Israel’s new government is centrist, and that’s OK with Netanyahu

Americans think of the prime minister as an extremist. But on the issues that matter most, he’s content to govern with Gantz and without some of his right-wing allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks while social distancing during a press conference about the coronavirus (COVID-19), at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks while social distancing during a press conference about the coronavirus (COVID-19), at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israel’s yearlong government standoff is finally over, and the only real winner is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although there were moments when it seemed as if there was no way he could hold onto office for long, Netanyahu again proved that it’s a mistake to underestimate his political acumen or survival instincts.

But there’s something else about this outcome that Netanyahu’s American detractors need to understand. The agreement does reaffirm the conventional wisdom that views Netanyahu as a ruthless, skilled and self-interested partisan dedicated to holding onto power at virtually any cost. But contrary to most mainstream media coverage of Israel, the deal with Gantz also debunks the notion that he’s an extremist who is wrecking Israel by dragging it to the right, as well as sabotaging hopes of peace with the Palestinians. The new government is instead proof that Netanyahu is at heart a consensus politician most happy when leading from the center and with his right-wing allies cut out of the decision-making process.

The deal he signed this week with Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz will likely enable the prime minister to remain in office for the next 18 months and generate a new election which he might win even if the Israeli Supreme Court rules that he is ineligible to stand as prime minister because of his upcoming corruption trial.

Netanyahu’s enemies are lamenting what they see as Gantz’s weakness, as well as the way the coronavirus pandemic strengthened the prime minister’s hand. Still, as many in the Likud and in its erstwhile right-wing partner Yamina Party ally are pointing out, while Netanyahu got what he wanted out of the agreement, the interests of the national camp that he has led by for a generation did not fare as well.

That’s not just because the deal left both Yamina and leading Likud figures without their share of power. The unity deal also ensures that outside of guaranteeing a vote on the annexation of some West Bank settlements in the coming year, the new government is not committed to the platform Netanyahu ran on.

On judicial reform, economics and, yes, even settlement growth, the government will be split rather than united. That ensures that stalemate, rather than right-wing governance, will largely characterize the next three years—assuming, that is, that the judges don’t cut the scheme short by seeking to do what the voters and his political opponents could not, and depose Netanyahu.

The assumption in some quarters is that this is frustrating for Netanyahu. That isn’t the case. While he is the undoubted idol of Israel’s right-wing voters, he is perfectly pleased not to be leading a narrow right-wing government largely dominated by ideologues. To the contrary, his preference has always been for assembling the most broad-based government possible.

That was true in 2009, when he assembled a government that included the Labor Party then led by Ehud Barak, even though he could have assembled a majority that was solely composed of right-wing and religious parties.

After the next election in 2013, the same thing happened as Netanyahu invited both Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua Party into his government, disappointing those on the right who wanted him to govern with a narrow majority that he had won.

It’s true that those who join in coalitions with Netanyahu generally find the experience to be extremely unpleasant. Barak, Lapid and Livni all emerged from their time at the Cabinet table determined never to do it again. That’s one of the reasons that Netanyahu wound up leading a narrow right-wing/religious coalition after the 2015 election.

The defection of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which leans strongly to the right on security issues though is avowedly secular, from Netanyahu’s bloc at the end of 2018 led to the long stalemate that has just ended. That dispute, along with others that led to other right-wing figures such as Telem Party chief Moshe Ya’alon and other former members of Gantz’s Blue and White coalition to take sides against the prime minister, was rooted more in personal animosity rather than ideology.

Netanyahu is probably quite glad to see his Yamina allies decide to go into opposition, as opposed to joining his new government. Yamina wants to prod Netanyahu to push the envelope on establishing Israeli sovereignty over more of the West Bank when he’s content merely to discuss the possibility while still resisting—as he has throughout his career—pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

While Netanyahu’s flacks attacked Gantz as a leftist during the three election campaigns of 2019-20, the prime minister and the new defense minister/future prime minister are largely in agreement on most security issues. When they clash, it will be about Netanyahu’s efforts to gain immunity from prosecution or when he pursues efforts to reform what he sees as an out-of-control Israeli judiciary branch. And if that leads to stasis rather than pushing ahead the agenda of the settlement movement or others in his core constituency, Netanyahu won’t shed a tear so long as his grip on high office remains secure.

The easy way that Netanyahu and Gantz, who ran to the right in the elections to appear as close to the prime minister on the peace process as possible, will be able to cooperate on security issues demonstrates another element of Israeli politics that most Americans still struggle to understand. They represent a broad consensus that believes that in the absence of a credible peace partner, the best Israel can do is to manage the conflict and secure those areas—like the Jordan Valley and the settlement blocs—that the Jewish state will never surrender, even if peace were possible.

Say what you like about Netanyahu, whose ultimate fate will be settled in court, but calling him an extremist is simply untrue.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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