AnalysisA dismaying outage, not a strategic assault on democracy

Democracy resumes as the Knesset reopens, but the political crisis is deepening

After one of the most rancorous political moments in Israeli memory, the long game of ‘chicken’ between Gantz and Netanyahu now heads towards its climax

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Israeli police officers scuffle with a man during a protest to "save democracy" outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Eyal Warshavsky)
Israeli police officers scuffle with a man during a protest to "save democracy" outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Eyal Warshavsky)

As the Knesset convenes on Monday, many questions will be answered and much clarity gained.

No parliament in this age of social distancing can “convene” in any normal sense. Just six Members of Knesset at a time will be allowed to enter the plenum hall to vote, meaning that 20 rounds will be required for every vote.

But slowly and tediously, the Knesset will finally bring to a close one of the more rancorous moments Israeli politics has known for some time, a period that saw the parliament closed down by its own speaker to avoid a vote on his replacement — even as an unprecedented crackdown on basic freedoms was underway by a government desperate to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on movement, forced shuttering of schools and businesses, the partial closure of the courts and the imposition of an invasive government tracking program have all gone into force or ratcheted up significantly while the Knesset sat on the sidelines in maddening paralysis.

On Monday the Knesset will finally vote to establish the Arrangements Committee, which will in turn begin deliberations to establish other urgently needed committees: the Finance Committee will begin to draft a new state budget that will focus on shoring up the economy and helping the millions who are facing financial devastation from the pandemic; the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will impose its oversight on the government’s virus tracking program before the High Court orders the unsupervised program shuttered by Tuesday’s noon deadline; and the specialized “Corona Committee” promised by Blue and White will begin its work to oversee and bolster the government’s many-layered battle against the spread of the coronavirus.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz attends a mayors’ conference in Kiryat Anavim, near Jerusalem, on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

All of that is certain. All the relevant parties understand the dire need and have committed, both to the public and to the High Court, to get to work.

That’s excellent news following the end of a bitter and tumultuous week that saw hundreds of thousands of Israelis express a palpable fear that their democracy may no longer be safe.

Democracy at risk?

Blue and White has spearheaded a campaign over the past week accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of mounting an “assault on Israel’s democracy.”

The campaign took hold. Hundreds of thousands tuned in to a virtual protest lambasting the closing of parliament, addressed by former security chiefs and a former deputy president of the Supreme Court.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset, January 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And indeed, the sight of a shuttered Knesset amid the escalating virus crisis was shocking. Edelstein’s primary explanation — he shuttered the House last Wednesday to prevent Blue and White from replacing him and thereby, he claimed, dooming unity talks — seemed an astoundingly small and detached reasoning for freezing parliament’s ability to help millions of Israelis reeling from the economic and social crisis imposed by the virus. Hundreds of thousands of jobs evaporated over the past two weeks, Israel’s children have begun to come to terms with a foreseeable future spent indoors and without friends, and the nation’s elderly face the prospect of a Passover holiday alone and in real danger. And in the Knesset: bickering, deadlock and jockeying for position as though nothing has changed, with the speaker preventing legislators from getting to work as the country seemed to disintegrate around it.

In an important sense, concern for democracy, and especially for Israel’s, is never misplaced. Democracies sometimes fall, and it is not unreasonable to suggest Israel’s is more tenuous than most with its deeply divided society, lack of strong constitutional provisions for separation of powers, a 72-year state of emergency, a strong and popular military and security services, and so on.

In the eyes of many Israelis who protested Edelstein over the past week, the Knesset’s shuttering left all decision-making in the hands of just one man, Netanyahu — a leader who has already demonstrated his iron determination to cling to power, and who for the past few days has been doing so with never-before-seen emergency powers and never-before-seen obstacles to the proper functioning of the only body with the power to directly oversee and meaningfully limit his actions.

It didn’t help that the Knesset’s director general, Albert Sakharovich, appointed by and answerable only to Edelstein, told the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily on Saturday that he might “suspend all parliamentary activity” in the longer term if the coronavirus placed too many MKs in quarantine.

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

“It’s clear that if we reach the point where dozens of MKs are in quarantine, we won’t be able to hold discussions in the Knesset and we’ll close the building. We won’t want to endanger the other MKs or the Knesset’s employees. That’s something that could happen, but I hope we won’t get there,” Sakharovich said.

It was an astoundingly tone-deaf interview that only helped drive Blue and White’s narrative. Sakharovichis an administrator; he has no authority to suspend anything. That fact alone suggested to many that he was floating a trial balloon for his boss. It was hard not to see those ominous comments as the clearest signal yet that Edelstein was looking for excuses to keep parliament closed for as long as it takes to hold on to his job.

And yet, for all the troubling optics, the two sides’ first significant public airing out of their mutual grievances – before the High Court of Justice on Sunday afternoon – revealed the true nature of their disagreement, and the more complicated and prosaic reality underlying the Knesset freeze.

Israeli democracy is not in grave danger, but Israeli politics faces its most severe crisis in recent memory.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)

The art of the possible

It is clear from Edelstein’s late and ham-fisted explanations for shuttering the Knesset that he did not realize how his actions would be interpreted by many. Democracy must be experienced, not only declared or legislated. Monday’s resumption of parliamentary activity underlined the extent to which Israeli democracy did indeed experience a brief dimming, at least in the experience of many, but also that it was not under strategic assault. At the same time, as the standoff wore on over the past week, Edelstein’s argument that “electing a new speaker would doom us to a fourth election” became ever more plausible.

The current political stalemate is rooted not in Edelstein’s obstinacy or in any specific and irrefutable assault on Israeli democracy, but in Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s political weakness.

Gantz claims to have “won” the March 2 election, and, having been recommended as prime minister by 61 of the 120 MKs, now holds the appointment from the president to form the next government. But that doesn’t change the fact that he leads a 61-seat “coalition” that is anything but a coalition.

If he sets up a minority government dependent on the mainly Arab Joint List, he is very likely to lose a number of MKs from his own faction, including Yoaz Hendel, Zvi Hauser and, most devastatingly, Hili Tropper, who helped him establish the Israel Resilience Party that launched his political career in late 2018. In other words, if he acts on his tenuous majority, he loses it.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Ramat Gan, February 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Conversely, if he seeks a unity government with Likud, he is very likely to lose the Yesh Atid faction of his Blue and White alliance, reducing his political position to a junior partner to the de facto victorious Likud.

He is in a pickle, and his only path to anything resembling a victory appears to be a unity government with Netanyahu in which he, Gantz, goes first in rotation as prime minister. That would enable him — he hopes — to “sell” his new government to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, co-founder of Blue and White, as an election victory.

It will be a hard sell, to be sure. As former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the “virtual” protest on Saturday night, echoing the feelings of many on the center and left who voted for Gantz, unity with Netanyahu is a galling prospect for many. “Thanks to the votes of many of you, the bloc of 61 recommendations was formed made up entirely of Netanyahu opponents,” Diskin said. “Thanks to you all, Benny Gantz received the mandate from the president to form the government. But since then, he and his friends have been running to form an emergency unity government headed by the Netanyahu. It’s shameful and even disgraceful. I and many others who voted for Blue and White solely because it was the least bad choice over the past few days have sadly discovered that we made a really bad choice.”

What’s more, of course, to have any hope of achieving even that limited victory, Gantz must have sufficiently powerful leverage over Netanyahu to persuade the prime minister to acquiesce to relinquishing the chair — leverage obtained by taking control of the Knesset by replacing its speaker, then submitting bills that would make it illegal for an indicted MK like Netanyahu to become premier.

A child watches as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a live press conference on the new government restrictions for the public regarding the coronavirus on March 19, 2020 (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Gantz doesn’t have a majority to rule, but he may have a majority to oust Netanyahu through legislation.

It was that scenario that a desperate Edelstein was working to prevent by freezing the Knesset’s work.

If Gantz succeeds in proposing such legislation, he may find he can’t stop it at will. Brought so close to finally felling Netanyahu, his anti-Netanyahu coalition may not be able to resist the win, and attempting to stop the legislation in mid-stream — it stops being a threat once it becomes law — may cost Gantz far more than a few MKs from his coalition. His prospect of serving first in a unity coalition will be gone, he won’t be able to build a stable coalition, and the advantage will pass to Netanyahu — who may then decide that a fourth election, and the likelihood of being able to overturn the legislation in the next Knesset, is the way to go. In fact, he may well find it preferable right now to negotiating with Gantz with that legislative sword of Damocles hanging over his head.

Edelstein has been accused of doing Netanyahu’s bidding over the past week. But it’s important to grasp how profoundly Edelstein’s own explanation for his actions is an indictment of the prime minister. Edelstein is convinced that Netanyahu would send a coronavirus-ravaged nation to a fourth election in a bid to stop or, in the case of victory, overturn the bills preventing him from remaining prime minister. In Edelstein’s own reading of the political map, Gantz is trying to hold Netanyahu hostage to secure his victory, but Netanyahu is willing to hold an ailing nation hostage to secure his.

Early signs on Monday don’t point to any imminent unity deal. Likud and its allied parties are boycotting the plenum votes, railing against the “anti-democratic” and “Iranian” bills Gantz appears set to advance against Netanyahu, vowing to topple any government formed by Blue and White, and already blaming the centrist party for a fourth election.

Magen David Adom medical team members, wearing protective gear, handle a coronavirus test sample at a drive-through site for testing in Tel Aviv, on March 22, 2020. (Flash90)

Blue and White, meanwhile, appears set to replace Edelstein, and, facing an intransigent Likud, may find itself trapped by its own political inertia into passing the bills that forcibly sideline Netanyahu.

It is important not to pay too much credence to the bluster. Harsh rhetoric can be a sign of dogged resistance, or the last vestige of that resistance when both sides are playing a final round of hard-to-get.

As the Knesset gathers to vote at long last, it will be in the legislation itself, not in the rhetoric, that Israelis will learn whether Gantz and Netanyahu plan to play their game of political chicken to the end, the country’s wellbeing and safety be damned, or are seeking to bridge their gaps and form a unified emergency coalition to face the pandemic.

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