A goodly chunk of the 14-page “Coalition Agreement for the Establishment of an Emergency National Unity Government,” signed Monday night by Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, is devoted to complex legalese intended to ensure that neither of these rivals-turned-partners can trick the other out of the prime ministership.
It could hardly have been otherwise.
For over a year, through three bitter election campaigns, Gantz denounced Netanyahu as divisive and dangerous to Israel, and vowed never to sit in government with him, while Netanyahu derided Gantz as weak, slow and entirely lacking in the skills necessary to lead the country.
Now that Gantz, in one of the more spectacular U-turns in Israeli political history, has opted to join forces with his nemesis after all, he understandably wants to ensure that the prime ministerial prize will indeed be his 18 months from now. Hence the clauses that he hopes will prevent Netanyahu from finding some path or pretext for clinging to power beyond October 2021.
And now that Netanyahu can look forward to the start of another spell as prime minister, he wants to be certain that the justices of Israel’s High Court will not hand Gantz the premiership ahead of schedule by accepting any of the various petitions that seek to disqualify him as PM because of his indictment on corruption charges.
Thus, along with its sections on the division of responsibility between the two men and their loyalists, its highly significant provision for potential annexation in the West Bank, its shift in the staffing of the committee that selects Israel’s judges, its clauses on how many charedi men will be conscripted to the IDF and who will appoint which of Israel’s top ambassadors, the deal marks an attempt by both men to overcome, by force of lawyerly language, their mistrust of each other.
Gantz would like to believe that the agreement gives Netanyahu little or no wiggle room on rotation. It swears Gantz in as prime minister-in-waiting from the get-go, with no new vote or decision required for him to take over. And it features a seemingly potent deterrent to Netanyahu dissolving the government in its first 18 months — mandating a resort to elections over a months-long transition period, during which Gantz would automatically become prime minister.
Netanyahu might believe he could win those subsequent elections — given that Gantz is far less electable these days, and the surviving Israeli opposition is much weakened. But the Blue and White leader is apparently betting that even the temporary relinquishing of power — via so naked and unstatesmanlike an act of political betrayal — with the accompanying enforced departure from the official residence, would prove a sufficient disincentive for Netanyahu to such underhanded maneuvering.
Netanyahu, for his part, hopes he’s achieved the least-bad arrangement in the event of the High Court attempting to seal his fate — with a formula that ensures Israel moves automatically to new elections if he is disqualified within the government’s first six months, the period during which the court is most likely to issue any such ruling.
In many respects, the deal is the equal power-sharing arrangement first proposed by President Reuven Rivlin after September’s elections, before Netanyahu had been indicted. Rivlin couldn’t persuade the rivals to accept it then; today’s combination of a pandemic, Gantz’s disillusion with the seemingly endless political fight and Netanyahu’s fear of the High Court has proven more effective. It’s by no means clear that the additional “don’t betray me” clauses are legally enforceable; there’s precedent for the High Court choosing not to intervene (Hebrew link) when petitioned over the breach of political agreements.
Dropping his political bombshell on March 26, Gantz said he was abandoning his opposition to a partnership with Netanyahu because the combination of the coronavirus crisis and the threats to Israeli democracy necessitated atypical decisions and actions. His erstwhile allies, astounded that he was acting the loser when he had been endorsed for prime minister by a (mutually exclusive) majority of MKs, accused him of stealing the votes of their electorate, and warned that Netanyahu would devour him politically. But Gantz insisted that if the gambit marked the end of his brief political career, he would know that he had striven to put Israel’s interests ahead of his own ambitions.
The coalition agreement reflects this mindset to some extent, even though its protracted negotiation rather belies the “emergency” designation. For its first six months, the coalition is to focus almost solely on tackling the pandemic, and Gantz and his allies will thus be playing the role he sought at the heart of government in trying to minimize the impact of Covid-19.
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The Blue and White leader has also ensured that former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who defied a High Court of Justice order last month to put his job up for a vote, will not be returning to the post. His ally Avi Nissenkorn is to take over as justice minister, in place of Likud’s Amir Ohana, a leading Netanyahu loyalist and critic of the courts and the state prosecution. And in a move aimed to symbolize the legitimacy of Israel’s Arab minority in the face of relentless attacks from the right, he is reportedly set to install an Arab Israeli as a minister for minority affairs.
But Gantz has made a hugely significant concession by accepting that, as of July 1, Netanyahu can hold a vote, in the government and/or the Knesset, on unilaterally extending Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank — potentially to all the settlements and additional swaths of the territory — in accordance with U.S. President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian “Peace to Prosperity” vision. It’s not definitively clear from the agreement’s disparate clauses whether Gantz and his allies are free to vote against such a move, in line with his position that annexation should not be unilateral, but they’re not allowed to block it and almost certainly won’t have the numbers to stop it.
He has granted the right potential veto power in the panel that appoints Israel’s High Court judges, with the appointment of Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser — a former Netanyahu cabinet secretary — to the committee. And he has given the ultra-Orthodox parties the means to continue to thwart any effort to compel more members of their constituency to perform national service.
The biggest compensatory gain for Gantz, needless to say, would follow 18 months from now, when he is supposed to become prime minister.
Gantz’s ex-allies in the Yesh Atid party, unswerving in their mistrust of Netanyahu and their fury at Gantz’s change of course, were adamant late Monday that this will simply never happen. Instead, sources in that party were sniping, Gantz has merely handed Netanyahu at least another six-month stint as prime minister, during which the incumbent will further boost his current much-improved popularity by quashing the pandemic, healing its economic consequences and pushing ahead with annexation.
If the High Court disqualifies Netanyahu as prime minister during this period, the terms of the coalition deal would require new elections, in which he would run on a platform promising legislation to heed the will of the people by overriding the court. And if the court does not intervene, Netanyahu will dissolve the Knesset and force elections anyway when he judges the time is ripe, paying the small price of being out of office for a few interim months, rather than meekly handing over power as agreed.
Set against such cynicism, Channel 12 political analyst Amit Segal noted late Monday that Netanyahu has now unprecedentedly “picked up a pen and signed off” on a date for the cessation of his prime ministership, having promised in an interview with the same channel three weeks ago that, if Gantz sealed a deal with him, he would “hand over power on the date that we agree — no tricks.”
We shall see.