Analysis

Mistrust, Bad Blood and a Global Virus: Don't Pin Your Hopes on Gantz-Netanyahu Unity

Even if Kahol Lavan chief and the PM overcome their suspicions to form an emergency unity government, it will be an alliance of the weak

Benjamin Netanyahu, Reuven Rivlin and Benny Gantz meeting at the President's Residence, March 15, 2020.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

While he was heading to his meeting with Benny Gantz, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook and Twitter accounts continued to spread  hate and slander against his rival. The prime minister’s son Yair, the internet bully, compared Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party to the Roman Empire that brought down the Hasmonean kingdom in Judea.

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Likud chief Netanyahu, who faced the cameras and called for unity, arrived for the dialogue with his heavy artillery still firing away. Netanyahu simply can’t do it any other way. For the residents of the prime minister’s residence, the evil, filth and need to incessantly attack both true and imagined enemies are a way of life. Gantz and his partners know well that this melody won’t end even if a unity government is formed.

The two met Sunday evening at the President’s Residence in the presence of President Reuven Rivlin and the two heads of the parties’ negotiating teams. It was the first time the two had met since they talked privately at the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv in December. At the time, Netanyahu supposedly invited Gantz to discuss unity, while actually it was a dirty trick – a trick that once and for all made clear to Gantz who he was dealing with.

So you can’t blame him for not being happy about meeting with Netanyahu just the two of them alone. If he has to sit down with the enemy, it’s better that there are witnesses – just before the lies are spread about what happened inside the room.

Earlier Monday, Rivlin asked Gantz to form a government; 61 of the 120 Knesset members recommended him to do so – from Avigdor Lieberman to the Arab nationalist Balad party. This is no small feat; only five years ago the Arab parties’ Joint List wasn’t even willing to sign a surplus-vote agreement with the left-wing Meretz.

Still, Gantz can’t form a center-left government with his current mandate. The narrow minority government that was theoretically possible no longer exists thanks to Kahol Lavan’s “ideologues” in the Knesset, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel. They justify the scorn for the votes of Israel’s Arab citizens because they’re “real right-wing men.” On Sunday evening, between Netanyahu and Gantz sat a true right-winger. Rivlin, a disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky from birth, never would have considered expressing such a racist position against a fifth of the country’s citizens.

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, March 2020.
Moti Milrod

At the same time, Netanyahu can’t form a government either, he can only keep his eternal caretaker government. If the two leaders manage to overcome their severe suspicions it will be an alliance of the weak. But who knows, maybe that will give it strength.

The meeting with Rivlin was conducted in good spirits – so it was reported. In the previous round they built the basic infrastructure, so it was possible to dive into the details.

But this doesn’t mean anything. The test of seriousness will begin on Monday in the first meeting between the negotiating teams. In the past they never managed to have a meeting without arguing and keeping the fight going afterward. For now, it’s hard to imagine a respectful and business-like dialogue, not even from one of the two sides.

The safest bet is that what was will be. Netanyahu will hunker down in his demand to be the first in a rotation of the premiership while he continues the campaign against Kahol Lavan. Gantz and his partners, meanwhile, will do their parliamentary work, whose peak will be a bill to prevent a person under indictment from forming a government – or even running for prime minister. And the rivers of bad blood will keep flowing; luckily, the coronavirus will overshadow this story.

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Netanyahu’s existential interest is to avoid another election because of the great threat hovering over him – legislation keeping him from being prime minister. His only alternative is to form a government that stays in power for as long as possible. Will that be enough to get him to change his ways, compromise and stop the attacks and dirty tricks? It’s very doubtful.

An honest call for a temporary emergency government would be accepted by Kahol Lavan, whether willingly or because it has no choice. But Netanyahu’s true intentions were clear from the start. His fraudulent acts mitigated the deep disagreements inside Kahol Lavan’s four-member “cockpit.” They even led Gabi Ashkenazi – the main supporter of unity since back in September – to toe the line with Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon. Even during times of crisis, Netanyahu’s politics are so petty that they’re microscopic – just like the virus spreading as I write this.

The new Knesset will be sworn in Monday in an almost eerie manner – in small groups without ceremony; democracy in the days of quarantine. Then 61 of the newly inaugurated MKs will once again move to put on the agenda, as soon as possible, a vote for a new Knesset speaker. Yuli Edelstein, the current speaker, announced Sunday that he’s taking his time.

Somehow he’s still convinced that if he allows the domino – himself – to fall, followed by all of Gantz and Lieberman’s planned moves, the chance for unity will also fall. How naive. Either way, Edelstein knows that his days are numbered, and the procedural delay – with or without unity – will be short and futile.