Israel's New Government Hasn't Been Sworn in Yet, but These Crises Could Spell Its End

Ahead of Sunday's swearing-in, Netanyahu and Gantz's parties have mapped issues and worked potential solutions into coalition deals, but major hurdles stand in the way

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz with Supreme Court President Esther Hayut at the memorial ceremony for Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, September 19, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz with Supreme Court President Esther Hayut at the memorial ceremony for Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, September 19, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israel’s 35th government hasn’t been sworn in yet, but there are already several issues that could potentially spell its end. In an attempt to stop these challenges from breaking down the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan parties have mapped possible crises and worked potential solutions and measures into their coalition deals to prevent these issues from threatening the very existence of the government.

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A delay in the government’s swearing-in, initially slated for last Thursday but rescheduled for Sunday, hadn’t been foreseen or prevented, and it seems the two parties failed in their first joint test.

The Knesset approved the agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan, which bars either Netanyahu or Gantz from heading a government if he is the one to dissolve it.

However, political sources fear some crises could still threaten the biggest government in Israel’s history and break alliances, even at the price of sanctions agreed upon in coalition deals:

1. Disqualifying Netanyahu – a major crisis could erupt if the High Court of Justice rules that Netanyahu can’t serve as the alternate prime minister when Gantz takes over. Last week, the judges approved Netanyahu to assume the role of prime minister despite the criminal indictments against him, but made no decision about the rotation phase, when Netanyahu would become the alternate prime minister. The judges clarified that an earlier ruling barring cabinet members from serving under an indictment still stands, but did not voice a clear position regarding the concocted division of labor between Gantz and Netanyahu, since strictly speaking, an alternate prime minister is not a cabinet member.

The coalition agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan enables Netanyahu to lead the country into another election if the judges forbid him from becoming the alternate prime minister. According to the deal, if Gantz or Netanyahu is prevented from serving in this role, he can dissolve the Knesset within six months of the establishment of the new government, or within 30 days from the day a stay is issued.

2. Annexation of Palestinian territories – It’s not clear if the coalition will survive Netanyahu’s attempt to push through a unilateral annexation of land in the West Bank, a move which is not supported by Kahol Lavan. The coalition deal permits Netanyahu to bypass Kahol Lavan cabinet members and bring the decision to the Knesset for approval, where a majority is expected to support the move.

However, the deal obliges Netanyahu to ratify U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan while “striving to safeguard Israel’s security and strategic interests, including the maintaining of regional stability, the upholding of peace agreements with its neighbors and the striving for future peace agreements.” These are vague principles, and upholding them will be difficult to prove while promoting annexation. If it wishes to do so, Kahol Lavan can argue that Netanyahu has not met these demands by hurting the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, thus either foiling the move or bringing about the collapse of the government.

3. Netanyahu’s trial – This is expected to begin on May 24. Gantz and other Kahol Lavan members have already broken their election promise not to join a government led by the accused, and as the trial progresses, they will find it harder to give Netanyahu their backing in running the government. Gantz will also have to decide whether to continue cooperating with Netanyahu in case he is convicted by Jerusalem’s District Court, before and after an appeal is filed. The law will still allow Netanyahu to serve as prime minister.

4. The budget – Establishing the government starts the clock for putting together a biannual budget within 90 days. Among other issues, this budget will have to contend with the damage wrought by the coronavirus crisis and with investing in the health care system ahead of a possible second wave of the virus. The coalition agreement has already determined a consensual formula for the 2021 budget, assuming disputes develop, but it’s not clear what will happen if a serious crisis develops around the budget.

5. Controversial legislation – Gantz and Netanyahu have paralyzed the coalition and the Knesset over legislation in the coming term after deciding not to promote controversial bills such as same-sex marriage – bills that are favorable to the LGBT community or laws that would destabilize the courts. The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee will be headed by Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Kahol Lavan, but he will have a deputy with veto powers, nominated by Netanyahu. The freeze on legislation will deprive Knesset members and other parties from chalking up achievements they can present to their voters, so this will be hard to enforce.

A further question is what happens if the opposition advances a bill that garners support among coalition party members. In the outgoing Knesset, the opposition managed to get benefits for people with disabilities doubled, despite the formal opposition of the coalition, with the cooperation of coalition lawmakers who left the plenary during the vote.

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