After almost a year and a half - and three elections - Benjamin Netanyahu, the grand magician of Israeli politics, managed to pull off another of his tricks to mobilise a majority of MKs to support a coalition government he will lead, in theory, for only the next 18 months. Unless he is found guilty in the corruption trial he faces.
Significantly, his personal victory will be detrimental to the future of the country’s democracy, the justice system in particular, good governance, and whatever slim chance may remain of a peace process leading to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Attributing Netanyahu’s success in forming a government to his vast experience, personal charm, unscrupulous manipulative nature, and limitless hunger for power provides only part of the answer. The weakness of the opposition and its lack of ideological conviction and self-belief must also be taken into account.
Over three election campaigns, the hastily formed Blue & White party, comprising three different factions and led by Benny Gantz, did come close to toppling Likud and ending the time in office of the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history. After the third election the centre-left bloc even gained a tiny majority over the right-wing parties.
Ideologically, the notion of centre-left is rather misleading as a number of MKs in this bloc lean more to the right, but they all united under the ‘Just Not Bibi’ banner. However, when given the opportunity to pass legislation to bar a defendant in a criminal case from serving in government, they buckled.
This failure was because they couldn’t bring themselves to ally with the Joint Arab List in order to win the vote - a disturbing illustration of the inherent prejudice against Israel’s Arab minority, whose status as equal citizens remains under constant attack and whose legitimacy is challenged time and again.
Under the pretext of the need for an emergency government to cope with coronavirus, Benny Gantz stripped his party of all political assets, brought about its split, and agreed to join a rotating government as foreign minister and deputy to prime minister Netanyahu for the first 18 months, at which point they are supposed to reverse their roles.
It would be naïve to believe this administration is a response to public health and economic challenges posed by COVID-19. It is about Netanyahu stopping at nothing to avoid being held to account and Gantz’s lack of what Netanyahu has in abundance – a dogged obsession with holding power, be it for a day or a decade.
Many aspects of the coalition agreement are a source of grave concern, but three stand out. First is its plan for a bold assault on the justice system by handing to politicians the power to appoint judges, especially to the Supreme Court, the attorney general, the state prosecutor, and the police chief.
The Netanyahu family’s hatred of the judicial system is well-documented and comprises a mixture of ideology and personal vendetta. For the right, the justice system – especially the Supreme Court – represents the last bastion of liberalism and what they have called the ‘deep state’, preventing them from turning the country more religious, and stopping settlers in the occupied West Bank from doing as they wish to Palestinians and their land.
Second, more than any government in the country’s history, this newly formed one is united in its support for de-legitimising and discriminating against the Arab minority, which makes up 20 percent of Israel’s population, and its elected representatives.
Not only will those who participate in this coalition not share power with the Joint List and its 15 MKS, they do not consider any kind of government supported by Arabs as a legitimate one.
Third is the incendiary passage in the coalition agreement affirming the government will promote a bill as early as July to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Not only is this move unilateral and provocative, eliminating the two-state option for resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, it also renders impossible any other resolution based on mutual recognition of rights to self-determination and peaceful coexistence. It is also certain to cause friction with elements of the international community, including other Middle Eastern countries and the European Union.
For the settlement movement and their representatives in the government, time is of the essence as they would like to see through this legislation before the US presidential election in November, especially as Trump’s approval ratings are now plummeting and a Joe Biden administration is likely to take a dim view of any such annexation.
Netanyahu’s clearance by the High Court of Justice to remain prime minister despite the looming court cases is a low point in Israel’s history, and an internationally embarrassing one at that. Considering his long track record of reneging on agreements, no one will be surprised if he finds an excuse to violate the rotation agreement and provoke another election when convenient for him.
In the meantime, this government looks highly likely to be consumed by internal disagreements and Netanyahu’s court case which will deepen divisions in Israel, heighten discord with the Palestinians and, as a result, cause friction within the international community.
Professor Yossi Mekelberg, Senior Consulting Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.