After three inconclusive parliamentary elections in Israel, wherein none of the political factions were able to form a Government, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Benny Gantz’ Blue and White Party came together to form an emergency ‘Unity Government’ on May 17, 2020 following the conclusion of a three-year power sharing Agreement on April 20, 2020. According to the power-sharing Agreement, Benjamin Netanyahu will serve as the Prime Minister for the first half of the tenure (18 months). In October 2021, Benjamin Netanyahu will step down andBenny Gantz will take over as the Prime Minister for the rest of the term of the Government.[i]
The decisionto put aside political differences and forma coalition government was taken in view of the ongoing global health crisis. Benny Gantz, who fought three elections against Netanyahu on issues of corruption and mis-governance, stated that he had aligned with Benjamin Netanyahu to save the nation from a fourth election and in view of the coronavirus pandemic.[ii]
Aligning with Netanyahu was a major change of course for Gantz. During the previous election campaigns, he was seen as a candidate who promised to bring back ethics, good governance and transparency to the Prime Minister’s office. His campaign hinged on the cases of corruption that Netanyahu is accused of, and for which the trial has begun only recently on May 24, 2020. Many political fronts that supported Gantz during the elections have reportedly felt betrayed by the alliance made by Gantz with Netanyahu.[iii]
Gantz is a supporter of equal distribution of government resources and opportunities without giving special privileges to any community or interest group. Under Netanyahu’s administration, the ultra-orthodox community was exempted from the compulsory military service that every Israeli has to undertake, a privilege that secured their support for the Likud Party..[iv] Gantz had on numerous occasions made known his opposition to providing such special privileges to a specific community in return for political support. Gantz has also been against any unilateral step of annexing occupied territories, which was one of the major electoral planks for Netanyahu.
For Netanyahu, the present global health challenge has provided an opportunity to continue as the Prime Minister, which seemed unlikely not so long ago during the political paralysis that Israeli domestic politics faced for more than 500 days. There are comments in the media[v]that corruption trials against Netanyahu will take months to come to any conclusive verdict, which would provide Netanyahu the valuable opportunity to consolidate his position within the party, especially as Prime Minister.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s attacks on the judiciary in an effort to gain immunity from prosecution will get blunted with Gantz as the alternate Prime Minister. Netanyahu is the first Israeli Head of Government who has been asked to face judges on the opening of his corruption trial, as per Israeli judicial law, against four cases of corruption at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. He has described this as a ‘coup attempt’.[vi]
The tandem between the two leaders will be closely watched. After the swearing in ceremony on May 17, 2020, Prime Minister Netanyahu yet again stated his plan to annex the West Bank beginning July 2020 (in accordance with the Trump Peace Plan[vii])as promised during his election campaign. Gantz, who is the new Defence Minister in the unity government, abstained from making any statement in response.[viii]Netanyahu’s annexation plans are bound to find support with the Trump Administration especially in view of the forthcoming US Presidential elections. US support is expected to strengthen Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position within the Unity Government. On the other hand, Palestinian administrators have expressed apprehension that former US Vice President Joe Biden and Presidential candidatemight support such unilateral annexation in a change from his earlier stance in view of the forthcoming elections.[ix]The recent decision of Palestinian President Muhammad Abbas of declaring all accords with Israel and the US void was in apprehension of such annexation being carried out in pursuance of the January 2020 TrumpPeace Plan.[x] The January 2020 Trump Peace Plan has been rejected by Palestine as it does not address any of the issues raised by the Palestinian leadership. It suggests the redrawing of borders within the settlements and annexed territories without considering the social, political and economic compulsions that the Palestinians would be forced into.
If such annexation,as stated by Netanyahu,is carried out, it is expected to cause immense violence in the Gaza Strip as well as in the Palestinian territories, leading to mass protests and a fresh intifada. It will result in changing regional alignments and may bring the Palestinian leadership close to the Hamas in opposing such unilateral steps. There will be adverse reactions from the European Union, Jordan and the Arab world, which have shown serious reservations with regard to the Trump Peace Plan.
The pandemic has brought the two sides together in the new Unity Government in Israel. This unity will be tested once the pandemic recedes. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen, if they can act in a unified manner in bringing much needed economic reforms[xi] to the nation, without falling prey to party politics. The forthcoming months, especially until the US Presidential elections, will continue to attract world attention to the region which may witness alterations of postures and policies that would challenge regional peace and stability.
*Dr. Dhrubajyoti Bhattacahrjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer : Views expressed are personal.
[i]“Israel's Netanyahu and Gantz sign unity government deal”, BBC News, April 20, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-52358479, accessed on May 27, 2020
[ii] “Israel: Netanyahu and Gantz sign power-sharing deal to avert another vote”, Deutsche Welle News Service, April 04, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/israel-netanyahu-and-gantz-sign-power-sharing-deal-to-avert-another-vote/a-53192075, accessed on May 27, 2020
[iii]“Israel's Netanyahu and Gantz sign unity government deal”, BBC News, April 20, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-52358479, accessed on May 27, 2020
[iv] Yohanan Plesner, “Israel’s Cease-Fire Government Should Promote Healing, Not Division”, Foreign Policy, May 20, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/20/israels-cease-fire-government-should-promote-healing-not-division/, accessed on May 27, 2020
[v]David M. Halbfinger, “Netanyahu Corruption Trial Begins, Taking Israel Into Uncharted Territory”, The New York Times, May 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/24/world/middleeast/israel-benjamin-netanyahu-corruption-trial.html, accessed on May 27, 2020
[vi]“Netanyahu alleges 'coup attempt' as corruption trial opens”, Deutsche Welle News Service, May 24, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/netanyahu-alleges-coup-attempt-as-corruption-trial-opens/a-53552294, accessed on May 27, 2020
[vii]The ‘Trump Peace Plan’ also known as the Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People, drafted by a team led by Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, was outrightly rejected by the Palestinians, alleging that the plan asks few concessions from the Israelis and seeking too harsh requirements from the Palestinians. The neighbouring state of Jordan, which plays a decisive role in the peace process, has also denounced the peace plan, along with most of the US Democratic Presidential candidates. Some factions also within Israel have shown their discontent and with the security assurances provided in the plan.
[viii]“Israel government sworn in, PM vows push for annexation”, The Arab Weekly, May 17, 2020, https://thearabweekly.com/israel-government-sworn-pm-vows-push-annexation, accessed on May 27, 2020
[ix]“Palestinian envoy: Biden isn’t taking strong enough stance against annexation”, The Times of Israel, May 27, 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/palestinian-envoy-biden-isnt-taking-strong-enough-stance-against-annexation/, accessed on May 27, 2020
[x] “Palestinian President Abbas says accords with Israel, US are void”, Al Jazeera, May 20, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/palestinian-president-abbas-accords-israel-void-200519214402347.html, accessed on May 27, 2020
[xi]Present crisis of land holdings and high and rising cost of housing, employment and better standards of living for the Arab and non-Arab population settled in various parts of the country as well as bolstering the platforms that has been encouraging start-up companies, bringing private investments in commerce and retail, digitization of the economy, bringing major investments in public transportation in Tel Aviv as well as in other cities, and readjusting the tax structure that would significantly bolster Israeli GDP.