After over a year in which Israelis went to the voting booth three times, a coalition agreement was finally reached Monday as people gathered in their living rooms to watch the annual Holocaust Memorial ceremony.
While news of a possible coalition deal was revealed three weeks ago, politics took a back seat to nightly coronavirus updates. Israel has managed the pandemic relatively well, but the economy is in shambles, unemployment is at a record high and there is no sign of when Israel or the world will go back to normal , or when a new normal will establish itself. If one good thing came out of the pandemic in Israel, it is that it forced an elusive and timely political compromise. A fourth election would have been ludicrously irresponsible, especially now.
Meet Benny Gantz: the head of the Blue and White party, the former Chief of the Israel Defense Forces and a political neophyte. (Full disclosure: I served as his aide-de-campe in the military).
According to the agreement he made with Benjamin Netanyahu, Gantz will begin to serve as Israel’s Prime Minister 18 months from now, having agreed to a power-sharing three-year unity government with Netanyahu’s Likud party. Gantz’s party ended up splitting over this decision, so he is entering the government with 17 Members of Knesset. Together with two members of what remains of Labor, they represent the center-left in this unity government.
Representing the right is Likud with its 36 MKs, along with the two ultra-Orthodox parties who carry nine and seven MKs. Until he takes over, Gantz will serve as Minister of Defense and “alternate prime minister”, a position invented during the negotiations, with his party taking key posts such as Justice, Foreign Affairs and Communications. In all, there will be a record high 36 cabinet ministers and 16 deputy ministers (a source of much criticism).
Yair Lapid, who split from Blue and White with his Yesh Atid party, will head the opposition. Joining him for now is the far-right nationalist-religious Yamina party, which is in talks to join the coalition, the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, what remains of the far-left Meretz, and the Joint Arab List.
What took so long?
Gantz was essentially left with an impossible and unenviable choice. But besides the political and moral compromises involved, the two rivals had to devise a dizzying legislative arrangement to ensure each side upholds its end of the bargain, and to prevent the courts from intervening. Let’s just say that this is very much a shotgun wedding with a serious prenuptial agreement.
Why was Gantz’s choice so difficult?
Reaching an agreement required someone to break key campaign promises. In the end, Gantz had no choice but to break his.
Gantz presented himself from the beginning as a clean, honest, capable and uniting alternative to Netanyahu, who he painted as a divisive and inciting figure who will stop at nothing to stay in power and avoid his day in court. To that end, Netanyahu’s opponents say he has methodically attempted to weaken institutions of rule and law and Israel’s system of checks and balances.
Gantz burst on to the political scene in early 2019. Netanyahu was, at the time, not yet facing indictments, although many assumed it was a matter of time. The largely affable but politically unknown Gantz managed to draw significant support and ended up leading a coalition of centrist parties, Blue and White – with elements further to the left and some further to the right – all seeking to replace Netanyahu.
During the campaign, Gantz kept quiet for the most part. It seemed that his strategy was to look good, say little, and let centrist and soft-right voters regroup around him as a viable alternative to an increasingly toxic Netanyahu. Eventually, it even became clear that many of Gantz’s policies weren’t actually so different from those of Netanyahu.
So where does Gantz differ from his rival and what kind promises did he break?
For one, Gantz said he would seek to weaken the influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties on matters of religion and state (a hot button issue in Israeli politics) and pass legislation favored by the secular-traditional majority. Most Israelis feel they are hostage a radical minority on some issues and to religious norms they don’t agree with.
Secondly, Gantz vowed to defend Israeli democracy and the institutions that maintain it, which many on the center- left, and a few on the right, feel have been under attack by Netanyahu and the populist right. This connects to another hot-button issue: a debate over how much power and independence the judicial system should have, how much oversight there should be by elected officials over unelected ones, the level of judicial activism, and the lack of transparency for judicial appointments. The right seeks to reform these matters, while the center-left is largely content with the status quo.
There is also the Palestinian issue. The right seeks to extend Israeli sovereignty to parts of Area C of Judea-Samaria by July 2020. This is the timeline offered by the Trump peace plan, assuming the Palestinians refuse to play ball. Gantz has stayed relatively quiet on this issue. It is assumed he opposes such a move because it could harm the fragile relationship with Jordan or bring about a disastrous collapse of the Palestinian Authority. But Gantz hasn’t said so clearly though, likely in order to be able to woo soft-right-wing voters.
For his part, Netanyahu never expressed qualms about sitting with Gantz, so long as he gets first dibs at the premiership and that his religious allies are included. Something had to give.
Gantz hoped, after the second election, that he would serve as prime minister first while Netanyahu clears his name, or that the Likud would ask Netanyahu to step down and let someone else lead. They only doubled down on him.
Gantz then flirted with the Joint Arab List and moved to form a minority government. However, it soon became clear that the more right-wing members of his own party refused to sit in a government backed, even tacitly, by the Joint List. In the meantime, and to add to the drama, Gantz did use backing of the Joint Arab List to make himself Knesset Speaker and floated the idea of passing legislation that would block someone facing criminal charges — in other words, Netanyahu — from forming a government. Whether this was a ploy to pressure Netanyahu or was sincere is not clear, but it worked.
Appearances aside, Gantz’s Blue and White party, while it represented the Israeli mainstream in many ways, was not a tight-knit homogenous party. It had a left and a right-wing. The left refused to sit under Netanyahu and the right refused to have backing from the Joint Arab List (primarily because the parties reject Israel as a Jewish state, and some of its members have rhetorically supported terrorist acts against Israel).
Gantz had to make a choice: lose half his party in what would be an unpopular and unstable minority government, lose the other half of his party and join a Netanyahu government, or do nothing and go to a fourth election during a pandemic.
Meanwhile, Gantz was falling in the polls and Netanyahu was surging with his nightly coronavirus-related prime-time appearances. Going to a fourth election also meant another six months, at least, of a Netanyahu-led right-religious coalition, which might have been able to push through some problematic (from Gantz’s perspective) elements of its agenda.
Enter the Coronavirus.
Ever the soldier, Gantz seemed to earnestly see the challenge of the day as a national crisis that demanded unity and leadership. He seemed to also view his choice between heading the opposition and likely ending his political career. Alternatively, he could install himself in the government, control certain ministries, and at least prevent those right-wing agenda items he sees as problematic for Israel’s future. In other words: save Israel’s democracy.
And herein lay Gantz’s next dilemma: Entering a coalition by its nature means compromising on some issues to prevail on others. Entering a unity government means this all the more so. So how does Gantz save Israel’s democracy?
Does he put his foot down on annexation, a scenario many on the center and left view as disastrous if Israel wishes to remain democratic and Jewish at the same time, as it would eventually have to choose between granting citizenship to 3 million Palestinians or ruling over them without citizenship? Or, does Gantz put his foot down on blocking those judicial reforms and the incitement against the judicial system and press? This is also critical to preserving democracy.
In the end, Gantz caved on annexation, hoping the White House will block any overreach. He took control over the Ministry of Justice. This feat should not be overlooked. Many on the right wanted this ministry. As a compromise, however, the right will control the appointment of judges.
The end result, for now, is that it will be nearly impossible for Gantz to advance any sort of positive agenda, but at least he hopes to rein in an unrestrained right-religious coalition. This government that will be limited in what it can do. It is expected to focus on the urgent consensus issues in Israeli society – managing the coronavirus crisis and the healthcare system, handling the economy, and managing defense and foreign affairs.
Gantz’s political future, Israel’s political future
Time will tell how this move affects Gantz’s political future. Recent polls show a majority of Blue and White voters support this choice. A majority of Israeli Jews also support a unity government.
Will Gantz be seen as a selfless leader? Many of these same people also doubt Netanyahu will ever hand the wheel over, agreement notwithstanding. Much will depend on how Gantz and his Blue and White ministers fair in office. Unlike the Likud, nobody in Blue and White has any real political experience.
Lastly, much will depend on Netanyahu himself. Will he try to undermine Gantz ahead of the next election, or even introduce some controversial legislation as bait to force Gantz’s hand to resign? Or will he let his most serious political rival in a decade succeed or fail on his own terms?
Netanyahu could also try to woo a handful of Gantz’s less loyal people over to his side, obviating the need to honor the agreement. Eighteen months is an eternity in Israeli politics. The outcome of Netanyahu’s upcoming trial will surely influence this answer.
One thing seems clear. Gantz did not have easy choices, only bad ones. His campaign slogan from the start was “Israel before everything.” If Gantz sacrificed his political career to give Israel at least 18 months of stability as it navigates the Coronavirus, he will have come through on at least this campaign promise.
Dan Feferman is a Major (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a foreign policy advisor, assistant to the deputy chief of staff and an intelligence analyst. He writes and speaks on Israel and the Middle East.