Alongside the struggle against COVID-19, Israel is coping with its worst political crisis in its almost 72-year history. After a strenuous year-and-a-half and three elections, Israel still finds itself neck-deep in a political stalemate without a clear possibility of forming a new government in the near future.
Following the most recent elections that were held on March 2nd, 2020, it appeared that the opportunity had arisen to remove Benjamin Netanyahu from power. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc received just 58 seats while the opposing center-left bloc, which collectively announced that they will recommend Benny Gantz to form a coalition, received 62. Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, subsequently awarded Gantz with the mandate to form a government within 28 days.
Forming a minority government
Theoretically, one option available to the former IDF Chief of General Staff was to build a minority government dependent on the outside support of the Joint Arab List. This mostly Arab party, headed by Ayman Odeh, received an unprecedented result of 15 seats, becoming the third largest party in the Knesset.
However, because of Gantz’s numerous promises throughout the campaign not to form a government based on the support of the Joint List from outside, fierce opposition within the party developed. Two MKs from the Blue and White party, Yoaz Hendel and Zvika Hauser, announced that they would not support this kind of government and would vote against it. This only complicated Gantz’s position and limited his ability to maneuver, thereby leaving him with no choice but to enter into negotiations with Netanyahu to form a unity coalition.
At the same time, Blue and White announced that they would appoint MK Meir Cohen to the position of Speaker of the Knesset. This was to be a strategic move that would allow them to pursue “anti-Bibi” legislation that would prevent any MK facing criminal indictment from heading a government. Israel’s Prime Minister has wisely utilized the Corona crisis in order to increase pressure on Gantz to enter into a unity coalition. Netanyahu, seeing the existential threat to his political career in the appointment of Meir Cohen, threatened Gantz with halting negotiations if Blue and White followed through with this move.
Netanyahu’s gain, Gantz’s loss
Benny Gantz proved himself once again to be a political amateur after he abruptly declared that he would appoint himself rather than Meir Cohen to be the Knesset Speaker in order to ensure the continuation of the unity coalition negotiations. Gantz’s self-appointment consequently birthed the disintegration of the Blue and White party. Two of its leaders—Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, and Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, chairman of Telem—abandoned the party with feelings of betrayal, seeing Benny Gantz as surrendering to Netanyahu’s terms and desperately crawling on his knees into a trap.
Benjamin Netanyahu again showed his political genius and expertise by eliminating the only party that constituted an alternative to his Likud-led government. It currently appears that Netanyahu could finish a fourth round of elections soaring to victory. The Blue and White party received more than a million votes in each of the last three elections. But though they had survived a very stormy political year united, the so-called “cockpit” (the media nickname for the party’s four leaders–Gantz, Ashkenazi, Ya’alon and Lapid) are now bitter political rivals.
As a result, the 58-seat right-wing bloc is engaged in negotiations to form a unity coalition with Benny Gantz, who still commands 17 of Blue and White’s original 33 seats. Despite that fact that Blue and White is now only half the size of the Likud (36 MKs), Netanyahu agreed to a government with an equal number of ministers from each party for a period of three years. The three years will be divided into a rotation in which Netanyahu will serve as Prime Minister for the first year-and-a-half, and Benny Gantz will replace him for the remainder.
Netanyahu’s unreliable promises
Many are having trouble believing that Netanyahu will keep his word and step down in another year-and-a-half. Instead, politicians and pundits are convinced that Bibi will out-maneuver Gantz, dissolve the Knesset and go to elections before giving him a chance to govern. As noted, recent polls send a clear message that as a result of the dismantling of Blue and White, the Likud has increased the number of seats it is expected to receive from 36 to 40. Additionally, it anticipated that the right-wing bloc is to receive 64 seats altogether, thereby enabling the formation of a government led by Netanyahu.
It is becoming ever clearer that the lengthy negotiation process for a unity government may merely be a façade for Netanyahu’s real desire—elections. More and more reports from senior Likud members indicate that Netanyahu is pushing to drag on the negotiations as much as possible in order to arrive at an opportune time to call for elections.
His contacts with Blue and White have earned him significant criticism from the right as well. Much of the criticism focuses on concessions Netanyahu made in the area of foreign policy (they agreed that Netanyahu will have to consult with Gantz prior to annexing parts of the West Bank), regarding the Ministry of Justice (MK Avi Nissenkorn from Blue and White is expected to become its minister), and the willingness to form a government with an equal number of ministers that would ultimately leave many Likud MKs without a ministerial position.
This past week, Netanyahu and Gantz were able to come to an agreement. Everything was ready—the agreement was signed and preparation began for a joint statement and ceremonial swearing in of the new government. But before the ink on the agreement had dried, the deal collapsed. As a result of hefty pressure from the right, Netanyahu demanded reopening talks surrounding the Judicial Selection Committee so that the Likud would ensure influence on its decisions.
Bibi is here to stay
What is certain is that Netanyahu has come out on top and now faces a win-win situation. He will either be Prime Minister for the next year-and-a-half during his court hearing (he thinks that going to court as Prime Minister significantly improves his legal standing), or Israel will go to a fourth round of elections in the summer, in which his chances of winning have dramatically increased thanks to the center-left being in shambles.
Benjamin Netanyahu has proved time and again that he is the most savvy and experienced politician in Israel. Despite the tireless efforts to remove him from power, he is here to stay. If anyone is looking for additional proof, look no further than at the small print of the join coalition agreement which states that if for any legal reason Netanyahu is unable to form a government, then the Knesset must be dissolved. In essence, this means that both parties have placed the responsibility of going to elections on the Supreme Court instead of themselves, should the judges determine that he is legally disqualified from serving as Prime Minister.