(Bloomberg) — More than a year of political paralysis in Israel could be nearing an end now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and bitter rival Benny Gantz have signed a power-sharing agreement to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s a big achievement for Netanyahu because he gets to stay in power for the next 18 months even though he’s charged in three corruption cases. For Gantz, it meant abandoning his pledge never to sit in government with the tainted leader — the key promise that made him a serious candidate to begin with — with no assurance he’ll spend more than a few months in the prime minister’s office.
The 14-page deal paves the way for a broad government led by Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White. It gives the indicted Netanyahu influence over senior legal appointees, and allows him to pursue his promise of annexing West Bank territory the Palestinians want for a future state.
“The coalition agreement is complex and intricate, designed to shield Netanyahu from the courts and Gantz from Netanyahu’s political machinations,” Eurasia Group analyst Henry Rome wrote in a note.
Here are some details:
To enter this pact, Gantz reneged on his vow to never sit in a government under Netanyahu while allegations against him are standing. The former military chief cited changed circumstances due to the coronavirus outbreak that’s killed more than 180 people in Israel, thrust its economy into a near-shutdown and sent joblessness skyrocketing.
Before the government is sworn in, parliament must pass legislation formalizing the rotating leadership. Netanyahu will step aside in October 2021 to trade places with Gantz, who will be designated alternate premier in the meantime. They’ll have numerical parity in cabinet, and jointly lead a task force coordinating the government response to the virus outbreak.
Gantz’s camp will control the ministries of defense, foreign affairs and justice. Netanyahu and his partners will hold the finance and health ministries, and the parliamentary speakership.
Gantz’s former political partner Yair Lapid apologized to voters on Tuesday for supporting the general, calling his ex-ally’s reversal “the worst act of fraud in the history of this country.”
Netanyahu has spent the last year vowing to start applying Israeli sovereignty to territory in the West Bank, which the Palestinians view as the core of their future state. The push won the backing of U.S. President Donald Trump, and it was incorporated in the Middle East peace plan he unveiled in January.
Starting July 1, lawmakers are allowed to go forward with the plan. Such a unilateral move would sap the Palestinians’ dream of an independent state, and after the power-sharing deal was signed, they lamented the prospect of another Netanyahu-led government.
Annexation of West Bank territory, captured in the 1967 Middle East war, had been considered taboo for decades in Israeli politics because of the international outcry it would spark. But as religious and nationalist political parties gained clout, and peacemaking with the Palestinians drifted off the country’s agenda amid continuing Palestinian attacks, the notion has won widespread currency.
Rule of Law
Power over the judicial system was a key sticking point in talks leading up to the agreement. Netanyahu stands accused of illicitly taking gifts and scheming to tilt legislation to benefit media publishers in exchange for sympathetic coverage.
While Gantz’s faction will control the Justice Ministry, Netanyahu won increased power over the judicial appointments panel. That in effect potentially boosts his influence over the bench that might one day be asked to judge him.
If the country’s highest court rules that Netanyahu cannot serve as prime minister or alternate premier, then the coalition breaks up and the other leader takes over for six months while the country prepares to go to elections. The prime minister’s trial, delayed on the ground of the coronavirus outbreak, is to start in late May.
Shortly after the pact was signed, a good governance group petitioned the High Court of Justice to rule that Netanyahu can’t serve while under a legal cloud.
Netanyahu and Gantz are wary of each other, and the deal is designed to eliminate loopholes that could be used to political advantage. However, its novelty — for example, in creating a new position in the backup premier — could open elements of the accord to legal challenges, according to Suzie Navot, a professor of constitutional law at the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Lezion.
Parliament now has about two weeks to codify the rotation agreement before new elections are automatically triggered. Even if a government is installed, it may be difficult for the different factions to govern effectively together because of the mutual distrust.
Having co-opted Gantz into assisting him, Netanyahu may have an interest in ensuring the deal’s success.
“It legitimizes him because the party that ran on anything but Bibi will now allow him to stay in power,” said Reuven Hazan, a Hebrew University political scientist, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “Politically it decapitates the only real challenge he has had to his power since 2009.”
While he’s riding high now in the polls because of his assertive response to the coronavirus, it’s not clear Netanyahu’s approval ratings will hold once the economic pain of the shutdowns deepens. That would make another snap election, after three inconclusive votes in less than a year, risky.
“They designed it very carefully and it could easily make the entire three-year duration including the rotation,” said International Crisis Group senior analyst Ofer Zalzberg. “And at the same time if past is precedent, Netanyahu will do what he can to avoid the rotation,” perhaps by going to a revote, Zalzberg said.
(Updates with former political partner comment in ninth paragraph)
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