The resounding resignation letter by Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir (Kahol Lavan) on Friday, stating he could no longer serve under a prime minster for whom “the coronavirus crisis is at best second place on his list of priorities,” was a mini-earthquake that rocked the Netanyahu-Gantz governing coalition.
Zamir’s resignation was followed by a statement by Defense Minister – and more crucially in this case, Alternate Prime Minister – Benny Gantz, saying he was directing Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn to begin the long-delayed process of appointing a new state prosecutor.
Gantz ended his statement with another shot across Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bow: “If anyone disagrees, they can set a date for elections.”
The feeling Friday was that after four and a half months in a dysfunctional government, Kahol Lavan had reached the inevitable conclusion that cooperation with Netanyahu is a nonstarter and the coalition’s days are numbered.
Netanyahu has scant regard for Gantz. He didn’t update him on the diplomatic agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and doesn’t include him in most of the high-level meetings on the COVID-19 response. Against its will, Netanyahu forced Kahol Lavan to go along with the second nationwide lockdown, which was tailored to suppress the anti-Netanyahu protests rather than provide the most effective plan of bringing down infection rates.
Officially, Netanyahu needs to clear all government policy with Gantz in advance, but that rarely happens – unless Netanyahu wants Gantz there to share the blame for unpopular moves. Kahol Lavan knows by now that nothing’s going to change. But even Zamir, in his resignation letter and subsequent interviews, made clear that it was a personal move and he doesn’t think his party should exit the coalition.
Netanyahu and Gantz aren’t going anywhere. Less than two months ago, Netanyahu had an option to topple his own new government by not passing a budget. Instead, he blinked and Likud supported an emergency law to extend the budget deadline until the end of December.
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The polls convinced him that the Israeli public had turned against him and his handling of COVID-19, and would blame him for an unnecessary election (the fourth in less than two years) at the height of the pandemic.
So now he has another budget deadline – an exit point – in two and a half months, and he’ll keep everyone guessing until the last moment.
But it’s very hard to see him going for an election when his ratings continue to plummet.
The latest polls show that only 27 percent of Israelis approve of his handling of the health crisis and Likud has hemorrhaged votes to Naftali Bennett’s Yamina. Netanyahu has taken risks with elections before, but never in a period when the events are so out of his control and have already, perhaps fatally, tainted him with failure.
One former Netanyahu aide who still meets with him regularly said last week that if U.S. President Donald Trump loses in November, “Netanyahu will be even more scared of an election here. He seems to think their fates are intertwined.”
Everything to lose
Gantz, who split Kahol Lavan by joining the coalition last spring, has nothing to gain and everything to lose from an early election as well. Yesh Atid, the party of former ally Yair Lapid, is now twice the size of Kahol Lavan in the polls.
His only tangible gain in government – the hardheaded Nissenkorn’s control of the Justice Ministry, ensuring that Netanyahu’s corruption trial continues as scheduled (despite the delaying tactics of Netanyahu’s lawyers and the coronavirus lockdown) – would come to naught if Kahol Lavan were to leave.
Both sides are prisoners in this government of the damned. Hating every moment they’re in it, yet incapable of leaving.
In a long history of unhappy coalitions, Israel has never had a more chaotic and miserable government than this one. But it could end up having better survival prospects than anyone is prepared to give it.
It’s not just the dismal electoral prospects of both Netanyahu and Gantz, and the fear of all parties within the government being blamed for an election no one in Israel wants. While COVID-19 remains the only issue the public is focused on (even if Netanyahu has more pressing, personal concerns), there are other critical matters the government is dealing with: an increasingly unstable situation to the north in Lebanon, and an expected retaliation by Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons for Israel’s attacks in Syria.
“When he’s talking about the protests against him, Bibi can seem unhinged. And his decision-making on the coronavirus is abysmally erratic,” says one minister. “But when the cabinet deals with security matters, it’s like he’s flipped a switch and you get the experienced, calm and pragmatic Netanyahu again.”
Little of this filters out to the public. But for ministers, even those who dearly want to see him leave, it’s hard to exaggerate how these moments – when they catch a glimpse of the old Netanyahu – provide them with the self-justification to remain in his cabinet.
It’s become an article of faith in Israeli politics and punditocracy that the original base of the Likud-Kahol Lavan agreement – the rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz, scheduled to take place in November 2021 – is as likely to happen as Manchester United winning the Premier League. In fact, to even mention the rotation is seen as a sign of naïveté. But if anything, the current state of affairs boosts the probability that it might actually happen.
It’s impossible to predict how Israel’s dismal COVID-19 crisis will play out over the next year, or whether it will even be over by November 2021. But if in the meantime Netanyahu’s ratings don’t recover, and at the same time his trial finally progresses to what will be a long and protracted evidentiary stage, the rotation deal with Gantz could become his only survival option.
True, it will mean relinquishing the top job. But as the alternate prime minister, leading the largest party in government and with a veto on the cabinet agenda – which he will certainly use much more effectively than Gantz has – he’ll still be in control. Together with his proxies, he’ll be able to continue undermining Gantz, who’ll be in office but hardly in power, and to do so with impunity – because if Gantz then breaks the agreement, Netanyahu returns to the prime minister’s office until the election.
Gantz will be prime minister in name only, constantly in Netanyahu’s shadow. He thinks it’ll be worth it, simply to ensure that the trial goes ahead. But Netanyahu will continue to use his proximity to power to use every dirty trick in the book against the legal system, and Gantz will have to serve as his bodyguard. The two rivals are damned to cling to each other for a long while yet.