Most of the day passed with no breakthrough. It was a sign that Israel was headed towards the fourth Knesset elections in 12 months. But late Monday, Israel’s long-serving Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his political adversary Benny Gantz finally told the people the news they wanted to hear.
Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud Party, and Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White Party, will work together in a coalition government. They called it an “emergency” cabinet, coinciding with the fight against coronavirus. Israel has more than 13,500 Covid-19 cases, with 173 deaths. The virus has also hit the economy, with unemployment jumping to almost 30 per cent.
This situation is exceptional in many ways. It never took Netanyahu, who has governed Israel uninterrupted since 2009, a year to form a government. It was a sign of a growing change in the public mood after right-wing parties topped polls for more than a decade. Perhaps the trial of Netanyahu on corruption charges, including bribery, fraud and breach of trust, is a key part of the equation.
Netanyahu’s inability to form a government led to three rounds of Knesset elections, in April and September 2019, and on 2 March 2020. The last electoral race resulted in 36 seats for the Likud as opposed to 33 for Blue and White. The maximum number of seats won by the remaining political parties was 15, which went to the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-majority parties. Accordingly, Netanyahu and Gantz had almost equal chances of heading a coalition government.
This explains why Netanyahu paid a heavy price to Gantz, despite the latter previously vowing not to join a government that is headed by a premier who faces legal charges. The two men will rotate the prime minister’s post for three years. Netanyahu will lead the government for the first year and a half, with Gantz becoming defence minister. The two parties will share the Foreign Ministry in succession. Overall, the Likud and Blue and White will have the same number of cabinet portfolios.
The Likud, among other key positions, will retain the portfolios of public security, transportation, housing, education, environmental protection, energy and Jerusalem affairs. Netanyahu also has the right to veto the appointment of the attorney general and prosecutor who handle his indictment on corruption charges. Yet, for a six-month “emergency” period, state prosecutor Dan Eldad will keep his job.
Blue and White will lead defence for half of the term, in addition to justice, immigration and absorption, culture and sports, economics and welfare, communications, agriculture, strategic issues, tourism, social equality and diaspora affairs.
Israel media reports stated that this is the largest cabinet in Israel’s history. However, if the High Court of Justice issues a ruling against Netanyahu, the agreement will no longer be valid. The people will then have to vote for a new Knesset as it will be dissolved.
Ian Lustick, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the right-wing, instead of losing power, has expanded its size to include what had previously been considered part of the centre or centre-left.
“In American parlance, Israel has become a “deep red” state — more like Idaho or Nebraska than New Jersey or Pennsylvania. The bottom line is that this government’s formation tells us nothing we didn’t know already about Israel’s current ideological complexion. It is decisively right-wing. The deadlock over the last year was about personalities (namely Netanyahu) and we can see that that was not enough to end the hold Likud has over the country, or that Netanyahu has over Likud,” Lustick said.
Meanwhile, the coalition agreement stipulates that Israel will claim sovereignty over the whole of the West Bank on 1 July and move forward with US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, which was severely criticised by the Joint List (as well as Palestinian political figures) that used to back Gantz.
Lustick argued that the Blue and White, especially the portion of it that remains identified with Gantz, has very few ideological differences with Netanyahu. He explained that party leaders do not want full annexation because that would mean too many Arab citizens within the state, which is also how most Likud leaders feel. Instead, they prefer to “please the settlers” by slightly changing their status via an extension of Israeli law and jurisdiction to the settlements.
“This will not be true annexation but will be interpretable that way for political purposes in Israel while interpretable for audiences abroad as meaning that, in theory (but really only in theory) Israel will remain open to negotiations based on two states. The only real difference between Blue and White and Likud positions had to do with attitudes towards Netanyahu, and Gantz has made it clear that he would rather lose the battle to unseat Netanyahu than lose his chance to be prime minister,” concluded Lustick.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly