Israel’s government coalition remains a highly volatile partnership. The latest example was seen this week when the country avoided the fourth new election in two years at the last minute.
Major Instability Still Remains
However, with the postponement of the budget dispute, the next round in the ongoing battle between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz is just that: postponed, not overcome nor canceled. With it, the next conflict is already waiting.
The coalition’s volatility between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue & White had been anticipated when both agreed to the terms of their forced partnership. Accordingly, there has now been an ongoing dispute among both parties since they took office on May 17.
This week, it nearly ended the coalition, in which case the Israelis would have cast their votes for the fourth time in just two years.
The Budget Dispute
Specifically, the dispute was about the country’s budget—the coalition agreement provided for adopting a budget for the rest of this year and next year. However, Netanyahu and his Likud claimed that this would tie the government’s hands in urgent action to help the economy, which has been hurt due to the coronavirus pandemic. Netanyahu stuck to his position. Gantz, who opposed it, also remained tough.
The reason for this is that Netanyahu and Gantz are concerned with their political future. In Israel, there are automatically new elections if the deadline does not pass the budget. Unlike in other cases of failure of the current coalition, Netanyahu would thus remain in office.
The approval of the budget for the coming year is, therefore, a reassurance for Gantz that Netanyahu, as agreed in the coalition agreement, will hand over the baton to him in November 2021. Literally, at the last minute, both sides agreed on a bill that postpones the deadline for adopting the budget by three months and thus provides both a respite. The new deadline is now December 23.
Is it Really a Co-Equal Coalition Government?
The deep distrust between Netanyahu and Gantz suggests that the issue will remain, despite the postponement, which, by no means, will mitigate the current circumstances in Israel. While Netanyahu and Gantz are equal partners on paper, Blue and White remain the minority partner. The party not only has fewer parliamentary seats than the Likud, but the public does not credit Gantz’s willingness to compromise. Instead, he is criticized as a man without a backbone. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is doing everything possible to present himself as Israel’s unilateral answer to a greater future.
The most recent example of this is the normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates. Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi only found out about this when President Trump spread the news on Twitter. Instead of admitting to the two that they were correct in their line of balancing with countries in the region over the planned annexation of parts of the West Bank, Netanyahu said he had not informed the two because he was afraid they might do something leak to the public.
Had Netanyahu let the coalition collapse, an expensive and challenging election campaign would likely have overshadowed his Emirates’ success. In addition to the COVID-19 crisis, that was arguably another reason why he finally agreed to the postponement.
The Threat of New Elections Still Remains
However, the threat of new elections has not disappeared and Netanyahu will do everything possible to maintain his power and attempt to circumvent the agreement of having Gantz becoming his successor.
He is still on trial for corruption charges and can no longer avoid the latter. However, by staying in power, he could severely lengthen the process and influence a potential jail sentence by appointing posts such as attorney general and police chief.
Blue and White, and above all, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, whose prerogative is filling such vacancies, are currently standing in the way of such an approach. For the time being, Likud has stipulated that the picks will be made by a committee that also includes Likud representatives. The decision on the exact composition remains pending for now.
Israel’s government is, therefore, far from being out of the woods.