Incoming government commands a large footprint: Opinion piece May 2020.

Well, if nothing changes between now and Wednesday, we will finally see an actual Israeli government being sworn in.

The main potential crinkle it would appear, is an internal Likud bun fight over the reduced number of cabinet portfolios left to divide, after the achievements of Benny Gantz.

Gantz took a severe political risk that will either end his political career, or see him as a future Prime Minister.  He used his position as Speaker of the Knesset, to maximize his bargaining power with the political master, Netanyahu and achieved much more than many people expected.

All of the noise about the ‘end of democracy’ is exactly that, noise.

Make no mistake, the incoming government commands a large footprint.  Fully 72 members of the Knesset with only 36 opposing – that’s a two to one majority.

Israeli MPs approve Netanyahu-Gantz unity government. credit: France 24.

Notably two parties absented themselves from the vote – both to the right of Netanyahu and Gantz.
Avigdor Lieberman, it would seem, out of personal spite – but not enough for his party to vote against the incoming government.

And Bennett’s Yamina party hoping to still find relevance in the new government with some substantial cabinet posts, whilst still in negotiations with Netanyahu, but threatening to go into opposition.

So the government majority still has the potential to grow further – and even if not, on most pieces of legislation Netanyahu can expect tacit support from Lieberman and Bennett, even if they sit in opposition.

The biggest winner is of course, Netanyahu.

He gets first turn at being Prime Minister and the opposition is decimated.

Gantz took just 16 members of Blue & White into the government.  Despite the sceptics, note how many ministries and veto over important legislation he forced Netanyahu to give him and his party, with only those 16 Knesset members out of the new government’s 72.

Two of the three Labor party Knesset members (all that is left of this once great party) rushed in to join Netanyahu as well – annexation talk and all.

Despite those unhappy with the make-up of the new government from both sides of politics and notwithstanding the emotional language they use – if Knesset members reflect the ‘will of the people’, then indeed we have a clear result, supported by a large majority of Israelis.

By the way, this is also backed up by big margins in virtually all of the opinion polls.

There was a delay in the past couple of weeks in getting to this point precisely because democracy worked so well.

Many petitions were made to the High Court to block this government forming.

Chief Justice Esther Hayut, who is certainly not a Netanyahu puppet at all, led an extraordinary series of public hearings over two days, with an extended High Court bench of 11 Judges.

They heard petitions against the formation of this government both on the basis of Netanyahu’s fitness for the position of Prime Minister, considering he has been indicted on multiple charges and on the detailed elements of the Gantz/Netanyahu coalition agreement which contains numerous unprecedented clauses requiring novel pieces of legislation, to enable its birth.

To be very clear, the High Court’s decision was unanimous.

That’s extremely important as the Judges themselves did not want to leave any doubt as to the Court’s decision that could have arisen, if say, their vote had been split.

And they made very clear that their decision was purely based on legal grounds.

What was perhaps most interesting in the now decades long tussle between the Judiciary and Knesset over the extent of judicial activism, was that Hayut’s and the Court’s actions made clear that not everything is necessarily subject to judicial review.

Moreover, the High Court put special emphasis on it being the Knesset that represents the ‘will of the people’ and noted that this is at the core of democracy and that the Court’s intervention would be a serious breach of the concept of majority rule.

This really is a major ruling put out by the Court and as already noted – decided unanimously.

The Court did however leave the door open for further petitions to it and in fact did force some changes and impose some conditions on the coalition agreements.

Perhaps most importantly, that Netanyahu would have to limit his involvement in making certain appointments such as a new State Prosecutor, Attorney General or Police Chief – due to potential conflicts of interest in selecting these people.

The Court completed its business in time for the Knesset to pass whatever legislation it needed to and for the Knesset to recommend to President Rivlin that Netanyahu be invited to form the next government.

Initially, under the coalition agreement, the new government will deal with the corona virus and really only consider one major piece of other policy – annexation.

What’s interesting about annexation, is that whatever will occur or not, it will seemingly be backed by a very large majority in the Knesset.

credit: Devpolicy Blog

The first point on annexation is to note that when it comes to most of the major settlements – notably the three so called settlement blocks – there is a consensus on annexation at some point in time – the differences being on timing.

There is also general agreement on certain territorial requirements for security.

Currently Israel has full control of Area C – about 60% of the West Bank/Judaea & Samaria.

The Trump Plan envisages Israel having control of only 30% of the West Bank/Judaea & Samaria, with 70% being given over to a Palestinian entity.

The truth is that whatever does happen – no section of Israeli politics is actually happy with the annexation on offer.

What remains of the left is opposed to annexation and the Trump Plan mostly because they do not believe any unilateral annexation can be good for Israel’s future unless as part of an agreement creating a viable Palestinian State.

Moreover, as the Trump plan does not require a single Jew, even from small geographically isolated settlements, to be removed, they believe that full annexation under the plan creates an impossible situation for the future Palestinian entity.

The centre is not enthusiastic about annexation as it appears it will be unilateral and without a broader agreement with the Palestinians and/or the Arab world.  In particular they worry about how it will affect relations with Jordan and are not sure anything will actually be gained by annexation.  At the same time, they wish to move the isolated settlers into larger Jewish towns.

Ironically the right wing are also unhappy with annexation because of the price it has to pay for it under the Trump Plan.

Having to give up 70% of the territories and agreeing to a Palestinian entity, is just not something they want to do at all.

In the coalition agreement, Gantz has effectively left this decision to Netanyahu who has, as is his trademark – been very cautious over his entire term when it comes to settlement building and who has annexed nothing to date.

Aside from his own internal calculations, Netanyahu has to factor in Trump’s demands and potential reactions to anything Israel does or does not do – and perhaps more importantly, the way she does it.
We’ll know more on this matter in the coming two months or so.

Overlaid over this whole scene is the fact that Netanyahu’s trial is supposed to begin in two weeks, barring another extension – something everyone believes can be dragged out for quite a long time.

In any case, long enough to ensure that the political maestro he is, Netanyahu should be able to remain Israel’s Prime Minister for at least the next 18 months and almost unbelievably, with an increased majority to back him.

If nothing changes……………………

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. 

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