Analysis

Gaza Escalation Makes Minority Government in Israel a Distant Prospect

Chances of a unity government have supposedly become greater after the killing of an Islamic Jihad commander – but it's far from a done deal

Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, November 10, 2019.
Heidi Levine/Pool via REUTERS

At half past midnight on Tuesday, about four hours before two precision missiles ended the violent life of Gaza’s Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata, it was very important for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to tweet to the nation as follows: “A minority government supported by the Arab parties = a danger to the state.” To this he added the words of MK Ahmad Tibi about Yasser Arafat: “always in our hearts.”

We’ve gotten used to the racist aroma that wafts from the written and oral statements of Israel’s prime minister about the Arab minority. The same goes for the naked cynicism of the man who is willing to kiss the feet of racist messianic politicians, Kahanists, xenophobes and persecutors of children, just so they’ll support his government. But it wouldn’t be too much to expect for him to calm down his campaign, knowing that in a few short hours, hundreds of missiles would rain down on people in the Gaza border communities and points north. Obviously, when this tweet was typed he was already in his office in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv or on his way there.

Netanyahu is a cynical, even desperate politician, who is now fighting for his political life. So far his lack of restraint had not spilled over into the security realm. On Tuesday he went out of his way to persuade us that the assassination was not connected to the political entanglement. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Shin Bet security service chief Nadav Argaman volunteered or were pressed into assisting him. “The stars were all aligned,” Argaman said in explaining the need that arose to act early Tuesday morning. There’s no reason not to believe the latter two.

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Even if the considerations behind the action were purely security-related, it was born into a reality that is anything but pure. Seven days before Benny Gantz returns his mandate to form a government to the president – or before his turn to try to do so runs out next Wednesday evening – the stakes are high and dangerous.

Until Tuesday, the option of a minority government headed by Gantz, with the support or abstention of the largely Arab Joint List, was firmly on the table. Events in Gaza have now made it less relevant. On the other hand, the chances of a national unity government are supposedly greater, with an emphasis on “national.” But that too is far from a done deal; disputes over principle – in a rotating premiership, who would be first, what form will incapacitation of the premier take and when would it start, how can the right-wing bloc be separated from Netanyahu – will all be with us after the current round of fighting ends.

Gantz is no pushover. He understands this. And so he made sure to clearly state on Tuesday afternoon that the military developments have no bearing on the political process. What was going on inside of him, only he knows. He probably longs to be in the center of the decision-making, as defense minister, in the inner cabinet, close to the prime minister as his deputy. But he is bound by his million statements, speeches (the most recent one just this week in the Knesset), articles and interviews.

Two notes on style: The new defense minister, Naftali Bennett, did well to begin his service modestly, without a ceremony. That shows maturity and a good reading of reality. If his time in office is to last only two or three weeks, footage of a pompous ceremony in front of the Defense Ministry will haunt him to the end of his political career.

On the other hand, modesty shouldn’t be taken too far either; Gantz, who over the past 24 hours has acted with restraint and not refrained from praising the politicians as well as the military, looks gray, faded and groggy in a clip he posted to social media. His jacket was hanging carelessly, his shirt was grayish, and so was the curtain that seemed to have been taken from a dusty teacher’s lounge. The feeling was that he was broadcasting from a shelter in the depths of the earth. With a little creative thought a proper backdrop could have been arranged, one suitable for a prime minister or at least his deputy and defense minister.