Will the Coronavirus End Israel's Political Paralysis? - Press "Enter" to skip to content

Will the Coronavirus End Israel’s Political Paralysis?

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JERUSALEM — After three inconclusive elections resulting in a yearlong impasse, Israel’s president has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, until Wednesday midnight to form a unity government.

If no agreement is reached by then, Israel will edge closer to a fourth election, despite the state of national emergency created by the coronavirus crisis.

On Tuesday, six weeks after the March 2 election and a series of rancorous on-again, off-again negotiations, the two sides met for talks and again failed to finalize a deal. Here’s a look at what’s at stake for the two sides and why Israel still has no elected government.

The last election, like the two before it, produced no clear winner.

Mr. Gantz, a former army chief and leader of the centrist Blue and White party who entered politics not much more than a year ago, came out in a slightly better position than Mr. Netanyahu, the conservative incumbent and Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

With more endorsements from members of Parliament, Mr. Gantz was afforded the first chance to build a coalition. But the anti-Netanyahu camp, encompassing Arab, Islamic and Jewish ultranationalist parties, proved too disparate to form a government.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and his right-wing and religious partners fell short of a majority to form their own government in the 120-seat Parliament.

The only way forward was for Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz to join forces in a national unity government. Mr. Gantz resisted at first because it meant reneging on his repeated election promises not to sit in a government with a prime minister under indictment. Mr. Netanyahu is facing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Then the coronavirus hit Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu, a canny political survivor, publicly beseeched Mr. Gantz to join him in a national emergency government to combat the health crisis. He proposed sharing the job of prime minister, with Mr. Netanyahu holding it for the first 18 months, and Mr. Gantz taking over for the next 18.

Citing the common good in the face of a growing public health and economic crisis, and seeking to avoid a fourth election, Mr. Gantz relented and agreed in principle last month.

The pandemic has sickened thousands of Israelis and killed at least 118 so far. But negotiations over the government bogged down over political and legal details.

First, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz differ in their approaches to President Trump’s proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Netanyahu has pledged to swiftly and unilaterally annex large swaths of the occupied West Bank, while Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party has said it is opposed to unilateral annexation in the absence of broad international consensus.

The two sides have reportedly come to an agreement on this issue.

More problematic was what critics describe as Mr. Netanyahu’s singular goal of ensuring he can remain in office despite his legal troubles.

Mr. Netanyahu tried to change the procedures for appointing Supreme Court judges, according to Blue and White officials. Then, analysts said, he was seeking a way to circumvent any future Supreme Court decision barring a candidate charged with crimes — like himself — from forming a government.

By remaining in office, Mr. Netanyahu gains crucial leverage should he try to negotiate a deal with state prosecutors, or he might try to secure immunity from prosecution.

These demands appeared to be a sticking point for Mr. Gantz, who said he was holding out to protect fundamental democratic values, particularly the rule of law.

“Netanyahu and Likud know that we are reasonable partners,” he said on Monday night. “They also know that there are certain areas on which we won’t compromise — foremost among them, protecting the rule of law and safeguarding Israeli democracy. Those are always important, but even more so during times of crisis.”

But Mr. Gantz has come under bitter attack from many former allies and supporters who saw his willingness to enter into a Netanyahu-led government, along with Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious coalition partners, as a betrayal. His party has broken up, with about half its members headed into the opposition, leaving him with less leverage and few political options.

“At least don’t call this an emergency government,” Yair Lapid, a former Gantz ally, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, noting the lack of attention to health and economic issues in the negotiations.

After a year of political deadlock, a unity deal may provide a temporary balm for a deeply divided and anxious Israel under lockdown to fight the coronavirus. But a unity coalition is unlikely to resolve Israel’s longstanding divisions.

Since Mr. Gantz’s party would be joining a coalition that would include Mr. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies, there is likely to be little movement to resolve the religious-secular tensions that have roiled Israeli society for years.

With Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing partners in the government — and with Mr. Trump still in office — there is also unlikely to be any resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. The Palestinians have rejected the Trump administration’s peace plan as hopelessly biased toward Israel.

If a unity government were to move ahead with annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan could also be severely undermined.

Mr. Netanyahu has taken pride in his handling of the coronavirus crisis so far.

“Dear citizens of Israel, our ability to respond quickly and flexibly to the coronavirus challenge is arousing appreciation in many countries,” he said in a televised address on Monday.

But once the lockdown is lifted, many will find themselves out of work. So far, the crisis has left more than a million Israelis, out of a population of nine million, on indefinite unpaid leave or unemployed.

Mr. Netanyahu has said that under his continued stewardship, the country will prevail.

“Previously, in the two major economic crises of this millennium, I succeeded — with your help — in moving the Israeli economy on to great achievements,” he said in the Monday address. “We emerged from the crises and the Israeli economy flourished. It is my intention, together with you, to do this again.”


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