It’s coronavirus-times, and a lot of things which would otherwise get noticed, go unnoticed. Some may be wondering: Wasn’t Israel just about to form a government? The answer is: Not quite yet.
It’s been just over a year since the first of the three Israeli elections (April, September, March), which have all failed so far to result in the forming of a government. In the meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu is the Prime Minister of the caretaker government.
It seemed as if things were just reaching a point of agreement on a “unity” government between Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz, but then Netanyahu wanted to “renegotiate”. Gantz’s Blue White had broken up into three factions (Gantz’s Hosen L’Israel, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem), because Gantz decided to go for a unity government where Netanyahu was Prime Minister first in a rotation agreement, and that was betraying his campaign promise to not serve under a Prime Minister facing indictment, under the pretext of the coronavirus emergency.
This U-turn sent Lapid and Ya’alon into the opposition. Netanyahu can thus be credited for breaking Blue White up, leaving rival Benny Gantz in a weakened position. And then, just after Gantz reportedly agreed to support unilateral annexation of nearly a third of the West Bank, Netanyahu called off the unity deal. Netanyahu said he wanted to renegotiate some things regarding appointment of judges etc.
So Blue White cut ties Tuesday last week (April 7th), and that unity government which was supposedly to be announced before the Passover, is just not there.
Meanwhile, the deadline for creating a government is approaching tonight at midnight. Gantz, who had the nod to go first in trying to make a government, tried to buy more time, approaching President Reuven Rivlin with a request for a two-week delay, but this was refused.
Now it would become Netanyahu’s turn to have a go. He already has one defector from the opposition bloc, that’s Orly Levy Abekasis who previously didn’t support either candidate, who has yesterday said she would go with Netanyahu if it were. This means he can count to 59, and needs a couple more defectors, which he may try to lobby for. Failing that, he can let his four weeks pass (or cut them a bit short as he did last time). That would technically lead to a 21-day period where any lawmaker can try to gather support for a government, but that seems unlikely to yield any results. Following that, fourth elections appear to be the next step. It seems that even by just sitting tight, Netanyahu will bring on a fourth election.
Already before the breakdown in negotiations occurred, there was speculation as to whether it was really Netanyahu’s intention at all, to form a unity government, or whether this was a game. Gidi Weitz in Haaretz (April 5th):
There’s also another possibility: Netanyahu will thwart formation of a unity government or break it up prematurely, hold new elections in another few months and, having dismantled the opposition that challenged him over the last year, win them. He would then form a right-wing government, which would pass legislation to stop his trial and prevent the High Court from intervening.
Mazal Mualem in Al-Monitor suggests that Netanyahu got “cold feet”, but I am not sure about that at all. Netanyahu is one shrewd politician, who manages to masterfully calculate political-survival steps far ahead of his opponents. His breaking up of the rival Blue White party is arguably his central achievement in this round.
A main and critical point in those recent negotiations between Netanyahu and Gantz was the issue of unilateral annexation. Gantz was playing the liberal, for whom it was really, really hard to accept such a move. But remember that it was Gantz’s own party that boasted last September of having come up with the idea of annexation, when Netanyahu endorsed annexation ahead of the September elections. So they are really just playing good-cop bad-cop on annexations.
Gantz eventually “conceded,” accepting that a law of annexation will be passed in the summer. For the right-wing, this has been a particularly important point to achieve while Donald Trump is still in office, since his ‘deal of the century’ provides the American legitimacy for that illegal move. The fear is that if a Democrat defeats Trump in November, that will fracture the golden opportunity to make yet another colonialist gain of territory.
But passing annexation-legislation may even be possible without that unity government. Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted:
A permanent government isn’t necessary to impose sovereignty. This could be done also by a caretaker government.
Smotrich is from the Tkumah faction of the Yamina right-wing party, which has been chiding Netanyahu for being too weak on the terms concerning judge appointments. They want to weaken the Supreme Court power and are concerned that too liberal judges may be appointed.
Smotrich’s logic about annexation-legislation also alludes to a wider logic, which Netanyahu of all people is not blind to: The coronavirus crisis has hit while he is leader. Elected or caretaker, no matter. He is corona-PM. There are scientific studies showing that in times of epidemics, we tend to become more conservative. David Robson in BBC Future:
Due to some deeply-evolved responses to disease, fears of contagion lead us to become more conformist and tribalistic, and less accepting of eccentricity. Our moral judgements become harsher and our social attitudes more conservative when considering issues such as immigration or sexual freedom and equality. Daily reminders of disease may even sway our political affiliations.
Netanyahu has surpassed David Ben-Gurion in holding the record of longest-serving PM, last year. He’s governed for almost 14 years now, the last 11 of which have been consecutive. He has for many come to resemble the ‘father of the nation’ figure, the leader they know. His popularity has risen under the coronavirus epidemic.
Why should he not want to await a fourth election in this situation? His chances of achieving a right-wing government, without the now-broken Blue White, appear to be improving. So what, an unelected government is a crisis for democracy? It’s not like Israel ever really had it anyway. And you know, it’s emergency times – in emergency times we need strong heroes.