by: Kate Norman, BFP Staff Writer
In April 2020, the unthinkable happened—as it always does in Israeli politics. Former Israel Defense Forces chief and Blue and White party leader Benjamin (Benny) Gantz agreed to a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that will see both serve as prime minister on a rotating basis. The Benjamins, answering the cries of the people of Israel, compromised and came to a deal—though the unity agreement is less cohesive than it sounds. The product of a year and a half of political bickering, the deal is filled with endless safety nets and contingency plans protecting each party from the other. Nonetheless, it arms Israel with a fully functioning governing body after such a long span of being hobbled by a caretaker government. After trudging through an unyielding political deadlock, dead-end negotiations and weathering the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, the unity government—imperfect though it may be—allows Israel to move forward stronger, barring future vetoes and intergovernmental disagreements. What finally brought unity out of a seemingly endless impasse?
In December 2018, Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset (Parliament) and gambled on an early election when his majority coalition crumbled. MK (Member of Knesset) Avigdor Lieberman, defense minister at the time, resigned his post in protest of Netanyahu accepting a cease-fire with Hamas, the terrorist organization in control of the Gaza Strip, after days of rockets raining from the terror enclave. Lieberman broke away with his party, secular Yisrael Beiteinu. Public opinion assumed the election would be a slam dunk for Netanyahu.
In Israeli elections, people vote for political parties, not candidates. Each party is given a number of seats in the 120-seat Knesset based on election results. The president chooses a candidate based on election results and party recommendations to put together a majority coalition and become prime minister. If the candidate is unable to do so within the deadline, the president passes the baton to another candidate. If that person fails, the mandate returns to the Knesset, who can propose another candidate to try before the Knesset is forced to dissolve and return to elections.
Netanyahu’s Likud party won a narrow victory in the April 2019 elections—just one seat above Gantz’s 35 Blue and White party seats. Everyone was confident that Netanyahu would be able to garner a majority coalition, even when he asked for a 2-week extension after an eventful 28 days that included four major holidays and over 700 rockets launched from Gaza that killed four civilians.
Yisrael Beiteinu won five seats in the election, giving Lieberman the leverage to block Netanyahu’s first attempt to form a coalition. The two met multiple times to hash out a reconciliation that would restore Lieberman to his former position as defense minister and give Netanyahu the needed seats. They could not agree, however, on the polarizing issue of drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews for military service. Lieberman would not budge, and Netanyahu could not afford to alienate the religious parties in his right-wing bloc. Thus the clock ran out and the Knesset voted to dissolve itself and go to a second election in September 2019 rather than allow runner-up Gantz a shot at forming a coalition.
Netanyahu, dazed from his unexpected failure in the first round, buckled down for the rematch. He presented himself as a strong, irreplaceable leader, promising to assert Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and more land in Judea and Samaria if reelected.
The outcome of the second elections, however, left the Jewish state in murky water with no clear winner. Though Blue and White won more seats than Likud, Gantz did not have enough support to make himself a viable candidate for Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to tap to piece together a coalition. Before the final votes were in, Netanyahu called on Gantz to form a broad unity government.
The ensuing game of political chess was embroiled with squabbling and finger-pointing that left the nation in a frustrating limbo as both Benjamins tried and failed to negotiate a unity government. The Jewish state was then forced into the unimaginable: a third round of elections within a one-year period, with no end of the political stalemate in sight.
On March 2, Israelis flocked to the polls—again—despite fears that turnout would be low due to voter fatigue and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet Israel saw its highest voter turnout in the three elections. Clearly, the people were eager to break the stalemate.
Exit polls predicted a big win for Netanyahu with 59 seats. By the time the final votes were tallied, however, the premier’s bloc had dropped to 58 seats, putting him in a similar position to the first election in April 2019. It wasn’t enough to make him the clear victor over Gantz. In fact, it put him far enough to convince Rivlin—in addition to the left-wing and Arab parties recommending Gantz as the candidate—to give Gantz the first attempt at forming a government.
Right off the bat, with Rivlin’s encouragement and pressure from the COVID-19 crisis, Gantz and Netanyahu entered into negotiations for a unity government with terms for rotating turns as prime minister and dividing ministerial seats between their parties.
Gantz outraged his Blue and White allies by negotiating with Netanyahu, causing a split in the party. But multiple meetings that seemed to lead nowhere sparked fears of an unprecedented fourth election. The major sticking point was who would control the judiciary committee—a major point of contention for Netanyahu, who is currently under indictment for corruption charges, which he has labeled an attempted ousting. Gantz wielded his newfound power as Speaker of the Knesset to leverage anti-Netanyahu bills, which he had previously been blocking for the sake of negotiations, to pressure the sitting premier to sign the deal. On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, the two met and inked an agreement.
Netanyahu will remain in power until October 2021, at which time he will pass the baton to Gantz, who will serve for another 18 months as prime minister. The unity government provides relief as Israel’s first fully functioning government in a year and a half, but whether it will function as a cohesive body remains to be seen. With a unity agreement that sets up a chessboard with fail-safes, checks and balances, and veto power, the future still looks a little uncertain—but nonetheless brighter with the first hurdle out of the way.
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