When people discussed the need for Israel to finally form some sort of unity government after three election attempts in order to deal with real matters of government, almost no-one imagined that as Bill Gates had predicted already in 2015 – the next danger facing mankind would not be something as big as a nuclear bomb, but rather something as small as the coronavirus.
Earlier on, my favourite meme coming out of Israel as Netanyahu was about due to face the courts and the coronavirus both closed down the courts and led to social distancing and lockdowns, was one which said:
“So you tried to put me in prison?! Now I put the whole country in prison!!”
A clever meme can say a lot.
And now this emergency, depending on which side one is on, has led to Benny Gantz being called either ‘hero’ or ‘traitor’.
The scenario was as follows:
– Gantz with potentially 61 seats (out of 120), was given the mandate by President Rivlin to try and form a government.
(By the way, at time of writing he still has that mandate)
Problem for Gantz – one of his really only two actual pre-election commitments, was to not join a coalition with the Arab parties of the Joint List – 15 of those 61 seats.
The Joint List is opposed to Israel as a ‘Jewish’ State.
– As Gantz – and of all people Lieberman – tried to dance with the Joint List in negotiations, some of Gantz’s own party members threatened to desert him – ergo, no majority.
What had united them all was the desire to remove Netanyahu, but some discovered that the price for that had become too high.
– Meanwhile over in the question of the tension between the elected Knesset members and the Judiciary, erstwhile widely respected Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein was fighting/defying an order from the High Court.
With both he and the Court claiming they were each defending democracy and that the other, was democracy’s biggest danger.
In a brilliant manoeuvre (or so it seemed at the time), Edelstein neither followed the High Court’s ruling, nor refused to comply with it.
Instead he came up with an unprecedented (probably the word of the year, and used in all situations nowadays) move – he resigned from the position of Speaker. How to proceed from there, became the constitutional issue.
– In Israel the Speaker is especially powerful in situations when there is only an interim government, or following elections until a government is formed.
The Speaker in practice, basically controls the agenda of the Knesset – determining what legislation can be brought forward and what committees can form and operate.
– Enter the Gantz play.
In an unprecedented (there’s that word again) move, Gantz and Netanyahu agreed that Gantz become Speaker and that a general ‘national unity’ government would be formed.
Problem for Gantz, his second clear pre-election promise was to not join Netanyahu.
Breaking this pledge led to the breakup of his own party.
We do not even know at this time just how many of his party will attempt to go with him into coalition with Netanyahu.
But Gantz’s excuse for his move is the unprecedented (yet again) crisis of the coronavirus.
Therefore, his erstwhile allies now call him ‘traitor’ and those who disparaged him before, now call him ‘hero’.
The one outstanding observation that strikes me, is that Gantz, who appeared to be a poor public relations performer, who showed little political expertise, who frankly seemed like a rather dull candidate and who failed to beat Netanyahu on three separate occasions despite all of the odium surrounding him – has suddenly demonstrated a genius political brain, executed a stunning unprecedented (there it is again) Knesset move and all with a huge dollop of public relations acumen.
Suddenly, he has even become quotable.
“I will not refuse to share in the burden of dealing with the crisis. We will pull the country out of the economic trauma and attempt to heal the rift caused by hatred that has been tearing us up from within.”
“No matter how fierce the battle, I will never compromise on democracy. I will never compromise on the principles underpinning the votes of the more than one million Israelis who voted for Blue and White.”
“These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions. This is not the time for infighting and mudslinging. This is not the time for controversy and divisions. This is the time for responsible, committed, patriotic leadership. Let’s join hands and get Israel out of this crisis.”
But this unprecedented (again) political manoeuvre and one that will now enter any future menu of political action, was that a person nominated by the President to try and form a government, firstly takes the key role of Speaker – and specifically, as a form of insurance.
Gantz, now weakened in numbers due to the breakup of his party, is still able to threaten Netanyahu if as he suspects, having broken apart the opposition, Netanyahu has a change of heart.
As Speaker, Gantz can still bring on the legislation for example, which is sitting in the background, to stop an indicted PM from holding office.
In a nod to representative democracy and a further demonstration of the power of the Speaker, Gantz has already announced that social distancing rules for the Knesset can be more relaxed than anywhere else in the country. This, in order to have more elected members sit in the Knesset at one time and be part of decision making.
It appears from what has been leaked from coalition negotiations so far and which may or may not come to be, that Netanyahu has conceded a lot to Gantz – large if not equal numbers of cabinet positions and a ‘guarantee’ of rotation of the Prime Ministership in 18 months (which currently I doubt if even Gantz believes will actually happen).
This of course, even in an expanded cabinet, means that there are far less positions to distribute to members of the Likud and the other parties, like Yamina and the Haredim.
What are perhaps even greater concessions are the rumoured portfolios Netanyahu is said to have offered to Gantz. Or that Gantz has demanded.
If correct, these portfolios will go a long way to curtailing the so called ‘right wing agenda’ of sections of the Likud, Yamina and the Haredim.
This by the way, suits Netanyahu down to a tee in any case.
However, just as Netanyahu has managed to split Gantz’s camp and dissolve his block – Gantz is asking Netanyahu to also pay a high price and is attempting to wedge Netanyahu’s hereto solid 58 seat partnership – with at least some success.
In particular with the negative noises now coming from Bennett’s Yamina party.
The one sticking point in negotiations between Netanyahu and Gantz appears to be over annexation – both the timing and the extent.
Some say that Netanyahu is looking for a legacy achievement.
In 2004 President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Sharon exchanged formal letters for the first time recognising Israel as a “Jewish State”.
Part of those understandings were that the settlement blocks would become part of the State of Israel.
It’s well within the Israeli consensus.
Does one take some steps in this direction? And if so, now or later?
The other gamble is on Trump’s re-election and the window for some such move.
Whatever will occur from here, Gantz has demonstrated that he has politically come of age, that he can mix it with Netanyahu and that he can be decisive.
Of course, all of the above remains the case – until the next ‘unprecedented’ move.
Which could even occur before you finish reading this – or not………….
Stay safe and healthy and Chag Pesach Sameach
Dr. Ron Weiser AM is an Hon Life Member of the Zionist Federation of Australia Executive, and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.