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Overshadowed by Pandemic, Israel’s Political Crisis Reaches Crossroads
Israel's President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) attend the opening ceremony of the 23rd Knesset in Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. Lawmakers took oaths in groups of three as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, leaving many seats empty throughout the session. (Mark Neyman/GPO/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Overshadowed by Pandemic, Israel’s Political Crisis Reaches Crossroads

Parliament reconvenes and could vote soon on legislation to bar Binyamin Netanyahu from continuing to serve as prime minister

Although Israel’s fight against coronavirus has largely overshadowed the country’s deep political gridlock, matters were set to come to a head Monday with at least one crucial parliamentary vote that could dramatically alter the balance of power and possibly lead to the ousting of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Last Wednesday, Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset, or parliament, closed down the legislature. He attributed his decision to coronavirus as well as the ongoing failure of the centrist Blue and White list to agree on the formation of a so-called unity government under his and Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.

The move, however, was widely slammed as a blow to democracy.

Critics cited efforts by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz not only to establish – and lead – either that unity coalition or a narrow government entirely devoid of Likud, but also to replace Edelstein as speaker. In addition, rights groups were decrying a unilateral government decision to identify potential coronavirus patients by tracking their cellphones, something the groups insisted required oversight by a key parliamentary committee.

Just as important, the shutdown was also construed by many as an attempt to delay the advance of four bills specifically aimed at preventing an indicted prime minister from either continuing to serve in an existing government or forming a new government. Should the bills pass, they could disqualify Netanyahu, whose trial in three cases of alleged corruption was due to open last week in Jerusalem but was postponed until May, apparently at the order of Justice Minister and Netanyahu associate Amir Ohana – who cited coronavirus (another move slammed as a blow to proper democratic practices).

Both the country’s attorney general and the Knesset’s legal adviser denounced Edelstein’s shutdown of parliament, with the former calling for the immediate creation of the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with staffing vital committees and formulating procedural guidelines, all of which are necessary if the four bills are to proceed. A vote on that is due on Monday. Netanyahu’s Likud party plans to arrive at the Knesset plenum after boycotting votes on forming the Arrangements Committee and filibuster political rivals’ plans to form other, permanent committees.

(In another blow to Edelstein, Israel’s High Court of Justice on Monday gave him until the end of the day to provide a proper explanation for the shutdown or otherwise allow the vote to replace him to go ahead by Wednesday. The day before, the court nixed the government’s coronavirus-related cellphone-tracking program after being petitioned by the rights groups.)

Netanyahu thus appears to be facing an uphill battle and has turned his attention to courting Gantz to serve under him in a unity government, citing the urgency posed by coronavirus. Over the weekend, he went so far as to announce that coalition talks between the Likud and Blue and White had already been completed, a claim Gantz and his associates denied.

Under Netanyahu’s proposal, he reportedly would serve as prime minister for the first half of a three-year term before stepping aside for Gantz, and high-profile positions would be divided evenly. Initially, the Likud would retain control over the post of Knesset speaker as well as the finance portfolio, with Blue and White taking foreign affairs and defense, with responsibilities flipping at mid-point.

Moreover, any deal between the sides would reportedly contain built-in legal safety nets for Gantz to ensure that Netanyahu steps down at the designated time. These purportedly include a commitment by all lawmakers in the prime minister’s camp to resign if he attempts in any way to remain in power. Both Netanyahu and Gantz would also be sworn in concurrently and, if the former at any juncture moved to disperse parliament, effectively initiating a national election, the latter automatically would assume leadership over a transitional government.

Nevertheless, Gantz seems intent on exploring all options, especially given his hold on the official mandate to form the next ruling coalition. With the backing of a majority of 61 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset, the former military chief should, theoretically, be able to push through legislation and determine the composition of key parliamentary bodies.

In somewhat surreal fashion, Monday’s voting in the plenum will take place in groups of six, in accordance with coronavirus-related Health Ministry regulations preventing large gatherings and requiring social distancing. Screens will be set up outside the legislature to enable lawmakers to listen to speeches without being inside the plenum. As for the seven parliamentarians currently in quarantine, the head of the Knesset Guard has reportedly updated them that he will try to clear a “sterile” path for them, enabling them to come and vote during today’s plenum discussions. The quarantined MKs will reportedly vote behind a glass window.

While Gantz seems to be in the driver’s seat, he, too, has limited options.

For weeks, speculation was rampant that he would form a minority government with the outside support of the primarily Arab Joint List. However, momentum toward this end seems to have grounded to a halt after two Blue and White lawmakers publicly expressed opposition to any political union whose survival is dependent on Arab factions that reject, on principle, the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

Accordingly, the conversation has progressively shifted to the possibility of Gantz fracturing Blue and White – which won 33 seats in the March 2 election – and bringing the 15 parliamentarians from his Israel Resilience party into a national unity government.

On Monday, Gantz will not only reveal some of the cards up his sleeve but also how he is most likely to play them.

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