After three elections over the course of one year and serial failures of any party to form a governing coalition, it seems that Israel may be on the cusp of something.
Exactly what that “something” is remains unclear, but it may bear some resemblance to a government, however dysfunctional.
In recent weeks, responding to the corona crisis, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz threw in the towel on the year-long war of attrition against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He told the nation, with gravity, that he was putting “Israel first” in a time of unprecedented crisis. And so, he would put his ego aside and negotiate a unity government that would allow Netanyahu to continue to serve first as prime minister, whether he is indicted or not.
Gantz’s overriding mission for the last year has been to unseat what he considered to be a corrupt prime minister. The single issue that united the “anti-Bibi” camp, putatively led by Gantz but which really represented a range of hard-left to right-wing politicos, was that, once indicted, Bibi must step aside until there was a verdict in his trial. It is simply too demanding to lead a complex country like Israel while spending days in a courtroom and nights strategizing with lawyers.
The general parameters of the “deal” between Bibi and Benny, which are still being tweaked, has Netanyahu sitting as prime minister for the first 18 months of a unity government, to be replaced by Gantz in the back half of the term. In the meantime, Gantz would serve as Minister of Defense with Gabi Ashkenazi as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Thereafter, the division of spoils among coalition members has become very, very messy, with the “right-wing bloc” demanding handsome rewards for guarding the ramparts over the last year. The ultra-Orthodox loyalists will almost certainly receive the social portfolios they covet, but it looks like the Yamina party, led by current Minister of Defense, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, may be given a “time out.”
The bad blood between Bibi and the Yamina leaders is deeply entrenched from their days, more than a decade ago, when they served as close advisers in his prime minister’s office. Like so many former staffers, Bennet and Shaked departed on strained terms.
So, too, did Yoaz Hendel and Tzvi Hauser, two new MKs who joined the Blue and White coalition as members of Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party. A lawyer and businessman, Hauser served as Secretary to Cabinet under Netanyahu from 2009-2013. Hendel, a veteran of an elite naval commando unit, is an accomplished writer, academic, and right-wing activist. He served briefly as a close aide to the prime minister, overlapping with Hauser. The two are close friends and a force to be reckoned with. They had caused significant tumult within Blue and White for refusing to compromise on certain positions, most notably, the possibility of leading a government supported by the Arab Joint List.
Given their extreme criticism of Bibi, it was a touch surprising, even in the context of elastic Israeli loyalty standards, that they chose to split off from Telem and form their own two-party squad, “Derech Eretz.” They, too, have agreed to join the unity government, in the name of unity.
The disemboweled opposition to Bibi now consists primarily of Lapid and Ya’alon. They jointly proposed a “six-month freeze” on politicking in order to focus on the coronavirus-related health and economic crisis, and then resume the never-ending election cycle, barring some sort of rapprochement. Even Bibi’s caretaker government, the duo proclaimed, is preferable to having Gantz as prime minister. He is “unfit,” said Ya’alon.
Meanwhile, on Sunday and Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court heard from a slate of petitioners arguing that Bibi cannot sit as PM while indicted and that any coalition agreement between Likud and Blue and White offends the basic constitutional law of Israel.
It is deliciously ironic that, based on comments from the full panel of nine judges during the last two days, it is achingly clear that they believe they are being asked to interfere in political matters, and they will not be so tempted. This, following an unrelenting attack on the judiciary for years–by Bibi and his allies–for being overly-activist to the point of undermining the democratic will of the people as expressed by the Knesset.
But by allying with Netanyahu, Gantz is now reviled by all aside from a close and shrinking coterie of loyalists. He crossed every red line and standard of decency that matters in public life and has made one heck of an enemy in many of his former political pals–chief among them, Lapid.
At the moment, Israel is poised to support the most bloated government in the history of the state: 26 cabinet ministers and 16 deputy ministers at last count. And the prize-granting spree is not finished yet. A master at managing the impossible, Netanyahu seems to be calibrating the competing interests and personal vendettas “just so,” while also freezing out his arch-nemesis, current Minister of Defence, Naftali Bennett.
Pre-Coronavirus, the burning issues in Israel were Haredi participation in the IDF, national service, and economy, as well as the status of key democratic institutions and principles. Currently, it seems that the priorities have shifted to containing the virus and restarting the economy. Other issues are in abeyance.
Bibi’s in. And, at the end of the day, that is really all that mattered to Bibi. Yet again, he seems to be on the verge of cobbling together an improbable yet masterful “coalition,” in which the various constituents will be preoccupied with settling scores and protecting their turf, leaving little time to focus on toppling King Bibi.