In Brief

Israel’s Unusual Crisis Coalition: What to Expect

Benjamin Netanyahu and his top political rival have made a pact amid a pandemic, prolonging the embattled prime minister’s political career and likely reinforcing Israel’s nationalistic direction.

Former defense chief Benny Gantz ran to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and now he’s joining his government. How did this happen?

It’s true, Gantz had repeatedly pledged never to support a government led by someone indicted on corruption charges, as Netanyahu has been, and he held firm to that commitment after two elections last year and another this March. The common interest in getting rid of Netanyahu was the glue that held Gantz’s diverse party and potential coalition together. Late last month, however, Gantz concluded that he would be blamed for forcing yet another election—amid a national crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic—and he agreed to support Netanyahu as the leader of an “emergency government.” The negotiations to put that government together took almost a month, because of resistance from allies of both leaders, but in the end the two sides found compromise better than the alternatives.

A banner with Benny Gantz's face next to the semi-translucent face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A banner depicts Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White coalition, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of an election in Tel Aviv, Israel. Ammar Awad/Reuters

Under the pact, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for another eighteen months while Gantz serves as deputy prime minister; then, in October 2021, they will swap jobs. Their respective coalitions will each oversee eighteen of a total of thirty-six ministries, with Gantz’s Blue and White coalition controlling high-profile defense, foreign affairs, and justice, while Netanyahu gets the Knesset speakership for his Likud party and a critical veto over judicial appointments.

Why did Gantz agree to this? Didn’t he have a mandate to form the government, and all the leverage given Netanyahu’s legal difficulties?

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Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), defended his decision as an act of patriotism and national unity. However, many suspect that he never wanted to form a minority government that would have to rely on Israel’s Arab parties for support. He likely calculated that this deal was the best among bad options, especially since his prospects in a potential fourth election appeared to have diminished.

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Ultimately, Netanyahu’s decisive leadership in the face of the coronavirus crisis, his withering attacks on Gantz during the campaign, and his manipulation of Israeli institutions to delay his corruption trial and prevent laws that could bar him from remaining in power—all combined with Gantz’s unwillingness to drag the process out further—have given Israel’s longest-serving prime minister yet another new lease on political life.

What does this new government mean for Netanyahu’s upcoming trial and his political future?

That’s one of the biggest open questions. Israeli court proceedings are currently limited due to the pandemic, and an emergency cabinet decision to proceed with court cases by video conveniently exempted those under indictment, delaying Netanyahu’s trial until at least May 24.

Netanyahu’s hold on the premiership and his ability to veto judicial appointments will give him advantages in his continued legal battles. Moreover, the collapse of Gantz’s previous coalition removes the risk that the Knesset will pass laws that could bar Netanyahu from power. Two of Gantz’s erstwhile allies in Blue and White—centrist leader Yair Lapid and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon—denounced his “betrayal” and refused to follow him into this new government. Blue and White’s reduced minority in parliament will limit its ability to influence policy.

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If Netanyahu is eventually tried and convicted, he will presumably have to leave power. However, few doubt his ability to drag out the process. Even fewer expect him to simply cede power to Gantz in eighteen months.

How might this new government affect Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the Trump administration’s peace plan?

Like Netanyahu, Gantz publicly supported President Donald J. Trump’s plan, but many suspect that was partly out of electoral considerations and the political impossibility of rejecting a plan that would give Israel what it wants on all the major issues. Like many other former IDF commanders, Gantz is unenthusiastic about the prospect of indefinite Israeli military rule over millions of Arabs and is concerned about Israel’s relations with Jordan. He reportedly resisted giving Netanyahu a green light to proceed with annexation of the Jordan Valley and large parts of the West Bank, but he appears to have conceded on that point—a red line for Netanyahu’s partners—to seal this deal.

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The new agreement delays consideration of annexation until July 1 to give experts time to draw up potential maps. But then the government can proceed, with no veto for Gantz. The coalition deal requires Netanyahu to consider “regional stability, protecting existing peace agreements and aspiring for future ones.” However, with Trump’s support, Netanyahu will be eager to cement his legacy by achieving this long-standing political and strategic objective. The consequences for Israel—and its ability to remain a democratic, Jewish state that is stable at home and at peace with its neighbors—will be profound.

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