In a surprise move, Israel’s Blue and White leader Benny Gantz decided to join caretaker Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a unity government after pledging for many months he would not do so because of the indictment of the latter on corruption charges.
Gantz cited the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for his change of heart. In a Facebook post, he wrote: “I did what my nation needs. These are unusual times. Israel is in a state of emergency… [the population faces] a health threat that is taking human life and [causing] economic devastation…”
However, the real reason may have been a question of mathematics. After getting the nod from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to form a government, Gantz discovered that he did not have enough votes.
Gantz was hoping to carry the day with a coalition that would include his Blue and White party (33 seats), former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party (7 seats), the Labour-Gesher-Meretz bloc (7 seats) and the Joint Arab List (15 seats).
Such a coalition would have given Gantz a slight majority (62) seats in the 120-member Knesset. However, three members of the Blue and White balked at a coalition that would include the Israeli Arab parties, which effectively scuttled this coalition.
Soon after, Gantz entered into negotiations with Netanyahu. The deal that was struck was that Gantz would temporarily become speaker of the Knesset (which happened on March 27) but would soon become deputy prime minister and defence minister.
Another Blue and White member of Gantz’s faction, Gabi Ashkenazi, would become foreign minister and another would become justice minister. Netanyahu would remain prime minister for 18 months and then pass this position on to Gantz.
Gantz’s decision to join Netanyahu caused an immediate rift within Blue and White, which is a coalition in itself. The other two leaders of Blue and White, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, denounced Gantz’s decision, saying it was a betrayal of his pledge not to join a government with Netanyahu at the helm. They and their followers refused to join Gantz, as did the other centre and left parties.
The leaders of the Joint Arab List also denounced Gantz’s deal with Netanyahu, which ended their chances of becoming part of a government.
Nonetheless, Gantz’s faction within Blue and White, called Israel Resilience, stayed with him, enough to bring this new coalition under Netanyahu closer to reality. However, despite all of the talk of a unity government, things have hit a roadblock.
The unity government that Gantz would be a part of not only includes the right-wing Likud party but also parties to the right of Likud, including those tied to the settler movement.
These parties want to proceed immediately with their long-held dream of annexation of settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. These parties and Likud got a big boost of support from US President Donald Trump in late January when he unveiled the US “peace plan,” which endorsed the idea of Israeli annexation of the settlements.
US officials pressed the Israelis, however, not to proceed immediately with annexation until after a new Israeli government was formed. But now that one is about to be formed, the right-wing parties are clamouring for action.
However, Gantz has refused to promise that he will back annexation, even though during the election campaign he endorsed the Trump peace plan with the caveat that he would support annexation of the Jordan Valley with the support of the international community, though only the United States has pledged such support. Gantz has said he wants veto power over any annexation plans.
Gantz’s demands have put him at odds with the right-wing parties such as Yamina. In a letter to Netanyahu, Yamina leaders threatened to pull out of the impending governing coalition if Gantz is given veto power over annexation and if his faction is given the Defence and Justice portfolios.
In addition, a prominent leader of the settler movement, Yossi Dagan warned Netanyahu not to give in to Gantz’s demands and reminded the Israeli leader that many settlers voted for him because of his promise to proceed with annexation.
Adding to Netanyahu’s problems is that some members of his own Likud party are upset that he is giving prominent cabinet portfolios to Gantz’s faction. One anonymous Likud member told media site Al-Monitor that “Netanyahu has sold out the right-wing agenda to the left.”
In his desperate attempt to remain prime minister, Netanyahu is clearly doing whatever he can to stay in his job and hopefully kick his corruption trial down the road for as long as possible (it has now been postponed to at least the latter part of May) but his ability to juggle these competing political demands is an open question.
On a positive note for the Palestinians and the peace camp in Israel, annexation of settlements is on hold now, but it is unclear if Gantz will be able to maintain his veto demand in these inter-party negotiations. If he caves on this demand, any long-term hope for a genuine two-state solution will dissipate, perhaps permanently.
Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former US State Department Middle East analyst.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.