Israel finally has an agreement to form a permanent government again, after a year with three inconclusive general elections. Coronavirus broke the logjam by persuading the centrist opposition Blue and White party leader, former Israel Defence Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, that he had to put country before party and join an emergency unity coalition with incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party to tackle the pandemic and its economic impact.
The move has split Blue and White, with one wing of the party going into government with Gantz, and the other, Yesh Atid, led by former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, enraged by betrayal of the anti-Netanyahu platform, denouncing Gantz for “the worst act of fraud” and staying in opposition.
The new government has a solid majority of 72 seats in Israel’s parliament, the 120-seat Knesset. As well as Likud’s 36 MKs (Members of the Knesset), this includes 16 MKs from the two ultra-Orthodox religious parties, but then extends beyond the previous right-wing coalition that had sustained Netanyahu until now, by including 15 Blue and White MKs; two from Derech Eretz, a splinter from Blue and White; the leader and sole MK from the centrist Gesher party; and two Labor MKs. For the moment, the right-wing Yamina party, which represents settlers in the West Bank, is not in government, so this new government is tilted significantly away from the right compared to its predecessor.
The coalition agreement gives equal numbers of ministers in an inflated cabinet of 32 to Netanyahu’s right-wing block and his new centrist partners. The Prime Minister is to rotate midway through the term, with Gantz taking over from Netanyahu, though it is possible this part of the deal will be reneged on by the triggering of an early election. Blue and White has secured some important cabinet portfolios: defence, foreign affairs, justice and economy.
It is not unprecedented in Israel’s proportional representation system to have this kind of national unity government, but the context has made it very controversial. Gantz campaigned on a very straightforward message that Netanyahu was corrupt and had to be ousted. Now he is helping him stay in power. And one of the few key policies agreed to is an attempt to pre-empt a Joe Biden victory in this November’s US Presidential election by pushing ahead with annexation of parts of the West Bank earmarked for Israeli control in the Trump plan. This is hugely divisive inside Israel and among diaspora Jewish communities, and risks angering the European countries and Arab states, as well as enraging the Palestinians, all of whom see it as delivering a potentially fatal blow to the contiguous Palestinian territory in the West Bank needed for a two-state solution.
How did MKs from Labor, the champions of two states, end up in a government with this policy? It reflects the disastrous decline in the party’s electoral fortunes as it was squeezed by tactical voting for Gantz, from the main opposition party with 19 MKs in 2015 to six, then five, then three, in the three elections in the last year. The party that dominated Israeli political life in the pre-state years and until 1977 is now searching for a way to stay relevant.
Of Labor’s three remaining MKs, two have opted to go into government. They both secured portfolios where it will be possible to advance the party’s socio-economic agenda. Party leader Amir Peretz will be economy and industry minister. Morocco-born Peretz was the militant leader of the Histadrut, Israel’s TUC, who had a penchant for calling successful general strikes. His colleague Itzik Shmuli will be welfare and social services minister. Shmuli is a former leader of the Israeli National Union of Students and of the huge 2011 social justice protests about housing and living costs.
Their remaining Knesset colleague, Merav Michaeli, opposes the decision to take office, denouncing it as the “worst act of political theft, stealing the votes of the Israelis who elected them.” She called the coalition agreement “an embarrassing collection of lies and distortions”. Also staying firmly in opposition is the British Labour Party’s other historic sister party in Israel, the more left-wing Meretz, which has three MKs itself, and fought the March election in a joint list with Labor.
In a digital vote on Sunday, Labor leader Amir Peretz won 64.2% support (2,248 to 1,219) for joining the government among Labor’s key activists on its central committee. Peretz has stated that despite he and Shmuli being government ministers, they won’t vote for annexation of West Bank settlements and will try from inside the coalition to stop this policy from being pursued.
He justified joining the coalition after winning the vote by saying: “We won sweeping backing from party members to… change the government’s agenda and economic policy to a democratic socialist one… we are not joining a right-wing government. We are joining an egalitarian unity government with a rotating premiership. Our strategic cooperation with Benny Gantz will return Labour to its place as a leading and influential political movement.”
Many critics will see this as Labor finally committing electoral suicide after a long decline from the glory days of David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. Meretz will seize the opportunity to try to recruit former Labor members and voters who can’t stand the idea of involvement in a Netanyahu-led government. Peretz will argue that he has saved the party from extinction in a fourth election, and, despite its Knesset weakness, made it relevant and a party of government again.
Luke Akehurst is writing in his capacity as director of We Believe in Israel.