In a key political victory, embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured an additional 18 months in office, as challenger Benny Gantz dismantled his Blue and White Party alignment and agreed to bring his smaller Israel Resilience faction into a Netanyahu-led government.
According to the terms of the agreement, which is still in the process of being finalized, Netanyahu will be required to yield the post of prime minister to Gantz as part of a rotation in September 2021.
The agreement follows a bitter cycle of three consecutive elections in less than one year, in which neither Netanyahu nor Gantz was able to form a government. In the third and most recent election, Netanyahu’s Likud received more mandates than at any time in Netanyahu’s prior 14 years in office and took a three-mandate lead over Blue and White (36-33). More importantly, Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious allies soared to a 12-mandate gap over Gantz’s left-leaning supporters (58-46).
Gantz currently held the mandate from Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin to form a government after 61 Knesset members recommended him to be prime minister. But 15 of these Knesset members belonged to a Joint List of anti-Zionist Arab parties and recommended Gantz simply to try and remove the incumbent Netanyahu from office while maintaining that they had no intention of joining a Gantz-led government.
In Israel’s 72-year history, no Arab parties have ever joined an Israeli coalition led by either the right or the left in protest of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
Gantz had repeatedly promised that he would not try to form a government supported by Arab parties. However, immediately after receiving the mandate, he turned to those parties and requested their support. That stunning about-face sent shockwaves through Gantz’s own left-wing camp, with three key Blue and White members refusing to vote in favor of such an arrangement, along with Orly Levy-Abekasis of the Labor-Meretz-Gesher party alignment.
Without the support of every member of his bloc, together with the Arab parties, Gantz had no chance to form a government that did not include Netanyahu’s Likud Party. By contrast, Netanyahu only required three defectors to form a government.
Still refusing to join a unity government, Blue and White attempted, with Arab party support, to wrest control of the Knesset in order to advance personal and retroactive legislation aimed specifically at making it illegal for Netanyahu to form a government. Two of the bills sought to make it illegal for someone to form a government or serve as prime minister while under indictment; one sought to install retroactive term limits that would disqualify Netanyahu; and yet another sought to enable the Knesset to remove an incumbent transitional prime minister (Netanyahu) from office via a secret ballot.
In order to advance the bills for a vote before the plenum, Blue and White first needed to replace incumbent Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Historically, a new speaker has never been installed following an election prior to the formation of a parliamentary coalition. Knesset bylaws explicitly state that a new speaker does not need to be voted on until the very day a coalition is installed. Furthermore, it is the speaker himself who is in charge of implementing the Knesset’s procedures.
When Edelstein refused to allow a premature vote on his own replacement, in accordance with the explicit bylaws that he is empowered to oversee, Blue and White petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court.
In a shocking ruling, the court opted to violate Israel’s Basic Law and interfere in the independent procedures of the state’s legislature; reject the opinion of the Knesset’s legal adviser; ignore the fact that Edelstein had not violated the explicit parliament bylaws; and force the speaker to hold a vote.
Rather than give into a shockingly overreaching judiciary, Edelstein—a former Soviet refusenik who served for years in Siberian prison and labor camps for Zionist activities before being allowed to immigrate to Israel—opted to resign, thrusting the political system into even further chaos.
Then, two members of Blue and White—Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, former members of the Likud Party and advisers to Netanyahu who sought to see him replaced—decided that their new party’s stubborn opposition to Netanyahu’s continued rule without being able to form an alternative coalition was wreaking too much havoc on the political system. The two reportedly were prepared to abandon their current party and align with Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc if Blue and White refused to form a unity alignment.
However, Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid faction within Blue and White, and former Likud member and defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, the leader of the Telem faction (of which Hauser and Hendel were a part) continued to refuse to join any Netanyahu-led government, leading to severe and insurmountable tensions within the party.
Recognizing that Israel desperately needed political stability in the early stages of a coronavirus crisis that has placed the nation on lockdown, shuttered the economy and is threatening to severely test the limits of Israel’s already overburdened healthcare system, Gantz finally decided that he had no other responsible option than to heed Netanyahu’s call for a unity government under his leadership.
Gantz then divided his own party back into its original factions and agreed to enter a large center-right-wing government (of approximately 75 seats) led for the first 18 months by Netanyahu. Gantz and fellow former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi are expected to be named foreign minister and defense minister. Gantz will also be named deputy prime minister.
The government’s primary focus will be to deal with the emerging coronavirus crisis and to implement key economic reforms. In addition, it is expected to implement the initial phase of the U.S.-proposed “Peace to Prosperity” vision, which enables the Jewish state to apply its full sovereignty over contested tracts of land in Judea and Samaria, including all Israeli settlements and outposts, as well as the strategic Jordan Valley.
While Netanyahu has a reputation as a polarizing politician and is set to face trial in three separate yet highly dubious corruption cases in the coming months, he still maintains the overwhelming support of the country’s pro-Israel electorate.
His economic, diplomatic and security accomplishments during the last 11 years in office will stand for decades. Even the opposition openly acknowledges Netanyahu’s strong leadership in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.
And with Israel facing severe economic and health challenges and key diplomatic opportunities in the months ahead, Netanyahu remains the man best suited for the top job. Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff and a first-time Knesset member, will now get to serve as a senior minister under Netanyahu’s tutelage prior to taking the reins of leadership in 18 months.
In the meantime, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who has shown no signs of slowing down during an extended campaign season and has operated brilliantly while under immense political and legal pressure, remains in office over the next year-and-a-half.
And Israel is much better off for it.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.