As coronavirus dominates headlines all over the world, Israel is emerging as a leader in the global fight to contain the pandemic, quickly enacting strict quarantine measures and border closures to limit the spread of the virus, as its biotech industries rush to develop home testing kits and vaccines.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with outgoing Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and veteran Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, have been open and direct with the public about the dangers of coronavirus and the measures the government is taking to halt its spread.
Netanyahu convened a conference call with European leaders on Monday to coordinate the international response to the crisis. His suggestions included the development and widespread distribution of home virus testing kits, the establishment of “safe air hubs” to facilitate critical supply chains amid a constriction of international air travel and the designation of points of contact within each government to efficiently communicate best practices in combating the virus. The call followed extensive conversations between Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
Netanyahu’s leadership in the global fight against coronavirus is consistent with his reputation as a statesman, while the drastic measures his administration has taken to limit the spread of the virus within Israel have inspired Israelis’ confidence that their government is acting as responsibly as possible under the most uncertain of circumstances. Yet the coronavirus pandemic is but one among a series of crises facing the Israeli prime minister.
As the coronavirus outbreak unfolds, Netanyahu is being forced to contend with the impending commencement of his trial in three separate corruption cases, while simultaneously attempting to construct a coalition following an election in which his bloc of right-wing and religious allies defeated the opposing left-leaning, secular bloc by a whopping 11 seats (58 to 47), yet still finds itself precariously short of a 61-seat parliamentary majority.
Challenger Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White Party fell three seats behind Netanyahu’s Likud (36-33), has been trying to galvanize the opposition, including a 15-seat Joint List of majority-Arab parties, to support a minority government and advance retroactive legislation that would prevent a prime minister from forming a government while under indictment.
Under current Israeli law, an indicted prime minister can continue to serve through a conviction and until all legal appeals are exhausted—a process that could take several years. Israelis who voted for Netanyahu in record numbers on March 2 did so in spite of the indictments against him, because they believe the charges are dubious and that Netanyahu’s steady hand at the helm will be critical in the uncertain years ahead.
Since Blue and White was unable to oust Netanyahu via the ballot box, they are now attempting to oust him via a parliamentary putsch.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Gantz insisted repeatedly that his party would not form a majority government with the Joint List or rely on its support for the formation of a minority government. Any promise to collaborate with the Joint List ahead of the election would likely have cost Gantz significantly at the polls.
Israelis rightly reject the possibility of cooperation with the Joint List, which comprises self-proclaimed anti-Zionist parties that have not joined any governing coalition since the establishment of the State of Israel. These parties are opposed to the very foundation of Israel as a Jewish state, have openly supported terrorists, and share no common ideology with Gantz or his other coalition partners—with the exception of their hatred of Netanyahu.
Dissent within Blue and White
Gantz’s blatant about-face on working with the Joint List is causing dissent within his own ranks. Blue and White MKs Tzvi Hauser and Yoav Hendel, of the right-leaning Telem faction led by former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, have expressed explicit opposition to the formation of a minority government supported by anti-Zionist parties.
Ya’alon is demanding that the two MKs, both generally well-respected former advisers to Netanyahu, resign immediately, yet they have zero legal obligation to do so. Moreover, resigning would essentially be the same as voting in favor of a minority government, whereas if just two of the 62 opposition MKs refuse to back a minority government, such a coalition will be unable to pass an initial vote of confidence, even with the backing of the Joint List.
Meanwhile, other Blue and White MKs, including Hili Tropper of Gantz’s own Israel Resilience faction, now also oppose the formation of a minority government.
Gantz’s inability to defeat Netanyahu at the polls three times in 12 months, and his immediate about-face on his oft-stated campaign promise not to form a government with the support of the Joint List, may ultimately lead to the implosion of Blue and White, a new political alliance whose platform has centered on proving Netanyahu is unfit to serve, while simultaneously adopting many of his proven policies on key security matters.
Dangerous and divisive rhetoric
Netanyahu has said in response to the threatened parliamentary putsch that Gantz is trying to “steal the election.” At a rally this weekend, Netanyahu claimed, “There is no limit to their cynicism,” while adding that “the political reason we are here tonight is the deceitful attempt to steal away the will of the people with lies and anti-democratic legislation.”
In the past week, Gantz has claimed that Netanyahu’s opposition to efforts to remove him is inciting Israeli public toward “a civil war.”
Following online death threats against him deemed credible by Israel’s security agencies, Gantz charged, “Netanyahu: the public atmosphere and the threats worry every national leader … The incitement is raging everywhere and you are silent. I won’t allow you to sow fear. I won’t allow you to turn man against brother. I won’t allow you to bring about modern Israel’s first civil war in return for a ticket out of your trial. Your regime has trampled all norms.”
What’s at stake: Israeli sovereignty
Meanwhile, the Netanyahu regime is not only taking a leading role in the fight against coronavirus, it is simultaneously advancing a mapping process that will culminate with the extension of Israeli sovereignty to strategic tracts of land in Judea and Samaria, commonly known as the West Bank, including every Jewish settlement and outpost in the disputed territories. Application of sovereignty is the first stage of the “Peace to Prosperity” plan recently introduced by the Trump administration.
The American plan addresses the failures of the ill-conceived Oslo Accords and recognizes Israel’s growing strength as the only democracy in the Middle East, while offering the Palestinian Authority a $50 billion incentive program and a path towards statehood—if and only if they enforce democratic principles and meet Israeli security requirements, including the cessation of all forms of incitement and terror financing, and complete demilitarization.
Gantz gave his tepid approval to U.S. President Donald Trump in a private meeting ahead of the plan’s rollout, yet his left-wing and anti-Zionist political partners have outright rejected the plan and the application of Israeli sovereignty over any of the disputed territories. In fact, Joint List leaders have publicly conditioned their endorsement of Gantz for the premiership on his agreement not to advance Israeli sovereignty.
So Gantz told Trump he would support the Peace to Prosperity plan, and also told the Israeli electorate and even his own MKs that he would not form a government with the support of the Arab parties. In addition, two of Gantz’s closest advisers have repeatedly likened Trump to Adolf Hitler, while another, recently fired adviser was caught on tape saying that Gantz would pose a danger to the country if he becomes prime minister.
His word at this point should carry little weight with the public, members of his own party, and certainly with Israel’s greatest ally, the Trump administration.
And as Netanyahu has galvanized the support of a record number of Israelis this past election, and now is gaining the support of world leaders who desperately need help in containing a sudden pandemic, Gantz has been busy dividing the Israeli public and even the members of his own party by reneging on fundamental campaign promises and spreading dangerous and toxic rhetoric.
It’s a good thing for Israel and the world that the man leading the charge against coronavirus is the tested and proven Netanyahu, and not the inconsistent and inexperienced Gantz. And with Blue and White MKs bucking their party leader by rejecting any alliance with anti-Zionist parties, the chances Netanyahu will continue as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister have improved dramatically.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.