Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz was hit by a wave of criticism Monday for signing a coalition agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his former political allies accusing him of bending to the premier’s demands.
Gantz campaigned in the three consecutive elections over the past year on replacing Netanyahu, largely due to the graft charges against the latter.
After the most recent election, Gantz saw his Blue and White alliance unravel as the Yesh Atid and Telem factions broke off over his election as Knesset speaker, with the backing of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc, a move designed to open coalition talks with Likud.
The deal is expected to be signed formally after Independence Day next week, after which the other right-wing parties would sign on to it. The emerging coalition is then expected to move forward with legislation to cement the premiership rotation agreement that will see Gantz take over from Netanyahu as prime minister after 18 months.
The final agreement dovetails with most of Netanyahu’s demands, including with regard to the annexation of parts of the West Bank, a process that it says can begin in July 2020.
One main bone of contention in the talks was the makeup and mechanics of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which installs judges, with Netanyahu — who has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption, including bribery — demanding veto power over nominations.
Under the agreement reached Monday night, Likud ensured a right-wing majority on the panel, counting Blue and White’s MK Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary under Netanyahu.
That clause was immediately criticized by Gantz’s former ally Yair Lapid, the Yesh Atid-Telem leader.
“So the compromise on the Judicial Appointments Committee is that Bibi [Netanyahu] chose all its representatives. Gantz and [Blue and White MK Gabi] Ashkenazi agreed to allow the criminal defendant to appoint the judges that will adjudicate his affairs,” tweeted Lapid.
“There is no limit to the shame,” added Lapid, who is now expected to become opposition leader.
Though a right-wing conservative who is unlikely to back judicial activism, Hauser has also been critical of attacks on the courts and is considered by Gantz and his allies to be a defender of the judiciary’s independence.
Meanwhile Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn is set to be appointed justice minister, replacing the firebrand Amir Ohana of Likud who had made a habit of attacking the courts and the state prosecution.
While welcoming the agreement to form a government, Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman said that the emerging coalition was a far cry from the unity government between Likud and Blue and White that he had been calling for.
“This is another government of Netanyahu and his Haredi-messianic bloc with a fig leaf of two senior [generals],” he wrote on Facebook, referring to Gantz and Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi, who will serve as defense minister and foreign minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, respectively.
Liberman said his secularist right-wing party would sit in the opposition, but would support government initiatives with which it agrees.
“However, we won’t hesitate to criticize erroneous diplomatic decisions and laws on matters of religion and state that harm the principle of live and let live,” he said.
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, whose predominantly Arab party initially recommended that Gantz form a coalition, called the “surrender government” agreed on by Likud and Blue and White a “slap in the face” to those who voted Blue and White in the hope of unseating Netanyahu after an 11-year rule.
“Gantz wasn’t brave enough to win, and chose to give a kosher stamp to annexation [in the West Bank], racism, and corruption,” he said in a statement.
The cabinet will include 32 ministers at first and then swell to 36, with 16 deputy ministers, as soon as the coronavirus crisis is deemed to have ended, in what will be the largest cabinet by far in Israel’s history.
Calling the emerging coalition “an inflated government that is just a lifeline to Netanyahu,” Labor MK Merav Michaeli tweeted her center-left party should not join the new government, amid reports that Labor chief Amir Peretz and No. 2 Itzik Shmuli are poised to do so.
“Now we must ensure that the Labor party doesn’t take part in this corrupt and dangerous disgrace,” she tweeted.
Netanyahu’s political partners, on the other hand, largely welcomed the coalition deal.
“The people of Israel right now need unity in the fight against the outbreak of the coronavirus, in the fight for the livelihood of the residents and the great effort to repair the rifts in society. Now we get to work,” Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, wrote on Twitter.
The national-religious Yamina, however, was reportedly wary of the new agreement, with one source in the party telling Hebrew media, “Netanyahu is showing us the way out.”
After signing the deal with Gantz, Netanyahu spoke with Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett about the new government. A statement from Bennett’s office said the two men agreed to meet after Holocaust Remembrance Day, which ends Tuesday evening, without elaborating.
Netanyahu also spoke with the other leaders of his right-wing religious bloc of parties.
“The prime minister said that the establishment of a unity government in the face of the coronavirus pandemic is a national imperative,” his spokesman said. “The prime minister pledged that he will continue to uphold the principles of the national camp and the right-wing bloc within the unity government.”
Israel has been led by a caretaker government since December 2018, when the 20th Knesset dissolved. Since then, three consecutive elections have failed to yield a new government, creating an unprecedented political crisis.
“We prevented fourth elections. We’ll safeguard democracy,” Gantz tweeted shortly after the deal was announced. “We’ll fight the coronavirus and look out for all Israeli citizens. We have a national emergency government.”