Playing a politics game that Netanyahu always wins

  • Paula
There’s a joke that in Israel, you play politics for 90 minutes and then, in the end, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu always wins. That’s certainly true three elections and 16 months without a government, later.
by PAULA SLIER | Apr 02, 2020

Now, finally, Israel seems to be on the verge of getting a broad and stable coalition to guide it through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. And it’s none other than Netanyahu in the driver’s seat. His main contender, former army chief and leader of the Blue and White alliance, Benny Gantz, broke ranks with half his party to join Netanyahu in a unity government. He cited the national and global health emergency as the reason.

What was so startling was that it was a complete turnaround on the central principle of Gantz’s campaign, namely that he would never support Netanyahu as prime minister as long as the latter was facing criminal charges for corruption. But it looks increasingly likely that Israel is about to swear in an emergency government with Netanyahu at the helm for at least the next 18 months.

Either Netanyahu is a genius or a magician. Or plain lucky. Take your pick, because it was Gantz who was tasked with forming the next government after the most recent elections in March.

That mandate basically tore his alliance apart. Gantz needed the support of the Arab parties – including those that are anti-Zionist and have supported terrorists in the past – as well as the backing of Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing former defence minister.

The demands made on him were vast, and such a coalition never really stood a chance. In the end, Gantz was willing to negotiate for an emergency government because Israel needed unified leadership to deal with the coronavirus. But his main partner, Yair Lapid, of the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, flat-out refused to enter a government with Netanyahu.

At the time of writing, negotiations between Gantz and Netanyahu are continuing. The two say they plan to have a unity government sworn in before Passover, but negotiations have been stalled by the coronavirus and who gets key appointments.

It comes amidst a scramble for portfolios and lots of demands being placed on Netanyahu. There’s talk of Gantz becoming foreign or defence minister, while Netanyahu is expected to be prime minister for a year-and-a-half before Gantz will replace him. Most of the public, according to a recent poll, don’t believe Netanyahu will eventually give Gantz the prime minister’s seat.

At the moment, the most important portfolio is health. Gantz claimed he was joining Netanyahu because of the coronavirus crisis, so it was assumed that he would push for the health ministry. But at the start of negotiations, he didn’t. He’s since heard the criticism, and now says he wants this portfolio alongside others.

Gantz’s supporters are disappointed. According to polls, most of them are upset with his decision to join Netanyahu. Although there are those who say he has done the responsible thing, others say he has let his voters down by backtracking on his promise to never ally with Netanyahu for as long as he’s facing trial.

Gantz isn’t as left-wing as many of his detractors like to paint him. Many of his policies aren’t so different from Netanyahu – except for his promise to fight corruption, and now he’s shifted on that. What’s more, Gantz is also promoting a bill that will allow Netanyahu to sit in parliament as a minister – but also not – while under trial. It’s confusing.

The law in Israel is that a regular minister or Knesset (parliament) member cannot stay in his or her job while undergoing trial. But it’s not clear what happens when the person in question is the prime minister. What will happen to Netanyahu if he gives his seat to Gantz in one-and-a-half years? Will he be treated as a regular minister or not? This new bill is trying to protect him.

The latest developments are surprising, not least because the campaigns the two leaders conducted were ugly and personal. Observers say it looks mysterious that Gantz decided to join Netanyahu at the last moment. Many claim this is the problem with Gantz – he’s not really a fighter and only became army chief because of circumstances. He was a number two who became a number one, and he doesn’t really have the stamina or fighting spirit to be a leader. Analysts seem to agree that it’s unlikely he’ll have a meaningful political career after disappointing his voters so much this time around. He’s lost his political credit.

There’s one more scenario. Gantz might not be able to form a new government by the time his mandate runs out. Could Netanyahu be delaying things and hoping for this? In such a scenario, fourth elections will be called for.

But with the Gantz and Lapid split, and Gantz’s support-base diminished, Netanyahu might finally come out as the clear winner. Think of a football match – it doesn’t matter who plays the 90 minutes, in the end, the winner is always the same. Watch this space!

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