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Promised Land: Netanyahu, Gantz Ink Shaky Coalition Deal
A man holds aloft a black flag in Tel Aviv as others demonstrate against coalition talks between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and centrist leader Benny Gantz on Sunday. The two inked a deal the next evening. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Promised Land: Netanyahu, Gantz Ink Shaky Coalition Deal

Though Israel will get its first permanent government since December 2018, many are questioning its staying power

After 18 months without a permanent government, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister on Monday night inked a coalition deal with his rival to end the country’s longest political stalemate.

Barring judicial intervention, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose trial on corruption charges is slated to begin in May, will continue serving in his post for the next 18 months before stepping aside for Benny Gantz. Netanyahu leads the right-wing Likud, and Gantz is head of the centrist Blue and White party.

The government will also reportedly include the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, as well as Labor. It is unclear whether current Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, whose members have stood by Netanyahu despite his legal troubles, will join the coalition.

Notably, the agreement calls for the Likud to maintain control over the Finance, Health and Education ministries, among others. The party will also install one of its lawmakers as parliament speaker in lieu of Gantz, who currently occupies the role but is slated to take over the defense portfolio while simultaneously acting as deputy prime minister. Blue and White legislators will also take over the key Foreign and Justice ministries.

The long-awaited development comes after three consecutive snap elections held in April and September of last year, and again on March 2. The process exposed deep political divisions among the country’s leadership and, perhaps more profoundly, wide chasms between segments of the Israeli population.

In fact, given the prolonged and often ugly lead-up to Monday’s deal, including vicious partisan mudslinging, perceived backstabbing and, ultimately, a series of about-faces, the emergence of a so-called unity government – which both Netanyahu and Gantz are calling an “emergency government” in light of the coronavirus pandemic – could, paradoxically, mark the beginning of greater political instability and the expansion of societal fractures.

“This agreement disappointingly misses an opportunity and seems oblivious of the reality facing the Israeli public,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said in a statement shared with The Media Line.

“It details only the ‘allocation of power positions’ and provides each side with mutual veto power over all issues of consequence,” Plesner said. “While this will, in effect, paralyze the future government’s ability to formulate policy, it is also likely to prevent the possibility of anti-democratic legislation.”

The agreement, he continued, “does not initiate any policies, introduce proposals for reform, or present new plans for extracting Israel from the current crisis.”

Indeed, on Sunday evening, less than 24 hours before the coalition deal was signed, thousands of Israelis converged on Tel Aviv’s iconic Rabin Square to vent anger over Netanyahu’s perceived erosion of the democratic system. Several prominent lawmakers addressed the crowd, including Gantz’s former allies, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, who withdrew their Yesh Atid and Telem parties, respectively, from the centrist Blue and White alliance after Gantz began negotiating with Netanyahu.

Protest organizers claimed that even amid the coronavirus pandemic, some 5,000 people attended what was just the latest in a series of “black flag” demonstrations, which culminated with watchdog groups again petitioning the Supreme Court to prevent Netanyahu from heading a government due to the criminal indictment against him.

Twice previously, the court punted on the issue, arguing that the scenario was hypothetical, with Netanyahu still a caretaker prime minister unable to form a ruling coalition after previous elections.

“The law is actually pretty clear: that a prime minister only has to resign if convicted of a crime. This has already been challenged by elements of civil society, but because of the way the coalition deal is structured, it will likely deter the court from intervening,” Dr. Emmanuel Navon, a lecturer in international relations at Tel Aviv University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Media Line.

“However, there will have to be an amendment to the law in order to allow Netanyahu to serve as deputy prime minister during the second half of the [three-year term]. But again, because of the nature of the deal, if the court were to decide to bar him, it would effectively initiate a fourth election, and the judges are unlikely to want this,” Navon said.

“When you look at the agreement, it is really built around Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s aspirations to remain in and assume power,” he elaborated. “There are many provisions that make it almost impossible to bring down the government. I believe it will survive its full term, even though governing will be difficult, as most actions require a consensus and each side essentially has veto power over important issues.”

Nevertheless, there remains deep distrust between Netanyahu and Gantz, and, more broadly, between the Likud and Blue and White, which were forced to make ostensible ideological concessions in order to clinch the agreement.

“For Blue and White, the number one compromise was accepting that Netanyahu serve as prime minister even though he is under indictment and about to go on trial,” Dov Lipman, a former parliamentarian for the Yesh Atid party and an expert on the Israeli political arena, told The Media Line. “During the campaign, [Gantz] spoke out very strongly against this.”

Lipman also emphasized the issue of Israel’s prospective annexation of parts of the West Bank in accordance with US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan. Gantz initially opposed the move, which, if actualized, would undoubtedly create a showdown between Jerusalem and Washington, on the one hand, and Ramallah and its international backers, on the other.

Irrespective, Blue and White consented to Netanyahu resuming, as of July 1, a process being undertaken in conjunction with members of the Trump Administration that will map out areas of Palestinian-claimed territory over which Israel would then apply its sovereignty with Washington’s blessing.

With respect to the Likud, Lipman noted that the party’s acquiescence to the notion of a rotating premiership was in and of itself of a concession given that the incumbent’s right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc is comprised of 59 lawmakers, whereas Gantz’s Blue and White brought only 19 legislators from the Center-Left.

“Also, giving up the Justice Ministry, which for many years has been in the hands of the Right, was a big decision by the Likud,” he added. “Now the ministry is being given to Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, who used to be the head of the left-wing [Histadrut] labor union in Israel. Although various checks and balances have been put in place in this regard.”

Despite foreseeable obstacles, Lipman agrees that it will be difficult for Netanyahu to disband parliament before passing on the mantle of power.

“In order to prevent this, Gantz is [also] being sworn in as a prime minister [albeit one who is slated to take over only in October 2021]. Even more significantly, there will be a new law that if one side moves to bring down the government, the other side’s leader automatically becomes prime minister,” he said.

“If this happens,” Lipman concluded, “the election [that is] triggered will not be permitted to be held for at least six months, which guarantees Gantz at least some time in the top post.”

But what he does with that time, like what Netanyahu did before him, will be severely restricted and, in the minds of many, unlikely to be defined by unity.

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