Unity Government in Israel at Last, but for How Long?

The drama of Israeli elections has lingered on for more than a year and over three rounds of polls but it appears it might finally be near resolution as the unity government between two rival groups looms closer. After bickering for weeks, the incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few days back claimed to have reached an agreement in principle with Benny Gantz, which the latter didn’t initially confirm.

The Basic Problem in Israel’s Politics

Neither coalition had managed to reach the 61-seat threshold in the Knesset to form a government, creating fears of yet another election ending in a stalemate. But in a surprising twist, Gantz got 74 votes on March 26 to be elected as the interim speaker of the parliament with the support of Bibi’s Likud. This resulted in Gantz’s own Blue and White splitting away on ideological grounds for not wanting to be part of any majority that has the incumbent prime minister on it.

Then this Sunday, Netanyahu and Gantz in a joint statement announced “reaching fundamental understandings through efforts to form a unity government,” while making it clear that some minor issues still need to be ironed out.

As per the agreement, the unity government would last three years with Bibi to serve as the prime minister until September 2021 before being replaced by Gantz. Meanwhile, the ministries will be shared equally between the two groups at 15 each, with finance and health going to Likud and security, justice, communications and foreign affairs to Blue and White.

Gantz’s Damage to His Own Coalition

But reaching a truce with the increasingly right wing Likud hasn’t done well to Gantz’s own centrist Blue and White. What was once cobbled together to pose a strong front against Netanyahu has now been reduced to two medium and one small parties, giving much power to the incumbent prime minister.

The fallout from joining forces with Bibi was almost immediate as Blue and White’s former allies Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor pulled out. Israel’s third largest electoral group, the Arab Joint List with 15 seats, had also recommended to the president to invite Gantz to form the government.

For the past two elections Gantz has taken a strong, hardliner stance against any deal that would keep Netanyahu as the prime minister. However, he justified this latest u-turn saying the country is in extraordinary times due to the threat posed by the coronavirus. “Israel is facing a growing number of infections and the number of victims is rising daily,” he told the Knesset on Thursday.

Unsustainable Deal

While the latest agreement between the two primary political groups has put talks of another election to rest for the time being, it remains to be seen how sustainable the deal is. First of all, Netanyahu is being indicted for corruption and has gotten only a temporary relief until May 24 as the country’s courts were frozen in the wake of the coronavirus.

The unity government could also have far-reaching consequences in the overall political landscape of the country as Blue and White — seen as the only viable frontier to Likud and its right wing allies — has succumbed to pressure. Israel’s Arab minority is already feeling disillusioned by the system. Despite the Arabic Joint List party emerging as the third largest group, they have had no say in the entire deal-making, with many feeling absolutely hopeless about the prospect of any secular party calling the shots.