Gantz’s attempt to form Israeli government faces obstacles

Netanyahu and his political allies have thrown up roadblocks to stymie Gantz’s plans.
Sunday 22/03/2020
An October 2019 file picture shows Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (R) handing General Benny Gantz a document tasking him with forming a new government. (AP)
Not there yet. An October 2019 file picture shows Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (R) handing General Benny Gantz a document tasking him with forming a new government. (AP)

Although Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White alliance, has been given first opportunity to form a new Israeli government, he is facing many obstacles, both political and administrative.

On the political front, the only way he can form a government is by bringing in the Arab List, a coalition of Israeli Arab parties that won 15 seats, because the group he previously assembled -- Blue and White, 33 seats; Labour-Gesher-Meretz, seven seats; and Yisrael Beiteinu, seven seats -- falls short of the 61 needed to establish a government.

Adding the Arab List would give Gantz 62 seats -- enough for a governing majority -- but such an expanded coalition is rife with difficulties. The only thing the disparate parties have in common is opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Relations between Yisrael Beiteinu, led by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the Arab List are particularly acrimonious but it does not end there.

Several members of the Blue and White, which itself is a coalition, spoke against joining forces with the Arab parties. Alliance member Omer Yankelevich told Gantz she opposes such a move, Israeli media reported. Two other members of Blue and White, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, representing the right-wing of the party, have long been opposed to an alliance with Arab parties.

If those three Blue and White members bolt from the coalition, Gantz’s chances of forming a government become nil. Some reports suggest the dissident members would put party loyalty above their personal views and vote with Gantz but that scenario is not guaranteed.

In addition, even if those members stick with Gantz, his desire to reach an agreement with the Arab List is not assured. During the election campaign, Gantz explicitly said he would not form a government with the Arab List and he endorsed the Trump peace plan, which has been strongly opposed by the Palestinians.

The leaders of the Arab List want Gantz to backpedal his support for the Trump plan before they come to an agreement with him, something he has been reluctant to do.

The right-wing media in Israel played up some of the stances of the newly elected members of the Arab List to put Gantz in a tight spot. Video clips circulated of Arab List member Heba Yazbak stating in a previous interview: “We want to fight, with all our strength, racism, apartheid and Zionism.”

On the administrative front, Netanyahu and his political allies have thrown up roadblocks to stymie Gantz’s plans and were using the coronavirus to delay any political change.

Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which was to begin March 17, was postponed for at least two months, ostensibly because of the virus. That decision was made by Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana -- a Likud member -- who placed the courts under a state of emergency, which then led the Jerusalem District Court, where Netanyahu was to have his trial, to say proceedings against the prime minister would not begin until May. This has given Netanyahu a political reprieve.

In addition, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Likud member and a staunch Netanyahu ally, used his powers to hinder Gantz. Although newly elected members of parliament were sworn in March 16, and Gantz introduced a series of resolutions against Netanyahu -- one imposing a two-term limit for a prime minister, another that would bar a prime minister under indictment from serving in his post and a third prohibiting an indicted member of parliament from forming a government -- Edelstein abruptly adjoined the Knesset on March 18, using the coronavirus as an excuse.

Blue and White also petitioned to have a vote to replace Edelstein as speaker. The Washington Post reported that Edelstein dismissed the attempts as “petty politics,” adding that it was not the time to advance “controversial legislation” when political leaders should be coming together to manage the virus crisis.

In the meantime, Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a strong leader dealing with the virus, though his efforts have caused controversy because he instructed Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, to use mobile-phone tracking technology to monitor the movements of virus patients.

Gantz criticised the adjournment of the Knesset as a political ploy and emphasised that parliament needs to convene to deal with the virus situation. He said that without a functioning Finance Committee, “there won’t be any budget” to deal with the virus and without the functioning of security committees, “there won’t be any oversight over government tracking of civilians.”

For the time being, Netanyahu and his political allies have used the virus emergency to stave off a direct challenge by Gantz, however, once the virus threat ends, Netanyahu’s legal and political problems will resurface. In the meantime, Gantz will have to shore up his fragile coalition if he wants to form a government, an effort that remains a very difficult process.