Distrust, discord, delay: Israel’s 35th Government is off to a bad (non-)start
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Distrust, discord, delay: Israel’s 35th Government is off to a bad (non-)start

Netanyahu’s chaotic leadership style and bitter Likud infighting forced the last-minute cancellation of the Knesset swearing-in ceremony. Is it a sign of things to come?

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

In this February 16, 2020, photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)
In this February 16, 2020, photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)

Israel came within a hair’s breadth of forming a government on Thursday, finally ending 18 long, acrimonious months of electioneering — until bitter jostling for cabinet appointments within Likud forced yet another delay.

The swearing in has been pushed to Sunday afternoon.

Even so, the failure to establish the government doesn’t mean Thursday wasn’t a day of high drama and clarifying moments.

The Israeli political system entered Thursday believing the day marked a hard deadline for forming the new government. The reason was clear: Benny Gantz’s most significant leverage on Benjamin Netanyahu expired Thursday night, and Gantz was hell-bent not to allow any gap in time between his leverage expiring and the government’s swearing in.

That leverage, of course, was his position as speaker of the Knesset. Back on March 26, as Netanyahu sought to entice Gantz away from his Blue and White partners and into unity talks with Likud, Gantz, utterly convinced Netanyahu could not be trusted, had the right-wing parties elect him Knesset speaker as the opening gambit in the talks. Gantz’s logic was simple: he could not easily be dislodged from the speakership (it takes 90 votes in the 120-seat parliament to oust a speaker) and could control the legislative agenda of the next government from that post, hampering its ability to function if Netanyahu backpedaled on their agreement.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in the Knesset on May 7, 2020 (YouTube screenshot/Knesset channel)

A month and a half later, on Tuesday of this week, Gantz announced his resignation as Knesset speaker, beginning a 48-hour countdown till it went into effect Thursday night — just in time for the government’s planned swearing in.

When Netanyahu asked for the extension on Thursday evening, Gantz’s response was curt but nevertheless deafening: he retracted his resignation and reclaimed his leverage.

It’s not that he doesn’t believe Netanyahu’s problems within Likud are real. It’s just that he’s convinced his new partner is capable of attempting to upend their agreement in the brief spell — even just an hour or two — between the moment Gantz is no longer speaker and the moment the new government is sworn in.

Even if Netanyahu doesn’t plan to do so, Blue and White officials told reporters Thursday, why dangle the temptation in front of him?

As with everything else in this new, biggest-ever government, with its freshly-minted “ministry of communal advancement” and its dozen or more deputy ministers, the spectacle of the thing is vaguely embarrassing. Gantz had already held a farewell gathering with the staff of the Knesset speaker’s office on Thursday morning, but had to return to the office in the evening to withdraw his resignation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 30, 2020 (screen capture via Knesset website)

And he was set to head back again on Friday afternoon to resign once more, so he can be legally sworn in as a minister by Sunday at 1 p.m.

Moments before the new government was to have been sworn in, Gantz still behaved as though he he couldn’t trust Netanyahu to keep his word over the course of a single weekend. He distrusted the prime minister as deeply on May 14 as he did on March 26.

‘You don’t threaten the prime minister’

In 2009, when he returned to power after ten long years in the political desert, Netanyahu vowed to change his ways. As a young man, he’d built a career through strident, strutting confidence and ideological certitude, two traits that, he later concluded, didn’t serve him well as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. After his reelection, he resolved not to repeat that mistake. Say less, explain less, and you avoid many of the political costs of unavoidable compromises.

He famously avoids media interviews or press conferences except around election time, sometimes going hundreds of days without a single interview with Hebrew-language media. He rarely responds to criticism from the Knesset podium, and then only after carefully calculating his political needs. On strategic matters, too, he almost never responds to criticism of his policies towards, for example, Gaza, the Temple Mount, or Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with then-Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, at the Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The same “less is more” philosophy underlies his leadership style within the Likud party. As Thursday wore on and Netanyahu met one-on-one with some of Likud’s anxious MKs, it soon became clear that the prime minister was clutching his cards so tightly to his chest that many in Likud still didn’t know by the evening if they would be meeting him at all.

“There’s a limit to the disrespect!” lashed out Deputy Defense Minister Avi Dichter at around 6 p.m., after watching MKs far lower than him on Likud’s Knesset list (he’s no. 10) summoned to meetings with Netanyahu and given respectable posts.

“I’ve decided not to participate in the vote [scheduled for later Thursday night] on forming the government,” he said. “Even though I was elected to the top decile in the Likud list, the prime minister and Likud chairman hasn’t bothered to even meet with me at this late hour,” Dichter lamented, convinced it was a sign from Netanyahu.

“This is spitting in the face of 130,000 Likud members who elected me to Likud’s leadership ranks,” he raged.

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi had the same complaint: “As of this moment, minutes before the presentation of the government [in the Knesset], I still haven’t been invited to a conversation about the new government,” he tweeted. “I assume they won’t be needing me this evening in the Knesset.”

Likud MK Avi Dichter, sponsor of the Jewish state bill, speaks during the Knesset plenary session ahead of the vote on it, July 18, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s staff put out a biting statement in response, saying Dichter and Hanegbi were both scheduled to meet with Netanyahu between 8 and 9 p.m., but because they’d threatened not to vote for the new government their meetings were canceled.

“You don’t threaten the prime minister,” the statement said.

It was a response that articulated the message behind Netanyahu’s actions. It was no accident that as late as 6 p.m. neither Dichter nor Hanegbi actually knew they were scheduled to meet Netanyahu at 8.

“Everything is completely sealed up with a small group of people at [the prime minister’s residence on] Balfour [Street in Jerusalem],” one Likud official told the Globes business journal.

Netanyahu is keeping his faction guessing and stewing in mounting anxiety and frustration as each lawmaker watches coveted cabinet posts slip away from them after each successive meeting. And he’s not treating his loyalists any better; MKs David Amsalem, David Bitan, Yoav Galant and Tzipi Hotovely are no wiser than Dichter and Hanegbi about their future role.

Election campaign billboards for Likud and its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (foreground), and the Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz (background), in Bnei Brak, February 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

It’s a reasonable strategy, of course. Most of the MKs Netanyahu is meeting in the run-up to the swearing in of the new government are being told they will not be getting their first choice. It helps to have them relieved to be getting anything at all.

But the delays are about more than just making it easier for Netanyahu to deliver bad news. They’re a message. At the launch of a new “parity” government that clips his wings on many issues, Netanyahu is deliberately flexing his political muscles. While Likud MKs complain of being shut out as he doles out ministries, Gantz’s staff complained Thursday that they learned of Netanyahu’s delay plan from the media; by the time Netanyahu called Gantz about it, it was too late for Gantz to say no.

For those looking for a signal of how this strange new government will function, Netanyahu is broadcasting his plan on all wavelengths: Say little, delay whenever possible, and keep everyone guessing. It’s worked so far.

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