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Israel’s unity government protects Netanyahu from prosecution, paves the way for annexation

Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning victory after three rounds of elections spanning more than a year is now complete. The man who last year surpassed David Ben-Gurion as the longest-serving prime minister of Israel will continue his seemingly interminable tenure for at least the next 18 months, and it cost him amazingly little to convince his new partner, Benny Gantz, to give him most of what he wanted.

Gantz, a political neophyte, was overmatched by Netanyahu, who knows every trick, dirty and otherwise, in the book. The agreement they finally came to granted Gantz’s party some key portfolios, including defense and foreign affairs, but left Netanyahu in position to get what he wants in virtually every realm.

For example, Netanyahu’s Likud party will get to appoint the next speaker of the Knesset, an important role for Netanyahu to control the legislative procedures, which he often uses to get what he wants. Gantz technically has veto power over the nomination, but the two apparently agreed on putting Likud Knesset member Yariv Levin in that role, limiting the effect of Gantz’s veto. While Gantz’s Blue and White party will have control of the Knesset House Committee, which deals extensively with the legislative agenda, Levin’s role as speaker will give Netanyahu a great deal of influence.

Netanyahu gave up a good deal of control over the economy, but his primary goal was to ensure his personal safety from the corruption charges against him. Gantz gave him this when he agreed that Netanyahu would have veto power over the appointment of the next attorney general and state prosecutor. Gantz also agreed to Netanyahu’s veto power over judicial appointments, which had been a major sticking point. Gantz’s former partner, Yair Lapid, tweeted in response, “So the compromise on the Judicial Appointments Committee is that Bibi chose all its representatives. Gantz and Ashkenazi agreed to allow the criminal defendant to appoint the judges that will adjudicate his affairs,” referring to Blue and White Knesset member Gabi Ashkenazi.

Netanyahu won several other provisions to protect himself from prosecution, so the major concern remaining for him was his intention to annex large chunks of the West Bank. While some had looked to Gantz to put the brakes on the annexation momentum, he showed scant interest in doing so.

Part of the unity agreement is that for the first six months, the new government will operate as an emergency government to deal with the coronavirus. This means there will be no major legislation of appointments in that period, with one exception. Annexation can be brought to a vote in the cabinet and the Knesset as early as July 1. It is likely to enjoy majorities in both.

Gantz will point to the stipulation that annexation must be done in coordination with the United States, but this is hardly a concession. Netanyahu froze the far-right Yamina party out of the coalition government, giving most of the portfolios Yamina hoped for to Blue and White and other coalition partners. No doubt, this was intended to lessen the right-wing pressure on his government to annex quickly without regard for the concerns of his and Donald Trump’s friends in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other key Arab governments.

The Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century” featured extensive Israeli annexation of West Bank territory. But the clumsy rollout led to a problem for Netanyahu when his right flank balked at the prospect of holding off for a little while on annexation until Jared Kushner and the rest of the Trump team could ease Arab concerns about the move.

Now, with the U.S. election drawing closer, Trump will want to throw a meaty bone to his evangelical Christian base, and annexation is the best one he has left. The agreement with Gantz gives Netanyahu a minimum of two months to work with the White House to find ways to mollify Saudi and other Arab concerns before annexing chunks of the West Bank. Trump, reeling from his failures in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, will not want to wait much longer than that to impose his “peace plan.”

Yamina will still be offered a place in the coalition. At the moment, they say they will not accept the current conditions, but that could change. Even if it does, their influence — as well as that of the right flank of Netanyahu’s own Likud party — will be diminished, resolving what would have been a very difficult dilemma for Netanyahu. He had been facing a choice between enraging his right flank by continuing to delay annexation and alienating the Trump administration, which has shown unprecedented generosity in breaking with previous norms and handing Israel gifts like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights without demanding anything in return.

Now Netanyahu can more comfortably go along with the U.S. timetable. Trump has indicated that he wants to get back to his “Deal of the Century” soon, but the COVID-19 crisis has brought everything to a halt. July 1 would seem to be an optimistic target for finding a way to move forward with annexation in a way Trump’s Arab partners would be comfortable with. Netanyahu, who wants to be both the Israeli prime minister who extends sovereignty over the West Bank and who simultaneously opens relations with the monarchies in the Persian Gulf, will be happy to stick with Trump’s timetable as long as the pressure from his right is not too intense. Gantz just gave him that flexibility.

Both Trump and Netanyahu will want to move annexation forward ahead of the U.S. election in November. It fits with Trump’s campaign strategy of focusing on his base, but for both Netanyahu and Gantz, the concern is that Trump might not win. As staunchly pro-Israel as presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is, he opposes annexation. Biden believes that the two-state process, which was finally buried under his watch as Barack Obama’s vice president, remains the only way forward.

In January, Biden told the New York Times, “I believe a two-state solution remains the only way to ensure Israel’s long-term security while sustaining its Jewish and democratic identity. It is also the only way to ensure Palestinian dignity and their legitimate interest in national self-determination. And it is a necessary condition to take full advantage of the opening that exists for greater cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For all these reasons, encouraging a two-state solution remains in the critical interest of the United States.”

Though Biden clearly prioritizes Israel’s Jewish character over Palestinian rights, his views align well with the pro-Israel right of the Democratic party as epitomized by the inaccurately named Democratic Majority for Israel, which recently sent a letter to Netanyahu, Gantz, and Lapid cautioning against annexation. “Such a move would make a two-state solution harder — if not impossible to achieve — and would likely have far-reaching negative consequences for the U.S.-Israel alliance,” they stated.

Gantz was never going to stop annexation, but his partnership with Netanyahu will now make it easier for the new government to move forward on it in a more effective way. Coupled with the personal protection Gantz has afforded the prime minister, the former opposition leader got precious little for his surrender.

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