Israel’s year-long political stalemate has come to an end with the signing this week of a coalition deal between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz.
The agreement will see the formation of a “unity government” in which the two men will rotate the premiership. Netanyahu is due to serve as prime minister for the first 18 months of the government’s term, before handing over to Gantz to head the government for a further 18 months. While Netanyahu remains at the helm, Gantz will become deputy prime minister and defence minister.
The deal potentially allows Israel to begin the process of implementing the most controversial element of Donald Trump’s “peace plan” – the annexation of parts of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley.
Talks between Netanyahu and Gantz had repeatedly appeared on the verge of collapse and followed three inconclusive general elections over the past year. Gantz had consistently pledged not to serve with Netanyahu, whose trial on multiple counts of corruption is due to begin next month. Gantz’s about-turn late last month splintered the centrist Blue and White opposition party – which had three times fought the ruling Likud party to a virtual draw – and infuriated the Israeli left.
The 14-page agreement contains a series of checks and balances indicating the bad blood which evidently still exists between Netanyahu and Gantz. “The deal marks an attempt by both men to overcome, by force of lawyerly language, their mistrust of each other,” suggested the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz.
The government will serve for 36 months – the first six months of which will be an emergency administration focused almost exclusively on tackling Israel’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. During that time, it will contain 32 ministers – split equally between Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties and Gantz’s diminished band of centrists.
The deal seeks to overcome the fear of Gantz supporters that Netanyahu will renege on the deal and seek early elections before passing the premiership to his erstwhile rival. It thus says that if Netanyahu tries to dissolve the Knesset in the government’s first 18 months, Gantz will automatically become prime minister for an extended period before elections are held.
A poll this week shows that while 62 percent of Israelis – including more than half of those who voted Blue and White in March’s general election – support the formation of the new government, only 31 percent believe that Netanyahu will honour the deal’s requirement to hand over the premiership.
Netanyahu has long feared that Israel’s Supreme Court – which is due to hear a number of petitions on the subject – will rule that he cannot serve as prime minister while under criminal indictment (Israeli law has such a provision for ministers but not the head of the government). To guard against this possibility, if the court makes such a judgment, the agreement requires that the Knesset will be automatically dissolved with new elections being held and Gantz becoming prime minister in the interim period.
The government also grants considerable independence to the two blocs comprising it, thus lessening the power of whoever is serving as prime minister. Gantz and Netanyahu can, for instance, sack ministers from their own blocs but, even when each is prime minister, they cannot fire a minister from the other’s bloc. However, legal analysts believe that provisions in the agreement will weaken the Knesset.
“At every turn, each man gets some guarantees that the other will find it in their interest to uphold the agreement. In other words, each believes that the other may renege at every turn,” argued Haviv Rettig Gur, senior analyst at the Times of Israel.
Opinions are sharply divided on which of the two men ultimately managed to score the best deal, although most voters appear to believe Gantz gave up more than Netanyahu.
Channel 12 political analyst Amit Segal, for instance, highlighted the fact that Netanyahu had “picked up a pen and signed off” on the date when his long premiership will come to an end. By contrast, Tal Shavel, a political writer for the Walla News website, was more sceptical about the sacrifices the prime minister had made. “Even giving Gantz the benefit of the doubt that it’s better to be a part of the government,” he wrote, “Bibi has broken up Blue and White, the only party that’s come close to challenging him in the past 10 years. Gantz doesn’t have any achievements that come close to equalling the huge score that Netanyahu has just gotten.”
As Chemi Shalev of the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper noted, “replacing the xenophobic, nationalist, Netanyahu-dominated ultra-right government that has ruled Israel for the past five years with a saner, power-sharing rational right or centre-right coalition is nothing to be sneezed at”. Important government portfolios such as defence and foreign affairs and will now be taken by Gantz’s allies. The justice, communications and culture ministries which the right had utilised to castigate and attack the left and the judiciary have also now been removed from the purview of Netanyahu and his allies. The wings of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the “settler lobby” have also been clipped; indeed, it is not yet clear whether the pro-settler Yamina party of the current defence minister, Naftali Bennett, will quit the government and return to the opposition benches.
But, as Shalev also argues, the indicted Netanyahu has also gained enormously from the deal. “Gantz and his colleagues, who repeatedly pledged to never be a part of a government headed by Netanyahu, have now granted him the public legitimacy he has so sorely lacked. Netanyahu may not be able to legislate his way out of his legal predicament as he may have hoped, but his continued rule has now been stamped kosher by his fiercest rivals.”
Certainly, Netanyahu wrang a key concession from Gantz over the issue – the workings and membership of the Judicial Appointments Committee – which had appeared an obstacle to an agreement over the past two weeks. The committee is important to the indicted prime minister because it appoints judges, and Netanyahu won an effective right-wing veto over it.
This concession drew a stinging rebuke from Gantz’s former ally Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid: “So the compromise on the Judicial Appointments Committee is that Bibi [Netanyahu] chose all its representatives. Gantz and [Blue and White MK Gabi] Ashkenazi agreed to allow the criminal defendant to appoint the judges that will adjudicate his affairs,” he tweeted. “There is no limit to the shame.”
The agreement also saw Gantz drop his previous commitment to oppose the effort of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies to water down plans to ensure more Haredi young men serve in Israel’s armed forces.
Lapid, who is now expected to become opposition leader, subsequently pledged to fight the new government “in the Knesset, in the courts, in the streets and in the squares.”
Gantz’s defenders, however, point to the fact that he secured the position of justice minister for Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn (a former general secretary of the Histadrut trade union) and also ensured that, while a Likud MK, Yariv Levin, will replace him as speaker of the Knesset, it will not be Yuli Edelstein. Edelstein, a Netanyahu ally, was ousted from the speakership by opposition MKs last month after defying a Supreme Court order to allow a vote on his job. Blue and White will also control the Knesset’s House Committee, which plays an important role in shaping the Israeli parliament’s legislative agenda.
The eventual shape of the government remains unclear. Yisrael Beitenu, the secular right-wing party led by Avigdor Liberman, will not be joining. “This is another government of Netanyahu and his Haredi-messianic bloc with a fig leaf of two senior [generals],” Liberman suggested. Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab-Israeli Joint List alliance – which has the third largest number of MKs in the Knesset – denounced the “surrender government” and said Gantz’s actions were a “slap in the face” to those who had voted Blue and White to oust Netanyahu from office.
Labor appears likely to split, with its leader, Amir Peretz, and his deputy, Itzik Schmuli, apparently remaining loyal to Gantz and planning to join the government. But the third Labor MK, Merav Michael, attacked the agreement, saying it ushered in an “inflated government that is just a lifeline to Netanyahu.” “Now we must ensure that the Labor party doesn’t take part in this corrupt and dangerous disgrace,” she added.
Green light for annexation?
One of the most important victories for Netanyahu was that the deal allows the government and the Knesset to vote on annexing parts of the West Bank, as outlined by the Trump plan, after 1 July. Coalition members are not committed to voting for annexation, but supporters are likely to be in the majority in the Knesset. Ever since the Americans announced the plan in January, Netanyahu has been anxious for swift and unilateral action to utilise the opportunity provided by Trump, especially given the prospects for a change in US administration next January. Gantz, by contrast, has adopted a more cautious approach, suggesting he would only support annexation with international support.
The agreement attempts to blur this difference by saying that the government must “engage in dialogue” with the international community “with [the] aim of preserving security and strategic interests including regional stability, preserving existing peace agreements and working towards future peace agreements.”
Whether those words prove to be a fig-leaf for, or a stumbling block to, annexation in the coming weeks and months remains to be seen. Their apparent incoherence, however, underlines that this “unity government” may end up agreeing on little beyond the desire of its leaders to avoid the only alternative to its formation: a fourth set of elections.