Though the results of the Israeli election are known, the composition of the next government is not. Both Netanyahu’s Likud and the center-right Blue and White coalition lost seats compared to the recent April election. But the latter came out two seats ahead in last week’s election. Neither party has enough votes to create a coalition that is far-right (Likud) or center-right (Blue and White). If Israel were a true democracy in which Jewish parties included Palestinian parties in a governing coalition, Blue and White could form a centrist secular one. But this is not the case. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has publicly stated he would never include non-Jewish parties in his government. And a crucial component of such a cabinet would be the 8 votes of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. He too would never sit with “Arabs” in government:
“I would like to stress that the ultra-Orthodox are a political opponent, not an enemy. As for the Joint List – they are definitely our enemy,” he said.
That leaves only one option short of calling for a third election: a “unity government” between Likud and Blue and White. This is what Lieberman wants. It is what Pres. Rivlin says he wants. But there is one major impediment: Bibi Netanyahu. During the campaign, Gantz swore he would never join a coalition led by Bibi. Now, as is the wont of Israeli politicians, he appears to be changing his tune under pressure from Pres. Rivlin:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz launched negotiations on Monday over a proposed Israeli unity government and a key politician said the focus was on who would lead it first under a rotation deal.
Concluding their meeting at Rivlin’s Jerusalem office, Netanyahu and Gantz issued a joint statement saying they had discussed “moving forward with unity”. It did not elaborate.
“The entire argument right now is over the question of who will serve first as prime minister, and who second,” said Lieberman.
An irony of this proposed arrangement is that Gantz already promised his partner, Yair Lapid, that he would rotate the PM position with him after two years. That means that Lapid too would have to forego his cherished goal in order to satisfy the new arrangement.
It hardly seems to matter that only a few weeks ago Gantz swore he would never sit in the same government with a leader who was under indictment for corruption. How quickly Israeli pols forget their pledges. In that country’s politics, pledges are not commitments. They are purely transactional and useful until they aren’t, then abandoned. It is one of the reasons Israelis are terribly cynical about politics, and one of the reasons the Israeli political system will likely never solve its conflict with the Palestinians without outside intervention.
Such a deal would throw a life preserver to Netanyahu, who expects to be indicted on up to three separate corruption charges in the coming weeks. As prime minister, it will be much harder to pursue such charges. And certainly, as part of his negotiation with Gantz he will attempt to negotiate a deal that would include legislation granting him immunity from prosecution. I would expect Gantz to resist such a deal. But in Israeli politics, almost everything is for sale whether they are principles or tangible assets.
It’s worth noting that this Ynet article offers a distinctly less optimistic assessment of the possibility of a Gantz-Netanyahu cohabitation deal. A Blue and White source told Times of Israel that Gantz plans to hold the line and maintain his promise:
Gantz told his party members that he would not abandon his promise to voters not to let Netanyahu remain prime minister…
[He] updated Blue and White leaders on his talks with Netanyahu and said he told [the PM] unity was not possible unless he stepped down as prime minister.
Should Gantz decide to join a Netanyahu-led coalition he should be aware that the latter has outlasted and outsmarted a number of partners from other parties who negotiated shared leadership deals including Ehud Barak, Amir Peretz and Avigdor Lieberman. All thought they could at least remain his equal, if not succeed him. All failed because Netanyahu is a master tactician in the art of attrition, who has a thousand ways to embarrass and defang rivals. All he needs is time to do it. Two years (until the former IDF general’s turn in the rotation comes) is more than enough time to cut Gantz down to size, break up the government, and call yet another election. Beating Netanyahu at his own game is a treacherous proposition.
If Gantz held tight to his demand that the Likud oust Netanyahu before agreeing to a joint coalition, that Party sees no reason to abandon Netanyahu just yet. He has been the Party’s leader for nearly 15 years, longer than any other previous prime minister. He has held onto power through endless strategems and is a masterful political tactician (though not a strategist). Despite facing three corruption indictments, the Party stands behind him, for now.
If the president turns to Gantz to form a government, he has until early November to do so. That means there will be a great deal of grandstanding, threats, and horsetrading in the coming five weeks. Gantz will encourage Netanyahu’s rivals to topple him. The latter will do his utmost to retain control. No one wants a third election. So the odds are that someone will blink. Given the election loss of the Likud, it seemed until yesterday that Netanyahu will be the dispensable man. Now, who knows? Netanyahu may have pulled an ace from the pack in this game of political poker.
Liberal Zionist Nostrums: Boisterous Democracy and Saving Two States
Liberal Zionist journalists and commentators have been almost rapturous in praising the Israeli election results. Gershom Gorenberg says it could heal Israel’s battered democracy:
There is an uncertain chance that voters have ended the Netanyahu era. Rather than descend further into illiberal democracy, Israel may have begun a slow recovery. Someday historians even may mark Sept. 17, 2019, as the turning point toward a two-state agreement. It will take time to know.
Roger Cohen similarly believes that ridding Israel of Bibi will miraculously end Israel’s 20-year nightmare:
If Israelis have indeed, at last, brought down the curtain on the Netanyahu show, they will have saved not only the last faint chance of a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians, but also their precious democracy itself. That would be quite something…
The New York Times resident neocon columnist, Bret Stephens, even produced this bit of unadulterated fluffery:
What won’t be happening anytime soon is the demise of Israel’s boisterous democracy. Those looking for signs of hope in the politically decadent West could do worse than look to Jerusalem.
Boisterous democracy indeed. One which declares one-fifth of the population to be inferior to the Jewish majority. One which engages in perpetual war with its Arab neighbors. One which lays siege to 2-million Palestinians in Gaza and maintains an illegal Occupation of Palestine. Stephens and his fellow members of the liberal Zionist chattering classes are deluding not just themselves, but their readers and the world about the true nature of Israel. This election doesn’t ameliorate any of the profound disjunctions of Israeli society. At best it papers them over and delays the day of reckoning.
What does a unity government portend for Israel? Does it offer any chance to renew the peace process if a more moderate government rules? Unfortunately, it doesn’t. As Mairav noted in the Washington Post, Blue and White is not the centrist party the foreign media is making it out to be. She called it a “Likud spinoff.” I call it Likud-Lite: it includes cast-offs figures who abandoned the Likud in the midst of the Netanyahu corruption scandals.
Gantz himself was the IDF chief of staff responsible for 2,300 Palestinian dead during the 2014 Gaza war. He does not oppose Occupation. Nor does he oppose settlements or endorse uprooting them. When Netanyahu announced he would annex the Jordan Valley if he won, Gantz claimed it was the prime minister who stole this idea from him! In short, Gantz is no Yitzhak Rabin. He will not be inclined to negotiate a deal with the Palestinians. Not to mention, that at least until 2020 (presuming Trump does not win re-election), there will be no U.S. pressure for him to do so.
Joint List Recommends Gantz, Liberal Zionists Rejoice
Commentators have also praised the election results which gave the Palestinian Joint List 13 seats in the new Knesset. They breathed a sign of relief that Palestinian turnout rose from 49% in the last election to 61% in the current one. The Joint List will be the third-largest party in the Knesset and, if there is a unity government, it will become the main Opposition. Israeli liberal Zionists are marveling that the Party just decided to recommend to the president that Gantz be named to form a new government. It is the first time a Palestinian Party did so since 1992. For left Zionists, it portends an improvement in the status of Israeli Palestinians and a slow march toward equality. I fear that it is not, and that they maintain a delusional belief that Israel will somehow miraculously become a secular democracy (while maintaining Jewish privilege).
In the months leading up to the election, (Jewish) liberal Zionists urged Palestinians to vote. Stories were plastered across the pages of Haaretz. David Grossman even wrote an article in a Palestinian newspaper. The headlines had the urgency of “vote goddamit.” It felt to me like Palestinians were being asked to undo a mistake they hadn’t made. If Israeli Jews made Netanyahu, why should they expect Palestinians to unmake him? It seemed like chutzpah to me. Palestinian journalist, Amjad Iraqi, writing in The Guardian agreed:
These surprising developments [the Joint List vote and the rise in Palestinian turnout] have been praised as major steps towards “integrating” Palestinian citizens into national politics and reigniting the opposition to increasingly hard-right rule. But such claims are seriously flawed. Like much of Israeli politics over the past decade, the value placed on Palestinian voting power has been centred almost exclusively on one issue: ousting Netanyahu. There has been little engagement in Israel or abroad with the community’s larger policy concerns, which include stopping home demolitions and land seizures, eradicating gun violence in Arab towns, revoking dozens of discriminatory laws and ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories. And yet as the Palestinian writer and feminist activist Samah Salaime put it, the Israeli centre-left now thinks that it is the responsibility of Palestinians “to take Bibi down – as second-class citizens, but first-class voters”.
…This narrow narrative, which the Joint List itself often resorts to, reduces Palestinian citizens to pawns in a competition between Jewish political elites, whose differences have more to do with personality than policy.
…Palestinians are damned if the List steps away and allows Netanyahu’s return, and they are damned if it steps in and offers Gantz a path to power.
I’m incredulous that the Joint List could swallow its national pride and recommend as prime minister an IDF general who slaughtered 500 Palestinian children and 700 women during Operation Protective Edge. That’s a lot to swallow. A New York Time op-ed by Joint List chair, Ayman Odeh, displays a similar level of naivete, as does this statement Odeh made yesterday, which flies in the face of actual Israeli reality:
“We want to live in a peaceful place based on ending the occupation, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, true equality, on the civil and national level, social justice and certainly democracy for all“
That’s all very well except that no Israeli premier in the country’s entire history ever did anything concrete (aside from words) to realize a two-state solution. And the entirety of the Likud opposes it. Gantz hasn’t even mentioned it during the entire campaign. As for “true equality,” Israel currently is a Judeo ethnostate. How do you get from here to there under current conditions? I just don’t see a way.
It remains to be seen how such a decision would benefit the Joint List or its constituents. One of its main demands is repeal of the racist Nation State law, which enshrines Jews a superior national status. Given that Likud enacted this law, it’s hard to see how Gantz can satisfy this demand without breaking up his new government. Perhaps the government will agree to fund infrastructure projects important to the Palestinian community; perhaps an individual Palestinian could be named a junior minister as has happened in two previous governments. But the truth is that without Palestinian political parties in a ruling coalition, Israel is practicing electoral apartheid.
It’s also worth noting that while Palestinian turnout increased dramatically in this election, it came nowhere near Jewish voter turnout, which was well over 70%. If Israeli Palestinian voting had reached 75% it would have earned 3-4 more seats. That, in turn, would make it much harder for Jewish parties to boycott them; which would offer Palestinians real power, as opposed to shadow rights and privileges. But that cannot happen as long as the system is rigged against them and in favor of Jewish citizens. To undo this will require a massive transformation of Israeli society, elevating the status of non-Jewish citizens and stripping Jews of superior status, something they are loath to do.
Future Relations with Iran Under New Israeli Government
Israel’s other major enemy in the region is Iran. Netanyahu has cultivated an alliance with the Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia against Iran. Twice in the past decade the prime minister stood ready to attack Iran, only to be restrained by his military-intelligence chiefs. Any government led by Gantz (should he refuse to cohabit with Netanyahu) will continue cultivating these Arab relationships. But Gantz, who was one of those chiefs who opposed attacking Iran, is unlikely to relish such military adventures, as his predecessor did. Further, as chief of staff, Gantz also supported the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration. If there is a new Democratic administration in power after 2020, it reawakens the opportunity to revive the JCPOA, with Israel this time being on board. That could be a watershed in lessening tension and hostility between Iran and the west.
I hope that pragmatists within the Iranian regime will put the new Israeli government’s sincerity to the test by offering to lessen tension from its current sky-high levels.
Nevertheless, a new Gantz-led government will by no means reduce pressure on Iran. It will continue supporting sanctions and covert operations designed to degrade that country’s nuclear program. No one should make the mistake that a new day is dawning (yet) for peace in the Middle East. That is hardly the case.
As for relations with Arab frontline states, past Israeli governments, both Likud and Labor, have had numerous opportunities to negotiate peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians. All have come to naught. No Israeli prime minister wants to make peace, because to do so invites cries of betrayal and cowardice from the Settler lobby and their extreme nationalist allies. With the Likud sitting by his side in his government, Gantz will have no leeway for such adventures. His, threatens to be a government of stasis.