After a shocking roller-coaster turn of events last week, the Israeli political picture might finally be clearing. Instead of coronavirus-stricken Israeli voters forced to head to a fourth set of elections since April 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of leading his first permanent government since he called for elections in late 2018. Netanyahu has been heading a caretaker government in the interim.
In a move that apparently caught all Israelis off guard Thursday, Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party, whose members were only unified by their agreement to replace Netanyahu, suddenly decided to join the prime minister’s next government.
In a blog he wrote for The Times of Israel, Gantz explained his stunning decision: “At this time of crisis, I had no choice but to put politics aside and choose the only path that allows us to avoid fourth elections. … I chose the only path which positions Israel to effectively fight this horrific pandemic: the path of a national emergency government.”
While a final agreement on who will be named to head which ministry in the government had yet to be signed as of press time, it looked like Gantz will become the foreign minister, with a promise to follow Netanyahu as prime minister in 18 months. The government will be composed of the Likud, Shas, Yamina and United Torah Judaism parties, as well as about 15 Knesset members of Gantz’s Blue and White party. The rest of Blue and White’s Knesset members – which totaled 33 after the early March elections – will remain in the opposition.
Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta and an Israeli citizen, told the AJT that the unity government was the “only way to protect all of Israel’s citizens” during the coronavirus epidemic.
Although it seems the majority of Israeli voters wanted a unity government, not everyone was convinced by Gantz’s argument. “A unity government is not necessary, unless you buy into the fear-mongering of Netanyahu,” stated Shai Robkin, an Atlantan who holds dual citizenship and has a home in Jerusalem. “While there may have been those who were skeptical of the government’s early and strong actions to combat COVID-19, no one doubts today that this is a serious pandemic. If the Republicans and Democrats [in the United States] can come together so quickly on a $2 trillion rescue package, there’s no reason to believe that you need a unity government in Israel to do what needs to
Congregation Or Hadash Rabbi Mario Karpuj, who along with his wife Rabbi Analia Bortz will be immigrating to Israel this summer, said he was shocked by Gantz’s move. “I thought we were going into some kind of minority government led by Gantz that would take Bibi out of the picture,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
“Gantz has lost all credibility,” Karpuj said. His sentiment comes after Gantz had promised that he would not sit in a government with Netanyahu due to his indictment on several criminal charges, including bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu’s trial was scheduled to start in March, but after his justice minister effectively closed the court system due to the coronavirus, it has been rescheduled for the end of May.
Robkin acknowledged that “there are those who are hailing Gantz as a hero, putting country over politics, [but] his capitulation is a sad day for Israeli democracy. The majority of Israel’s citizens said that Netanyahu should no longer serve as prime minister. That was Gantz’s singular campaign issue and for him to turn his back on his voters is indefensible.”