Israel Middle East Politics & Diplomacy


March 27, 2020

Israel is now within striking distance of having a new government

By Shalom Lipner

Political drama in Israel reached a new peak on March 26 when Benny Gantz, chairman of the now ruptured Blue and White alliance, was installed as speaker of the Knesset in Jerusalem. His somber initiation before an almost deserted plenum—thanks to coronavirus proximity restrictions—offered a fitting complement to the frustration and disenchantment felt by many Israelis for their elected leaders.

This latest plot twist comes to facilitate the establishment of a so-called unity government between Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the aftermath of the country’s March 2 ballot, which failed to produce an uncontested winner. It has left many Israelis wondering incredulously why the protagonists are angling only now toward a resolution that they could have achieved already three consecutive elections—and billions of spent shekels—ago.

Gantz’s ascendance to the speaker’s post follows on the heels of a narrowly-averted constitutional crisis sparked once his predecessor, Yuli Edelstein, threatened to defy a High Court of Justice ruling that the Knesset be convened by March 26 for a vote on the speakership. That showdown was contained when Edelstein resigned abruptly on March 25. Gantz maneuvered successfully to swap out Edelstein’s ostensible heir, Blue and White’s own Meir Cohen, in the hope of shepherding an arrangement with Netanyahu which Cohen would have been predisposed certainly to sabotage.

Under these changing circumstances, Gantz’s candidacy for Knesset speaker garnered the ironic support of Netanyahu—whom he had pledged to unseat as premier—and his Likud party, but was opposed by a host of Gantz’s erstwhile Blue and White allies. Expectations are that Gantz will deign to relinquish the gavel—and restore it potentially to Edelstein’s hand—providing that his negotiations with Netanyahu conclude fruitfully.

The episode has brought the curtain down on the Blue and White juggernaut, regarded conventionally as Israel’s most successful political start-up. Its heterogeneous makeup—the venture was headed famously by a four-man “cockpit” united almost exclusively by their shared disdain for Netanyahu—had always made for tenuous synergy. Gantz’s consent to now serve under Netanyahu has dissolved the delicate glue which was holding the partnership together: Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi have set their sights on Netanyahu’s cabinet, while Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, who head up two other caucuses within Blue and White, are destined for the opposition bleachers.

Notwithstanding the fact that Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, had tapped Gantz on March 16 to form a coalition, his path to power was overtly dubious. There was no obvious way for him to align the stars.

During the campaign, Blue and White had promised not to join a Netanyahu-led government, but internal divisions both within and between those parties amenable to Gantz’s leadership prevented him from tabling any viable alternative. Blowback against his possible violation of a parallel commitment not to coopt the Joint Arab List meant that Gantz was unable to craft even a minority government—which, at any rate, would have been decidedly unruly and poised perennially to collapse. One can easily imagine how a military conflict in Gaza or implementation of US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” could have provoked dissenting parliamentarians to withdraw any tentative backing for Gantz and force another stalemate.

Left to the unpalatable prospect of a fourth ballot for which an irate and nominally right-wing Israeli electorate could blame—and exact its wrath on—a blundering Blue and White, Gantz retreated to his favored unity option, just minus the insistence that he be first to hold the top spot. His defense was ready on the shelf: this is no time to fight over politics when a pandemic is ravaging the planet and demanding a collective response. Aside from having to bear the vocal disappointment of those charging him with betrayal, Gantz will not anticipate any immediate consequences of his capitulation.

The gains which will accrue to Netanyahu from this outcome are clear. Not only does it provide him with a degree of reputational rehabilitation—from one of the men who had spearheaded the resistance to serving under an indicted principal such as Netanyahu—but it allows him to continue waging his legal battles from the lofty perch of a sitting prime minister. It also dismantles Blue and White as the most credible hazard to his political dominance. And it positions Gantz as a target for shared responsibility if and when the coronavirus might overrun Israel’s capacity to address the myriad elements of its fallout.

Israel is now within striking distance of having a new government, but hurdles remain. The urgency of the current hour may prove incapable of closing any remaining gaps between Gantz and Netanyahu, whose relations are plagued by a mutual lack of trust. For the time being, Speaker Gantz maintains a measure of leverage over Netanyahu: if their efforts to reach an agreement stall, Gantz possesses the authority as speaker to advance legislation—still supported by a Knesset majority—that would withdraw Netanyahu’s eligibility for the premiership.

Doubts linger about Gantz’s ability to capitalize on any Netanyahu assurance of a rotation that will put Gantz in the driver’s seat in another 18 months. The instability of Israel’s electoral predicament suggests that 2021 may be a bridge too far for any incoming government. Given Netanyahu’s political experience and acumen—which evidently outclass Gantz’s talents—it is not difficult to envisage some scenario that precipitates the coalition’s demise before the handoff takes place. Precedents of Netanyahu-engineered snafus abound.

Moving forward, Blue and White’s component parts—Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Ya’alon’s Telem—will have forfeited the larger cachet of the sum of their parts. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, a linchpin of the guild to send Netanyahu home, will be forced once again to refashion an agenda for itself or risk obliteration at the polls. Uncertain is whether Israel’s Arab population stays engaged in the country’s political system or succumbs to a wave of disillusionment after its aborted dalliance with Blue and White. What seems beyond question, however, is that the Likud will remain for the foreseeable future as the biggest fish in the Knesset pond.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @ShalomLipner.

Image: Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and party co-leaders Yair Lapid, Moshe Yaalon and Gaby Ashkenazi react at the party's headquarters following the announcement of exit polls during Israel's parliamentary election in Tel Aviv, Israel September 18, 2019 (Reuters)