Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t have scripted a better ending to Israel’s year-long election saga. Benny Gantz, the head of the rival Blue and White coalition, was going to have the opportunity to form a new government, then he suddenly reversed himself and agreed to a unity government with Netanyahu.
Why did Gantz cave in — especially at that moment? Some have suggested it was Gantz’s way of getting out of the race, as he had been playing the electoral game for well over a year and was simply exhausted. He competed half-heartedly from the start, and it was clear that he did not have the same energy and drive for the game of electoral politics as Netanyahu. This was the most difficult election cycle in Israeli history, and it was more than Gantz signed up for. He didn’t have the extra motivation Netanyahu does of using the prime minister’s position to avoid a criminal trial and, very likely, a prison sentence.
Also unlike Netanyahu, Gantz is a patriot. His lack of enthusiasm for politics was genuine, but so was his motivation to finally unseat Netanyahu and to end his reign of corruption. The coronavirus crisis changed the calculus, and made it imperative in Gantz’s view to form a “government of national unity” that could get up and running quickly and address the pandemic, while also maintaining oversight of the extreme measures that Netanyahu was trying to ram through with virtually no restraint. One can question Gantz’s judgment, but few doubt that he genuinely believed, as the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy put it: “Of the two possibilities before him – a continuation of the deadlock and another election, or joining a Netanyahu government – MK Benny Gantz… (chose) …the lesser evil.”
The unity agreement that has been discussed publicly would give Gantz’s party many of the most important government portfolios, including the defense andforeign ministries. The key to the agreement is the justice ministry, which Gantz will apparently get as well. That means that it would be much harder for Netanyahu to take power away from the judiciary, something the Likud has been working toward for many years, and would also have less leverage to change laws and government procedures in order to continue to evade accountability for his crimes. Netanyahu, of course, understands this, and his price has been Gantz’s willingness to back a law that would allow Netanyahu to continue serving as a minister in government while under indictment. The current law requires the prime minister to fire any minister who is indicted, which is why, the proposed law reasons, the prime minister is an exception to that law.
Gantz is almost certainly committing political suicide with this move. The Blue and White coalition he headed has split, with Gantz’s Israeli Resilience party set to join Netanyahu, while Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem parties will be in the opposition.
As much as Gantz objected to Netanyahu’s corruption, he doesn’t have the personal animosity towards the prime minister that his former partners in Blue and White do. The loathing Lapid and Ya’alon have for Netanyahu—as well as that of the right wing leader, Avigdor Lieberman, whose refusal to join a Netanyahu-led coalition prevented Netanyahu from forming amajority coalition in three rounds of voting—is now something Gantz will have to face as well.
Despite the criticism he faces for it, Gantz can excuse violating his campaign pledge that he would never join a Netanyahu-led coalition by pointing out that he could not have predicted the coronavirus. Still, his erstwhile political allies were not alone in condemning his decision. Many Israelis criticized Gantz sharply over social media.
For many progressive Israelis, especially Arab citizens, Gantz’s decision was motivated by something more basic than exhaustion: bigotry. Gantz had only one way to form a government without Netanyahu and the right-wing and religious parties loyal to him. But it required the support of the Joint List, a coalition of four parties which represent most of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. In the end, that was something Gantz couldn’t stomach.
As the Israeli journalist Hagai Mattar put it, “If there is one thing we can learn from the last election cycle, it is that Gantz prefers to enter into a coalition with a corrupt prime minister over working alongside Palestinians. He prefers to dismantle the political project he has led over the past three election campaigns — one devoid of any cohesive political agenda apart from getting rid of Netanyahu — in favor of joining the prime minister under the banner of working with ‘anyone but the Arabs.’”
Under the proposed agreement for a unity government, Gantz is supposed to take over as prime minister in eighteen months. No matter how naïve Gantz might be, he could not possibly be so foolish as to believe that Netanyahu will simply step aside gracefully in a year and a half, or that he will not, in the intervening months, do everything he can to destroy the unity agreement and buy himself even more time outside of prison. Yet, Gantz found this preferable to establishing a government with the support of “the Arabs.”
In terms of policy, there really isn’t very much difference between Gantz and Netanyahu. Indeed, the Blue and White coalition was, from the first, based on a strategy to oust the corrupt incumbent, not on ideological differences with him. Lapid and Ya’alon—neither of whom holds what anyone would consider a progressive attitude toward Palestinians—remained committed to that unifying principle, and were willing to stick with it as was the notoriously xenophobic Lieberman.
We shouldn’t read too much into that. For many, probably most, Israelis who accepted the idea of a government supported by the Joint List, it was a pragmatic, if unpleasant, way to get rid of Netanyahu. But the idea of the Joint List participating in actual governance remains a non-starter for most Jewish Israelis.
Still, Jewish support for the Joint List rose significantly in this election. Now that the Labor party has sealed its death warrant by following Gantz into the government (with far less reason to do so than Gantz had), the only left-wing Zionist party, the Meretz party, should develop its natural alliance with the Joint List to bring a progressive voice back into Israeli politics. That won’t be an easy path. Many obstacles, beyond the mainstream Israeli opposition to such unity, stand in the way. But it may be the only hope for a viable alternative to the Israeli Right.
Whether such an Arab-Jewish progressive alliance will arise is unsure, but, as Israeli political analyst and pollster Dahlia Scheindlin put it, regarding increased Jewish-Arab work to create partnerships, “Perhaps these efforts are filling a void left by the defunct peace process with the Palestinians. Perhaps (Israeli Jewish leftists) have concluded that Jewish-Arab partnership can eventually advance equality and self-determination for Palestinians under occupation as well. The Joint List’s vision and political decisions stood for both. The party is paving a new road, one where the journey of Palestinian and Jewish citizens may one day converge.”