Analysis

Israel’s Edge: Netanyahu-Gantz Superstorm Distracts From Coronavirus Dread

The national unity government’s first achievement is to split Israel’s body politic in all directions

Benny Gantz, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Corinna Kern, Amir Cohen/Reuters file photo

Israelis have a few built-in advantages when it comes to coping with the kind of traumas precipitated by the coronavirus crisis. Unlike other Western nations, most Israelis have personally experienced collective existential angst in their lifetimes – in the wars of 1948, 1967, 1973 and, to a certain degree, during the second intifada.

Less than 30 years ago, in the 1991 Gulf War, Israelis spent 42 days in a lockdown not unlike the current coronavirus curfews. Then, however, they also had to deal with the whole meshugas of a 60-second rush to sealed rooms, putting on gas masks and praying that the incoming missiles would carry conventional warheads rather than the apocalyptic chemical and biological agents that their leaders told them were on the way.

Israelis may have developed a reputation for unruliness, but most still serve in the army and are conditioned to follow orders in times of emergency. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the two demographic segments in which the coronavirus is spreading at an especially alarming rate, the ultra-Orthodox and the Israeli Arabs, are also exempt from army service. For most of them, government directives are, at best, unfriendly advice.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

Finally, though far from exhaustively, Israel is a family-oriented society. When told to stay home, most Israelis have a specific address to go to along with diligent and demanding wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who demand they abide by the rules. The police have already reported an uptick in domestic violence and divorce lawyers are preparing to make a mint once the coronavirus crisis is over.

Constitutional abyss

But the biggest edge Israelis have over all other nations is that the scourge of the coronavirus gripping the globe just happened to collide with the plague of political paralysis that has gripped Israel for over a year, especially since the March 2 election. The ensuing superstorm devastated the political landscape, demolished structures, swept away alliances, redrew boundaries and, not least, brought Israel to the edge of a constitutional abyss from which, by the way, it has yet to retreat.

And whatever its demerits – and they are innumerable – the titanic struggle for Israel’s very soul has provided a dramatic and welcome distraction from the pestilence that is terrorizing the rest of the world. Written, directed and produced mostly by Benjamin Netanyahu, the political melodrama is riveting many Israelis; it makes “House of Cards” look like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

The eruption is continuing apace as these words are written. On Sunday, the ground on which Israeli politics has been based since 2015 – a sharp delineation between right and center-left – was shaking. Structures were disintegrating by the hour, only to regroup and reform an hour later. The very earth seemed to be moving – and yet, throughout it all, there was a lingering doubt whether it wasn’t just a mirage, a fata morgana, Netanyahu’s biggest trick of them all.

As things seem to stand now, Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz are set to reach a deal on a so-called national unity government, which many in both camps are depicting as a deal borne of treachery. In the process of forming it, however, they have split Israel’s body politic to smithereens.

Adina Wollman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office

Where only a few days ago politics was divided into yes-Bibi, aka the right-wing religious bloc, and no-Bibi, aka the center left, Israel now has smaller but more distinct political groupings. The anti-Netanyahu center-left has essentially split into three: the anti-Netanyahu left, including the Joint List of Arab parties, Meretz and renegade Laborites who refuse to follow party leader Amir Peretz into the governing coalition; the anti-Netanyahu center-right, led by Yair Lapid and his strange bedfellow, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon; and the “pro-Netanyahu” center-right, though that’s putting it on thick, led by Gantz and sidekick Gabi Ashkenazi, who are set to join the government.

But that’s far from all. The hitherto cement-tight right-wing bloc that has served Netanyahu so well over the past year may also be on the verge of disintegration. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who has garnered rare praise across the political spectrum for his conduct since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, could be ousted from his job within days. Bennett and his sidekick, Ayelet Shaked, could decide to exploit the groundswell of right-wing anger at Netanyahu’s deal with Gantz from the opposition, while touting themselves as the only alternative.

Netanyahu could run into difficulties even within his hitherto slavish Likud. While it is Gantz who has been savaged by his own camp as a traitor, weakling, collaborator deceiver and Netanyahu’s willing dupe – all richly deserved to one degree or another – the prime minister is seen by many in his own party as having sold the family heirloom for a dubious bill of goods.

Gantz's veto power

They have a point. Netanyahu agreed from the outset that Gantz’s Kahol Lavan would be handed government portfolios in accordance with the election results -– 33 Knesset seats – even if the party split in the process and could deliver only half that number. That is precisely what has happened: Gantz is getting a bounty of goodies for his new, 17-seat faction while Likudniks, with 37 seats, are left to scramble over the leftovers.

Moreover, Netanyahu has handed Gantz veto power over the entire gamut of right-wing dreams: The government won’t be able to annex settlements, curtail the power of the Supreme Court or change the structure of the justice apparatus. Netanyahu will be barred from legislating his way out of prison. The Justice Ministry, which has become the most sought-after portfolio in the days of Netanyahu, will go, supposedly, to his rivals.

All of which, to suspicious minds, seems too abrupt to be true. Netanyahu has been holding Israel hostage for over a year in his effort to escape prosecution by hook or by crook. One could posit that the burden of fighting the coronavirus is too heavy for his shoulders and has superseded his personal – and criminal – interests.

And it’s just as feasible to suspect, even at this late stage, that Netanyahu will pull out the rug from under Gantz’s feet the moment his cronies are installed, in accordance with the emerging coalition agreement. With Yariv Levin, the Supreme Court’s most dangerous enemy, as Knesset speaker, and Miri Regev, Netanyahu’s uncouth and unbridled toady, as public security minister, anything is possible. That’s when the real fun could begin and the ratings go sky high, as befits a dramatic climax.