In the complicated coalition agreement on a new government that was announced late Monday, Israelis on all sides found something to like and dislike. Basically, Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister for 18 months before passing the role to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for the next 1 ½ years.
Overall, Israeli voters, strained by restrictions on their movements and an economy struggling from the coronavirus pandemic, breathed a sigh of relief at the outcome. Fourth elections, at least for now, don’t appear on the horizon.
“Like all unity governments, both sides compromised, and no one received the perfect outcome,” former Atlantan Rachel Broyde told the AJT. “While there are always frustrated voters, ultimately this coalition agreement creates a working (albeit large) government. A fourth round of elections would be untenable at this time.”
Now living in Israel and currently writing a thesis about Israeli lobbying laws, Broyde worked for the Likud party for about a year.
She was referring to the fact that the new government will include 32 cabinet ministers, split evenly between the Likud party and the Blue and White party. After six months, that number will rise to an unprecedented 36.
The actual coalition may eventually include anywhere from 72 to 78 members. Initially, only Blue and White’s 15 Knesset members and Likud’s 36 will ink the deal. However, if as expected, the religious parties, two of the Labor Party’s members, and two former renegade members of the Blue and White bloc sign on, that would result in 72. Many doubt that the Yamina party, headed by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, will join the coalition.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, called it the “most bloated government in history.” And, in light of the country’s highest unemployment rate, due to the coronavirus, the large number of government ministers is “immoral.”
Still, Plesner, in a briefing to the press, stated that the coalition agreement brings an end to the political deadlock that has plagued the country for 1 ½ years. As a result of repeated, inconclusive elections, there’s only been an interim government headed by caretaker prime minister Netanyahu. Plesner also called the announcement of a unity government a “democratic ceasefire. Both sides have reasons to be satisfied and both sides gave up on elements they didn’t want to.”
Reflecting the deep distrust between Netanyahu and his former opponent Gantz, the agreement will require the Knesset to vote to create an office of deputy, or designated, prime minister. That’s because the agreement is based on the rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz. Indeed, according to Plesner, when the new government is sworn in by the Knesset, or legislature, two prime ministers will be sworn in at once.
Another effort to ensure the rotation in the coalition agreement is cited by Richard S. Walter, vice president of curriculum and outreach at the Center for Israel Education in Atlanta. “Any attempt by Netanyahu to dissolve the government triggers both Gantz becoming prime minister followed by immediate new elections in six months.” Moreover, “there would be immediate new elections if the court disqualifies Netanyahu from serving as prime minister in the first six months,” he said.
Although it’s doubtful the Israeli supreme court would rule to disqualify Netanyahu, the fact that he’s facing fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges and a delayed May 24 corruption trial raise that possibility. In three successive elections, Gantz had promised not to enter a government led by an indicted prime minister. Gantz has said that he changed his mind because of the emergency situation the country faced under the coronavirus pandemic.
Gantz made other compromises. According to the coalition agreement, for six months the government would only pass legislation to enable the country to return to business. The only exception is that as of July 1, the cabinet and Knesset could start discussing a possible annexation of part of the West Bank, under an agreement with U.S. President Donald Trump. Gantz is on record against any unilateral annexation.
Walter pointed out that Gantz succeeded in getting some of his demands met. “Gantz got Netanyahu to agree that the sole focus of the government will be fighting the coronavirus for the first six months,” he said. In addition, Gantz is getting to appoint a justice minister, which he considered essential to protect the judiciary as Netanyahu continues his fight against the corruption charges. Gantz also is able to promote an Arab minister to be minister of minority affairs, Walter said.
In the first half of the intended three-year government, in addition to serving as the designated prime minister, Gantz will head the Ministry of Defense. His fellow Blue and White party member Gabi Ashkenazi will serve as minister of foreign affairs.
Noting that reading the agreement “upset” his stomach and was “hard to digest,” Plesner said the 14-page document lacks vision, substance and policy priorities. “It’s void of content.”
Still, Israeli voters can now focus on recovering from the pandemic, rather than the ongoing political angst.