By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
It’s not often that I feel the need to apologize to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, I can think of almost nothing positive to say about him. He is destroying any chance of peace with the Palestinians; he is methodically demolishing the country’s democratic political system; he is a racist who incites hate toward Israel’s Arab minority, his political rivals and the media; and he is morally corrupt. And this is a far from comprehensive list. Yet he was right on one thing. His main political rival over the last 12 months, Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White alliance, lacks any leadership skills, is indeed spineless, and is most definitely not a person to be trusted. Those are all characteristics one usually associates with Netanyahu himself, but in Gantz’s case we have to add a lack of political skill, not to mention the absence of any instinct for political survival or hunger for the top job of prime minister.
The bottom line is that, at this watershed in Israel’s history, when its progressive forces desperately need sterling alternative leadership, the only available option has buckled under the pressure of Netanyahu’s manipulative tactics. When Gantz was within touching distance of accomplishing his party’s top priority of ending Netanyahu’s destructive reign and forming a government, even a post-Netanyahu transitional one, he has betrayed both those who voted for him and large sections of his party. And, in an act of probable political suicide, he has decided to join forces in government with his arch-enemy.
This move topped a week that was already one of the darkest in Israel’s political history. Under the cynical guise of emergency measures against the coronavirus outbreak, a man accused of fraud, bribery and breach of trust maintained his grip on the post of prime minister, having pulled off another of his unscrupulous master strokes in order to stay in power and avoid facing the courts. For this aim, nothing and no one is sacrosanct.
In order to understand what has happened in recent days, one needs to go back to the results of the March 2 election. Neither the right nor the center-left bloc won. No party or bloc gained a clear mandate to take the country in one direction or another. However, what unmistakably transpired was a majority in the Knesset that wanted to see, at last, the back of Netanyahu. More than half of the elected chamber ran on the “Just Not Bibi” ticket. But — within sight of achieving this aim with the support of the Arab Joint List — this alliance has collapsed like a house of cards.
Meanwhile, the government has exploited the coronavirus emergency to suspend the courts, including Netanyahu’s trial, and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, under instructions from the prime minister and in defiance of a High Court decision, prevented the elected sovereign body from selecting a new speaker and forming committees — in short, suspending the country’s democratic institutions and processes. If throwing punches at the most sensitive organs of Israeli democracy were not enough, Netanyahu and Gantz have also struck a dodgy deal whereby Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party and its 15 MKs (one of the three groups that make up Blue and White) will form a government with the Netanyahu-supporting right-wing parties; in the process splitting up the Blue and White alliance.
It would be foolish to underestimate the seriousness of the current coronavirus emergency in Israel. However, this is even more reason to replace Netanyahu, and urgently so. The outbreak is exposing the neglect of the public health service under the watch of Likud and Netanyahu during their 11 years in power. Had Netanyahu honestly cared about the health of the nation, literally and figuratively, and had any dignity and self-respect left in him, he would have left politics without further ado. This would have opened the door to a broad coalition; one that was not distracted by the search for a means of letting Netanyahu off the hook in relation to the criminal proceedings against him.
If — although it now seems more a case of when — Netanyahu forms a government with the support of Gantz, the master operator of Israeli politics will achieve almost everything he wants, while the clock counting down to the demise of Gantz’s nascent political career will start ticking, if it hasn’t done so already. The emerging agreement reportedly indicates that Netanyahu will relinquish the premiership to Gantz 18 months after forming a unity government. But anyone who has followed Netanyahu’s career has witnessed a litany of broken promises, and there is no reason to assume that he is going to change the habit of a lifetime at this stage of his career. Bear in mind that, after the split of Blue and White, Gantz no longer leads a faction of 33 MKs. Now, with the support of just 15 MKs and perhaps one or two more who might yet join him, his claim to the premiership is not very persuasive. And, by the time the agreed 18 months have passed, Netanyahu will have done what he has done to all of his political rivals in the past: Reduced Gantz to a mere servant of his own interests, leaving him a laughing stock, crushed beneath his feet.
In the meantime, it won’t be the coronavirus at the top of the government’s agenda, but legislation seeking immunity from criminal prosecution for those in power. And, in a year-and-a-half’s time, if Netanyahu does actually decide to honor his agreement to leave office, he will do so on condition of being made president — a role that will then be vacant — allowing him another seven years of legal immunity.
Is that what the 1,220,381 people who voted Blue and White wanted? They have been betrayed by someone who promised them he would not sit with a politician who is defending himself on criminal charges while in power. Gantz has chosen to break this pledge rather than his promise not to side with the Arab Joint List. By doing so, he has proved himself not only as dishonest as his new master, but equally racist.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg