As the clock was ticking on Monday evening towards his midnight deadline to form a government, Blue and White Party leader and temporary Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz addressed the Israeli people.
Ostensibly explaining to the public why a national-emergency coalition was imperative at this time, he behaved more like someone running for election. Or defending himself to those former members of his bloc who dumped him for agreeing to make a deal with the Likud Party under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
His peculiar speech came on the heels of Netanyahu’s latest coronavirus message: that there would be a countrywide curfew during the first half of the end of the Passover holiday, from 5 p.m. on Tuesday until 5 a.m. on Wednesday—and then a resumption of the regular distancing limits about going outside.
In addition, according to the restrictions, no bakeries would be open to the public for an additional 12 hours or more. In other words, all those Israelis desperate for some fresh bread after a week of eating only matzah will have to wait another day.
To make matters worse for all those already saddened and irritated by the ban on family get-togethers in general and holiday meals in particular, Netanyahu announced the cancelation of all Mimouna festivities, other than those taking place in the confines of one’s home, with only relatives residing there in attendance.
The Mimouna is an annual feast on the day after the end of Passover—celebrated by Israelis of North African origin—with all kinds of sweet baked and fried goods. It has become an integral part of the Israeli landscape, with large private and public gatherings taking place everywhere.
It is even famous for being a “go to” venue for politicians wishing to curry favor with a major sector of the electorate, while stuffing their faces with heavenly food that only Weight Watchers would consider forbidding. Netanyahu made a point of stressing that he, too, would miss the Mimouna, which he attends every year (undoubtedly to the dismay of his blood sugar).
But it’s Gantz’s blood pressure that appears to be on the rise, along with Netanyahu’s popularity. Indeed, a Channel 12 poll, released ahead of Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s back-to-back speeches, indicates that if a fourth round of elections were held today, the prime minister’s party and bloc would have an unequivocal majority. The most obvious explanation for this is Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Which might sound odd, considering that most Israelis are fed up with lockdowns, and more than a quarter of the country is unemployed. Nevertheless, Netanyahu has managed to persuade the public that he has got the situation under control. The fact that the entire world is contending with COVID-19 certainly helps. Under any other circumstance, he would be blamed for crashing the economy with a death toll (by publication time) of 118 in a population of 8.8 million.
It was thus almost laughable when Gantz claimed, “Netanyahu understood that he was incapable of governing alone, and that he needs my assistance in confronting and managing the crisis.”
It’s not clear where Gantz got this ridiculous idea. Netanyahu “understood” no such thing. If he had, he and Gantz would have finalized a coalition deal weeks ago—not keep coming close to it and then storming away from the negotiating table, whether via Zoom or at a social distance of six feet that each would prefer were a lot greater.
What Netanyahu does grasp is that if he is perceived to be at fault for a fourth, hugely expensive election with so many people out of work, then he is more than likely to be penalized at the ballot box.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz, therefore, appealed to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to extend the coalition deadline for 48 more hours. Rivlin agreed, hoping that the remaining hurdles would be overcome by then.
The two main bones of contention have to do with the courts. Though Netanyahu already caved to Blue and White on the chairmanship of the Judicial Selection Committee, Likud insists on having veto power—or at least, a say—on the appointment of judges. This has been one obstacle to a coalition agreement.
The second surrounds the rotation of the premiership between Netanyahu and Gantz. As it stands now, when a government is formed, Gantz automatically will assume the role of prime minister and then hand it over to Netanyahu. After 18 months, Netanyahu will return it to Gantz. The catch lies in a potential Supreme Court ruling against having Netanyahu form a government while under indictment. Netanyahu is demanding a clause stating that in the event of such a ruling, the Knesset will dissolve and new elections be scheduled.
According to a joint statement issued on Tuesday morning, the two sides are close to resolving the dispute. We’ll believe it when we see it, since this isn’t the first time that they’ve made such a declaration.
They would do well to meet the new deadline, which falls on midnight between Wednesday and Thursday. Israelis will not take kindly to another impasse, especially with the coronavirus curfew that put the kibosh on plans to binge on bread after sundown.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”