National unity, of a sort, in Israel

It seems like an eternity now, but it’s only four weeks since Israel went to the polls, for the third time in less than a year, to produce yet another deadlocked parliament. Now, with the health crisis concentrating people’s minds, there has finally been some movement.

A quick recap: two potential coalitions had each fallen short of the required 61 seats for a a majority in the 120-seat parliament. The far-right bloc led by indicted prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had 58 seats; its opponents, ranging from left to centre-right and led by Benny Gantz, had 55.

Holding the balance of power between them, as it had after the previous two elections, was Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman – far right, but unwilling to work with the fundamentalist parties in Netanyahu’s coalition.

This time around, that particular problem was solved. Lieberman threw his support to Gantz, giving him, in theory, a narrow majority to form an anti-Netanyahu government. But it didn’t work out in practice.

The stretch of Gantz’s coalition, from the non-Zionist Joint List on the left through to Lieberman and some of Gantz’s own Blue & White MPs on the right, was just too wide to hold up. In normal times, he might have made the attempt and dared his opponents to force a fourth election. But these are not normal times.

Gantz had promised that he would not partner with Netanyahu and that he would not rely on the support of the Joint List. It was never going to be possible to keep both promises; now it looks like the first is the one that will be dropped, under the plea of working together in a national emergency.

Details are yet to fully emerge, and the deal may still fall over, but it appears that Gantz will join Netanyahu’s government as foreign minister, with an agreement that he will take over as prime minister mid-term. It’s unclear just what this will mean for Netanyahu’s impending corruption trial, but it certainly improves his prospects.

The majority of the Blue & White coalition are not happy with the idea and will go into opposition, together with the Joint List and most of the Labor-Meretz-Gesher ticket. Labor leader Amir Peretz, however, has indicated that he is willing to join a Netanyahu-Gantz unity government.

So it looks as if the new government will have a comfortable majority, perhaps something of the order of 75-45. Even so, it’s hard to see it surviving much beyond the length of the immediate crisis. And either way it’s hard to see Gantz having much of a future: neither side will be in a hurry to trust him again.

That said, one can sympathise with his position. The numbers weren’t there for a government of the centre and left. Minority government might have worked, but it would mean the risk of being seen as the man who obstructed national unity in a time of crisis. And it was always clear that Gantz’s differences with Netanyahu were personal rather than philosophical – and aren’t personal animosities precisely the ones we should put away at times like these?

But national unity, as usual, does not extend to the Arabs. The Joint List remains on the outer; even though it had not demanded actual participation in government, just the thought of it as a support was enough to scare off critical allies.

Its position, however, has only been strengthened by the latest manoeuvring. Every centrist who makes their peace with Netanyahu just bolsters the Joint List’s claim that it is the only serious alternative. Although Arab/Palestinian voters remain the overwhelming majority of its voter base, its Jewish support is no longer negligible.

The nature of its message has also changed. Instead of stressing Palestinian identity, it is emphasising more the idea of Arab-Jewish partnership and a rejection of ethno-nationalism. Its ambition, which no longer seems fanciful, is to play the leading role in a broad-based opposition to Netanyahu’s extremism on a platform of genuine equality.

The lesson of the times is supposed to be that “we are all in this together.” Maybe Israel’s voters will one day be ready to pay heed.

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