Netanyahu-Gantz Unity Government? Israel in 1984 Has Its Lessons

The partnership between Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres came about under circumstances not too dissimilar from those Israel faces today

Rivals but partners: Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres in 1984.
Nino Herman /GPO

President Reuven Rivlin’s proposal for a unity government has been rejected for the time being; after all, such a link-up is complicated. This scenario might not be familiar to many Israelis, but it is to anyone who voted in 1984.

The tally that time around sounds familiar – one party had more Knesset seats than the other but neither could cobble together a government. In that election, the Alignment (Labor’s predecessor) headed by Shimon Peres won 44 seats, while Likud under Yitzhak Shamir won 41.

But like today, everything depended on the number of MKs recommending one candidate or the other. The Alignment was stuck at 60, Shamir at 54.

President Chaim Herzog went with the majority, Peres, but the latter’s attempt to bring in the religious parties failed, so Herzog set the goal of a unity government.

“There’s the feeling that we’re on the eve of a disaster and something must be done,” he said in his meeting with Likud MKs at the height of the coalition talks. “The feeling is that it will be easier to take the harsh steps required via the broadest possible government; let’s call it a national unity government or any other name.”

At first, Herzog made sure not to raise the question of who would be in charge, and eventually the idea of a rotation was born. Peres would head the government for two years and then Shamir. When Peres and Shamir weren’t serving as prime minister, they were foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

“As with the captain of a ship, a government can’t have two prime ministers,” says Prof. Dan Koren, who wrote a book on the Peres-Shamir government. According to Koren, Herzog didn’t entirely invent the concept – the idea came up the year before at a conference at Tel Aviv University.

The relative success of the 1984 unity government probably doesn’t herald success for a unity government between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan today. Back then, the close election, the galloping inflation and the wounds of the first Lebanon war became the glue that brought together Peres and Shamir.

Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Benny Gantz attend a memorial ceremony for late Israeli president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. 
AFP

That’s a far cry from the situation today in which the rival parties have no clear basis for cooperation. But they agree there’s a catch – Netanyahu’s intention to serve as prime minister while under indictment.

Peres and Shamir were bitter ideological opponents and detested each other’s worldviews. “Still … I didn’t hate him … I saw this as a war of opinions, a war of minds, not a personal war,” Shamir recalled in an interview with the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Gantz and Netanyahu don’t have a long-standing political rivalry, but over only a few months, a rivalry has indeed developed, characterized by vicious campaigning against Gantz. In contrast, during the summer campaign, Gantz called for unity with Likud, Avidgor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and Labor-Gesher. Netanyahu, for his part, insisted on a narrow right-wing government.

Only when the votes were counted did Netanyahu change his tune. Lacking a majority for a right-wing cabinet, he quickly dropped his principles and promoted a government with Kahol Lavan.

“We need this unity for a number of reasons, first and foremost to achieve national reconciliation,” he said at the President’s Residence a few days after the harsh campaign. To the mix he added security concerns – Iran, as usual – and economic and diplomatic challenges.

Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres in the Prime Minister's office in 1985.
Yaakov Saar / GPO

If a rotation government is eventually formed, this will be an exception around the world. Still, a minority government is always possible, a frequent result after European elections since World War II.

Assaf Shapira, head of a program for political reform at the Israel Democracy Institute, says this is becoming more common in countries where it was once rare. Just as in Israel, political stability is being undermined as large parties weaken and stronger small parties don’t join the government, including far-right parties.

Still, for a minority government to be formed, a majority in the Knesset must give its approval.

In the Israel of 1984, the question of who would serve first as prime minister wasn’t very complicated. Labor had won 44 seats and Likud only 41, so logic pointed to Peres.

And, as Koren puts it, Shamir had no ego problem and believed he would have an advantage in the next election if he was the sitting prime minister. In the current case, with the corruption suspicions hanging over Netanyahu, it would be harder to agree on who would serve first.

Meanwhile, the 1984 coalition agreement established an inner cabinet with 10 members, five from each side, to which all security and diplomatic issues were presented.

Also, the prime minister couldn’t fire a minister from the other camp. Each side received 12 portfolios, and a balance was maintained within the ministries as well; Labor received the defense portfolio but the deputy minister was from Likud. The National Religious Party received one portfolio.

The Peres-Shamir government chalked up some achievements. The army withdrew from the depths of Lebanon to the security zone, and inflation was reined in. “It’s hard to imagine that the economic crisis would have been resolved without a national unity government in which all sides helped,” says Ofer Koenig of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Can a unity government and rotating premiership between Gantz and Netanyahu be established? Shapira has his doubts – not because of the lack of confidence between Gantz and Netanyahu, but partly because Israeli politics was much more stable back in 1984.