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Under lockdown, Israel focuses on creating a government

  • Paula
Israeli coalition talks have begun in earnest. On Monday, Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White Party, was tasked by President Reuven Rivlin to try and form a government after he received the backing of 61 members of Knesset (Parliament).
by PAULA SLIER | Mar 19, 2020

This is a razor-thin majority in the 120-member parliament. In the coming days, the former army chief will soon understand that 61 doesn’t always mean 61. There may be 61 MKs committed to getting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of office but it doesn’t automatically mean there are 61 MKs ready to form a coalition with Gantz.

He has three options: he can establish a narrow government with the active support of Arab parties; enter a broad government with Netanyahu; or send the country to a fourth election.

By comparison, Netanyahu has only one option: another election. In spite of the fact that he won the most votes earlier this month, he can’t cobble together 61 mandates. A fourth election will allow him to remain prime minister until October when the next polls, coronavirus permitting, will be held.

For Gantz, his best chance at forming a coalition and getting Israel out of the impasse of three inconclusive elections in less than a year is to establish a minority government with the Arab Joint List. But this is also his main obstacle. Comprising 15 seats, the Joint List made history last September when all its parties except for the most extreme – Balad – recommended Gantz for prime minister. It was the first time they had supported a candidate since Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s. This past Sunday, they made history again. All the parties in the bloc – including Balad – recommended Gantz.

They told President Rivlin that “for us, the most important thing is to remove Benjamin Netanyahu from power”.

These are parties that don’t think Israel should be a Jewish state. They think any Israeli presence beyond pre-1967 lines – including the Western Wall – is illegitimate. They oppose Israeli strikes on Gaza, no matter how many rockets Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad fire at Israeli civilians. And their MKs have uploaded Facebook posts praising terrorists who attack Israelis.

Balad’s decision to endorse Gantz to form a coalition government came as a surprise to Arab Israelis who appear to be divided on the move.

While many welcomed it, others expressed disappointment over Balad’s change of heart and accused it of hypocrisy.

Balad has argued that Gantz is part of the traditional right wing, and that his “views on the occupation aren’t far from Netanyahu’s, even if they’re less extreme than the settlement project Netanyahu tries to advance”. The party also keeps pointing out that Gantz was chief of staff during the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip and led the Ground Forces Command in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

So why did the party change its mind? Analysts say it’s a mixture of pressure from other Arab politicians and the realisation that it might not get a chance like this again.

Balad officials insist that the removal of Netanyahu from power and the integration of Arab Israelis into society is their first priority.

But it’s not just support – or lack thereof – from the Arabs that keeps Gantz awake at night. Another key component of his coalition is former defence minister right-winger Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Our Home party. Lieberman and the Arab Joint List are bitter foes, and Lieberman has repeatedly vowed that he would never sit in a coalition with Arab legislators. But he seems to have forgotten this as he recently laid out his demands for Gantz to accept – which the latter did.

These included raising old-age pensions, letting municipalities decide if buses can run on Shabbat, passing a law regarding the drafting of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, and allowing for civil marriages.

Should Gantz manage to put together a coalition with Lieberman and the Arab parties, it would be shaky to say the least, and in the first moment of crisis, is likely to fold.

The only other option Gantz has is to enter into a broad government with Netanyahu. But should he do so, it could tear his Blue and White party apart. The Yair Lapid-led Yesh Atid Party, which makes up about half of Blue and White, would probably not agree to it – unless it decides that coronavirus trumps everything else, which so far looks unlikely.

Netanyahu has proposed a six-month unity government that he would lead to manage the response to the pandemic. He’s also offered a four-year arrangement with a rotating premiership that would result in the two leaders splitting the job of prime minister equally. Gantz has consistently refused to serve in any government led by someone facing criminal charges, and Netanyahu has been formally charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

So, at this stage, it seems that Gantz is caught between a rock and a hard place. He is vulnerable on all sides. If he becomes prime minister, he remains dependent on Arab votes, including from political factions that despise everything he stands for, to appoint ministers and approve budgets. If a crisis erupts with the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank, any such coalition will unravel at the seams.

On the other hand, Gantz is keenly aware that if he isn’t able to put together a majority coalition, Likud will use his dependence on the Arab parties against him in its next election campaign. It will also point out Lieberman’s hypocrisy in forming a coalition with Arab legislators. Gantz’s back is against the wall. If he doesn’t win this round, the chances are he never will.

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