Israel’s Double Curse: Politics and the Pandemic

A Supreme Court decision threatens Netanyahu’s grip on power and augurs a constitutional crisis.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz in Jerusalem on Sept 19, 2019.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz in Jerusalem on Sept 19, 2019. GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV, Israel—Two formidable crises Israel is facing, a pandemic and a political standoff, have intersected in recent days to create one of the most challenging—and bewildering—moments in the country’s history.

TEL AVIV, Israel—Two formidable crises Israel is facing, a pandemic and a political standoff, have intersected in recent days to create one of the most challenging—and bewildering—moments in the country’s history.

The new coronavirus has infected nearly 2,000 Israelis and killed three of them, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a near-total lockdown across the country.

At the same time, Netanyahu seems poised to defy a Supreme Court decision that could potentially loosen his grip on power after three inconclusive elections in the past year and three corruption indictments.

The standoff amounts to a constitutional crisis for Israel and a difficult test for Netanyahu. But the national emergency spawned by the pandemic could ultimately save the Israeli leader politically.

The court ruled Monday that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein must hold a plenary vote by Wednesday on a new speaker. Edelstein is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Coming out of the latest election in early March, the opposition Blue and White party and its allies hold a slim 61-seat majority in parliament, versus 59 seats for Netanyahu and his religious and right-wing allies. Blue and White is now intent on pressing forward with its advantage, including nominating one of its own to the speaker post and taking control of parliamentary procedure.

Edelstein had indicated he would not abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling, with other senior Netanyahu government ministers calling on him to directly flout the decision. In the past week, Edelstein had raised concerns about conducting the full array of Knesset activities, citing Health Ministry guidelines on social distancing. But critics say casting ballots remotely and using special quarantine rooms for infected parliamentarians would mitigate any concerns.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut was withering in her criticism, saying that Edelstein’s continued refusal to hold the speaker vote “undermined the foundations of the democratic process and damaged the Knesset’s status as an independent authority.”

Israel’s attorney general and president have also weighed in, saying the government should allow the normal functioning of parliament.

But Netanyahu loyalists slammed the court’s decision as undemocratic and accused judges of usurping powers from the legislative branch. “If Chief Justice Hayut wants to put herself above the Knesset, she’s invited to come … with the Supreme Court guard and open the plenary herself,” wrote Tourism Minister Yariv Levin on Facebook.

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Several right-wing politicians appeared to take a softer line against the court, which has become a major battleground between nationalists and liberals over contentious pieces of Knesset legislation, West Bank settlements, and illegal migrants.

“We haven’t got another court, we haven’t got another [justice] system. The decision must be respected. But the very intervention is the problem,” one Likud minister told Army Radio Tuesday morning. Politicians and commentators on both the left and right warned of anarchy if a Supreme Court ruling is flouted.

The division over the ruling mirrors the broader discord in the country over Netanyahu himself—the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history.

“We already have a two-state solution in Israel,” Likud pollster Rafi Smith recently told Foreign Policy, using a term usually associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s called Bibi and no Bibi, the right versus the liberal left. It’s a fight over the identity of the country.”

This chasm only widened after three election campaigns and three indictments against Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Neither Netanyahu nor his chief rival, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, has been able to form a government. Netanyahu has continued on as caretaker prime minister of a transition government.

To be sure, the center-left, led by Blue and White, did win a slight majority, and Gantz last week was tasked by the president with forming a government. Yet his path to a governing coalition appears slim at best.

The anti-Netanyahu forces in parliament are divided ideologically between Arab-Israeli political factions and secular ultra-nationalists, pro-peace leftists and right-wing security hawks. Gantz’s only viable option coming out of the last election was the seating of a minority government with the external parliamentary support of the Arab-dominated Joint List. There’s no precedent in Israel for a minority government formed at the outset of a tenure.

Two Blue and White backbenchers, however, have already indicated they would oppose such a decision, deeming Arab-Israeli political support anathema; a Gantz-led minority government is impossible without their votes.

Netanyahu, for his part, maintains that he holds a parliamentary majority since he believes the votes of Israel’s Arab citizens—20 percent of the country, who voted overwhelmingly for the Joint List—should not be counted. A recent Likud video shared by Netanyahu on social media alleged that Blue and White was “trampling over democracy” and conspiring with “supporters of terror to topple a Zionist government.”

But Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List faction told Foreign Policy that Netanyahu was trying to delegitimize the Joint List because of its increasing strength: “Bibi isn’t prime minister because of our votes—Arab doctors, teachers, construction workers, football players, and more who made the Joint List the third-largest party in the Knesset.”

With no clear path to a governing coalition for either Netanyahu or Gantz, and with the spiraling coronavirus crisis, the two leaders have discussed forming a “national emergency government” together.

Netanyahu this past weekend laid out his version of the incipient deal, which would see him remain as prime minister for 18 months, followed by Gantz serving for 18 months. This would be a huge comedown for Blue and White, a political party just over a year old that was created for the express purpose of toppling Netanyahu. Yet, as Gantz put it in a recent interview: “There are principles, but there are also circumstances,” alluding to the growing economic toll of a national shutdown that has driven up unemployment to nearly 18 percent.

There remains, however, deep opposition even within Blue and White’s leadership to sitting with Netanyahu in government. “I can’t imagine anyone in the country believes Bibi will step down and hand the keys to Gantz in one and a half years,” a senior source in Blue and White told Foreign Policy. “It’s possible that Netanyahu sometimes lies and can’t be trusted to uphold political deals,” the source added sardonically.

This all ties back to the constitutional crisis over the Knesset speaker.

Blue and White in recent weeks has embarked on a strategy to increase pressure on Netanyahu via parliament and thereby improve its negotiating position (while also, party officials insist, providing essential oversight over an unelected government as it invokes emergency powers to deal with the pandemic).

First came the solidification of Gantz’s parliamentary majority that gave him first option to form a government. This then provided Gantz with the power to form Knesset committees—something Likud also opposed—and move to replace Edelstein as speaker. Control over parliamentary procedure, finally, may provide Blue and White with the option—or threat—of passing laws disqualifying an indicted prime minister from running again in any future election.

“It’s the best threat they have on Netanyahu,” Tal Shalev, senior political correspondent for the Walla News outlet, told Foreign Policy. “Bibi is most afraid of this law.”

The kerfuffle over parliament, then, can best be understood as both Blue and White upholding Israel’s democratic processes and as a leverage play against Netanyahu.

“Gantz wants [a] unity [government with Netanyahu], but he can’t do it via a complete surrender,” Shalev explained. “He has to finish the Knesset moves first” because of pressure from several of his senior political partners.

The real enigma remains Netanyahu. He has threatened to end unity talks if Blue and White actually replaces his Knesset speaker. Over the past two days he directed the entire right-wing bloc of parties to simply boycott parliament. An emergency government with Gantz holds the tantalizing possibility of breaking up Blue and White, as only parts of it may agree to violate the core election pledge of not serving under Netanyahu. But it would also force Netanyahu to give up some power, possibly including control over the Justice Ministry, making it harder for him to mitigate the damage from his own legal trouble.

Netanyahu might also be considering another strategy for retaining power: moving for a fourth election. With the pandemic shutting down much of the country, it could be months or longer before Israelis can go to the polls once again. In the meantime, Netanyahu would remain prime minister. The government last week shuttered all the courts—save the Supreme Court—due to the coronavirus, just days before Netanyahu’s own trial was set to start. A new date was set for late May.

“It’s a confluence of too many things,” Amir Fuchs, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, told Foreign Policy. “There are many countries dealing with the corona crisis, but no country is doing it during multiple political crises.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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