A Gantz-led government would only slightly improve prospects for peace

There is speculation in Israel that Netanyahu may be angling to strike a deal with the attorney general to resign as prime minister in return for no prosecution.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Members of Knesset Yair Lapid (L) of Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz of the Israel Resilience party, both part of the Blue and White alliance, sit together during a meeting in Jerusalem, October 3. (AFP)
Lesser of two evils? Members of Knesset Yair Lapid (L) of Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz of the Israel Resilience party, both part of the Blue and White alliance, sit together during a meeting in Jerusalem, October 3. (AFP)

Even though Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won one seat less than the Blue and White alliance, led by former army chief-of-staff Benny Gantz, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with forming a government.

This is because Netanyahu initially had a total of 55 Knesset members on his side (32 from Likud plus those from right-wing secular and religious parties) compared with 54 for Gantz (33 for the Blue and White plus those from left and centre secular parties and Arab parties). With the Knesset comprising 120 members, one needs at least 61 to form a governing coalition.

Rivlin’s preference is for Likud and the Blue and White to form a national unity government with alternating prime ministers. Rivlin brought Netanyahu and Gantz together at his home on September 25 to discuss that possibility. Such a government has been done before in Israel, so it would not be too strange to do it again.

However, efforts to form a government were bogged down by secular versus religious issues and personal rivalries. Netanyahu’s courting of religious parties has made a union with Gantz and his supporters difficult because many of Gantz’s backers say religious parties have had too much sway over the Israeli polity.

As for a unity government between Likud and the Blue and White, which would bring their combined seats to 65, more than enough to form governing coalition, Gantz cancelled a follow-on meeting with Netanyahu that had been scheduled for October 2.

Officials from Gantz’s party charged that Likud was headed to the negotiating table with preconditions and without having shed right-wing and religious parties. Blue and White officials charged that Likud was demanding that Netanyahu be prime minister first.

Likud charged that Blue and White officials were playing political games with the intention of scuttling unity talks in the hope for new Israeli elections.

Underlying these problematic manoeuvres was news that Israel’s independent attorney general planned to move ahead with corruption charges against Netanyahu.

The Washington Post reported that, while Israeli law allows a prime minister to remain in office while being prosecuted, many Israeli legal scholars say the corruption charges are so serious that the Israeli Supreme Court will intervene to compel Netanyahu to step down if he is indicted.

There is speculation in Israel that Netanyahu may be angling to strike a deal with the attorney general to resign as prime minister in return for no prosecution. With Netanyahu in legal trouble, Gantz may conclude he does not need to enter into a coalition with his rival. Why commit to anything when your rival might have to resign in the very near future?

Should Netanyahu weather the storm and remain prime minister, the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal are virtually non-existent. During the election campaign Netanyahu promised to continue settlement building and annex parts of the West Bank. Some members of his right-wing coalition are adamantly opposed to any territorial compromise, which would negate any chance of a peace deal.

Gantz’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian situation is less clear. At a news conference in April he refused to say whether he favoured an independent Palestinian state. He added that Israel should retain the Jordan Valley, not go back to the 1967 lines, and that Jerusalem should “stay united as our capital.”

He then called for new Israeli and Palestinian leadership in order to strike a peace deal. What type of deal he envisions within these parameters is unknown. His only promising statement was: “We do not want to rule the Palestinians.”

For Israeli Arabs, who won 13 seats in the parliamentary elections because of their higher voter turnout, most of them are throwing their support behind Gantz because they see Netanyahu as playing the anti-Arab card and not interested in a peace deal that would, by necessity, involve territorial compromise.

If Gantz were to rely on what is known as the United Arab List to form a coalition government, he would have to show more flexibility on the Palestinian issue.

This is where Washington could play an important role. US President Donald Trump, despite the political gifts he gave to Netanyahu such as recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, apparently feels no compunction to stick with the current Israeli leader. As Trump has said many times within the US domestic context, he prefers winners over losers.

Trump, however, does not want to expend political capital by edging Gantz, should he become prime minister, to be more accommodating to the Palestinians. With Trump facing possible impeachment, he does not want to alienate supporters within the Christian evangelical community and right-wing elements of the American Jewish community by being seen as putting pressure on Israel.

Hence, while Israel under a Gantz leadership would be slightly better for the Palestinians, without a strong US role in moving the parties to a deal, the prospects for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation are very slim.

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