Anet McClintock | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, recently did what many thought impossible: signing a power-sharing agreement with political rival Benny Gantz in mid-May to form a unity government. The deal brings an end to a political deadlock that has lasted more than 500 days.
Reaching the milestone was not easy for Netanyahu, however. Israel went to the polls three times in less than one year, a democratic exercise that left Israeli voters weary. The third election in March again failed to give Netanyahu the majority he had hoped for. His Likud Party gained 36 seats, making it the largest individual party in the Knesset, but even together with the right-wing bloc comprised of smaller parties gaining a total of 58 seats, it was comfortably below the 61 seats needed to form a majority government.
The 70-year old incumbent, known for being adept at political deal making, did what he does best in order to prevent a fourth round of voting. The deal states that Netanyahu, who remained interim leader throughout the elections, will remain in power for 18 months and Gantz would serve as leader for the remainder of the three year term.
The deal is especially ground-breaking, as Gantz’s centrist party, the Blue and White Party, ran on a platform of integrity in government, transparency and fixing a broken system in early 2019. For many voters, the primary appeal of the Blue and White party was the fact that it was not led by Netanyahu. Mere weeks before the March election Gantz was refusing to form a government with Netanyahu. Simultaneously, Netanyahu was looking at establishing the most conservative and orthodox government seen in Israel for several decades.
The timing of Gantz and Netanyahu’s agreement is also symbolic, as Netanyahu began his new term in the unity government a mere week before standing trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The prime minister strongly denied all accusations against him, and in a Trumpian fashion labelled the charges as a ‘witch-hunt’.
Netanyahu will continue to serve as leader as throughout the trial. Several advocacy groups and opposition figures had fought to block Netanyahu from forming government due to his corruption charges, but in early May, an eleven-judge panel ruled unanimously that the power-sharing agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz is legal, and that Netanyahu is eligible to serve as Prime Minister. But the Supreme Court also noted that it was “not seeking to diminish the severity of the charges” against Netanyahu, noting that the ruling by no means implies Netanyahu’s innocence. Israel is in uncharted territory, but Netanyahu has steadfastly refused to resign despite pressure from the Courts, from opposition parties, and from many Israeli citizens.
But just because Netanyahu has made a deal with a centre party certainly does not mean he has sacrificed some of his most polarising campaign promises. Netanyahu has committed to annexing parts of the West Bank where illegal Israeli settlements are currently erected. As part of the unity government agreement, annexation is the one issue over which Gantz does not have a veto power, an aspect that has disappointed many politically moderate Israelis. It is unclear why Mr Gantz compromised on including a veto power regarding annexation, but the agreement does note that Mr Gantz be consulted in any plans for annexation.
While Mr Gantz has not comprehensively spoken out against the plans for annexation, he has urged patience, insisting Israel get its coronavirus resurgence under control first. A number of high-profile international leaders, from Germany’s Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have condemned the plans for annexation and warned it could have serious ‘consequences’ for relations in the region.
The role of the Trump administration also cannot be underestimated for its role in promoting Netanyahu. For over fifty years, Israel has repeatedly violated international law, and although Israel has often been threatened with economic and political ramifications by the UN Security Council and other countries, it has never faced significant consequences. Although the proposed annexation of the West Bank will once again be in contempt on international law, this time, it would be actively supported under Trump’s ‘Middle East Peace Plan’.
But this was not the first time the Trump administration has gone against precedent in its support of Israel. In late 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would no longer consider the Israeli settlements illegal, reversing decades of legal precedent. And in a highly contentious move in 2018, the administration moved the US Embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, an action considered a political statement supporting the idea that Jerusalem belongs to only Israel.
This time last year, Netanyahu had just been indicted on three criminal charges, was staring down his greatest political rival in decades, and failed to gain majority in parliament. Many thought the end was nigh for Netanyahu, and that he wouldn’t see it to the end of 2019. But armed with a new mandate from re-election, having effectively subdued his primary political opponent, gained support from the most powerful democratic state in the western world and neutralised any legal opposition to a fifth term, Netanyahu truly defied the odds.
Anet McClintock is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.