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No deal in Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to be the biggest stumbling block to forming a new government in Israel, raising the prospect of yet more elections, writes Saeed Okasha

Saeed Okasha, Tuesday 24 Mar 2020
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Israelis wearing protective masks against COVID-19 during a protest outside the Knesset (photo: AFP)
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Just as negotiations between the Likud and the Blue and White coalitions seemed on the verge of success in forming a national unity government, acting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the talks had failed, sending the process back to square one only a day before the first Knesset session was due to convene 23 March.

According to Netanyahu as well as leaks from other sources, the talks focused on a power sharing arrangement in which the premiership and certain ministerial posts would be rotated between the two parties in two shifts over a three-year period. Likud would take the first shift for a year and a half. Netanyahu would serve as prime minister and his party would also have the finance portfolio and post of speaker of the Knesset. The Blue and White would have the deputy premiership and the defence and foreign affairs portfolios. At midterm, the posts would switch hands.

According to news reports in Israel, a major reason why the talks failed was that Blue and White     Co-Chair Yair Lapid opposed the plan. He refused to serve under any government headed by Netanyahu. But the deal was also opposed by ultraconservative religious parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) which do not want a government that would include Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu, who both support lifting the exemption from compulsory military service for the ultra-orthodox.

These reasons raise a number of questions. First, they suggest that the negotiations took place despite Lapid’s opposition and left him out of the loop. In fact, it is not clear from the available information whether the talks were about forming a coalition between the Likud Party and the Blue and White, or whether Netanyahu was negotiating on behalf of the right-wing coalition he heads, which would mean that the government would also include his allies (the ultra-orthodox parties and the ultra-right Yamina Party). Then, since Knesset members are elected to four-year terms, there is the question of the fourth year. What will happen at the end of the three-year period? Will the cabinet posts be divvied up again?

It is highly probable that both the Likud and the Blue and White entered talks with no intent to reach an agreement. The latter party only agreed to talk with Netanyahu after two of its Knesset members refused to take part in a coalition government headed by the Blue and White if it included the Joint Arab List. Also, the Blue and White number two, Lapid, is adamantly opposed to taking part in a government headed by Netanyahu, even if offered one of the key sovereign portfolios (defence, foreign affairs or finance). On the other hand, perhaps the Blue and White chair, Benny Gantz, was only feigning readiness to reach a deal with Netanyahu whereas his real concern is to be in a position to shape crucial parliamentary committees. Of particular interest to him would be the Knesset judiciary committee, through which he would sponsor a law preventing any Knesset member facing prosecution on criminal charges from being nominated to head a government. The law would, of course, apply to Netanyahu, who has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and whose trial has been postponed for two months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On 22 March, the day before the Knesset was due to convene, The Jerusalem Post reported that Gantz denied Netanyahu’s earlier claim that a deal had been reached and was “waiting to be signed”. Gantz said: “Those who want unity do not work with ultimatums and harmful leaks and certainly do not try to hurt our democracy and citizens by paralysing the Knesset.” Gantz may well have suspected that Netanyahu’s sole purpose in forming a government was to ensure that the Knesset would meet and that the committees would be formed in such a way as to forestall the passage of a law preventing him from serving as prime minister in the future.

There is a long history of mistrust of Netanyahu among key political figures and parties in Israel. It certainly applies to the Yesh Atid Party, a centrist party founded by Lapid and a member of the Black and White electoral coalition, and to the Kadima Party, which was headed by Tzipi Livni in 2013.

When announcing that a deal was “only waiting to be signed”, Netanyahu made it clear that the deal was contingent on Likudist Yuli Edelstein remaining speaker of the Knesset. One can therefore see why the Likud announced its decision to boycott the opening session of the Knesset. With 62 seats in the Knesset opposed to Netanyahu, Gantz could rally enough votes to remove Edelstein and ensure opposition control over the formation of Knesset committees.

Netanyahu, for his part, remains determined to sow divisions in Blue and White ranks. He has accused Lapid of preventing the deal that could have yielded a national unity government. Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party accounts for about a third of the Knesset seats controlled by the Blue and White coalition. Lapid is known to be averse to the ultra-orthodox parties which are basic partners in Netanyahu’s right-wing front. If Netanyahu succeeds in precipitating a split in the opposition and luring Gantz’s faction, with its 22 members, into a coalition, he would control 70 seats in the 120-seat legislative chamber.

However, such a scenario still seems remote. Gantz’s mistrust for Netanyahu would probably be the least obstacle. Netanyahu cannot guarantee that his right-wing partners would continue to side with him in the elections of the 23 Knesset committees. Recently, the Yamina and UTJ parties refused to sign a document, prepared by Likud, pledging allegiance to Netanyahu, as Walla news site reported Sunday. According to the report, Netanyahu’s allies were asked to vow to halt any negotiations for a unity government if the Blue and White appoints a Knesset speaker of its own to replace Likud’s Yuli Edelstein.

If attempts to form a government fail again, Israelis may be asked to go to the polls for a fourth time, a prospect that Netanyahu’s enemies do not find that alarming, even against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to the Likud ultimatum that if the Knesset votes to remove Edelstein as speaker the country would face a fourth consecutive round of elections, Yuval Diskin, former chief of the Israeli National Security Agency (Shin Bet) made it clear there were worse options. Speaking at a virtual anti-Netanyahu protest rally, Diskin appealed to Gantz to avoid entering a coalition headed by Netanyahu at all costs. It would be better for Israel to go to a fourth election in under a year and a half in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak than for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remain in office, Diskin asserted. Referring to the charges against Netanyahu, he said: “There is a more severe and more terminal illness than the coronavirus, and that is the disease of corruption.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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