Israel’s Cease-Fire Government Should Promote Healing, Not Division

Netanyahu and Gantz could use their unity government to speed Israel’s economic recovery rather than entrenching political deadlock.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) greets Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for the late Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on Sept. 19, 2019.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) greets Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for the late Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on Sept. 19, 2019. GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images

Israel’s 18-month political nightmare—including three election campaigns—is finally over. While many challenges lie ahead, the new government sworn in on Sunday, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former rival Benny Gantz, now in the role of “alternate prime minister,” received an impressive 73 votes in Israel’s Knesset, providing it with a wide base that will hopefully lead to political stability.

Both sides reneged on major campaign promises when they agreed to form this government, arguing that now was the time for compromises and a cease-fire on the country’s divisive religious and cultural battles. The new government has a choice: to seize the opportunity to pursue policies regarding issues on which widespread consensus already exists in Israel or they can turn the cease-fire government into the continuation of political deadlock by other means.

It will not be easy for this government to succeed. A coalition co-led by a prime minister on trial for corruption and a retired general who vowed to preserve the rule of law while repeatedly seeking to unseat his rival, whom he labeled as corrupt, faces significant obstacles.

After entering politics in December 2018, the No. 1 priority for Gantz was to ensure that Netanyahu, if indicted, would not continue to serve in office. This pledge by Gantz’s Blue and White party intensified throughout the campaigns as Netanyahu’s indictments on bribery charges were officially handed down, and it served as a rallying cry to unite a previously divided opposition. Gantz was the law and order candidate vowing to return good governance and impeccable ethics to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.

In addition to his promises to fight corruption and clean up Israel’s public services, Gantz also articulated the ideology of the political center on a number of socioeconomic matters. He called for a fairer distribution of government resources in a country where interest-group competition often dictates state budgets. He also advocated more equitable burden sharing—as opposed to the current reality where members of the ultra-Orthodox community are exempt from the compulsory military service performed by most other Israelis.

Gantz envisioned a realignment of the balance between religion and state in a country where an Orthodox rabbinate holds a monopolistic grip over births, marriages, and burials and has the final say on matters such as public transportation and the opening of shops on Saturdays (the Jewish Sabbath).

Netanyahu also had high hopes for his agenda when he dispersed the Knesset back in December 2018. Had he achieved the necessary 61-seat majority for his right-wing bloc in parliament, Netanyahu intended to lead a radical overhaul of the country’s constitutional system by seeking personal immunity from prosecution while allowing political appointments in sensitive legal positions now filled by career civil servants. Most significantly, Netanyahu and his allies were intent on instituting a so-called override clause to inhibit the Supreme Court’s ability to exercise judicial oversight over Knesset legislation and other government policies. Judicial review has long been considered an essential element of the balance of powers in Israel’s democracy.

Netanyahu also intended to advance his agenda vis-à-vis the Palestinians by enacting a number of clauses in the Trump administration peace plan that would allow Israel to extend its sovereignty in disputed territories in the West Bank. Throughout the three elections, Netanyahu repeatedly pledged to move forward with such an annexation of land if and when he achieved an electoral victory while ignoring the parts of the plan that called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Both sides fell short of a commanding majority in three successive elections and, to avoid a fourth vote, have now agreed to a power-sharing agreement. The composition of Israel’s new government, however, makes it highly unlikely that any of the above policies proposed by Netanyahu or Gantz will be enacted. In fact, to overcome the significant distrust between the two main coalition partners, the coalition agreement they signed includes a number of clauses that ensure that neither side can pass legislation or push new government policies without the other’s consent.

In practice, this means that the government will most likely be paralyzed, with Netanyahu and Gantz wielding veto power over each other. Put simply, the most likely outcome will be deadlock, this time from within the cabinet rather than at the polls.

The most likely outcome will be deadlock, this time from within the cabinet rather than at the polls.

Despite all this, Israel’s new unity government remains extremely popular. A recent poll conducted at the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 57 percent of those surveyed preferred this government over holding a fourth election. When Jewish Israelis were asked about their preference, this number went up to 63 percent. This support is most likely based on the fact that even as the health crisis from the coronavirus pandemic recedes, the economic ramifications are staggering.

Israel, which had 3.6 percent unemployment as recently as March, is now facing a situation in which more than 27 percent of its workforce has been either laid off or furloughed—a number that is expected to remain above 15 percent in May as lockdowns ease. Israelis desperately want their government to begin helping the country emerge from this economic death spiral. This government, with its broad support throughout the Knesset, is viewed as key to providing the budgets and sound economic policies needed to recover in extremely trying times.

Perhaps more significantly, beyond dealing with the immediate impact of the coronavirus crisis, this government can provide a much-needed cease-fire on many of the issues Israelis vehemently fought over during these three campaigns. Gantz and his colleagues will have to suffer the indignity of serving under a prime minister they view as corrupt, but on the other hand they achieved an important victory by blocking Netanyahu’s attempts to alter the country’s constitutional system to avoid facing trial. Thanks to Gantz and his allies, the prime minister will have to show up at the Jerusalem District Court this month.

Similarly, Blue and White representatives know that young ultra-Orthodox men will not be showing up at Israel Defense Forces induction centers anytime soon and the chance of enacting civil marriage laws free of the rabbinate’s control is slim. Yet it is equally clear that the ultra-Orthodox parties will not be able to advance their agenda of deepening religious practice in Israel.

When it comes to the possibility of annexation, neither side will be able to fully fulfill its campaign promises. While Blue and White had stated that any move in the West Bank should move forward only with international consent, the relevant section of the coalition agreement signed with Netanyahu’s Likud party allows the prime minister to pursue the issue after “consulting” with Gantz—but without the veto power each side was afforded on all other policy questions.

At the same time, the agreement states that annexation will only be applied while “maintaining regional stability, maintaining peace agreements and striving for future peace agreements.” With Gantz serving as defense minister and his ally Gabi Ashkenazi as foreign minister, it is likely that if Netanyahu’s annexation plan were to actually advance, the final scope and implementation would be far different—and narrower—than what Netanyahu promised his supporters during the recent election campaigns.

Faced with these constraints on major policy initiatives, there is still one thing this government can do: It can serve as a catalyst for healing and reconciliation among the sparing factions that make up Israeli society. It can remind Israelis that while they may have different visions for where they want the country to go in the future, the challenges of the present are so great that it’s worth putting those divergent visions aside and working together right now.

With the right policies and appropriate allocation of resources, this new government can implement a truce that will keep Israel safe, protect its democratic institutions, and reignite its economy so that Israelis can emerge from the current crisis with their basic needs secure—and ready to resume their deep-seated ideological debates at another point in the future.

Yohanan Plesner is the president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. He previously served as a member of the Knesset from the Kadima Party from 2007 to 2013. Twitter: @IDIisrael