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Israel’s 35th government deal

Israel’s 35th government will be sworn in within the next three weeks, following the signing of an agreement for a unity government by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz. The development comes after three elections on 2 March 2020, April and September of 2019 – during which neither candidate won an outright majority nor able to cobble together a ruling coalition.

According to a joint statement sent to TV7, the two leaders reached agreement toward the formation of a national emergency government “in light of the state of emergency in the country and against the backdrop of the medical, economic and social challenges facing the State of Israel.”

The complicated power-sharing deal is centered on a rotating premiership of the government slated to serve a 36-month term. Netanyahu, the current head a caretaker government and leader of the right-wing Likud party, will serve as Incumbent Prime Minister of a new administration for 18 months. He will then automatically transfer the reins of power to centrist Blue and White leader Gantz, who is the current Knesset Speaker and a former IDF Chief of Staff. The handover is already pre-set to take place in October 2021, and will not entail any further deliberation, debate or house votes.

During the first year and a half, Gantz will serve as Designated Prime Minister, as well as Deputy Premier and Defense Minister.

Each leader will serve as “Acting” or “Substitute” Prime Minister during the other’s premiership when deemed necessary.

The 14-page agreement includes a contingency to offset certain disputes. According to the joint Likud-Blue and White statement, “In the event that any party dissolves the Knesset, or does not vote in favor of the government budget, the prime minister from the other party will assume the position of caretaker prime minister automatically, with elections to be held only six months subsequently.” That would mean the 60-year-old Gantz would immediately take over as prime minister in the months leading to a new election should the 70-year-old Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving premier, opt to dissolve parliament and not step down as agreed; or if his Likud withdrew from the coalition causing the government to fall.

Altogether, the coalition has 72  of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Netanyahu’s current 59-member bloc is comprised of right-wing and Jewish religious parties; Likud has 36, Shas 9, United Torah Judaism 7, and Gesher party breakaway Orly Levy-Abekasis.  Even if some pull out over the unity deal with Gantz, his own 19 legislators should ensure a measure of stability. The Blue and White has 15, and its political ally Derech Eretz has 2, and 2 more from Labor.

The two parties say that “the government, as well as the security and social-economic cabinet, will be equally divided between the parties,” and that “key agreements” were reached on the “division of portfolios” in the formation of a “national conciliation cabinet. There will be 32 ministers for the first 6 months, which will be expanded to 36 after that time. There will also be 16 Deputy Ministers

In addition to Gantz’ serving as Defense Minister, portfolios allocated to Blue and White party Members of Knesset (MKs) and their political allies over the next year and a half include Gabi Ashkenazi as Foreign Minister, Avi Nissenkorn as Justice Minister, Penina Tamano Shata as Immigration and Absorption Minister, Amir Peretz as Minister of Culture and Sport, Itzik Shmuli the Minister of Welfare, Yoaz Hendel as Communications Minister, Alon Shuster as Agriculture Minister; as well as the ministries of Strategic Affairs, Tourism, Social Equality, Science and Technology, Minorities and Diaspora Affairs.

The Likud will hold the portfolios for Finance, Public Security, Transportation, Housing, Environment, Intelligence, Regional Cooperation, Negev and Galilee, Energy and Jerusalem. Likud will fill the Education Ministry for now, but the position is likely to be transferred to one of the 6 Yamina MKs if the the Likud political partner ultimately decides to joins the coalition. Ministers of the Interior, Health and Religious Affairs portfolios will be headed by the Likud’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies from either Shas or United Torah Judaism. Likud MK Yariv Levin will replace Gantz as Knesset Speaker, and as-yet unnamed member of Netanyahu’s party will also be appointed as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

A division of power between the two blocs will also be evident in important government bodies such as the ministerial legislation committee and the security cabinet, the latter of which has ability to declare war.

The pact enables to new Israeli government to focus on the coronavirus pandemic during the first, six month “emergency phase” of the new government. A longer “unity phase” is to follow, with the formation of a negotiating team “to discuss a policy outline for a prospective unity government over the long term.”

During the initial half-year, Netanyahu and Gantz are to jointly lead a designated coronavirus cabinet tasked with coordinating the battle to eradicate the disease, staffed with relevant government ministers and professionals. According the joint Likud-Blue and White statement sent to TV7, “the government, once formed, will be defined as a national emergency government for a period of six months and no legislation unrelated to the battle against coronavirus will be brought in Parliament, without consent.”

The coalition agreement, while stating that the new government will strive for peace, may also move towards implementation of Netanyahu’s plan to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank including the Jordan Valley, in a de facto annexation of land Palestinians demand for a future state. The new government’s official statement detailed that “from July, the presiding prime minister will be allowed to bring U.S. President Donald Trump’s statement with regard to the realization of Israeli sovereignty to government and Parliament, following due process.” Washington’s Middle East peace proposal, that was embraced by Israel and rejected by the Palestinians, would recognize the majority of land Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War as Israel.

Other principle agreements governing the operative functioning of the government pertain to the passing of controversial legislation proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Liberman to induct ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army, but qualified by a clause empowering the cabinet to determine annual enlistment numbers. Netanyahu has also been given veto power over the Knesset Judiciary Committee, including the appointment of the next Attorney General and State Prosecutor.

Continued rule by Netanyahu as Prime Minister means he can remain in office while under indictment; whereas other ministers are obliged to step down. His trial on criminal charges is due to open 24 May, after having been postponed for two months due to the COVID-19 outbreak. By agreeing to the unity deal, Netanyahu will be able to argue his case against charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust from the position of premier.

The unity government will not be able to advance, however, until the High Court of Justice rules on three separate petitions claiming that Netanyahu should be barred from the premiership due to his legal woes. The challenges by the Movement for Quality Government and Democracy Watch organizations, as well some 123 former security officials, were filed right after the March elections; but the Justices deferred from ruling on the matter until the formation of a government appeared viable. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Gantz, the Blue and White, Netanyahu and the Prime Minister’s Likud party – which has long insisted that Israel’s Basic Law permits a sitting prime minister to continue serving unless convicted of a crime – have until  2 PM Thursday 23 April to submit formal responses.

Analysts believe the possibility the High Court will rule in favor of the petitions is marginal; but an interesting detail of the unity deal is that it would incumbent upon Gantz to also tender his resignation if the High Court ultimately ruled that Netanyahu is unfit for office.

— By Erin Viner