Netanyahu has never been so close to dethronement, which could have ended his decades-long political career altogether, as he is facing indictment on charges of three cases of corruption. To his right-wing base, he has been surmounting hardships for the sake of the nation; to others, he is striving for a mere political survival and, potentially, his freedom, too.
If another candidate supersedes Netanyahu in leading the government, he would have to resign and appear in court over accusations of corruption. But so long as Benjamin Netanyahu, 69, remains as head of government, the Israeli justice will not be able to proceed to prosecution.
This September’s legislative elections caught Israel in a political gridlock, as no party could obtain the minimum of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. The centre-left party Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), led by Benny Gantz, had put Netanyahu’s aspirations in jeopardy when Gantz outran Netanyahu’s conservative Likud in gaining most of the Knesset seats. Kahol Lavan reached 33 seats, whereas Likud only 31.
In such case, the rest of lawmakers from the other parties would have to recommend either leaders of the first two parties, Netanyahu or Gantz, to the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who would then appoint a candidate to assemble a governing coalition. Here, 55 lawmakers recommended Benjamin Netanyahu, compared with 54 in favour of Gantz. Benny Gants previously acquired the recommendation of 57 lawmakers, due to the surprising support of lawmakers from the Arab Joint List – an alliance of Arab-majority parties who won 13 seats. By Monday, September 23, three legislators from the Joint List subsequently withdrew their support, making it 54 in total for Gantz.
As he stood quite close to his end as head of government, Netanyahu had called on Gantz, his major opponent, to form a coalition to reach a total of 64 seats in the Parliament. Gantz had accepted to proceed to talks, but rejected Netanyahu’s candidacy for another term in the top office, and said he, Gantz, would lead the new government.
Benny Gantz would hold that same position even when, on Wednesday, September 25, Netanyahu was appointed by Reuven Rivlin to assemble the new governing coalition. “Kahol Lavan, under my leadership, does not agree to sit in a government whose leader is facing a severe indictment,” Gantz said in reaction to the news.
The September elections came after Netanyahu failed to form the governing coalition following similarly failing elections in April. Netanyahu had called off the April elections by dissolving the Knesset after inconclusive results —and his imminent loss.
Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel since 2014, is fond of Netanyahu and is a Likud veteran himself – although Benjamin Netanyahu tried to block the 2014 presidential elections and even talked of abolishing the presidency. Benny Gantz, for his part, although a military veteran, is often seen as – like in Netanyahu’s own word – a “soft leftist”, usually a persona non grata in Israeli politics.
The Arab Joint List’s unprecedented involvement and support for Gantz, however, was less a bid to advance the interests of Arabs living within Israeli borders than to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu. Although its leader Ayman Odeh previously alluded to the possibility of sitting in the potential government formed by Kahol Lavan, the Arab Joint List later said it would not take part in it.
Belonging to the government, for Arab lawmakers, is to take part in its responsibility and to approve of its decisions, whereas Israel often leads military operations in the Arab-majority Palestine and is accused of segregation and the killing of numerous Palestinian civilians.
Although gone unnoticed by Kahol Lavan in the previous elections, the Arab Joint List was abruptly expected by the centre and the left to tip the balance and put an end to Netanyahu’s reign. “… Without the Arab vote, there won’t be any way to create a government that isn’t right-wing,” Rami Hod, executive director of the Berl Katznelson Educational Center, told Haaretz. Yet, on the other hand, Netanyahu often resorts to the Arabs to further his electoral aspirations, demonising them and fueling the anti-Arab sentiment long present among his right-wing base.
Calling on Israelis to vote for him before the September elections, Netanyahu wrote, “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” He later even warned that they would “destroy us all”.
No Arab party has ever taken part in a governing coalition in Israel. The country now bears 1.8 million Arabs within its mostly walled borders. They make a fifth of its population, but remain an outcast in general. They are often depicted – especially by the ultra-orthodox and the conservatives – as disloyal to the country they live in and bearers of dangerous nationalistic motivations favouring the Palestinian cause.
In 2018, the Knesset passed a nation-state law that declared Israel as the national home for Jews solely. It had also downgraded the Arabic language to merely having a “special status”, after it had been its second official language.
Besides, as violence, high rates in crime and, among others, inequity in education stain the Arab community in Israel, a rising dissatisfaction is often easily perceived within it and appears to only widen the peoples’ polarization. A recent study conducted by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research showed that 58% of Arabs in Israel believe their political leadership “does not do a good job in representing the Arab community,” compared to 41% in 2017.
If Gantz and Netanyahu ended up making a joint government following the late elections, the Arab Joint List’s leader Ayman Odeh could have been positioned to become the opposition leader, his party being the third-largest faction in the Knesset.
But now as Netanyahu has been appointed by Reuven Rivlin to try to assemble the coalition that will make up the next government, having a deadline of 28 days (and a possible extension of 14 days), the Joint List’s hope to weigh in as the opposition will easily fizzle out. If Netanyahu fails, his opponent Benny Gantz will get hold of the steering wheel, and Gantz, perhaps not so different from Netanyahu to the Arabs, had already called off the idea of having Arab lawmakers in his government.