The Coronavirus Could Force Rival Benny Gantz to Shake Netanyahu’s Hand

Having postponed his own trial for two months, Prime Minister Netanyahu may have left his rival with no option but to accept an offer to form a unity government

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s caretaker prime minister, is preparing to squeeze every last drop of personal advantage from a local and global crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He has needed to move fast.

Following this month’s election, Netantyahu’s efforts to establish a governing coalition appeared to have been thwarted yet again – for the third time in a year of elections. His ultra-nationalist bloc fell short by just three seats of winning a majority in the Israeli parliament.

And looming large has been his trial for corruption, which was due to start on Tuesday. His main opponent, former general Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, vowed during the campaign not to sit in a government with Netanyahu as long as he faces criminal charges.

But the coronavirus crisis may yet come to Netanyahu’s rescue.

Last week he ordered a raft of emergency measures, including the effective closing of the country’s borders, and the shutting of schools and colleges, as well as large parts of the economy. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been required to quarantine themselves at home, and gatherings of more than 10 people are banned.

Given Israel’s self-proclaimed status as a sanctuary for Jews, following the trauma of the Holocaust, these precautions have been readily accepted by the public.

But they are also playing to Netanyahu’s talent for manipulating a crisis.

On Sunday his trial was postponed for at least two months, after the justice minister, his appointee, declared new powers and effectively shuttered the courts.

Now pressure is mounting on Gantz to set aside “petty politics” and support Netanyahu in a unity government embracing the main Jewish parties. The prime minister told his rival: “Together we will save tens of thousands of citizens.”

Gantz is struggling to resist. The election – and the resulting political impasse – was bad for him, too: his party won three fewer seats than Netanyahu’s Likud.

If the pair do not agree to a unity government, Israel is most likely heading for a fourth election – and one in which an exasperated public might punish the Blue and White leader for refusing to compromise.

Gantz should be sitting pretty, given that he heads a bloc that commands a 62-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. But deep internal tensions in his bloc are already bedevilling efforts to oust Netanyahu.

The cause is the record 15 seats won by the Joint List, a faction comprising parties that represent Israel’s Palestinian minority, a fifth of the population. Gantz has no hope of forming a government himself unless he allies with the Joint List, the third largest party in the parliament.

But during the election campaign, Gantz promised not to rely on the Palestinian parties, after relentless goading from Netanyahu that, if he did, he would be bringing “supporters of terrorism” into government. The former general fears that a chunk of his right-wing voters might desert him as a result.

Gantz’s bind precisely illuminates the conundrum of Israel’s constitutional set-up as a so-called “Jewish and democratic” state.

No party representing Israel’s Palestinian citizens has ever been invited to participate in government. As Ahmed Tibi, a legislator from the minority, once neatly observed: “Israel is a democratic state for its Jewish citizens, and a Jewish state for its Arab citizens.”

But by shunning both Netanyahu and the Joint List, Gantz has painted himself into a corner. Now he is keen to find a way out.

Last week, in a bold move, he began negotiations with Joint List leaders, asking them to support him as head of a minority government. That paid off on Sunday when they recommended him as prime minister, though they will not serve in the government.

Aware that this might be the only way to avoid a catastrophic fourth election, most of Gantz’s allies, including former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, a hawkish settler, went along.

The aim, Lieberman has made clear, is to strong-arm Likud into ousting Netanyahu. Then, according to this plan, Gantz will ditch the Joint List and create a strong unity government with a Netanyahu-free Likud.

A partnership of the type contemplated by Gantz has occurred once before – in the early 1990s. Then Yitzhak Rabin headed a minority government that depended on outside backing from Palestinian parties, as the only way to pass legislation to implement the Oslo peace process.

The opposition leader at that time was a younger Netanyahu. He railed against the deal, implying it was treason, just as he is doing now. That incitement was widely seen as spurring on a right-wing extremist, Yigal Amir, who assassinated Rabin in 1995, derailing the Oslo process.

Netanyahu has learnt no lessons, it seems. He has continued to demonise Palestinian citizens, last week claiming that they were “not part of the [political] equation – this is the will of the people”.

Such statements earned him a rare rebuke from the Trump administration last week. The US State Department’s annual global human rights report castigated Netanyahu’s party for its repeated “messages promoting hatred against Arab citizens”.

Predictably, Gantz – like Rabin 35 years ago – is being inundated with death threats from Netanyahu’s supporters. Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency has had to issue him a special bodyguard.

In the current febrile atmosphere, the Blue and White leader has warned of a “political murder around the corner”.

But Gantz is not just in physical trouble. Although he now has the first go at trying to put together a minority government, that may prove harder than the parliamentary arithmetic suggests.

Some within his bloc have made clear they cannot stomach any partnership with the Joint List, even of the treacherous kind being proposed.

And further, the Joint List will demand an impossible price from Gantz for their continuing support: the overturning of the worst of discriminatory laws oppressing the minority, as well as abandonment of the Trump “peace” plan allowing Israel to annex much of the West Bank.

Several of his legislators have already publicly recoiled at the legitimacy such a deal might confer on the Palestinian parties and their demands for equal rights.

If Netanyahu can prise away legislators in Gantz’s bloc who vehemently oppose any dealings with the Joint List, he can form a government. Then he might permanently free himself from his trial.

Gantz has responded to Netanyahu’s plea for an emergency unity government by calling for it to include “all parts of the house” – a cautious reference to the Joint List.

But in typical fashion, Netanyahu replied that he did not want “terror supporters” in the government, even in an emergency.

What does Gantz fear most: Netanyahu exploiting the coronavirus crisis to evade justice and stay in power, or damaging his own public image by seeking temporary assistance from the Joint List? The next days should provide the answer.

• First published in The National

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.