Israel’s farcical political drama continues to drag on
Talmiz Ahmad
On Wednesday night, Israel’s two principal political leaders made one more effort to agree on the terms of a unity government, but once again they failed to bridge their differences.
Over the last three weeks, the political drama in Israel has become increasingly farcical. Center stage are two very different personalities: Benny Gantz, a former army chief who entered politics a year ago and shaped a center-right coalition, the Blue and White; and incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led his Likud party through three inconclusive elections in the last year. Prime Minister for the last 10 years, Netanyahu has been described by one observer as the “most devious magician in Israeli political history.”
On March 26, Gantz, after being elected speaker of the Knesset, began discussions with Netanyahu over the formation of a “national emergency government” based on a power-sharing agreement between the two sides. With this initiative, Gantz violated his campaign pledge to never work with Netanyahu and also split his coalition, thus reducing his strength in the Knesset.
Gantz seems to have been persuaded to drop “petty politics” in favor of the larger cause of Israel, which is reeling under the double blow of a struggling economy and the coronavirus assault. Netanyahu desperately needs a deal that would keep him as prime minister, as he responds in May to court cases against him on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.
The power-sharing discussions between the two sides first addressed Gantz’s immediate concern that his wily interlocutor would renege on any agreement he enters into. It was decided that two prime ministers would be sworn in at the same time. Under a “rotational law,” Netanyahu would be prime minister for the first 18 months, followed by Gantz taking over in September or October 2021 for the balance period.
An important part of the deal was Gantz agreeing to the partial annexation of the West Bank and Jordan Valley, subject to consultations with the US. Israel would also have a Cabinet of 30 ministers, divided equally between the two sides. Gantz’s side would have a number of important portfolios, including the justice ministry.
However, this “grand bargain” fell through on April 6 as Netanyahu abruptly demanded that his side have the right to veto senior appointments made by the Judicial Selection Committee. Gantz, committed to ensuring the independence of the judicial system, rejected this demand and the deal floundered.
The story behind this demand is that, though Israel is a parliamentary democracy and espouses the separation of powers, there has been a longstanding feud between right-wing political groups and the Supreme Court. The former view the judges as “leftists” who constantly thwart their aspirations and agenda, particularly on matters relating to the ownership and annexation of land in the Occupied Territories. Thus, Netanyahu conceding the judiciary to Gantz was seen as betraying the core belief system of his right-wing supporters, particularly from the settler community.
Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked furiously condemned the deal, describing the judiciary as a “diseased system.” Given the ferocity of the opposition from his support base, Netanyahu felt obliged to withdraw from the power-sharing deal.
Though the deadline for government formation passed on Monday, Netanyahu and Gantz, in a joint petition to the president, sought more time. They were granted a further 48 hours to agree on a unity government, the new deadline being midnight on Wednesday.
Early Israeli reports stated that the two sides had reached agreement on the judiciary issue, but talks broke down on two questions relating to Netanyahu’s personal interests. His first concern was that the High Court could rule that he, having been indicted on criminal charges, should be debarred from forming a government. In this situation, Netanyahu wanted a legislative guarantee that Gantz would not then become prime minister for the full period of the Knesset.
The other concern was that, even if he sailed through his 18-month prime ministerial tenure, he could, under existing Israeli law, be prevented from holding any public office. He would then be denied a Cabinet position when Gantz became prime minister, thus ending his political career. Gantz was not willing to give Netanyahu comfort on either point.
The Knesset now has 21 days to shape a government or clear the way for fresh elections, most probably in August. According to polls released on Monday, Netanyahu is well set to obtain a majority and lead the next government. He is helped by the fact a majority of Israelis have conveyed their satisfaction with the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, Netanyahu knows that elections are a gamble. Over the next three months, the national mood could change if the pandemic spins out of control or the economy takes a big hit. Again, as recent events have shown, results are unpredictable and coalitions difficult to maintain. More immediately, a vengeful Gantz could push through legislation to debar indicted politicians from being prime minister.
The next few days will reveal what fresh gambit Israel’s wily magician comes up with. Or, could Gantz still pull off a trick of his own and form a government without Netanyahu?