After Israel's elections, seize the national unity opportunity

Israel needs a functioning government. And a significant number of Israelis approve of Netanyahu, warts and all.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates Monday night. Now the work begins. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates Monday night. Now the work begins.
The results are in – and the stalemate triumphed – again. Bibi Netanyahu won bragging rights – but not the 61 Knesset votes he needs. After three rounds, most Israelis seem to agree that, while we love democracy so much we have voted again and again and again, enough is enough.
A second conclusion is clear, too. We keep giving the two leading parties a collective 67-plus votes. Each should cross some redlines and exploit this national-unity opportunity to create a Zionist consensus government.
What would a national-unity government look like? It requires uncomfortable compromise and some new redlines.
Blue and White must violate its founding ideal and accept Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.
I don’t recommend this lightly. In August 2017, I proposed in these pages that Netanyahu resign in exchange for a full presidential pardon. I hoped we could “be spared a lengthy, bloody political battle that will trash his reputation and rock Israel’s justice system.” Since then, I have repeatedly supported Blue and White’s campaign and its ABB (anybody but Bibi) approach, although I also begged for a more visionary, affirmative message from Benny Gantz about why vote for him and not just against his rival.
Israel needs a functioning government. And a significant number of Israelis approve of Netanyahu, warts and all. Extending the stalemate keeps freezing too many important programs, issues and decisions into suspended animation.
Truthfully, many Blue and White leaders have served under Netanyahu in some capacity. They can see past his flaws. They can appreciate him as a mature, experienced strategist who has pushed Israel diplomatically and economically to great heights, despite his moral shortcomings, his demagogic impulses, and his cowardice on domestic issues.
To sweeten the deal for Blue and White, Netanyahu should make four ironclad commitments – which if violated would lead Blue and White to resign and collapse the coalition.
First, he and his allies must not publicly trash state institutions, including the courts, the police, the prosecutors. If Netanyahu doubts these institutions, despite being in charge for so long, the coalition agreement can mandate a blue-ribbon commission to investigate them. But the prime minister must end his war against the institutions he essentially heads and understand that he will lose power if his subversive, truly unpatriotic institution-bashing persists.
Second, no immunity for Netanyahu, and again, no discussion or dramatics around that question. Bibi and his lawyers should fight the charge against him in court as aggressively as they wish. No political concerns should affect their strategic considerations. Netanyahu is fighting for his freedom and reputation, and everyone deserves the right to the best possible defense. If, after that, the judges find Netanyahu guilty, he should resign immediately, even while appealing. If found innocent, his coalition partners should keep silent – as they should regarding the charges, once they join the government.
Third, zero in on a number of key logjams the two parties can break together. Focus on education, health, the wealth disparities. Start the revolution we desperately need in the Chief Rabbinate by installing rigorously Orthodox yet Zionist rabbis. Draft all citizens, including the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, into the army or National Service. Respect Diaspora sensibilities by reinstating the Sharansky compromise, which Netanyahu approved repeatedly, guaranteeing equal access for all types of Jews to the Kotel. And before they start talking about annexation, or Trump plans, or long-term visions for the West Bank, come up with some creative, thoughtful, effective approaches to the constant bombardment from Gaza.
Finally, the national-unity agreement should have clear timetables, deadlines, and no tolerance for deviations. The Blue and White forces should learn from Ehud Olmert’s failure after the Gaza Disengagement. Ariel Sharon vowed zero tolerance for any rockets or violence after withdrawal. Zero tolerance became a little tolerance, which soon grew into today’s intolerable status quo. Blue and White has to be willing to stretch to go on – and be willing to spring out quickly and decisively if necessary.
THIS COMPROMISE could benefit three groups. Netanyahu and the Likud will not only remain in power, but, perhaps after thousands of days in office, Bibi will be able to point to some real accomplishments in the areas he has neglected – strengthening Israel’s social fabric, improving relations with the Diaspora, and creating a new, more Zionist status quo between ultra-Orthodox non-Zionists and Israel’s Zionist majority.
Additionally, Benny Gantz will benefit by getting the government experience and non-electoral exposure he needs to woo the skeptical. The 25% who voted for him already, trust him. But the electoral stalemate and the polls show that most Israelis still view him as an unproven outsider. Here’s his chance to shine.
Most important, we the Israeli public and the Jewish people could be the beneficiaries. We might end up with a dream team of public servants, not just political hacks, starting by welcoming that smart, capable man of integrity, Bogie Ya’alon, back in government. We might break some of the real stalemates stymieing us. Beyond ending the electo-paralysis of 2019-2020 and the budgetary freeze surrounding so many initiatives with a caretaker government, we might end Bibi’s immobility on so many pressing issues.
A national-unity government could be a quality-of-life government. It could be a think-outside-the box government. And it could be a government of patriotic leaders finally willing to put the needs of the people front and center, starting with the self-sacrificing move to make the tough compromises to launch this initiative, and continuing with the daily frustrations that will inevitably be required to keep it going.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.