Israel’s Move Towards A Unity Government

On Friday, 27 March 2020, Blue and White leader and recently elected Speaker of the Knesset (parliament), Benny Gantz, appeared to enter unity talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This comes after Gantz was appointed by President Reuven Rivlin as leader of the next government to be established amidst the coronavirus pandemic, of which 4,831 people have been infected as of 31 March 2020. With the likelihood Gantz would ally with Netanyahu, who is under criminal indictment for three corruption cases, citing the urgency and uncertainty of the pandemic as the cause for doing so, the centrist Blue and White coalition of three parties splintered after only 13 months of existence. Despite this, unity government talks between Gantz and Netanyahu’s Likud party stalled on Monday, 30 March, as they failed to agree on several issues, including the annexation of large parts of the West Bank.

Netanyahu, who in January was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, faced a sharp blow when Gantz first called for a unity administration, particularly so soon after Netanyahu’s declared victory during the March 2 election. Soon after, however, Netanyahu had a change of heart as he proposed a six-month “national emergency” (unity) government, even offering a four-year arrangement that would allow the two leaders to split the job of prime minister equally. Yet, many accuse Netanyahu and his government for exploiting the coronavirus crisis to secure his power, ensure his position to “legislate his way out of the legal quagmire” (Al Jazeera), and undermine Israel’s democratic foundations by inciting protests despite the current restriction on large gatherings.

Thursday, March 19, saw hundreds protesting outside the Knesset, carrying banners that read “No to Dictatorship,” “Democracy in Danger,” and labelled Netanyahu as “Crime Minister,” in light of recent developments led by Netanyahu which include: the closure of Israel’s court system in advance of his trial (which has been delayed to May 24), use of phone surveillance technology on the public, and adjournment of parliament until the week after. These measures are all cited as methods to combat the spreading coronavirus. Local authorities had arrested three people for violating the ban on gatherings, blocked dozens of cars from entering Jerusalem or approaching the Knesset building, but rejected accusations that they were being ordered to do so by Netanyahu, saying “No one is above the law or public health orders released by the ministry of health”.

On the other hand, many of Gantz’s former allies in the centre-left bloc criticise him for having gone back on his promises, accusing him of being a hypocrite as it was only days earlier that Gantz had expressed concern that former speaker Yuli Edelstein was using his position for leverage in coalition negotiations. Orna Barbivai, whose party, Yesh Atid, allied with Gantz’s Israel Resilience in the Blue and White Coalition, said “You [Gantz] had, and we had, a majority to act in the Knesset…unfortunately, you chose a different path, and in doing so not only betrayed your voters but hurt the chances of the entire bloc, perhaps for many years”. Gadeer Mreeh, a lawmaker from Israel’s Arab Druze minority, continued on Twitter, “A leader does not betray his principles and his electorate…I will not sit one day under the corrupt [premier]”.

Mreeh’s words may have resonated with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who earlier turned out to support Gantz’s coalition in the prior three elections, and were now angered by Gantz’s decision – with some accusing the formal general of caving into Netanyahu. The move towards a unity government may come as even more of a shock to the Arab public as the Joint List (the political alliance of the main Arab-majority political parties in Israel) achieved a record voter turnout with a 64.8% voting rate amongst the Arab public. Author and publisher Odeh Bisharat suggested that “The voting rate in the Arab community rose because [voters] believed they ha[d] an opportunity to impact the political map in Israel. Gantz’s move is [a] tough blow to their hopes”. Journalist Mohammad Magadli further clarified, “Gantz’s move only strengthens the growing consensus among Arab citizens in Israel that every vote for the Zionist parties on the centre-left is a potential vote for the formation of a right-wing government”.

Afif Abu Much, a contributor to Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse, suggests that this reaction should be taken as an impetus for change, mainly that the Joint list should “conduct itself with full transparency and stop functioning as an exclusive club of four parties,” and secondly that the “centre-left should learn that Arab citizens and candidates are its only chance to create a revolution and to gain control of the government”. In response, Gantz “expressed regret on Friday [27 March] that his decision had split his centrist alliance, but said that dragging the country towards a fourth election would distract from fighting the coronavirus and aiding the economy” (Al Jazeera). Gantz may be proving to stick to his values as he cited support for annexing the Jordan Valley, on the condition that it would be coordinated with the international community – in opposition to Netanyahu’s declaration of Israeli sovereignty over all the West Bank settlements. There is no telling how exactly the situation will play out, but the public’s health and interests should be prioritised not only by politicians who may have their own motivations but by every member of the elected representative parliament.