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Even by Israeli standards, where rough and tumble politics are the norm, the political happenings of the past two weeks have been extraordinary.
Following a series of unprecedented events—seen as an almost-coup by some or a violation by the Supreme Court of the basic tenets of democracy by others—it seems that Israel is now about to have a government for the first time in almost a year and a half. As of this writing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud party) and his arch-rival, Benny Gantz (Blue and White party) will be forming a “unity government.” The two faced off against each other in three divisive and nasty campaigns, with Gantz running an “anybody but Netanyahu” campaign and Netanyahu running on an “I am the only one” platform. Now, the two men have apparently come to an agreement by which Netanyahu will serve as Prime Minister for 18 months and then Gantz will take his place.
President Reuven Rivlin suggested this option back in April 2019, after the first election round. Gantz and Netanyahu didn’t agree to it then, but even with an agreement, the situation remains procedurally and substantively complicated.
In other words, as we say in Hebrew, it’s a big balagan.
In retrospect, looking back at the elections that took place only a month ago) it’s possible to sum up how we got into this mess. But as to why we got here and where we go from here—the answers depend on whom you ask.
How did we get here?
The results of the March 2 elections were inconclusive: the right-wing bloc, led by Netanyahu, garnered 58 seats in the 120-seat Knesset; the center-left bloc, headed by Gantz, received 62, then lost one, who defected to the “other side.”
Ostensibly, that meant that Gantz had a majority–61 seats–of the 120-seat chamber. But 15 of those seats belong to the Joint (Arab) List, and at least two members of the Blue and White were refusing to join in a coalition because the List is composed of parties that are either non- or anti-Zionist.
So Gantz won, but his win wasn’t big enough to form a government. And Netanyahu lost, but his loss wasn’t bad enough to take him out of the picture. Following three elections, the country was still at a stalemate, and neither side seemed to have any way to form a coalition.
Both Gantz and Netanyahu had publicly declared themselves in favor of a national emergency unity government to deal with the coronavirus crisis. This was necessary, they both emphasized, because, among other reasons, the battle against COVID-19 requires extreme measures, including some limitations on civil liberties such as freedom of movement, and because the current government has been a caretaker government for more thana year and a half and its budget is restricted by law.
But most of the members of the center-left refused to join a government headed by Netanyahu, whose trial on multiple counts of corruption and bribery was scheduled to begin in mid-March. And so the parties played a game of who-blinks-first, while the threat posed by the coronavirus increased, and the measures taken by the interim government became stricter and more far-reaching.
Netanyahu refused to back down. Blue and White, which had yet to form a government, demanded the chairmanship of the Knesset’s most prominent committees. The government shut down most public spaces and sent the majority of the public into self-quarantine. Ostensibly in compliance, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a strong Netanyahu supporter, shut down the courts—two days before Netanyahu’s trial was supposed to begin. It seemed that each day brought another “unprecedented” political event.
Ultimately, matters came to a head over the selection of a new speaker of the Knesset. The current speaker, Yuli Edelstein, is a member of the Likud, and the center-left bloc wanted him replaced. Edelstein invoked various procedures to prevent this from happening. Blue and White and others petitioned the Supreme Court, which issued an injunction to Edelstein to enable the Knesset to vote. Edelstein refused and locked down the Knesset. The Supreme Court insisted; Edelstein resigned rather than comply.
The right accused the Court of overstepping its bounds and upsetting the balance of powers. The center-left accused Edelstein of attempting a form of coup.
By this point, the courts were shut down, the public was shut in and the Knesset was cut off. Between 150,000 and 300,000 individuals (that number depends on whom you ask) participated in a virtual demonstration on Facebook and other social media platforms in favor of Gantz. Not allowed to congregate, but allowed to be in their cars, thousands of Israelis drove to the Knesset to demonstrate against the “destruction of Israeli democracy.”
At best, Israel seemed headed for a fourth round of elections.
And then, the next thing we knew, Gantz and Netanyahu had agreed on a unity government. Gantz’s voters, who are, after all, the majority, are screaming that they have been betrayed, and the right is gloating.
Why are we here?
Gantz is widely regarded as an honest, if somewhat naive schlemiel. Few believe that he has taken this step for his own personal gain.
He declares that he has fallen on his sword, contradicting the basic principles of his platform and joining Netanyahu in order to curtail the democratic crisis and put an end to the political stalemate. In his own words, addressing the Knesset, Gantz said that he is working to advance a “national emergency government” to grapple with three crises. “While we’re fighting the coronavirus, we’ll advance unity,” he promised, “and build up democracy.”
Maybe, some have suggested, Gantz realized that this is the best he could get. After all, as Otto van Bismark, Germany’s renowned first chancellor, taught us, politics is the art of the possible.
Or maybe, as his critics and disappointed voters claim, Gantz is a political novice unsuited for leadership who gave in to the pressures applied by master-politician Netanyahu, who has been in office now for 11 consecutive years.
Where are we going?
Although there are still unresolved issues–especially who is going to get which ministry–it does look as though a government may be formed this week. However, according to press reports, in order to accommodate all of the demands of all of the members of all of the parties, it will include as many as (or more than) 30 ministers–making it the largest government in the democratic world. With nearly one million people currently out of work because of the coronavirus, this is not sitting well with the public.
And will the two leaders, who vowed to hate the other and what he stands for, be able to work together for very long? How will the pieces of this puzzle fall into place–or will they? Will the protests continue, even under lockdown? Can this unwieldy group actually manage the coronavirus crisis?
Those are the questions. Who knows the answers. As said, this is a big balagan.