Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did on Saturday night what he hadn't done in the previous round of talks aimed at forming a national unity government, in October and November.
He looked the nation straight in the eye and listed the main points of his proposal for unity between his Likud party and Kahol Lavan: parity in the numbers of ministers, members of the inner cabinet and Knesset committees between the right-Haredi bloc and Kahol Lavan (and its partners, if any); Kahol Lavan gets the foreign affairs and the defense portfolios, Likud gets finance minister and Knesset speaker. Netanyahu will head the state for the first 18 months, after which Gantz will move into the prime minister’s seat and Jerusalem’s Balfour Street residence.
In interviews with Israel’s commercial TV stations, Netanyahu raised the idea of developing a blood test for antibodies to the coronavirus, permitting the gradual release of Israelis from lockdown and the renewal of economic life. Maybe it’ll help and maybe it won’t, but there’s one test that not even a Nobel laureate can develop: one that will confirm whether Netanyahu’s word can be trusted.
Senior politicians said Saturday night that Netanyahu’s decisive vow to leave his post and official residence is hiding a different plan, one that has been reported here in the past: to become a presidential candidate after Reuven Rivlin steps down in June 2021. The President’s Residence is the only city of refuge that could grant Netanyahu complete immunity from prosecution for seven years. The timing lines up well with the September 2021 rotation date.
There’s no doubt that his direct appeal to Benny Gantz made an impression on the audience. On Gantz, not so much. His aggressive response showed that he plans to continue his operation to wrest control of the Knesset, by dint of his bloc’s parliamentary majority: to vote in a new speaker, to convene the Knesset Arrangements Committee and to start passing the legislation prohibiting a criminal defendant from running for, and even possibly serving as, prime minister.
For Netanyahu, the matter of the Knesset speaker is a deal breaker. He said that the prime minister must have a speaker from his own party; the same is true for the finance minister. (Is the Knesset speaker more important than national unity? Than the dangers of the coronavirus? Than the greatest crisis since the Middle Ages, as Netanyahu termed it on Saturday?) Remember, Netanyahu appointed two finance ministers (Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon) who did not belong to his party. Also, during Ariel Sharon’s first two years as prime minister, the Knesset speaker, Avraham Burg, was from the Labor Party – who did not support the unity government of the time. And when it comes to Netanyahu, who is carrying out a creeping but resolute devaluation of democracy, it’s definitely better if the head of the legislative branch not be someone of the same mind.
Netanyahu said Saturday night that this was the “last call” for Gantz to join his unity government. Don’t be so sure. As the now-desolate airports remind us, there’s also “flight closing” and “gate closing.” When Kahol Lavan cracks its whip above his head, he’ll have to retract his ultimatum over keeping Yuli Edelstein as Knesset speaker.
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In the meantime, the players and the commentators are once again raising the possibility of dismantling Kahol Lavan. The odds are against that happening, for the time being. Gantz and his gang are in sync and determined to follow through with their program. To paraphrase Yitzhak Rabin, in a very different context, they will act in the parliamentary arena as if there were no national unity negotiations, and negotiate for a national unity government as if there was no parliamentary arena.
Another thing to remember: Kahol Lavan’s “cockpit” leadership quartet is now a quintet. Avigdor Lieberman’s voice is currently no less important than that of Gabi Ashkenazi, Yair Lapid or Moshe Ya’alon. Gantz is conducting serious negotiations with Likud, but he is in full coordination with the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman. Gantz will think more than twice before doing anything to upset Lieberman. He would want to be sure that the political career of defendant Netanyahu is blocked off completely; after that, we can talk national unity.
Ya’alon was interviewed a short while after Netanyahu. It’s sometimes heartwarming to see him get so aggressive whenever Netanyahu is involved. But Ya’alon knows the client best, and he reminds us that we are too quick to sweep things under the rug. In regard to the submarine affair, Netanyahu lied to him and the entire defense establishment, with the biggest defense-related corruption scandal allegedly in the breach. The tragedy is that hanging around Ya’alon’s neck are two Knesset members who are preventing the establishment of a government headed by Gantz.
Back to Netanyahu. On Saturday night he continued to exploit primetime for his two-headed propaganda approach. First, the scare tactics. He said the coronavirus is possibly the greatest crisis to befall humanity since the Middle Ages. He forgot that in the last century alone, however, some 82 million people died in two world wars.
Second, he once again congratulated himself for his management of the crisis. New voices are arising from the system, though, to say otherwise. From the foundations – the hospitals whose employees have inadequate protection and are being infected in massive numbers, to the rafters –the public health experts who believe the handling of the virus is inadequate and were silenced. On Saturday we also learned that the two most senior Health Ministry experts on epidemics were kept out of the decision-making loop.
The number of people registering for unemployment benefits passed the half-million mark over the weekend, while the government released for distribution only thousandth of what the stingiest economically conservative governments of the world, such as Britain and the United States, have approved for allocation. Netanyahu often talks about how world leaders gaze upon him in envy and admiration. Perhaps he should learn something from them.