Averting a fourth election, Netanyahu and Gantz sign a unity deal

buzz on balfour

Bibi secures a fifth term as prime minister, though his time in office is set to expire in 18 months

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz sign a coalition deal on April 20, 2020.

Just over a year after Israelis first went to the polls to elect a new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz signed a deal paving the way for the creation of an emergency national unity government. “I promised the State of Israel a national emergency government that will work to save the lives and livelihoods of Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said after the deal was signed at his residence in Jerusalem. Gantz proclaimed that he “prevented a fourth election.”

Titles: Under the terms of the agreement, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the next 18 months, while Gantz will hold the jobs of defense minister and alternate prime minister, and his partner, Gabi Ashkenazi, will become foreign minister. Netanyahu is then slated to step aside and serve as deputy premier for the second half of the government’s three-year term, when Gantz becomes prime minister. If Netanyahu resigns before the end of his year and a half, Gantz will immediately take over as leader of an interim government.

Winners and losers: Netanyahu will serve a fifth term as premier despite three failed attempts to craft a right-wing government. He has already made history as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and hopes to cement his legacy with a push for annexation in the coming months. Gantz is expected to become the first opposition leader to move into Balfour Street since Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu in 1999. Just over a year after entering politics, and despite his inability to form a government, Gantz is steps away from becoming Israel’s 13th prime minister. Nonetheless, he will be challenged by his former colleagues in the center, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, and his hands will be tied by hawkish Likud ministers and religious coalition partners. 

Other partners: So far, Blue and White’s 15 MKs and Likud’s 36 are the only ones to sign a deal, but others are expected to officially join the coalition in the coming days. Labor MKs Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli are slated to sign on, as are renegade MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, who broke off from Ya’alon’s Telem last month. Netanyahu will meet with Defense Minister and Yamina chair Naftali Bennett following Yom HaShoah to discuss Bennett’s coalition demands, as well as with the leaders of the haredi parties. 

Blessing for success: Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who most recently served as deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, told JI that the creation of a national emergency government “is good news for Israel. It will enable Israel to better grapple with containing the corona[virus] crisis, to begin the process of economic recovery, and potentially make progress toward peace.”

Annexation watch: According to the deal, the two leaders will work “in full agreement with the U.S.” to finalize the drawing of a map outlining the annexation of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and “engage in dialogue” with the international community “with [the] aim of preserving security and strategic interests including regional stability, preserving existing peace agreements and working towards future peace agreements.”

Timetable: The deal brokered with Gantz allows Netanyahu to bring an annexation agreement — reached in conjunction with the U.S. — for approval by Israel’s legislative bodies starting July 1. A former U.S. official close to the White House told JI on Monday that while President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner could be tied up with the country’s coronavirus response in the lead-up to July 1, other officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, could engage on the issue. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro expressed hope that Netanyahu and Gantz will choose “not to proceed with annexation in July” in order to preserve treaties with Jordan and Egypt and “to avoid a misstep during an American election.”

Bad alternative: Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer criticized Gantz for yielding to Netanyahu and the right-wing parties on annexation, even in name of a national emergency. “Another election in Israel — something no one favored — would be far more preferable from the perspective of rational policy than heading down this dangerous path of annexation,” Kurtzer told JI. 

Former White House Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt tells JI, “I am pleased that Israel finally has a government in place after three elections. This is a critical step for the State of Israel to be able to properly function in these challenging times and on so many fronts. I congratulate Prime Minister Netanyahu and Speaker Benny Gantz on achieving this national unity government and I wish them and the entire State of Israel tremendous success as they start this new chapter.”

View from Diaspora: Mainstream Jewish organizations welcomed the unity deal, expressing hope that the new government would strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance and improve relations with the American Jewish community.​ Leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis said in a statement that they were “heartened” that Israel has a new government and implored its leaders “to refrain from unilateral actions that could potentially hinder or thwart the renewal of the peace process in the short and long term, especially unilateral annexation.”

Challenging times: Israel Policy Forum chair Susie Gelman, who recently spearheaded a letter signed by Jewish leaders urging Gantz to block Netanyahu’s annexation plan, told JI that with this agreement, “annexation has now become a clear and present danger.” Gelman expressed “fear” that unilateral annexation moves “will test the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community as never before.”

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