The end of the political deadlock that has crippled Israel for almost one and a half years seems to be in sight after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he has managed to form a government.
Past Inability to Form an Israeli Government
The events leading to the formation of the government began soon after the election early this year. Both the Likud and the Blue and White had failed to secure enough seats in the Knesset, therefore making the formation of the government impossible.
Although Benny Gantz’s Blue and White — backed by other leftist parties — had gained a slight majority in the Knesset, divisions among them made it impossible for them to form a government. The participation of the Arab Joint List alliance in any government that was to be formed was particularly resented by other members of the pro-Gantz bloc.
This was because of its sympathy and support for the plight of the Palestinians. In fact Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu had vowed not to participate in any government that would involve the Joint List.
Owing to the support he had from various political parties, Gantz was given the first chance to form a government within 28 days. But this proved to be mission impossible after two members of his own Blue and White party insisted that they would vote against a government propped up by the Joint List. He, therefore had no other option but to return the mandate to the president.
With no end in sight for the deadlock, there were growing calls for both Netanyahu and Gantz to compromise their political ambitions in order to avoid a fourth election which would require millions of dollars. Furthermore, the dysfunctional Knesset meant that the government was not able to pass its 2020 financial budget to meet its obligations.
For instance, all ministries were only allocated a twelfth of what they had received the previous year per month. This meant long term projects and investment in basic services had to be put on hold .
The lack of annual budget also meant that the government couldn’t address the national budget deficit which had risen drastically to $3.9 billion in 2019, causing a reduction of 1.7% in the amount allocated to ministries in the final quarter of that year.
The fluid political situation was further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic that was sweeping across Israel. Without a substantive government and key Knesset committees in place, many feared that the raging pandemic posed an even more significant threat to the Israeli public.
Netanyahu’s Reaction to COVID-19
Netanyahu as interim prime minister had reacted to the health crisis by introducing various measures to control the spread of the virus. Among them was the closure of the courts which resulted in his trial being postponed.
His appeal for Gantz to join him in the formation of a unity government to deal with the health crisis was strongly rejected by Blue and White and its allies. Most members of the pro-Gantz bloc — including Gantz himself — were maintaining their stand of not serving in the same government with Netanyahu who was facing criminal charges.
Some members had gone as far as drafting a bill to prevent a person facing criminal charges from forming a government.
But as the coronavirus situation became dire so did the calls for a unity government intensify. The proposal Netanyahu was making to Gantz involved him staying in power for two years as prime minister after which he would step down. The pro Gantz alliance, however, dismissed the proposal terming it as a plot by Netanyahu to outmaneuever them.
Gantz’s Surprise Agreement with Netanyahu
After much back and forth, Gantz agreed to form a unity government with Netanyahu catching most of his political allies by surprise. Many accused him of betrayal by agreeing to work with his opponent after vowing not to do so because of the criminal charges the Likud leader was facing.
This led to do the breakup of the Blue and White alliance which had been led by Gantz since February 2019. Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid and Telem factions led Moshe Ya’alon filed a formal to break away from the alliance leaving Gantz’s to form a unity government with Netanyahu.
According to the deal signed between Netanyahu and Gantz, government positions would be shared equally between their respective factions, with the position of prime minister alternating between them.
Netanyahu would start off as prime minister while Gantz as defense minister. After 18 months the two would swap roles with Gantz taking over as prime minister and Netanyahu as cabinet minister. Each of them would use the title “alternate prime minister” when not serving as prime minister
The government would have 32 ministers, 16 from each wing, before rising to 36 in six months. It will definitely be the most bloated cabinet in Israel’s’ history. “This partly to accommodate the demands of multiple divergent parties within the coalition who have little in common,” according to the Guardian.
During the first six months of the unity government only legislation related to the coronavirus would be brought to the Knesset. Any other legislation unrelated to the coronavirus would be brought to the Knesset only after consultation between the two wings.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu was to be allowed to continue with the legislation to annex parts of the occupied West Bank as envisaged in Donald Trump’s peace plan.
A New Unity Government Will be Formed
As a result of this deal, on May 7,2020, Israel president formally gave Prime Minister Netanyahu the mandate to form a unity government. Five days later, Netanyahu in a letter to both Gantz and President Rivlin, announced that he had been able to form a government.
The new government was to be sworn in the following day May 14, but this has now been postponed until Sunday as Netanyahu comes under immense pressure from his allies who feel left out from ministerial positions.
Naftali Bennet the leader of Yamina which stood with Netanyahu during the elections accused him of not making an attempt to include the party in the government.
Despite Netanyahu then offered the party the ministries for education and Jerusalem, Bennet insisted that he could only accept the ministries of transportation and health.
With the discontent over cabinet slots heightening, there are reports that Netanyahu has been pushing for the government to start with the 36 ministers instead of 32, to enable him calm the storm among the disgruntled Likud politicians.
“Those who flattered Netanyahu got jobs and those who are professionals and have done their job well have come up empty,” one Likud minister complained.
Whether Netanyahu will be able to calm the storm before Sunday remains to be seen. However considering that he has managed to overcome the political turmoil of the last 18 months, mollifying the disgruntled Likud politicians won’t be a big task for him.