democracy.
“Therefore, at this time, none of us have the right to stand idly by,” he said. “We all have an obligation to truly place Israel above all else,” he said, in a reference to Blue and White’s campaign slogan.
Justifying his dramatic move, Gantz said, “The division among the people is the greatest existential threat to the State of Israel. We will defeat the Iranians, we will defeat the Syrians, we will overcome terrorism, but we have been unable to vanquish the internal division and people’s hatred for their brethren. It’s a shiny, thick red line for all elected officials, new and old.”
But it was clearly a gut-wrenching decision for Gantz to take and the Knesset Channel’s TV cameras caught Gantz whispering to Israel Resilience MK Miki Haimovich, “I never wanted so badly to not be elected to something.”
Gantz thanked his former partners from Blue and White, Lapid and Ya’alon, for the path that they had traveled together over the past year, and said that he would always regard them as patriots who love the country and work on its behalf. In a statement he issued, Gantz wrote he believed that Israel should not be dragged into a fourth round of elections at such a challenging time, while the country was coping with the coronavirus crisis and its ramifications.
A Channel 12 poll found that 56% of Blue and White voters supported joining the government, but just 20% believe Netanyahu will agree to leave the Prime Minister’s Office for Gantz in a rotation.
Among the public, 61% supported Gantz’s decision to enter the government and 31% opposed it.
The creation of an emergency coalition under his premiership marks yet another stunning coup for Netanyahu, the undisputed grandmaster of the political chessboard. Parties from the “Anyone but Bibi” bloc won more seats than the “Only Bibi” bloc in the March election and they had already succeeded in taking control of the key Knesset committees: but Netanyahu still came out on top. The magician pulled another rabbit out of the hat.
Many commentators doubt that he will fulfill the rotation agreement in October 2021 and, despite guarantees Gantz insists be part of the coalition agreement, will find a way to scuttle Gantz assuming the role of prime minister after a year and a half.
Netanyahu’s task is not to be envied. He assumes his role as new prime minister as the death toll from the coronavirus mounts and the pandemic threatens to overwhelm Israel’s beleaguered healthcare system. The country is on the verge of a total economic shutdown with the number of unemployed expected to rise beyond one million.
There is also the question of the impending graft trial, in which Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Having failed to win Knesset immunity, the trial date was initially set for March 17 but then postponed until May 24 due to the coronavirus. Questions are already being asked over how a leader who is dealing with one of the biggest crises in Israel’s history can simultaneously defend himself in court on a regular basis in a trial that may drag on for years.
As part of the coalition agreement, a bill will be passed enabling Netanyahu to serve as deputy prime minister during the second half of the alternating premiership in a non-ministerial capacity, despite his indictments and the expectation that the graft trial will be ongoing.
While the political drama left many in the Center-Left in shock, US President Donald Trump welcomed the development. He took time off from dealing with the coronavirus crisis to call Netanyahu and congratulate him on forming the next government.
The coronavirus also led to another precedent. Due to the social distancing requirement, the traditional photograph of the incoming government at the President’s Residence will this time be completed with the help of Photoshop.