Israel forestalls fresh election as rival parties form unity government

By M Shakeel Ahmed

April 23, 2020

New Delhi:The deal reached on Monday between Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz to form a unity government not only broke a political impasse resulting three elections in less than a year without conclusive results but also allowed Netanyahu to continue in office as he faces corruption charges.

Throughout the stalemate in which elections were held in April and September 2019 and last month, Israel has been run by a caretaker government headed by Netanyahu, who is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The agreement forestalls what had appeared to be an inevitable fourth election and offers a deeply divided Israel a chance to effectively battle the corona virus pandemic. Israel has recorded more than 13000 confirmed cases of Coronavirus and over 170 deaths so far.

Under the deal that came after weeks of hard bargaining, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, managed to extend his reign for another 18 months, despite being indicted in bribery and corruption charges, cementing his reputation as a political magician who once again has managed to cling to power in spite of adverse circumstances.

Gantz, a former army chief and head of the centre-right Blue and White Alliance, will be deputy prime minister and get a turn as prime minister halfway through their three-year term, in October 2021, switching roles with Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party.

The government will be defined as a national emergency government for a period of six months and no legislation unrelated to the battle against the coronavirus will be brought in parliament “without consent,” according to the joint statement.

One exception, however, is Israel’s intention—in accordance with the US president Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan—to annex the Jordan Valley and illegal Jewish settlements and other territory in occupied West Bank, action that would defy international laws as it would be against the two-nation proposal.

The finance, health and interior ministries will be looked after by the Likud and their partners, while Blue and White and their partners will control the defence, foreign affairs and justice ministries.

The deal has helped Netanyahu in buying time to formulate his strategy to handle his prosecution or at least prevent it from driving him from power. His trial on bribery, corruption and breach of trust charges is set to begin May 24. He denies all the charges.

Under the deal he has an effective veto over appointments of the next attorney general and state prosecutor, who observers believe could be his men when the corruption charges are heard against him.

According to reports, he had also sought an assurance—which he did not achieve — that if the Supreme Court rules that a criminal defendant cannot serve as prime minister, the new government would pass legislation overriding such a decision.

However, he did win a clause saying that such a decision by the court in the next six months would immediately lead to new elections that would enable him to try again for a 61-seat majority in 120-member Knesset. In that case if he gets a majority he could enact the override he to retain the power.

Israel’s Supreme Court will now have to deal with a tough question of whether Netanyahu will be eligible to lead the country as prime minister. The unity government seems set for a head-on collision with the judiciary.

For relatively political novice Gantz, the deal may have an adverse impact. He has disappointed some of his followers by agreeing to a coalition government with Netanyahu, who has been in power for the last five years and 14 years in total.

During his election campaign Gantz had repeatedly vowed that he would never serve with prime minister who is facing corruption charges. His move has come as disappointment to many of his supporters who saw it as a capitulation to a leader they had wanted to oust.

As far as president Trump’s proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned, Netanyahu has pledged to swiftly and unilaterally annex large swaths of the occupied West bank. Gnatz has said he supported annexation only with international consensus, which appears highly unlikely.

The final agreement delays consideration of annexation until July 1. It declares that annexation must be done in a way that safeguards Israel’s interests, “including the needs for preserving regional stability, protecting existing peace agreements and aspiring for future ones.”

Palestinians have condemned the alliance as a new Israeli “annexation” government” saying the agreement would wreck hopes of peace.

“The formation of an Israeli annexation government means ending the two-state solution and the dismantling of the rights of the people of Palestine,” Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh tweeted.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official said “very serious challenging days” are expected, given the Trump’s close relationship with Netanyahu.

“This is extremely dangerous not just for Palestinians, for Israel, for the region, but for the world,” she said.