Analysis

Israel Election 2019: Why Netanyahu-Gantz Unity Government Would Be Best for the Economy

Amid the corruption cases plaguing Netanyahu, small right-wing parties would have hefty extortion power in the cabinet. Without them, Israel could more easily pass a responsible budget

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, vote in the Israeli election, April 9, 2019.
Emil Salman

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It may sound ridiculous, but one scenario for Israel’s next cabinet is a unity government between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan. This may be the key to more-responsible economic policy.

Why does this sound ridiculous? First, because the talking points of the last few months have placed a right-wing bloc led by Likud against a center-left bloc led by Kahol Lavan. It’s ridiculous because Kahol Lavan’s Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon have said they won’t sit in a government with Netanyahu.

It’s ridiculous because Netanyahu prefers to form a coalition where he’s the most left-wing member, not the most right-wing. Thus the government he formed in 2013 with Tzipi Livni and Lapid fell apart within two years, while the outgoing right-wing government has lasted for four.

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And it’s ridiculous because even if Netanyahu forms a right-wing government, he may finish his term very quickly if he’s indicted in one of the three corruption cases in which the attorney general recommends an indictment. In such a case, Kahol Lavan may prefer to wait on the sidelines until Netanyahu steps down.

But there are several factors making a grand coalition less ridiculous, mainly Netanyahu’s legal situation. The election has pushed the cases against him out of the spotlight, but now the legal process should pick up steam; this will demand significant energy, time and resources from Netanyahu. Sitting with the small right-wing parties, he'd be more easily extorted than ever, and he'd have to give them political power that doesn’t reflect their actual strength.

It’s questionable whether Netanyahu has a problem with this, but his life will be easier if he teams up with Kahol Lavan. The people on that ticket can be expected not to extort him. For him, receiving legitimacy from a party representing one-quarter of Israel’s voters would be a surprising mark of strength.

I wrote this before the exit polls started coming in, but according to the surveys just before the election, Likud and Kahol Lavan together were forecast to win about half the Knesset's 120 seats. Less than that would force them to take on a small party to form a coalition. A unity government would curb the strength of the small parties and make it easier to pass a responsible budget and advance the interests of the public at large.

Ideologically speaking, Likud and Kahol Lavan are very similar. A partnership between the two would be the best representation of the voting public’s wishes. Such a government would also be best suited to address the peace plan being drafted by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Netanyahu and Gantz, natural partners

It may sound like naive ignorance of the bad blood, ego and emotions, but a unity government led first by Gantz and later by Netanyahu could answer the latter’s need to fight for his innocence from within the government while blocking the prime-minister rotation between Gantz and Lapid that Kahol Lavan promised if it forms a government. According to Netanyahu’s campaign, he’s particularly bothered by the thought of Lapid as prime minister.

There are many reasons for not seeking a unity government, first and foremost Netanyahu’s legal situation. Giving legitimacy to a prime minister likely to be indicted is a particularly low standard for Kahol Lavan to set regarding corruption.

But there are strong reasons to seek such a government, including blocking the creation of a cabinet vulnerable to gross extortion. With Netanyahu, the extortion would be mutual — he’s seeking protection from standing trial, while his partners would want important portfolios such as the education, justice and economy ministries.

If Gantz forms the government, he'll mainly face financial extortion from the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties. The price Kahol Lavan would pay to bring them in would be very high.

Gantz also could be left in the opposition with a particularly large ticket comprised of three parties and cobbled together only weeks before the election. The top of his slate has a lot of large egos and people who entered politics to make an impact and take senior positions — not to sit in on committee discussions. Keeping such a large, young party in the opposition for too long could erode its charm, shake up the relationships that formed it and tear the delicate threads holding it together.

If it depended only on Gantz, he would probably like to learn and gain experience before becoming prime minister. If it depended only on Netanyahu and Gantz, they would probably choose unity, each for his own considerations.

But Gantz is surrounded by powerful partners he’ll have to placate and have trouble opposing, while Netanyahu is surrounded by small parties and members of his own party who don’t intend to make his life easy.