News from March 23 to March 29

Israeli Election Update (!)

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Israeli election update:

Does Israel have a government yet? YES (probably)

Wait, what? Finally, it looks as though Israel will form a government. Last week, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz decided that he would join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and form a unity government. The deal isn’t official yet, but the agreement will reportedly include a rotation deal for Prime Minister, in which Gantz will become the Prime Minister in October 2021. Before I dive into the details of the deal, I figured the best way to help you make sense of all of this would be to start a couple of weeks ago and tell the whole story. 

Give me some context. I thought Gantz was completely against joining Netanyahu? He certainly was. In fact, his central campaign promise to voters was that he would not sit in a government with Netanyahu as long as he was indicted. It was such a fundamental part of the campaign that it was really the only “ideology” holding Blue and White together. Remember, Blue and White is a combined list of several constituent parties, some of which are right-leaning and some of which are more center or center-left. What united the parties was that they all thought it was time for Netanyahu to go. Since none of the parties had enough support to beat Netanyahu’s Likud party outright, they had to join up and form one combined list (led by Gantz). Many predicted that the party would be unstable because it was too politically diverse to have a cohesive platform outside of replacing Netanyahu. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this.

Gantz and Netanyahu. Times of Israel via Elad Malka.

So what happened? As you may recall, the most recent election produced similar results to the previous elections. Though Likud won a plurality of the seats in the Knesset, the majority of the Knesset did not support Netanyahu. Even so, Gantz could not form a government with that majority because doing so required the support of the Israeli-Arab parties, and three members of his bloc refused to join a Joint List-supported government. Thus, neither Gantz nor Netanyahu had a clear path to form a coalition. That said, Gantz did have a way to ensure the end of Netanyahu’s political career. The anti-Netanyahu bloc intended to pass legislation (term limits, rules about an indicted MK forming a government) that would have prevented Netanyahu from forming a government following another election. That way, he would have only had to force another election, and Netanyahu would be finished.

To vote on such legislation, the Knesset had to first establish the relevant committees, a process that is carried out by the Speaker of the Knesset. At the time, the Speaker was Yuli Edelstein, a Likud MK who is a close ally of Netanyahu. As 62 members of Knesset wanted to vote on the legislation, Blue and White called on Edelstein to form the proper committees and convene a vote. When he refused to do so, Blue and White called for a vote to pick a new Speaker that reflected the will of the Knesset. Remember, at this point, the majority of the Knesset opposed Edelstein. He again refused to convene a vote. Blue and White then petitioned the Supreme Court, who said that Edelstein had to hold a vote. Rather than calling for a vote on his replacement, Edelstein resigned, leaving nobody to initiate the voting process. The Supreme Court then ordered Edelstein to hold a vote and designated the longest-serving MK, Amir Peretz (Labor), as a co-Speaker so he could convene a vote.

Two hours before the vote was supposed to happen, Gantz replaced Blue and White’s candidate Meir Cohen (a member of the Yesh Atid party) with himself. The move ensured that unity talks with Netanyahu could continue because Netanyahu had said that if Blue and White replaces Edelstein (ostensibly with Cohen, who is more liberal than Gantz), he would end unity negotiations. To ensure that Gantz would become the Speaker and leave the door open for talks, the entire right-wing bloc voted for Gantz while the Yesh Atid faction of Blue and White boycotted the vote. 

Gantz’s move marked the end of Blue and White as a party because the #2 MK on the Blue and White list, Yair Lapid, pulled his Yesh Atid party out of the electoral alliance. As stated earlier, the one thing that united the parties within Blue and White was their desire to replace Netanyahu. Once Gantz decided to work with Netanyahu, there was no reason for Blue and White to exist. As it stands, Blue and White has split into Yesh Atid-Telem (led by Lapid) and Blue and White (led by Gantz). The new Blue and White party will have 17 MKs while Yesh Atid-Telem will have 16 MKs. Yesh Atid-Telem’s Yair Lapid will likely serve as the leader of the opposition. 

What made Gantz change his mind (personal opinion/analysis)? It’s hard to say, but I would chalk a lot of it up to the Coronavirus situation. If Gantz were to have allowed the anti-Netanyahu legislation to pass, he would necessarily subject Israel to another election in the fall. Nobody knows when the Coronarivus pandemic will quiet down, but it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that the crisis would be ongoing during the election. At the very least, the campaign would be affected by the situation. I imagine that Gantz saw the Coronavirus and feared two things. For one, he would have been almost certain to lose support for forcing the public to go to another election during a pandemic instead of forming a unity government and taking steps to combat the crisis. I believe Gantz also probably feared that Netanyahu could exploit the Coronavirus pandemic to acquire emergency powers or further erode democracy in Israel.

Gantz saw an opportunity to affect change from the inside. By joining the government, Gantz could bolster democratic institutions, ensure that Netanyahu goes on trial, and secure many important ministerial positions for his secular, center-right party (as opposed to the right-religious parties). The critical question is, “what was the alternative?” In reality, the alternative would probably run contrary to Gantz’s other main message of “[placing] Israel before all else.”

What are the details of the deal? Since nothing is official yet, nobody knows for sure, but here are the current details:

  • Netanyahu serves as Prime Minister until October 2021, when Gantz takes over

  • Gantz serves as Defense Minister until October 2021, when he becomes the Prime Minister

  • Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi serves as Foreign Minister until October 2021, when he becomes the Defense Minister

  • When Gantz becomes Prime Minister, Netanyahu will serve as Vice Prime Minister and he will be in charge of relations with the United States and Russia

  • Blue and White will hold the Justice, Economy, Culture, Welfare, Communications, Agriculture, Tourism, Absorption, Minorities, and Science and Technology portfolios

  • Likud will hold the Finance, Internal Security, Energy, Construction, Environment, and Transportation portfolios

  • Blue and White will also hold the Defense portfolio for the whole term while Likud will hold the Knesset Speaker post for the whole term

Two MKs from Labor will also join the government. Also, critically, three right-wing MKs from Telem and Gesher (smaller parties in the previous center-left bloc) will join the government, meaning Netanyahu will have 61 right-wing MKs. That could prevent Gantz from collapsing a Netanyahu government if he decides its necessary in the future.

Further reading:

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