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The Israeli Unity Government, Explained

June 22nd, 2020 | 7 min read

By Will Bruno

When Israelis awoke on the morning of Sunday, May 17, something was different. By the end of the day, for the first time in over 500 days, they were in a country with a fully functional government.

For almost a year and a half, the Likud political party under Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu and the Blue and White party under retired General Benny Gantz, slugged out a grueling political battle. The election in March 2020 wasn’t their first matchup. The political fight of their lives spanned across three elections in less than a year. However, to get to the real origins of the story, one has to go back a little further.

Netanyahu first became PM from 1996-1999. After ten years, he returned to become PM again in 2009. Since then, his tenure has been uninterrupted, making him the longest-serving PM in Israeli history, and leading his rivals to deride him as “King Bibi.”

Gantz has his background in the military. He was a general who ultimately became Chief of the General Staff, which is the top position in the Israeli Defense Force (I.D.F.).

In December 2018, the Israeli government voted to disband after police recommended bringing bribery charges against Netanyahu. In February 2019, following the disbandment of the last fully functional Israeli government, a new political party was formed in the leadup to the April 2019 national elections.

Three smaller left-wing and center-left parties banded together to form a new party called Blue and White (the colors of the Israeli flag), with Benny Gantz becoming the party’s leader. By joining forces, the new party hoped to bring down Netanyahu, who they believed had become corrupt, along with his religious conservative backers who they thought had a disproportionately outsized role in the government. After a decade of uninterrupted rule, they believed it was time for a change.

In the April 2019 elections, the Likud and the newly formed Blue and White both won 35 of the 120 Knesset seats; however, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc presumably won the 61-seat combined majority needed to form a government.

Unexpectedly, one of the smaller parties that had historically been a part of the right-wing bloc, Yisrael Beiteinu – a secular nationalist party, backed out of the conservative coalition in protest to Ultra-Orthodox Jews being exempt from compulsory military service. The mandatory draft applies to all other Israeli Jews. With Yisrael Beiteinu refusing to join with the Left or the Right, neither side had a majority, and no government was able to be formed. Therefore, they had to schedule a second election.

The results of the second election were not decidedly different from the first. They thus scheduled the third election in March 2020, which also brought about little change in the results. However, this time there was a difference. The Coronavirus pandemic was beginning, and Israel needed a stable government during the crisis. Ever since the last official government, Netanyahu had been continuing to serve as PM in a reduced caretaker government.

Benny Gantz had run for over a year on the hope of bringing down Netanyahu and promising never to join forces with him. Perhaps Gantz just got tired, or maybe the virus forced his hand; regardless, he made a deal. The public reacted to his agreement to enter into a coalition government with Netanyahu with demonstrative and mixed sentiment.

The agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz will see a three-year unity government with Netanyahu continuing as PM for 18 months and Gantz serving as Deputy in the newly created position of “Alternate Prime Minister.” After 18 months, the two men will rotate positions. When Gantz agreed to form a unity government with Netanyahu, the three smaller parties comprising Blue and White splintered. Gantz’s faction kept the name “Blue and White” but retained only about half the Knesset seats it formerly had. The other two factions will lead the opposition to the government.

There were three primary obstacles to forming a unity government. First, was the status of Netanyahu. He was served an official indictment in November 2019 on three corruption charges of Fraud, Bribery, and Breach of Trust. His alleged crimes include accepting gifts and also trading favors for positive media coverage. He has denied all wrongdoing, calling the charges against him a witch hunt and a hoax. He became the first sitting PM to go to trial when it began on May 24.

The Israeli Supreme Court had to decide whether or not Netanyahu was even eligible to form and lead the next government since he was under indictment. The Court ultimately ruled that although facing charges, he could create the government.

By law, people serving as ministers in the government must step down if they get indicted. The lone exception to this rule is the position of PM. Since an entirely new position of “Alternate Prime Minister” was being created, the government could make whatever rules they wanted for the post. Netanyahu won a victory in that the exemption from being required to resign if indicted will now include both the positions of PM and Alternate Prime Minister. Under these rules, unless he’s convicted, he won’t have to step down during the three years of this government regardless of whether he’s PM or Alternate Prime Minister.

The ministry distributions were the second essential unity government sticking point. In addition to starting as Alternate Prime Minister, Gantz will simultaneously serve as Defense Minister. In the allocation of other high-profile ministry slots, Blue and White received the Foreign and Justice Ministries. Likud will have the Finance and Health Ministries as well as the Speaker of the Knesset.

The third major point of contention in the unity government deal was the prospect of annexing portions of the West Bank, where there are Israeli settlements. One of Netanyahu’s campaign promises was extending sovereignty over Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Gantz initially opposed annexation but later endorsed the U.S. Israeli/Palestinian peace plan, which allows for certain portions of the West Bank to be annexed. Netanyahu and Gantz struck a deal setting July 1 as the day Israel can begin the initial process of extending Israeli sovereignty to the settlements and annexing the Jordan Valley outright.

Annexation is part of the U.S. government’s peace plan that was released last year detailing what land would belong to Israel and the Palestinians. Under the plan, some land currently belonging to Israel will shift to the Palestinians and vice versa. Overall, Israel will be able to annex about 30% of the West Bank.

According to the peace plan, either the Israelis or the Palestinians can begin implementing the deal with or without the other one’s agreement. The Palestinians have rejected the proposal, but the Israelis have accepted it and are preparing to move forward with implementing the annexation portion of the plan. The plan also stipulates that Israel must try to negotiate with the Palestinians and get approval from Washington before moving forward with annexation. Many believe Netanyahu will work quickly after July 1 to commence annexing portions of the West Bank before the American presidential election in November.

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