Israel Prepares For Unity Government Negotiations In Major Blow To Netanyahu
“I think there actually is a pretty decent argument to be made that this actually is one of Israel’s most momentous elections.”
Israel’s second election in five months has resulted in an impasse, with Benny Gantz’ centrist Blue and White Party winning 33 seats of the 120-seat Israeli parliament, called the Knesset, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party taking 31 seats, both short of a 61-seat majority. With his hopes for a full election victory dashed, Netanyahu reached out to his main rival on Thursday to call for a coalition.
“During the elections, I called for the establishment of the right-wing government,” said Netanyahu in a statement. “Unfortunately, election results show that this is not possible. Therefore, there is no choice but to form a broad unity government that is as wide as possible.”
However, senior Blue and White party leader Moshe Yaalon said on Thursday his party “will not enter a coalition led by Netanyahu.”
“Blue and White, headed by me, has won the election,” Gantz, a former army chief, said Thursday. “We will not be dictated to.” Blue and White party leaders have pointed to Netanyahu’s upcoming corruption hearing in October, asserting that they will not work with a leader who is under indictment.
“I am interested in and intend to form a broad and liberal unity government, under my leadership. A government that will convey the will of the people,” Gantz continued.
Netanyahu said he was “surprised and disappointed” by Gantz’ response.
Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-reigning prime minister, and his removal from the position will have immediate consequences. His plans to annex parts of the West Bank will be postponed and his ability to grant himself immunity from ongoing corruption charges will be eliminated, meaning he will likely be charged and forced to resign from government.
“Both issues would have had serious ramifications, the former for the possibility of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the future, and the latter for the health of Israeli democracy,” wrote the Atlantic’s Natan Sachs, referring to annexation and Netanyahu’s corruption charges. “Tuesday’s results will not produce peace nor resolve Israel’s internal challenges, but they stave off those prospects, at least for the moment.”
This week’s election comes in response to a surprise turn of events after Israel’s last election in April, when Avigdor Lieberman, the head of a small party who had been Netanyahu’s ally in the 1990s and served under him as a foreign minister and defense minister, refused to grant Netanyahu a parliamentary majority by joining the prime minister’s right-wing coalition. Lieberman, a secularist, demanded a bill be passed to force the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army, which Netanyahu’s theocratic-supported bloc refused.
With no governing majority, Netanyahu pushed for a second election which now seems to have secured his fate. Lieberman’s secular nationalist party won 8 seats, putting him in a powerful position to veto coalitions he doesn’t want, which would include Arabs, liberals, or ultra-Orthodox parties. Analysts view Lieberman as pushing for a right-wing coalition of the Blue and White party and Likud that sidelines Netanyahu.
Notably, the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties, won 13 seats, making it the third largest party in the Knesset and the likely head of the main opposition bloc. The rest of the seats were allocated to ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, who won 9 and 8 seats, the right-wing Yamina, who won 7, and the left-leaning Labor party, which won 6 seats, and the Democratic Union, which took 5.
“I think there actually is a pretty decent argument to be made that this actually is one of Israel’s most momentous elections,” Michael Koplow, policy director at the DC-based Israel Policy Forum think tank, told Vox. “Netanyahu has steadily been doing things that really erode any sense of separation of powers inside Israel and that call the independence of different state institutions into question.”
Netanyahu has taken severe measures in recent weeks to invigorate his base, even causing Facebook to temporarily sanction the prime minister’s page in response to a post that urged voters to avoid a government including “Arabs who want to destroy us all — women, children and men,” which Netanyahu blamed on a staffer.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu also planned to invade Gaza to postpone the election, before his Attorney General convinced him to abandon the strategy.
Gantz responded to the news of Netanyahu’s planned Gaza invasion on Twitter, saying: “Netanyahu did away with ambiguity for political ends. Now he’s lost it and wants to drag us into war to postpone the elections. This is a scenario that belongs [in the TV show] House of Cards, not in the State of Israel.”
“Whatever the outcome, and barring any miraculous rabbits pulled from a hat, Netanyahu’s career as prime minister seems to be at an end,” asserted Middle East Eye’s Richard Silverstein. Netanyahu would need to get someone from the opposition to defect or regain Lieberman’s support to secure a majority. And because his corruption charges make him a political liability, these possibilities are unlikely.
“We are not yet done with Bibi, technically, although Bibi is gone, Bibi is history,” former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the New Yorker’s Bernard Avishai on Tuesday night. “The only person who could stand at the head of a national-unity government is Gantz. An indicted Prime Minister cannot remain in office.”
Some, such as the Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, view the differences between Gantz and Netanyahu on Palestine policy as largely superficial. Hasan notes that on Tuesday, the same day of the Israeli election, a Dutch court debated whether to charge Gantz for war crimes in Gaza when he was an IDF leader. Gantz has bragged about the destruction of the Palestinian territory by saying “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age.”
Citizen Truth’s Rami Almeghari, who is based in the Gaza Strip, has written about how Israeli policy has prohibited Gaza from repairing from its wars:
“Since the 2005 disengagement, Gaza has not been allowed to repair its war-torn infrastructure, as Israel has continued to undermine life in the territory, attacking the Strip under the pretext of fighting ‘the terrorist Hamas organization,’ and thus blocking any chances of Palestinian national unity.”
Palestinian American lawyer, author and activist Noura Erakat spoke with Hasan, similarly argues that Gantz is just as militaristic as Netanyahu. Erakat argues that the “51 laws that differentiate between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, and that either privilege Jewish Israelis or subjugate the Palestinian citizens” proceed to “make citizenship frankly, a second class status,” prohibiting Palestinians from participating in a fair democratic process.
“Israel is not a secular democracy,” wrote Middle East Eye’s Richard Silverstein. “It is rather an ethnocracy, in which the rights of Palestinian citizens are subordinated to those of Jews. No ruling Israeli coalition has ever included Palestinian parties.”
Silverstein argues the tragic contradiction of Israel’s political system – that it cannot simultaneously be a liberal democracy and a Jewish state that treats Arabs as second class citizens – will remain unresolved no matter the shape of the final majority coalition.
“No party during this election offered any serious thought to the conflict with Palestinians; it is simply not on the Israeli political agenda,” wrote Silverstein. The journalist writes that the Israeli election breaks “no new ground in resolving Israel’s greatest, most unsolvable problem. This means the wars will continue, the violence will continue, the hatred will continue unabated.”
Erakat offers a more hopeful view of the future, pointing to shifting views on the Israel-Palestine conflict in US politics and the endurance of Palestinian activism:
“My primary source of hope is to look at the two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who have now participated in the 73rd consecutive week of the Gaza March of Return of marching to this militarized perimeter where they are held in an open air prison at the sure risk of being shot to be killed, where nobody is paying attention to them. And yet, they have remained resilient, obstinate, consistent, and have made — their demands have been clear, which is an end to the siege, the right to return and their freedom.”