In a concealed corner of Ben Gurion Airport, a converted Boeing 767 sits glistening in its new blue paint scheme. The controversial “prime minister’s plane,” hundreds of millions of shekels over budget and years behind schedule, is ready for takeoff but has nowhere to go. The employees of Israel Aerospace Industries have spent months speculating and joking over who will be the first premier to board it. With the world under coronavirus lockdown, that maiden flight may not happen for some time. But it is now clear which couple will be using the bedroom at 38,000 feet: the Netanyahus.
“I thank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his service for 10 years. We will continue from here,” Benny Gantz said in his maiden political speech on January, 29, 2019, when he launched his Israel Resilience party. That quickly evolved into Kahol Lavan, which last month split into four parties and Netanyahu has meanwhile added another year in service.
Under the terms of the coalition agreement Gantz signed on Monday, the Kahol Lavan leader will be thanking Netanyahu for another year and a half of service in November 2021, and then welcoming him as his deputy.
This isn’t a power-sharing deal – it’s a contract. Netanyahu hasn’t gained a partner in Gantz; he’s hired a bodyguard who is now bound to him for the next three years at least.
From being the moral voice for the last 15 months by calling for the removal of an indicted prime minister, Gantz is now the indicted prime minister’s chief protector and defender. He is contractually obliged to safeguard Netanyahu’s position – not only for the next 18 months while he remains prime minister, but for the entire three years, including the second half when Netanyahu is deputy premier but the real power in government, as he will still have the allegiance of three-quarters of the coalition’s lawmakers.
Over the coming years, as Netanyahu goes on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, with all the sordid details coming out in court and quite likely new investigations opening on his stock trading and allegations of breaching election-funding laws, Gantz will now have to defend his remaining in office – not only against the center-left opposition Gantz led not so long ago, but against potential Likud rivals as well. Under the terms of the agreement, only Netanyahu and Gantz can serve as prime minister.
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Gantz didn’t concede defeat on Monday upon signing the coalition deal. He did that seven weeks ago, during his Election Night speech where he no longer bade farewell to Netanyahu and no longer insisted he would not serve under a prime minister facing criminal charges. Instead, Gantz set out his single remaining red line: “Criminal procedures must be dealt with in court.” That’s it. As long as Netanyahu is prepared to face the judges in Jerusalem District Court, he can remain as prime minister or deputy prime minister.
That was the moment, before most of the votes had been counted, when Gantz lost. The next day, when it emerged that a majority of Israelis had voted for parties that were committed to replacing Netanyahu, it no longer mattered. Gantz may have narrowly won the argument (twice) over whether Netanyahu is more of an asset or a burden for Israel. But even in a parliamentary democracy, winning an election is not enough if the result doesn’t allow you to win over the political establishment.
A majority of Knesset members opposed to Netanyahu remaining in office was insufficient if some of them hated each other more than the incumbent. Gantz already knew on Election Night that he would be too weak and Netanyahu too ruthless in exploiting anti-Arab racism for him to form his own government. There may have been a momentary illusion when he was endorsed by 61 lawmakers five weeks ago, but the outlines of his impending deal with Netanyahu were already clear.
The crucial clauses of the coalition agreement were drafted by Gantz’s legal team. They make it all but impossible for Netanyahu to avoid carrying out the “rotation” in the Prime Minister’s Office in 18 months’ time. Yet Netanyahu agreed to them not because he has a secret loophole from which to avoid stepping aside next year, but because he understands the deal much better than Gantz.
Netanyahu failed to achieve his ultimate goal: a majority in the Knesset that would have passed laws granting him immunity from prosecution and bypassing the High Court of Justice from overruling his tame parliament. He will have to stand up in court to the charges.
But he won the next best thing from his perspective.
The complex case against Netanyahu – which, if he loses, will almost certainly continue with an appeal – is expected to take at least the next two years. Netanyahu is now assured of remaining the most powerful person in Israel while on trial, with Benny Gantz, his personal bodyguard, ensuring he remains in office throughout.