Win-win coalition? Both Netanyahu and Gantz can make case for victory in talks

PM relinquishes his right-wing agenda for political stability and personal immunity, while Gantz secures a veto on conservative policies while backing off long-term policy goals

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

An election poster hung by the Blue and White party shows their candidate Benny Gantz and Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu on February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An election poster hung by the Blue and White party shows their candidate Benny Gantz and Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu on February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Nothing testifies to the seriousness of the coalition talks between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s shrunken Blue and White faction more than the deep and growing frustration from the right at the emerging coalition government.

Those right-wing elements — Yamina, the rightist flanks of Likud and to some extent the Haredi parties — are the clear losers from the coalition. Each has lost ministerial posts and will have shrunken policy influence.

But what isn’t yet clear is which of the two leaders, Benny Gantz or Benjamin Netanyahu, has the advantage over the other.

There are two competing narratives percolating through the Israeli political system, both richly detailed and convincing, as to who is winning the complicated tug of war between Likud and Blue and White.

Why Gantz is winning

On Thursday, in the immediate aftermath of Benny Gantz’s abandonment of his partners in the Blue and White alliance, the general consensus seemed to be that a naive Gantz had fallen for the latest of Netanyahu’s infamous tricks.

By Sunday, that talk of Netanyahu “outsmarting” Gantz was largely gone. Gone, too, were the clever certainties of the pundits that Netanyahu will soon betray Gantz: that after convincing the former IDF chief of staff to irrevocably sunder his alliance with Yesh Atid and split the once-powerful 33-seat Blue and White into two medium-sized parties (plus a two-seat Derech Eretz faction) that can never again threaten him at the ballot box, Netanyahu would then abandon Gantz for a different shattered remnant of the 61-seat bloc that had opposed him as recently as Thursday morning. Gantz would be left with nothing, and Netanyahu would once again stand unopposed at the apex of Israeli politics.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The main problem with these theories arose in the coalition talks. As Sunday wore on and the extent of Netanyahu’s generosity toward his once-bitter foe became clear, a different kind of discourse became pervasive on the right.

“How embarrassing, how depressing. Nissenkorn to justice, Yamina humiliated and left out, the Kaminitz Law canceled, Labor is in. This isn’t what we dreamed of,” wrote Erel Segal, an influential right-wing pundit.

His complaints refer to a laundry list of right-wing demands that were seen headed to the cutting-room floor in the negotiations, despite the huge majority the 58-seat political right will have in the coming Netanyahu-led government. Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, a left-leaning former union leader and the party’s candidate for justice minister, is expected to reverse the right’s efforts to reform and weaken the judiciary and state prosecution.

The religious-right Yamina party threatened to abandon the coalition and sit in the opposition over Netanyahu’s paltry offer of one full-term minister and another half-term minister in rotation with another party.

Canceling the 2017 “Kaminitz law,” which dramatically — and critics say unfairly — increased enforcement against illegal construction in Arab towns and villages, where such construction is rampant (and where residents accuse state authorities of providing insufficient building permits, forcing them to build illegally), was a key demand of the Arab-majority Joint List when it recommended Gantz for prime minister earlier this month.

Another prominent right-wing voice, the historian and commentator Gadi Taub, griped on Sunday: “We didn’t fight to get a center-left government with some right-wing trappings. For that we could have just gone with Blue and White.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 26, 2020. (Knesset)

The complaints mounted. Would the oft-promised annexation of the Jordan Valley still take place if Gantz was in charge of the Defense Ministry, the agency that would be charged with carrying it out? What of the “historic opportunity” of the Trump peace plan that so defined Netanyahu’s campaign?

Gantz, who would call himself a centrist, in fact has offered support for the Trump plan and for annexing the Jordan Valley in certain circumstances, but the Likud-led bloc campaigned on portraying him and his allies as leftists, a pretense they have seemingly kept up even as the Blue and White leader looks to be transformed from rival to partner.

“Handing the defense and justice ministries to the left amounts to ideological submission to the left, and the destruction of our revolution in the Justice Ministry and our legalization efforts in Judea and Samaria in recent years,” tweeted an angry MK Ayelet Shaked of Yamina, a former justice minister.

“In the next government, the minority is going to control and manage the country,” fumed Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, also of Yamina.

Former justice minister and Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The list of concessions handed to Gantz so far in the negotiations is long indeed. Gantz demanded and will receive an almost one-to-one ratio of MKs to ministries in the new coalition. Netanyahu’s loyal religious-right allies will be lucky to be left with a minister for every four lawmakers.

To satisfy both his angry allies and his newfound partner, Netanyahu is now contemplating inventing new and uniquely unimportant ministries: a tiny, symbolic “ministry for minority development” (a splinter from the already minuscule ministry of social equality); a split of the welfare and labor ministry into a distinct labor ministry and a welfare ministry; dividing the culture and sports ministry; even the Jerusalem and heritage ministry is facing a split into a Jerusalem ministry and an entire cabinet-level post to oversee a handful of museums and heritage sites.

The government is now expected to grow to as many as 36 ministers, which would be the largest-ever government in Israel’s history. Netanyahu is also planning to appoint Likud cabinet hopefuls to senior ambassadorships set to open up — in Washington, London and at the UN for a start — just to shorten the list of angry MKs from his own camp he will have to deal with in the coming Knesset.

Though talks are still ongoing, Likud has already conceded (as of Monday afternoon at least) that its former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein would not return to the speaker’s chair — a punishment demanded by Gantz for Edelstein’s refusal to obey a court order last week over the scheduling of a vote on his replacement. Gantz even enjoys a veto over the next public security minister, even though the ministry will be held by Likud.

It is a government built entirely around the needs of coalition politics — the need, that is, to satisfy Gantz’s demands.

The Knesset Arrangements committee meets amid the coronavirus crisis to approve the breakaway of the Yesh Atid and Telem factions from the centrist Blue and White party, March 29, 2020. (Knesset)

For Gantz, his enormous cabinet presence of some 15 ministers (the exact number hasn’t been finalized) isn’t just a sign of his negotiating leverage; it’s a sign of his priorities. His faction is so invested in managing executive-branch agencies that almost no one will be left in the parliament building to push significant legislation or be a meaningful presence in budget fights. In other words, Gantz isn’t planning to advance the kind of long-term policy shifts that demand legislation.

That’s what drove MK Gadeer Kamal Mreeh, the first Druze woman MK in Israel’s history and a close ally of Gantz, to storm out of his party on Saturday with the accusation that Gantz was “abandoning principles.” The specific principle he had abandoned: dropping his promise to push an amendment to the nation-state law to include a mention of equality for minorities, a top priority for Mreeh’s Druze community.

Similar complaints were heard on Sunday from gay rights advocates, who had backed Gantz for his promise of civil marriage and greater recognition for gay families. That, too, was now on the back burner.

Gantz is abandoning the legislative arena for another priority that runs like a consistent theme through the negotiations: seizing control of every agency of government that the political right was planning to use to advance distinctly right-wing policies, and reversing those policies. That includes defense, justice, culture and other portfolios.

Blue and White’s Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh (right), party leader Benny Gantz and other activists at a meeting with members of the Druze community in Daliyat al-Karmel, northern Israel, March 7, 2019. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Everything is devoted to that effort. Even Labor party leader Amir Peretz, who is heading into the Netanyahu government alongside Gantz and with Gantz negotiating for him, is set to take control of the Economy Ministry and the government agency dealing with the special housing and education needs of the Bedouin. That agency, the Authority for the Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev, has been part of the Agriculture Ministry in recent years, a right-wing-led branch of government that used the authority as an instrument for reining in the unfettered and unzoned expansion of Bedouin encampments throughout the south. Under a Labor economy minister, the focus will shift to the authority’s responsibility to provide services and bolster empowerment programs in the Bedouin community.

And so it is with agency after agency, ministry after ministry: Gantz systematically disabling and dismantling the right’s policy agenda at every turn.

But why is Netanyahu playing along?

He’s obviously eager to avoid yet another election amid the coronavirus pandemic. To do that he needed one more party to expand his 58-seat rightist bloc into a majority — and better Gantz’s 15 seats than three or four paltry seats from the likes of Labor and Gesher, which might put him over the top but not by a large enough margin to free him from his dependence on other partners like Yamina.

But that doesn’t explain the astounding generosity. Is Gantz’s support so vital that it’s worth leaving a trail of bitter allies wondering how they could have been duped? So strong was the disaffection on Sunday that some pundits wondered if Netanyahu’s generosity to Gantz signaled that he doesn’t intend to run in any more elections.

Could Netanyahu be engineering his exit from political life? After all, when he finally signs the rotation deal with Gantz, Netanyahu will for the first time have committed in writing to leaving power.

And indeed, this promise to step down, mocked by many over the weekend, has become a serious commitment in the fine print of the developing coalition agreement.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, and Labor party leader Amir Peretz meet to discuss coalition talks, on March 11, 2020. (Blue and White/Elad Malka)

One example: Likud offered a mechanism to help bolster Gantz’s confidence in Netanyahu’s good intentions. First proposed in the September talks, the idea is to pass legislation that would ensure that if a rotation government dissolves before its scheduled expiration date, the candidate with the least time in the prime minister’s chair would be automatically appointed interim prime minister. That is, if Netanyahu clings to power until September 2021, but then attempts to engineer a coalition crisis and force new elections to avoid handing the PMO to Gantz, Gantz would in any case become prime minister from the moment the government dissolves until a new government is formed — a period that could reasonably stretch some five months (or in a strange case like the past year’s indecisive election results, far longer).

Another example: The agreement will stipulate that Gantz’s term be approved in the upcoming Knesset vote on the Netanyahu government — that is, that Gantz won’t need to worry about obtaining Likud MKs’ votes of confidence in the Knesset 18 months from now to reaffirm the deal.

No matter what, Netanyahu is promising, Gantz will be prime minister.

Or is Netanyahu winning?

Netanyahu’s uncharacteristic generosity to a political rival and his seeming earnestness raise the obvious question: What’s he getting in return?

Simple, say the proponents of this narrative: protection from his legal troubles, and not just for the moment but for years to come.

Part of the coalition agreement is expected to stipulate the formation of a new position established just for a post-PM Netanyahu, an “acting PM” role whose immunity protections under law would be identical to the serving prime minister’s. Unlike regular cabinet ministers, he would not be required to resign due to an indictment filed against him. He could remain in his post until and unless he is convicted following his final appeal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara addresses their supporters on the night of the Israeli elections, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu is also all but certain to seek parliamentary immunity once more. With so much now hanging in the balance for Gantz — a powerful role in the coalition and no political home to go back to — Netanyahu might reasonably expect majority support for his immunity bid.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for the ideological right, and many are saying so openly: after a long and bitter year of soldiering, Netanyahu’s most loyal soldiers are now watching him sell their ideals and aspirations for his personal safety.

However, some observers say Netanyahu’s generosity isn’t a sign of desperation, but a function of his strategy last week for detaching Gantz from his former allies. When the two leaders first discussed a unity agreement on Wednesday, Gantz explained he was worried that breaking up his 33-seat party would leave him without the leverage to obtain the minimum in coalition talks that would make the move worthwhile.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Chief Justice of Supreme Court Esther Hayut at the memorial ceremony for the late President Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu made a simple calculation: he needed Blue and White to obtain a stable coalition — but the smaller that Blue and White faction was, the better. So he promised Gantz to treat a shared government on an equal one-to-one unity basis, regardless of the number of MKs Gantz actually brought with him.

By thus giving Gantz the assurances he needed to break away from his longtime partner Yair Lapid, Netanyahu obtained his Knesset majority — and with the added boon of an “equal” partner that lacked the numbers in the Knesset to pose a serious threat to Likud or Netanyahu. That Lapid would be on the outside didn’t hurt either; the coalition wouldn’t have to endure the constant strain of Lapid and the Haredi parties battling from within on religion-and-state issues.

In other words, Netanyahu’s generosity wasn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength. He bought Gantz off, attracted enough of his hangers-on — Labor, Gesher, Derech Eretz — to ensure Gantz could not easily topple him down the road, and dismantled the strategic threat of the Blue and White alliance. And the price for all that: a roll-back on the right’s signature policies.

Benny Gantz (L)and Gabi Ashkenazi at a Blue and White campaign event in Kfar Saba on February 12, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

In the end, both narratives tell a vital part of the story. Netanyahu has his government and is safely returning to the PMO. The cost — a full egalitarian unity deal with Gantz — was unavoidable. Gantz, meanwhile, controls the key levers of policy and will hold the line against the right’s agenda in the coming months (and maybe even years), all while giving the country the stability it needs to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The cost for him, too, was unavoidable, and included giving up most of his campaign promises. Netanyahu remains in power, no laws will pass prohibiting indicted MKs from serving as premier, no new initiatives will be launched for peace talks or separation from the Palestinians, no religion-and-state reforms will be advanced, the nation-state law will not be changed, and none of the right-wing legislation of the past decade will be overturned.

Perhaps both narratives are wrong, then. Perhaps neither won, and the best they can show for their efforts was that they managed to obstruct the other.

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