To avoid a controversial fourth Knesset election in the span of one year and amid devastating coronavirus pandemic that has infected no less than 14,500 people and caused the death of more than 190 people, Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) rival Benny Gantz signed a deal to form a national emergency government.
A political deadlock was broken after neither man was able to put together a new coalition government on his own.
By the end of the day Gantz, whose center right coalition was formed last year with the sole purpose of dethroning Netanyahu, opted to put aside his enmity and forge an alliance with the Likud.
Since Gantz and Netanyahu were unable to get the magical 61 votes in the 120 seat Knesset, an impasse had ensued and both men were running out of time
By choosing to make peace with the “devil”, Gantz had lost his two key coalition partners, Moshe Ya’alon of Telem center right party and Yair Lapid of the centrist party Yesh Atid. The two men and their followers have joined the opposition, along with members of the Joint Arab List.
Gantz, a former chief of the general staff of the Israeli army, has been described as a “political novice” by Israeli pundits. They saw his acquiescence to Netanyahu as a defeat to the so-called secular centrists who saw Netanyahu as a threat to Israeli democracy.
Netanyahu, the longest serving premier in Israel’s history, was so close to being ousted as he faces trial on three corruption charges; set to begin within days.
Once Israel went into lockdown a few weeks ago to face a sudden outbreak of the coronavirus; Netanyahu appeared defiant as he used the crisis to boost his position.
By all accounts Netanyahu and his right wing allies appeared ready to defy the country’s highest court rulings on the opening of the Knesset.
Gantz’s Blue and White, whose members have now shrunk to 17 lawmakers, down from 33, had failed to convince voters that he and his coalition could present an alternative to Likud and its Far Right and ultra-Orthodox partners.
Running out of time
But since he and Netanyahu were unable to get the magical 61 votes in the 120 seat Knesset, an impasse had ensued and both men were running out of time.
As the economy tanked as a result of the pandemic, Netanyahu’s chances of turning the corner in a fourth election had also dropped. The virus had changed everything.
Netanyahu’s main goal was to ride out the storm, fight for his political career and fulfill his most important goal and legacy; the annexation of most of the West Bank.
Gantz too was not about to take chances. The two men finally met halfway, or so seems.
They agreed to form a national emergency government with Netanyahu taking charge as Prime Minister for the coming 18 months. Gantz, who gets the Defense portfolio, would then take over.
It’s not a bad deal for Blue and White since it also gets the important Foreign Affairs and Justice Ministries for the duration of the government.
That would most likely cultivate center right officials in all three ministries. Gantz’s entrance would change the shape of Israeli cabinets, which were dominated by Far Right extremists.
But then Gantz isn’t a dove either nor are his closest allies, chief among them Gabi Ashkenazi, who will run the Foreign Ministry.
Netanyahu, despite his racist and radical positions on the Palestinians, has been cautious not to get into costly and unpredictable military confrontations—not since the 2014 assault on Gaza which Gantz had commanded and later bragged about “bombing Gaza back to the stone age.”
How Gantz may react to sudden provocations by Hamas and Islamic Jihad remains to be seen.
But perhaps the most crucial part of the Gantz-Netanyahu deal concerns the fate of the occupied West Bank.
November presidential elections
Under the agreement, Netanyahu will be able to propose to the cabinet and or to the Knesset the annexation of whatever territories earmarked for Israel in Donald Trump’s peace plan, conditional to US approval, and to do so well before the November presidential elections.
Gantz’s veto power is vague in nature; tied to the position of Israel’s peace partners provided that the deal does not threaten existing peace treaties.
It is unfortunate that the last three Israel elections were never about the future of peace with the Palestinians or the fact that annexation and permanent occupation would render Israel an apartheid state.
More sadly is that Netanyahu’s survival and the effect of the coronavirus on the US, now leading in the number of cases and deaths worldwide, will surely tempt Trump to endorse annexation in order to appease his Christian Evangelical base at home.
That leaves the Palestinians on their own to fend for themselves—the timing could not be worse for President Mahmoud Abbas: the world is focused on fighting the pandemic and mitigating its health, social and economic effects and will hardly notice if Netanyahu goes ahead with his pernicious plan.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman