If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a message for President Donald Trump, it’s that there’s a politically astute way of handling a pandemic. Since the most recent Israeli election, on March 2nd, Netanyahu has amplified the state of emergency. He has kept the spotlight on himself, but mainly he has absorbed the reflected prestige of the epidemiologists who have kept the infection rate in Israel comparatively low. (As of Tuesday, there was a daily infection rate of about twenty-eight people per million, about the same rate as in Germany.) He has made sure that he was the one to announce lockdowns and short-term financial assistance to the desperate, all the while complaining about judicial officials impugning his authority and thereby weakening the plan. He has attacked the “deep state” while taking credit for its work. The emergency in the foreground has let Netanyahu, in the background, do as he pleased.
The lesson may be too late, or too subtle, for Trump, but for Netanyahu it has worked just fine. On April 20th, he signed an agreement with Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party, formerly his key opponent, to form an “emergency government of national unity.” After three inconclusive elections in seventeen months, during which neither man found enough support to form a government, Gantz controlled a slight majority in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. But by last week he looked sidelined—a more decent, less divisive man, perhaps, but eclipsed by Netanyahu’s management of the crisis. Gantz’s allies believed that he risked seeming like a disruptor of social solidarity—that if he refused to join a Netanyahu-led government, prompting a fourth election, it would be held against him.
After signing the agreement, Gantz insisted that forming a coalition with Netanyahu—“working from within,” as he put it—meant both fighting the pandemic and “safeguarding” democracy. But it’s not clear how the terms of the agreement relate to the emergency, other than by preëmpting the costs of another election; it’s also hard to tell whether “working from within” means much more than simply blunting some of Netanyahu’s most outrageous efforts to suborn an independent judiciary while allowing him to carry on, under indictment for bribery and breach of trust, and leaving an ultra-nationalist, theocratic government in place. “This is not a ‘unity’ government; it is Netanyahu’s fifth government, in which there’s an annex called Blue and White,” Avigdor Lieberman, the secular hard-liner who had become Gantz’s erstwhile partner, told the news Web site Ynet. “The agreement gives Netanyahu immunity and Gantz a distinguished job.”
The coalition agreement stipulates two equal blocs, each with sixteen ministers and eight deputies. Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Army, will be the defense minister and also—in a newly created position—the Alternate Prime Minister. He will, according to the agreement, rotate into the premiership after eighteen months, after which time Netanyahu will hold the Alternate title for the same period. In effect, each leader will hold a veto over the policies or appointments of the other.
This sounded fair at first, even favorable to Gantz, given that Netanyahu’s bloc, at fifty-nine Knesset seats, is now more than three times bigger than Blue and White’s. (When Gantz struck his deal with Netanyahu, nearly half its members in the Knesset quit and formed Yesh Atid/Telem, a new alliance merging their old party names.) But the most recent poll shows that, among Blue and White voters, support for Gantz’s move has dropped to just over forty per cent from almost sixty per cent a week ago, now that the terms of the agreement have sunk in. Netanyahu, after all, is going on trial, ostensibly on May 24th, so an agreement that allows him to stay in office and hands him a veto over future judicial appointments looks like a gift. He’ll have a say, for example, over nominations for the next attorney general and state attorney. He’ll also have a say over the ideological complexion of high-court judges who may well be tasked with hearing an eventual appeal.
Besides, the status quo is precisely what Netanyahu’s Likud Party aims to preserve—in civil society, in the occupied territories, and in the region. Gantz even agreed to let Netanyahu “bring to the cabinet any agreement reached with the United States regarding the application of sovereignty” over the West Bank by early July; that would likely mean the annexation of large sections that include the Jordan Valley. In this context, each leader having a veto means that Gantz and Netanyahu can knock each other’s hand off the brake while the train moves steadily in Netanyahu’s direction.
Gantz vows that he will be able to protect “freedom of expression, the media, and the rule of law,” because Blue and White will gain control of the Communications and Justice Ministries. There will be a Blue and White justice minister, Avi Nissenkorn, who will also be the chair of the Knesset’s Legislative Affairs Committee. But he will be shadowed by a Likud deputy chair, with whom he’ll have to seek agreement to advance any legislation. Blue and White will get first crack at the Foreign Ministry, but Netanyahu, meanwhile, will choose his own Ambassador to Washington.
Nor will Gantz have direct administrative responsibilities involving public health, the pandemic’s economic impact, or privacy issues. The Health Ministry will stay in the hands of a Likud ally, although the current minister, the ultra-Orthodox leader Yaakov Litzman, has announced his intention to resign. Litzman, who himself became infected with the coronavirus, was inept in his handling of the crisis as ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, slow to adopt distancing measures, became centers of contagion. (As much as forty per cent of the population of the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak may have been infected.) The critical Finance Ministry, meanwhile, will stay with Likud, as will the Interior Security Ministry, which commands the police.
As for privacy, in mid-March, using emergency powers, Netanyahu recruited the Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of the F.B.I., for the fight against the pandemic, authorizing its use of mobile-phone-tracking technology to do contact tracing of infected citizens. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Knesset must pass legislation regulating this technology if the practice is to continue. Gantz has not spoken publicly on the issue, though the threat to basic freedoms seems self-evident. Meanwhile, the Education Ministry is being offered again to the national-Orthodox, ultra-rightist settler party Yemina. The Interior Ministry will stay with the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which applies rigid interpretations of Jewish law to issues of immigration, marriage, burial, and dietary strictures. The speaker of the Knesset, who is responsible for advancing or killing all legislation, will be one of Netanyahu’s closest associates.
Gantz has also agreed to a weird constitutional work-around. To establish the position of Alternate Prime Minister, the Knesset must pass new legislation—an amendment to the basic law of government that would distinguish the position from that of other ministers. Otherwise, Netanyahu, as a minister under indictment, would be legally required to resign. Should the Supreme Court rule, within the government’s first six months, that Netanyahu cannot remain Prime Minister, due to the indictment, or that the amendment or supporting provisions contradict other basic laws, the Knesset would be dispersed and a new election called.
Even if the government survives those challenges, Netanyahu could well decide, when his eighteen months are up, that he’d rather call another election than see Gantz in his place, especially if criminal proceedings against him have not yet run their course. Gantz believes that he’s inserted a poison pill against that eventuality into the agreement: it requires that the Alternate automatically become Prime Minister of a transitional government until a new election. But Netanyahu would have had another year and a half to make the criminal proceedings against him seem routine. “Netanyahu is acting like his trial is a forgettable nuisance—his lawyer seems to be preparing not at all,” the journalist Lily Galili told me. “He’d love nothing more than to run against the ‘leftist’ Supreme Court, or as an anti-élitist insurgent.”
Nor does Gantz appear intent on preëmpting annexations in the West Bank. In recent months, he has said that such moves must be coördinated with Jordan and Egypt, which is a way of dismissing them out of hand. (His agreement with Netanyahu refers, vaguely, to refraining from actions that would likely foil existing peace agreements.) Yet Gantz now seems willing to allow the question of annexation to hinge on a nod from the Trump Administration. There seems little chance that Trump, looking for votes among pro-Israel evangelicals and older Jewish Americans, will disapprove, especially given his “deal of the century” in the region, which has already called for annexations.
“You don’t fight corruption from within,” Yair Lapid, Gantz’s former ally, said at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on April 21st. “If you are inside, you are part of it. If you are inside, you are corrupt.” The ultra-Orthodox, Lapid continued, will determine who serves in the Army (they want their own youth exempted), and the government will not allow shopping on the Sabbath or civil marriages, nor will it require the teaching of math and English in ultra-Orthodox schools. “They won’t be able to make a living, and your children will support them,” Lapid said. Moreover, Druze Army officers and Arab-Israeli doctors and nurses “who have not closed their eyes for weeks” while fighting the pandemic should know that there will be no changes to the nation-state law, which declares Israel the state of “the Jewish people.” As Lapid noted, “The insult will continue. The discrimination will continue.” Relations with Jordan will be destroyed if Israel annexes parts of the West Bank, as will relations with the Democratic Party in the United States. Lapid, a self-styled centrist, has never made a speech like this before. But the threads holding Israeli democracy together have never seemed so frayed.
Netanyahu, for his part, is settling in, still the Prime Minister on this, Israel’s seventy-second Independence Day. In an online address on Sunday to an evangelical group, he said he’s “confident” that Trump will recognize any proposed annexations: the “pledge will be honored,” and “we will be able to celebrate another historic moment in the history of Zionism.” As for the unity government, he compared it in a tweet to the alliance formed by Zionist socialists and right-wing nationalists “during the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943.” The Supreme Court, Netanyahu told a private meeting of allies earlier in April, had better not disrupt political agreements of this kind by, say, prohibiting an indicted Knesset member from assuming the premiership, thus forcing yet another election. “The masses will take to the streets,” he said. “There will be a call to boycott the election.” Presumably, threatening electoral disruption is a lesson Trump does not need.
Bernard Avishai teaches political economy at Dartmouth and is the author of “The Tragedy of Zionism,” “The Hebrew Republic,” and “Promiscuous,” among other books. He was selected as a Guggenheim fellow in 1987.