By Monday, the coalition agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz was fully decided. The ink cartridges were loaded and all that was needed was to hit the print button and sign.
In the section relating to the annexation of parts of the West Bank, the only remaining question was if a specific sentence would say “and” or “and/or.” The two sides agreed that the deal would be signed regardless, and the disagreement settled later and corrected by hand.
Netanyahu sat at home, besieged and isolated in the Prime Minister’s Residence, immunized from the virus but enveloped by the poison of his illustrious family. Hod Betzer, Gantz’s chief of staff, sat in the hall waiting for the final okay. And then someone came out and told Betzer that the prime minister had changed his mind about the section concerning the Judicial Appointments Committee, a section that had already been agreed on and finalized. Betzer was shocked. The representative explained to him that Netanyahu had experienced a crisis within and couldn't accede on this point.
Netanyahu proved that when the political balance is tilting in his advantage, the “biggest health crisis since the Middle Ages” (in his own words) can wait. He simply couldn't resist the temptation to pull a transparent ploy intended to waste time, annoy his supposed partners in an “emergency government" – and maybe even put an end to the negotiations.
Gantz is not at all built to deal with such phenomena. In his naivete, he decided in one quick moment to jump into bed with Netanyahu without guarantees – and in doing so he tore apart his party. He tried to play "fair" against a competitor for whom such a principle arouses nothing but deep contempt.
Netanyahu's demand, on the face of it, was to maintain the status quo on the process of judicial appointments, according to a law from 1953. But he had in fact made an inconceivable demand: His party would determine when the committee convenes, and not the justice minister and chairman of the judicial appointments committee from Kahol Lavan. In other words: If he so wishes, Netanyahu could delay judge appointments in Israel as a political lever against his opponents and against the judiciary.
A great amount of shock and grief was felt in the right – in Likud but mostly among settler leaders – in light of Netanyahu's "surrender" of the Judicial Appointments Committee. The fierce loathing of the “rule of law” and the High Court of Justice have become important and fundamental for the ideological right in Israel, even more so than annexation of the West Bank. During Netanyahu's personal war on these institutions, hatred of the legal system has greatly expanded and trickled down to his supporters.
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The right-wing Yamina party, which is filled with leaders and very short on rank and file legislators, made a significant contribution to the protest. When Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked embrace Netanyahu in a bear hug from the right, the prime minister usually does an about-face.
Gantz's associate made it clear that the surprise demand was a “deal breaker” but out of respect, he listened to the messenger. He listened but did not budge on the issue. The same goes for Netanyahu’s man. Betzer got up and left the residence, leaving behind him four shamefaced copies of the coalition agreement. Since then, and as far as is known, the two parties are no longer in contact.
The common assumption in political circles is that Netanyahu is still interested in an agreement with Gantz, but in complete contradiction to the coronavirus urgency he broadcast at first. When President Reuven Rivlin gave Gantz the mission of forming a new government and the "opposition" threatened to advance legislation that would prevent a criminal defendant from forming a new government, Netanyahu felt the pressure. But now after Gantz broke up his party and his time is running out, Netanyahu is in no hurry at all.
Every day that drags out without signing a coalition deal is another day Netanyahu remains prime minister. Every day without new government puts off the real greatest crisis since the Middle Ages – Netanyahu's departure from the Prime Minister’s Residence. It is possible to imagine an enormous tidal wave, an asteroid colliding with the earth – even a zombie attack – but to imagine his wife Sara packing up (even if it is only to move to another official residence paid for by the public) is unimaginable.
De facto, Gantz has almost finished the period of his mandate from Rivlin to form a government. It will end on April 13. He plans on asking Rivlin for an extension of another 14 days. It is highly unlikely Rivlin will agree to it, because Gantz has no possible government, not even on paper. The unity government in discussions had Netanyahu at its head, and of the 61 members of Knesset who recommended Gantz for prime minister after the third election, less than 20 still support him.
The president will have two options: To ask Netanyahu to form a new government, or to skip over this stage and send the decision directly to the Knesset, for a period of 21 days. If a new government is not sworn in by then, Israel will once again face an election, this time in mid-September, or at the very earliest date possible given the pandemic. Until then, Netanyahu remains prime minister.