Netanyahu and Gantz’s Unity Government is being undermined

The political uncertainty in Israel can no longer continue. Despite the high hopes for unity among the Israeli political system, and regardless of the coronavirus crisis, the Israeli government in its current composition cannot govern properly. In addition to disagreements within the coalition on how to confront the coronavirus, the disputes within the government between the center-left and right-wing parties over both the country budget and concerning themes of religion and state relations, further undermine the existence of a unity government. Moreover, perhaps most of all, the trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is accused of bribery, is in progress. In this situation, it seems that the political arena in Israel is approaching a boiling point, and the option of early elections in November has become a viable possibility. Yet, going to another election for the fourth time in less than two years would pose a national political disaster, as it could lead to the weakening of the Israeli democracy and the loss of public confidence in the existing political system.

Nevertheless, even if the Israelis will go to the polls again, the result would be probably more or less the same as the last three rounds that took place between April 2019 and March 2020. Netanyahu and the Likud won an impressive result in the March 2020 election, winning 36 seats, compared to only 33 seats won by Blue and White led by former chief of staff Benny Gantz. However, the right-wing bloc, which includes the Likud Party led by Netanyahu, Yamina Party headed by former defense minister Naftali Bennett, and the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, won only 58 seats. Thus, after not obtaining a majority of 61 MKs, Netanyahu was unable to form a narrow right-wing government. Numerically, the parties opposed to Netanyahu, which together won 62 seats, were able to establish a center-left wing government. However, the opposition to the formation of a government with the Joint Arab List was stronger than the desire to end the reign of Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009. Therefore, in order to prevent further elections, Netanyahu and Gantz formed a unity government in which a rotation for the post of prime minister would take place. Eventually, Ganz’s decision to join a unity government with Netanyahu led to a split within Blue and White, and in fact only 16 MKs out of the 33 of the party supported the formation of the government.

Since the end of the political stalemate in Israel, which forced the Israeli public to go to three election campaigns in less than a year, several outcomes have taken place in the Israeli political arena. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, following the formation of the unity government, Netanyahu and the Likud strengthened significantly in the opinion polls at the expense of Blue and White in its previous unified version. Together with the disappointment from the split within Blue and White, many center-right wing voters, who appreciated Netanyahu’s actions at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, transferred their support from Gantz to Netanyahu. Thus, in mid-April 2020, the polls gave Netanyahu and the Likud 40 seats, and the right-wing bloc stood at 64 seats, a figure sufficient to form a narrow right-wing government. However, since the beginning of July, following the second wave of the pandemic, Netanyahu’s status has begun to erode, and the Likud led by him has fallen to 30 seats in the polls conducted in mid-August. Thus, the expectation was that the weakening of Netanyahu and the Likud would lead to the strengthening of the center-wing parties. Yet, in reality, the main beneficiary from Netanyahu’s decline was Naftali Bennett, whose right-wing party Yamina has significantly enhanced in the polls, from 6 seats it won in the March 2020 elections to 18 seats in mid-August’s polls. Practically, while Netanyahu has lost many right-wing voters in favor of Bennett, he is currently relying on the support of center-right voters, who may abandon him in favor of a large center-wing party if the corona crisis would deteriorate. Hence, although the right-wing bloc has weakened slightly in the polls and currently stands at 63 seats, it is not inconceivable that the gap between the blocs will narrow to a draw if Israel would go to another round of election.

There are also obstacles on the other side of the political equation though, as the rift within the center-left bloc does not allow for the establishment of a real alternative to Netanyahu’s leadership. In this context, the political situation of Benny Gantz adds more oil to the political bonfire. In April 2019, following the formation of a unity government and the split within Blue and White, Gantz’s list won 19 seats in the polls, which manifested a broad public support for his decision to join Netanyahu. Yet, after four months in the most inflated government in the history of Israel, his party receives only 10 seats in the polls. Hence, the likelihood that Gantz will be appointed prime minister in rotation after Netanyahu seems unlikely at this stage, especially when his public status is at a low ebb.

In conclusion, the chances of the current government to survive are low. However, even if elections are held in November and the right-wing bloc would not obtain a majority of 61 MKs, the problem that has accompanied the Israeli political system since April 2019, in which the center-left bloc cannot form a government without the Joint Arab List, would lead again to a political deadlock. Thus, the Israeli political arena needs salvation. Better sooner than later.

About the Author
Ori Wertman is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the International Centre for Policing and Security at the University of South Wales, UK, and an Adjunct Researcher at the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, Israel.
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