Israel’s coalition is on life support

As usual, the political future of the Jewish state remains uncertain as a new round of elections becomes a looming possibility.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz vote for the budget deadline extension bill on Aug. 24, 2020. Credit: Yehonatan Samiyeh/Knesset Spokesperson's Office.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz vote for the budget deadline extension bill on Aug. 24, 2020. Credit: Yehonatan Samiyeh/Knesset Spokesperson's Office.
Zachary Shapiro
Zachary Shapiro

The Knesset took its first step towards dissolving the government and setting the country on the path to its fourth round of elections in two years. In a 61-54 vote, the opposition, joined by Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party, moved for new elections. While the bill requires three more readings before it is passed, this development is yet another sign that Israel’s coalition government is on life support.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing a February 2021 trial, Gantz facing trouble in his own party and Israel facing a third wave of COVID-19, another election is the last thing that Israel needs. An election is estimated to cost Israeli taxpayers NIS 3 billion (about $925,000)—all while the government is overstretched and overburdened by the coronavirus pandemic. To make things worse, Netanyahu and his cabinet still have not passed a budget for 2020. For months, they have been operating on a pro-rated re-authorization of the 2019 budget. Gantz has long insisted on the need to pass a new budget, while Netanyahu has stalled the approval process.

Amid all this political uncertainty, I interviewed  Nachman Shai, former Knesset member and Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson, and Danielle Roth Avneri, political correspondent and editor at Israel Hayom, to discuss the fate of Israel’s fraying coalition. They explored the legal and political challenges ahead for Netanyahu and Gantz’s precarious position. Shai and Roth Avneri also assessed Yamina Party chief Naftali Bennett’s rapid ascent in the polls and the future of Yesh Atid and the Israeli left. Four key takeaways emerged from our discussion:

Netanyahu may be up against the wall, but he remains in the driver’s seat. Without doubt, the embattled prime minister’s upcoming trial in February is his primary concern. As well it should be, given the gravity of the Attorney General’s corruption charges and the number of former Netanyahu advisors who have turned states’ witnesses. Just this week, one of Netanyahu’s archrivals, Gideon Sa’ar, announced a bid to bring him down. From the outside, Netanyahu’s situation may look bleak. But the reality is that the prime minister is still a cunning political operator in his prime.

Over the last two years, he has survived three close elections while courting a dismayed Israeli electorate. He has outfoxed the most potent challengers he has ever faced, recruiting Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi into his government, and relegating Lapid and Yesh Atid to the opposition. He has mustered many polarizing and unparalleled foreign-policy achievements, extracting unprecedented political concessions from U.S. President Donald Trump while advancing Israel’s normalization campaign to new heights. And in a stunning development, Netanyahu may well engineer a historic political realignment after reports emerged of a newfound partnership with Joint List Knesset member Mansour Abbas.

Nobody puts Gantz in a corner; he put himself there. Gantz’s political predicament is largely one of his own making. He ran a tough campaign by assembling a broad anti-Netanyahu coalition that agreed on little else. After making many emphatic campaign promises, Gantz joined his sworn enemy in an ill-fated rotation agreement. In doing so, he made a new enemy in a perceived betrayal of Lapid. Only a few months later, Gantz is losing control of his own party while facing elections that are likely to weaken him significantly. Altogether, he has placed himself in a difficult and unsustainable political position. Sooner or later, something has to give.

Don’t believe the hype about Gadi Eizenkot. The former IDF chief of staff may become the latest general to throw his hat in the ring. Reports indicate that he is considering a bid to unseat Netanyahu. But Gantz’s struggles remind us that military credentials do not a politician make, especially when running against a man of Netanyahu’s political talents.

Furthermore, Eizenkot faces an uphill battle if he does decide to run. It’s unclear which party he would join, but Yesh Atid, Blue and White, and Knesset member Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem Party are all in the running. In any event, Eizenkot would be competing in a crowded field of former generals and staunch opponents of the prime minister—all of whom thought their military backgrounds could be a gamechanger, and all of whom failed to defeat Netanyahu. The prime minister, after all, has outmaneuvered the generals of Blue and White, and presided over the left’s deep decline.

A new chapter may be in store for the Arab List. While the new partnership between Mansour Abbas and Netanyahu may be an alliance of convenience, it’s still a major departure from the Arab factions’ policy of noncooperation with sitting coalitions. For the time being, it is in Netanyahu’s interest to court Abbas, as it helps him divide the Joint List and blunt its power. And working with Netanyahu serves Abbas’s political goals. An alliance with the prime minister could help Abbas bring crucial funding, support and infrastructure to the Israeli Arab community. This, in turn, may bolster his standing with constituents. As long as these mutually beneficial interests hold, more cooperation may well be on the horizon.

What did not come up in our conversation was Sa’ar’s dramatic decision to leave Likud and form his own party in his latest effort to defeat Netanyahu. No doubt this is an intriguing development. Sa’ar’s defection is a wildcard, but not a game-changer. He may pull votes from Likud, but the odds are not in his favor. His past attempts to take on Netanyahu have failed spectacularly. In December 2019, Sa’ar challenged the prime minister in a Likud leadership primary and lost by a whopping margin of 72-27 percent. As payback, Netanyahu did not offer Sa’ar a ministerial post during the last round of coalition negotiations in May. And this was after Netanyahu had forced his rival into political exile for a few years before the primary.

Sa’ar may take a page out of Gantz’s playbook and vow not to join a Netanyahu government. Still, Netanyahu has a knack for wearing down his enemies by enticing them to defect. He could tempt his eager rival to break his promises with the right cabinet post—just as he did with Gantz.

As usual, Israel’s political future remains uncertain. Ultimately, the measure to dissolve the coalition must survive three plenum votes before new elections are official—leaving Netanyahu and Gantz time to break the stalemate. Reports indicate that the two are negotiating a secret deal to avoid elections. Deal or no deal, Israel is in for a challenging few months, yet more political deadlock and a riveting trial.

Zachary Shapiro is a publishing adjunct at The MirYam Institute and a master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His writing has appeared in “The Wall Street Journal,” “Haaretz,” “The Bulwark” and “Politico.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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