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Israel Has a Government—Maybe?

Israel Has a Government—Maybe?


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, center, at the beginning of his meeting this week with Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. Haim Zach (GPO)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, center, at the beginning of his meeting this week with Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. Haim Zach (GPO)

After three elections and the threat of a fourth it appears that Israeli leaders may have finally decided it was time to use Covid-19 as an excuse for the two major rivals to bury their political hatchets and form an emergency unity government coalition. Israel had such governing coalitions in the past, but these were during wars. The national health crisis created by the pandemic was the rationale for some politicians and the excuse for others to agree to create a wide-based coalition to govern Israel—at least for the immediate future.

For this unity Government the immediate questions are the ones dealing with the coronavirus, as everyone has agreed that for the next six months all factions will be focused on what Israel must do to contain the spread and to address the medical issues. The problem is how will this totally unwieldy coalition function a few months from now. (The only other issue that they have agreed to consider in the next few months is the Trump Middle East peace proposal.)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Benny Gantz his rival from the Blue and White Party agreed on a shared rotation of the Prime Minister’s position. Netanyahu will serve for the first 18 months, while Gantz will be Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense with roles subsequently reversed. Both Party factions will divide the other government ministries.

This new Government faces serious operational challenges as well as very dramatic political issues which will need to be addressed immediately; some of them even before the pandemic is under control. The most sensitive challenges deal with Netanyahu’s retention of veto power over the appointment of the next attorney general as well as the state prosecutor. These appointments undoubtedly were the critical political conditions which Gantz needed to accept to be part of any governing coalition. The other judicial issue also affecting Netanyahu is that Likud will control the Judiciary Committee which must approve all High Court appointments. These Netanyahu demands are what split Gantz’s party out from under him and which are the newly designed path that Netanyahu created to save himself from incarceration for his corruption charges.

It is the issue of Israel’s pending decision to assert sovereignty over portions of the West Bank, however, which pose two enormous challenges for the new Government beyond the obvious security and regional political considerations. First, the agreement stipulates that Israel will only proceed with this move–before November 3—if it has the support of Washington. There is something blatantly transparent in this maneuver.  Israel is obviously trying to bolster President Trump’s political support among Evangelicals and right-wing American Jews in the weeks before the fall presidential election. Netanyahu knows that a Biden Administration absolutely would oppose this move.

Second and even more troubling about this condition, is the fact that Bibi is placing Israel’s independence as a sovereign state in the hands of another country. By making this pledge as part of the coalition agreement, Gantz as well as Netanyahu implicitly are transferring Israel’s sovereignty to a foreign Government, even if, functionally, this might have been an major part of any operational decision to annex portions of the West Bank. (On these grounds alone, this coalition should have been rejected.)

All of this leaves Netanyahu’s record as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister intact. He now retains his power with a very strong right-wing Government. Whether he will ultimately weather these political and legal storms is unclear, but his political survivor instincts remain intact. Whether Gantz will ever accede to the Prime Minister position before new elections are called also is unclear. What is clear is that Israel will not have to go to the polls again this summer; or so it seems at present.

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