In the midst of a bitter political crisis and without the support of a functioning Knesset, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been leading an aggressive response to Coronavirus to limit the spread of the highly contagious disease. His administration has quickly empowered an already-stretched healthcare system to quickly diagnose, quarantine and treat those with symptoms, and has mobilized the Israel military and security services in the new battleground of pandemic response.
The Defense Ministry has converted now abandoned hotels into safe-houses for those with mild Coronavirus symptoms. The Shin Bet is employing controversial cellphone monitoring technology previously used only sparingly in the fight against Palestinian terror suspects to retrace the movements of those who have contracted Coronavirus and to impose quarantines on those who have come in contact with a carrier. The Mossad has quickly procured 100,000 testing kits and is working on procuring as many as 4 million more.
Meanwhile, Israel’s Knesset is at a standstill. In Israel’s March 2 elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and his right-wing allies defeated a left-leaning bloc by several hundred thousand votes and 11 seats (58-47), with the left-wing bloc subsequently falling to 46 following the split of Gesher Party leader Orly Levy-Abekasis from the far-left Labor-Meretz Party. Yet Netanyahu and his current allies remain just three seats short of a parliamentary majority.
The reason the centrist Levy-Abekasis removed herself from the left-wing bloc is due to the bloc’s attempt to form a minority government with the self-proclaimed anti-Zionist Joint List of Arab parties. Levy-Abekasis is not the only MK in the left-wing bloc opposed to such an alliance. Blue and White members Yoaz Hendel, Zvi Hauser and Chili Tropper have all openly stated their opposition to such a government. Senior Blue and White member and former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is also said to be against a minority alignment supported from without by the Arab parties.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz himself repeatedly told the Israeli public in multiple interviews that he had no intention of forming a majority or minority government supported by the Joint List.
Without the support of each and every member of Blue and White and its allied parties, the left-wing bloc will not have the seats it needs to create a minority government.
Yet on Sunday, 61 MKs—including all 15 from the Joint List—recommended to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that Gantz be tasked with forming a government.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, no Arab party has ever joined an Israeli government, whether led by the left or right. Now too, the Joint List has no intention of joining a Gantz-led government; their recommendation is aimed specifically at removing Netanyahu from office. Even if they were to suddenly change their ways, Gantz’s other potential coalition partners would refuse to sit in a government with them.
If Gantz and those who recommended him truly wanted Netanyahu out of office over and above all other goals, they could simply all sign a coalition agreement, immediately sending their political nemesis and the longest-ever serving Israeli prime minister to the parliamentary back benches.
So while President Rivlin has tasked Gantz with forming a government, he and his left-wing Zionist bloc of only 46 seats have zero chance of forging a parliamentary majority. By contrast, each of the 58 MKs who have supported Netanyahu is ready to immediately begin governing as part of a right-wing coalition. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc needs only three defectors from the 46-member anti-Netanyahu Zionist bloc to govern for the next four years.
Recognizing that they cannot form a government without the Likud, Blue and White has begun negotiations for a centrist alignment between the two largest parties, comprising 69 seats. In addition, discussions have revolved around what could be the largest-ever unity government in Israel’s history, one that would include all 105 Zionist MKs from across the entire political spectrum—excluding the Joint List.
In such an arrangement Netanyahu would initially be prime minister, but would at some point yield the post to Gantz. The Likud is pushing for Netanyahu to lead for the first two-years of the four-year term, while Blue and White is pushing for Netanyahu to yield after one year at the helm.
Netanyahu has similarly offered an option whereby Blue and White would join a six-month emergency government, in which he remains as prime minister, to handle the COVID-19 crisis, including its economic and security implications, and to advance the U.S.-promoted “Peace to Prosperity” proposal, which empowers Israel to declare sovereignty over strategic tracts of land and every Jewish community and outpost in the biblical provinces of Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank.
Meanwhile, in parallel with unity talks Blue and White and its allies are attempting to advance four separate parliamentary bills aimed specifically at removing Netanyahu from office.
The first bill would limit a prime minister to only two terms in office, retroactively disqualifying Netanyahu based on his time already served at the helm. The second bill prohibits an individual facing criminal charges from serving as a minister or prime minister, also retroactively disqualifying Netanyahu. (Current Israeli law explicitly permits a prime minister under indictment to continue to serve, even through a conviction until all appeals processes are exhausted.) The third bill would prohibit a Knesset member under indictment from being tasked with forming a government, despite the fact that more than two million Israelis voted in favor of Netanyahu forming a government.
At the same time, the fourth bill, proposed by the Yisrael Beiteinu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman—a former Netanyahu ally turned nemesis—would enable the Knesset to oust a transitional prime minister in a secret ballot vote. The bill is formulated to enable members of the Likud to vote Netanyahu out while bypassing party discipline.
However, even though Gantz and his 61 frenemies including the Joint List have—barely—the votes they need to pass laws aimed at pushing Netanyahu out of office, they nevertheless cannot do so.
According to Israeli law, as the head of the last elected government, Netanyahu remains prime minister as head of a transitional government until a new one is sworn in, and Likud No. 2 Yuli Edelstein remains the Knesset speaker.
In order to gain control of the Knesset, Blue and White needs to immediately replace Edelstein. To do that, the Knesset first needs to form an Arrangement Committee, which assigns the Knesset speaker as well as the coveted chairperson assignments of other parliamentary committees.
Typically, the Arrangements Committee is set up by the ruling party immediately after the formation of a parliamentary majority. Yet, despite three elections in less than one year, neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has been able to form a majority, and thus far the two largest parties have been unable to negotiate an agreement to govern together.
The need for a parliamentary majority
Until now, Netanyahu has been content governing as a caretaker prime minister at the head of a transitional government. However, due to the COVID-19 crisis, Israel desperately needs a parliamentary majority and a functioning Knesset. A transitional government has limited authority, and cannot pass ministerial budgets. Yet the unprecedented national health crisis is forcing ministries, and particularly the healthcare ministry, to spend well beyond the limits established for it over two years ago.
As such, Likud and Blue and White have agreed (in theory) to get committees formed to deal specifically with the crisis, even as they continue to negotiate toward a unity government.
Arrangements Committee madness
Yet Blue and White meanwhile refuses to drop the proposed bills, and also seeks to wrangle a majority within a new Arrangements Committee.
According to very complicated Knesset bylaws, an Arrangements Committee must be formulated proportionally among each party faction in the Knesset—and not by party blocs. Here, the Likud has a three-seat edge over Blue and White (36 seats to 33). Depending on the size of the Arrangements Committee—which is not fixed in law and can be negotiated between the parties—the distribution of committee seats can fluctuate.
Unsurprisingly, Blue and White is demanding a very specific number of committee seats—a number that would give Blue and White and the other anti-Netanyahu parties a majority in the Arrangements Committee. They could then replace Edelstein as speaker and advance their retroactive laws.
Edelstein is a former Russian refusenik who was sentenced to several years in Siberian prison for Zionist activities. In more than 24 years as an MK and government minister, and now seven years as Knesset speaker, Edelstein has developed a stellar reputation both for his intellect and ability to balance the interests of parties with disparate political agendas. Throughout his career, he has gained tremendous respect among parliamentarians both to the left and right.
As such, he is on a shortlist of Likud MKs that could possibly succeed Netanyahu as prime minister, or become president at the conclusion of Rivlin’s seven-year term in 2021. It is no wonder that Blue and White seeks to replace him.
So now, to protect the integrity of Israel’s Knesset, which includes his own position as speaker, former Refusenik Edelstein is now refusing to play along with Blue and White’s manipulative parliamentary schemes.
Shuttering the Knesset
Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, on Monday, all 120 newly elected MKs were sworn in, in groups of three. Several MKs have since been forced into quarantine, while Health Minister Ya’akov Litzman, who is 71 years old, refuses to enter the Knesset due to the greater health risks COVID-19 poses to the elderly.
In a move largely designed to prevent the formation of an Arrangements Committee—so long as Blue and White refuses to allow equal representation among the factions—Edelstein this week ordered the shuttering of the Knesset.
However, Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon has stated that Edelstein cannot take such a decision alone, but that the matter must be brought before the 120-member plenary for a vote. In such a case, the 61 MKs opposing Netanyahu would undoubtedly oppose Edelstein’s motion.
Now, Edelstein is demanding that the Arrangements Committee be composed of 10 or fewer MKs, in accordance with current health ministry guidelines forbidding gatherings of over 10 people. If the committee is 10 members or less, Likud and its allies will retain equal footing if not a majority, thereby preventing Blue and White from replacing Edelstein before they can form their own parliamentary majority. It is unclear whether Likud’s opponents can block Edelstein’s latest maneuver under the circumstances.
Who is thwarting democracy?
In the past several weeks, Blue and White has railed against a move by Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana to place Israel’s courts into a state of emergency due to the health crisis, which has frozen all non-urgent matters and delayed Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges by two months.
Meanwhile, the move coincided with the placing of all Israelis on a partial lockdown as Israel faces the same crisis being faced all over the world. Though under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel has been coping far better than many other nations. Instead of supporting Netanyahu during this pandemic, Blue and White is further ratcheting up its anti-Netanyahu rhetoric.
In response to Blue and White’s parliamentary antics, Netanyahu stated, “Politics can wait a few months. This is the time for leadership, national responsibility and cooperation.”
In response, Gantz has been sending mixed messages. While he tweeted that he is “all on board to fight the coronavirus,” and “when it comes to human lives, there is no politics,” he also said that, “No crisis, whatever its scope, may be exploited as a means to trample upon values of national decorum and responsibility and to undermine the will of the voting public. The Likud lacks a majority in the Knesset, so it has gone ahead and closed it. We won’t allow that.”
Similarly, in a recorded video, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said, “There is no judicial branch in Israel. There is no legislative branch in Israel. There is only an unelected government that is headed by a person who lost the election. You can call it by many names, [but] this is not a democracy, and this non-democracy today told you one thing—that you are not allowed to leave the house. Ask yourselves, in what countries does an unelected government inform the citizens that they’re not allowed to leave the house?”
Lapid is a likely candidate to be foreign minister in any Blue and White-led alliance. He later walked back his remarks, saying that Israelis should indeed respect the restrictions put into place to stem the spread of the virus.
Netanyahu has not only led the country in direct accordance with the law but by all accounts, including those of his political opponents, he has done an admirable job so far in managing the pandemic. His early, aggressive response stands in stark contrast to that of many other Western nations including Italy, France and even the United States, which have been slow to recognize the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic and take steps to prevent its rapid spread.
Instead of putting politics aside in this moment, it is Blue and White that is violating all democratic principles—as well as its own campaign promises—by attempting to formulate an unprecedented parliamentary putsch in the midst of the greatest global crisis since World War II.
Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of the Jewish News Syndicate.