In any normal situation, Binyamin Netanyahu would be finished as a political leader and about to bow out from 11 years as prime minister, after the voter refused three times in a year to grant him a majority mandate for forming his fifth government. The juxtaposition of the voter’s verdict with his impending trial on three counts of corruption would have ordinarily hastened his exit.
That is if the situation was normal. However, when coronavirus took hold, it scattered all the norms to the four winds. and granted Netanyahu another lease of life as national leader.
The opposition Kahol Lavan (Blue-White) Party, established by Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, Gaby Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid, for the goal of unseating the long-running Likud leader, suddenly saw their prize eluding their grasp. The foursome self-styled “The Cockpit,” faced a predicament. Netanyahu’s ouster at this time would saddle at least one of them with the unenviable task of containing the spread of the dread virus. Although three of the four are former chiefs of staff, who led Israel’s armed forces in complicated military operations, none of them is in a hurry to venture into unknown territory and fight an invisible, unfathomable enemy which is holding the whole world hostage. They are especially reluctant, since they don’t have a gram of scientific knowhow between them. (See a separate article.) They are therefore inclined to let Netanyahu wrestle with the challenge. He has doing it since day one at the head of a panel of health, economic and other experts which he set up for a concerted war on the virus.
Their dilemma is therefore acute: How to get rid of Bibi and abide by their vow to remove him, while also keeping him in place to shoulder a task for which he is winning enthusiastic popular acclaim? How do you oust a leader without ousting him?
The foursome put their heads together and came up with a proposition: Instead of forcing the prime minister to step down, they would offer Likud parity in a national emergency cabinet for fighting coronavirus which would be headed by Netanyahu for six months. At the end of this period, Gantz, who would meanwhile hold the defense portfolio, would assess the situation and decide whether to keep this set-up going or force a changeover. Netanyahu would hand the keys to the prime minister’s office to Gantz for the first time and retire from political life.
This formula was floated while negotiations with Likud leaders were quietly going forward. It was not to the liking of many Kahol Lavan members. Some don’t trust Netanyahu to hand over the premiership after six months. They believe he will find a pretext or take advantage of circumstances, such as the continuing covid-19 pandemic and its economic ravages – to sit tight instead of making way for his rival. Some also seriously question the four inexperienced leaders’ qualifications for governing the country in the grip of a dire national emergency. They feel that they have much to learn before taking on this responsibility.
For now, those leaders, reluctant to shoulder government responsibility at this time, are moving in on key Knesset committees and collecting legislative levers of power, after removing the Likud Speaker Yuli Edelestein with the help of the Supreme Court.
On Thursday night, the dilemma was unexpectedly resolved. To everyone’s surprise Benny Gantz and Binyamin Netanyahu were found to be on the point of a deal for setting up a national emergency government that would leave the premiership in the hands of the Likud leader for 18 months. This would give Netanyahu space for managing the coronavirus crisis undisturbed by political ructions with solid support. Together with the left-of-center Labor-Mertz bloc, the unity government would boast the support of a respectable majority of 78 members of the 120-member House. Gantz agreed to serve as acting PM and foreign minister until it was his turn to take over the premiership in September 2021.
For the sake of this deal, which keeps the Likud leader in power, Gantz was prepared to lose more than half of his party – and forfeit the name of Kahol Lavan. Two of his partners, Lapid and Ya’alon broke away from the party with their factions in protest and opted to stay in opposition under the name of Kahol Lavan.
So who called the shots for this deal? Maybe covid-19? That would make Israel the first country ever to have its government shaped by a virus.