Opinion

The Battle Over Knesset Control Is a Test of Gantz's Power

Carolina Landsmann
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Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz speaking in the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 26, 2020.
Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz speaking in the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 26, 2020.Credit: Adina Wollman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office
Carolina Landsmann

Acute disappointment was the response to initial reports that Benny Gantz was going to be the Knesset speaker. The feeling was that “his true stature has been revealed,” that the speaker of the Knesset is all he is. His political maneuver was so untenable that one had to ask: Could it be we’re missing something?

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But if we consider seriously that the “war of branches” in Israel is real – and not merely a metaphor – then Gantz’s move isn’t completely off the wall. Given that there are three branches of government and that Benjamin Netanyahu is head of the executive branch, while Esther Hayut heads the judicial branch, then Gantz has succeeded in maneuvering to head the third branch, the legislature.

For years, the right has been talking about a war of the branches. From its viewpoint, the judicial branch is subverting the executive branch and the legislative branch, which in Israel are effectively one and the same, because through its majority in the Knesset the government in practice controls legislation.

But all that changed in the past year, for two reasons: Avigdor Lieberman and the Joint List. Lieberman’s defection to the “anyone but Bibi” camp, and the fact that the Joint List’s seats are valid only for the legislature, have in practice caused a separation between the legislative and executive branches.

That is the political stalemate. Contrary to what Netanyahu says, the “anyone but Bibi” camp is not congruent with the “left-wing” camp. The results of the election make it possible to form an “anyone but Bibi” coalition in the legislative branch, but not a “left-wing” government. That’s because Lieberman is not left, and because the Joint List’s legitimacy ceiling is the executive branch.

When Netanyahu realized that Gantz was using the majority he wields in the legislative branch in order to prevent Netanyahu from keeping his grip on the executive branch, he ordered Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to obstruct the branch he headed. Contrary to what the commentator Yaakov Bardugo wrote in Israel Hayom – “The Supreme Court laid the pistol on the table and aimed it at the head of the legislative branch” – the judicial branch did not initiate an assault, but only came to the defense of the legislative branch, which was under attack by the executive.

The right wing, which dreams of enacting the “override clause” and thereby enabling the Knesset to pass Basic Laws without the High Court of Justice being able to overturn them, allowed the executive branch (Netanyahu, through his representative in the legislative, Edelstein) to prevent the Knesset from realizing the will of the majority of its members. A war of branches is definitely underway here: We saw the executive branch mount an attack on the legislative branch, with the judicial branch trying to check and balance.

Edelstein’s resignation left that position of power exposed, and Gantz – perhaps with his military instincts, or maybe just because he wanted to leave an opening for a unity government – moved quickly to seize it. Despite the split in Kahol Lavan, Gantz still enjoys a majority in the legislature, certainly where “anti-Bibi” legislation is concerned. He is holding Netanyahu under the greatest threat imaginable – both in terms of actively legislating “Bibi laws” and in terms of blocking any legislation that is not consistent with the policies of Kahol Lavan.

But for his reading of the situation to hold water, Gantz must retain the post of Knesset speaker at any price. This is Gantz’s litmus test: Whether he will hold on to that critical stronghold, or will allow Netanyahu to appoint someone like Yariv Levin to the position. In that case, we will have to admit that the writers of the satirical program “Eretz Nehederet” were being kind to Gantz when they served up his head as part of Netanyahu’s Passover seder.

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