An Israeli marriage not made in heaven

  • Paula
In one of the most spectacular U-turns in Israeli political history, the former army chief and leader of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, on Monday night signed a coalition agreement with incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
by PAULA SLIER | Apr 23, 2020

For over a year and through three bitter election campaigns, Gantz denounced Netanyahu as divisive and dangerous to Israel, vowing never to sit in a government with him. Netanyahu derided Gantz as weak, slow, and entirely lacking in the skills necessary to lead the country.

Now these rivals-turned-partners – who still deeply distrust each other – have signed a 14-page “Coalition Agreement for the Establishment of an Emergency National Unity Government”.

The agreement’s goal is to make sure neither can trick the other out of the top seat, and it’s written in such a way that it’s difficult for either side to pull out. It guarantees Netanyahu the premiership for the next 18 months, and if the coronavirus is extended, for another six months after that, but no more. No early elections, no dissolution of parliament, or any other tricks that Gantz continues to fear Netanyahu might have up his sleeve will change the plan. The fact is Gantz will then get his chance at the rotating premiership, and lead Israel for the following 18 months.

During this time, Netanyahu will be his deputy prime minister. But, in reality, Netanyahu will continue to hold the real power as he’ll have the allegiance of three-quarters of the government.

Gantz really wants the premiership. And he no doubt concluded that this was the only way he’d ever get it. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak believes that Netanyahu has dirt on him and threatened to go public with it unless he agreed to the unity government. But who knows?

Gantz has certainly been heavily criticised in the past few weeks not only for his about-face in joining Netanyahu, but also for being outplayed and outmanoeuvred in his negotiation with the prime minister.

To be fair though, Gantz extracted a rigid power-sharing agreement with Netanyahu and took control of powerful government portfolios, with only 17 legislators behind him compared with 59 in Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc.

This leaves the prime minister with some explaining to do in his own backyard.

But so does Gantz. He’s likely to be forced to support legislation that in other circumstances he wouldn’t have. Many pundits agree that Gantz will have his moment in the sun but after this, his (short) political career will be over. Erstwhile supporters feel betrayed and dismayed.

In the coming years, as Netanyahu goes on trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, Gantz will have to defend him remaining in office. Far from being the moral voice calling for the removal of an indicted prime minister, Gantz is now the indicted prime minister’s chief protector and defender.

For Netanyahu, first prize would have been the Knesset (parliament) passing laws granting him immunity from prosecution. Now he will have to stand up to the charges in court. But by agreeing to the unity government, he won the next best thing – remaining in office throughout the court trial and should he lose, also during the appeal.

In essence, Netanyahu can continue to govern the country while appearing in court, and his agreement with Gantz will ensure that he remains in office throughout.

The polls currently favour Netanyahu, but things could have turned bad very quickly for him. That is, if he hadn’t reached a unity government with Gantz, and the country was forced to head to a fourth straight election campaign with a crippling economic recession on the horizon because of the coronavirus shutdown. He is extremely cognisant of this.

Another feather in Netanyahu’s cap is that he can now move forward with American President Donald Trump’s Deal of the Century. Based on the agreement the prime minister and Gantz signed, the latter will be unable to influence its implementation. From June, the Israeli government can, with Trump’s backing, bring a vote to annex parts of the West Bank. With a rightwing majority in the Knesset, it’s likely to pass.

According to the unity agreement, Gantz is not allowed to oppose, but he can abstain. Again, the former army chief is backtracking on earlier declarations he made against the annexation. But he says it’s more important for Israel to have a unity government that can deal with the coronavirus pandemic and prevent the country from heading to a fourth election.

Gantz’s Blue and White party sees itself as an opposition within an incoming government set to be the largest in Israel’s history. Of 120 parliamentarians, 52 will have a minister or deputy minister portfolio. There’s already some grumbling about this.

Amid the coronavirus crisis and soaring unemployment across the country, people are being guaranteed jobs which cost the taxpayer. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not an astronomical amount of money, but it’s enough for the public to complain about.

Although Netanyahu and Gantz have signed the unity government agreement, it can still fall apart. Netanyahu hasn’t yet collected all the signatures needed, and various legislation still needs to pass, including a law that sets in place the rotating premiership. Until that happens, the Blue and White party is unlikely to give its full support to Netanyahu. The mistrust runs that deep.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Alan Elkon 04 May
    It appears as if all politicians are now only interested in their own egos and none puts the country first. There should be term limits placed on them. They are like babies nappies and need to be changed every once in a while when they fill up.

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