After a year of seemingly unbreakable political deadlock that left the country without a fully functioning government and sent Israelis to the polls three times, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz on Thursday appeared ready to set aside their differences and enter into an emergency unity coalition.
The government could likely constitute some 78-79 MKs — Likud, Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism and possibly Labor. That would leave Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and the mainly Arab Joint List in opposition. However, various other fluctuations are deemed possible, with Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser from Telem, for instance, said to be weighing joining the coalition if this is possible under Knesset laws.Gantz’s decision to join forces with Netanyahu led to the immediate collapse of Blue and White, with the party’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, rejecting the move and apparently heading into the opposition with others from his Yesh Atid component of Blue and White. “Gantz chose Netanyahu over Lapid,” Channel 12 reported succinctly.
The Yesh Atid and Telem factions both filed a formal request to break away from Blue and White late on Thursday afternoon, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience party to join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud. Lapid had reportedly told Gantz he preferred that Israel go to fourth elections than see Blue and White partner with Netanyahu in power.
Gantz, according to Channel 12, is set to hold the position of Knesset speaker only for a brief period while the terms of the unity coalition are finalized. He will then serve as either defense or foreign minister for the first 18 months of the emergency unity government, under the terms of the reported deal, before succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister.
“Every crisis brings opportunities,” the newly elected speaker of the Knesset, Benny Gantz, told his fellow MKs in his maiden speech to the house on Thursday evening, in the midst of a series of political developments extraordinary even for these dizzyingly unpredictable times.
The crisis to which Gantz was referring, he made clear, was threefold: The coronavirus pandemic which, he said, has left “all of humanity” shocked and vulnerable. The paralysis of Israeli governance, which has seen no fully functional coalition emerge from three successive elections in the past year. And the accompanying, escalating threat to Israel’s democracy and internal cohesion, exemplified, Gantz said, by former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein’s “spit in the face” of the country’s highest court, whose ruling on the imperative to elect a new speaker Edelstein simply rejected on Wednesday.
And the opportunities? Gantz was delivering an address as the new Knesset speaker, but, he said, he is simultaneously working to advance a “national emergency government” to grapple with all three crises. “While we’re fighting the coronavirus, we’ll advance unity,” he promised, “and build up democracy.”
Under the terms of the reportedly near-finalized deal, however, that emergency government will see Benjamin Netanyahu — the leader with whom Gantz vowed endlessly never to partner in government — retain the premiership for the next 18 months. Gantz, it is widely reported, will vacate the speaker’s chair as soon as the unity deal is done and become Israel’s foreign or defense minister, and is then supposed to take over from Netanyahu as prime minister in September 2021.
Still unsigned, Gantz’s imminent pact with Netanyahu, the man he entered politics to oust, has already cost the Blue and White leader his alliance with his partner in that mission, Yair Lapid. Now heading into the opposition, Lapid reportedly told colleagues shortly before Gantz made his speech that his former friend and ally was “crawling” into government with Netanyahu, in an act Lapid described as “unfathomable.” By evening, other Blue and White sources opposed to Gantz’s move were sniping that he had “signed his political death warrant.”
And therein lies the colossal political gamble Gantz appears to be taking — the leap of faith that will determine whether this relative political neophyte has in fact utilized an opportunity or been subverted, if not devoured, by the immensely more experienced Netanyahu.
Lapid, who previously served as Netanyahu’s finance minister, and Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s long-time defense minister, do not believe Netanyahu for a moment, and thus they have already removed their respective Yesh Atid and Telem factions from the Blue and White alliance. Gantz, and his fellow former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, slated to become either defense or foreign minister in the imminent alliance, are evidently more trusting.
In the meantime, the most challenging opposition Netanyahu has faced in a decade has collapsed. It was the members of Netanyahu’s 58-strong right-wing / ultra-Orthodox bloc who gave Gantz the votes to become speaker, and keep the unity talks on track, and who walked over to Gantz — as they trooped through the Knesset hall one at a time because of the virus restrictions — to congratulate him. The likes of Lapid, and of that other Netanyahu nemesis, Avigdor Liberman, didn’t even bother to show up to cast losing votes against the maneuver. Netanyahu has held his bloc together through three elections, in stark contrast to Gantz, who reportedly kept hitherto allied party leaders including Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) in the dark about his plans.
Ultimately, then, as a Channel 12 reporter summarized Thursday’s bombshell developments, “Gantz chose Netanyahu over Lapid,” and the chance of becoming prime minister 18 months from now in a potentially stable, widely supported government over ongoing deadlock. Though 61 MKs recommended him as prime minister, and he was given 28 days by President Reuven Rivlin on March 16 to form a coalition, Gantz had no realistic path to a Blue and White-led government after the idea of an alliance with the mainly Arab Joint List proved unfeasible. And he chose to avoid options such as supporting Netanyahu’s current coalition from the outside during the pandemic, or placing Israel on the path to yet fourth elections.
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