By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
A fourth Israeli Knesset election in less than two years has been staved off at the very last minute… but only for now. The seeds of the next political crisis — and with it the possible dissolution of the Israeli parliament and the end of the current coalition between Likud and Blue and White — have already been sown by last week’s resolution to the previous crisis.
More precisely, the next Israeli political cliffhanger was set for Dec. 23, when the extended budget deadline will expire. However, the budget bill was just an excuse for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his surrogates to instigate a crisis. Whether it will be the budget or any other issue that might emerge in the next few months, they are all secondary to Netanyahu’s overarching concerns, which are to keep himself in power, avoid any further investigations of corruption allegations against him and, most significantly, derail the corruption trial he is currently undergoing.
As the date draws closer for the handover of the prime minister’s scepter from Netanyahu to Benny Gantz, we can be certain that the rate of both real and artificial crises will increase to ensure that the rotation agreement between the pair will never be fulfilled, even at the price of another round of national elections.
In view of the fact that the current government was sworn in only a little over three months ago, the hostility between its two main partners and the constant bickering and brinkmanship orchestrated by Netanyahu are testimony to his intention from the word go to never let the government or any of its ministers settle into their work. In the mindset of the prime minister, his close family and his political supporters, the only route for him to stay in power and not face the full force of the law is to constantly disrupt the political process and/or Israeli society, while not allowing his rivals a split second of comfort or certainty in their positions.
To divert, delay, lie, incite and manipulate have become Netanyahu’s main tools for clinging to power, and Gantz himself is gradually waking up to the illusion — or, more accurately, the delusion — that the current rotation agreement will be honored and he will be prime minister by the end of 2021. However, his dismal decision to join the coalition government, against every reasonable piece of advice and in a move that split his party in two, has left him exposed to Netanyahu’s whims, and even scorn, with a very limited number of weapons in his armory with which to fight back.
Relations between these two leading figures are having an adverse impact on the daily governing of the country and on the most crucial of issues. Few would argue that the recent normalization of relations with the UAE was not a massive coup for Netanyahu’s statesmanship, but his decision to keep the two most senior ministers — Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi — out of the loop during the negotiations was the act of a petty politician who insists on keeping all the accolades for himself. The implication that he couldn’t trust his two top ministers with one of the most important developments in Israel’s diplomatic endeavors for almost a generation should worry every citizen, especially as Netanyahu justified his deplorably manipulative behavior with the excuse that, had he kept them informed, the news would have leaked out and enabled Iran to thwart the agreement.
Even more revealing of his small-mindedness were his words to an Israeli newspaper: “Let them know? I’ve been working on this for years. They’ve been here for two months.” As if it were a matter of how long they have been in government rather than the position they hold and their relevance to the issue at hand. One can hardly think of two more relevant figures on this occasion than the foreign and defense ministers, considering the diplomatic and security implications of the groundbreaking agreement.
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Worse, if Netanyahu cannot be certain that sensitive information won’t be leaked by two colleagues who are privy to some of the country’s most closely guarded secrets, it is clearly irresponsible for him to let them remain in post. But, of course, it was not security concerns that bothered Netanyahu (both Gantz and Ashkenazi have previously served as chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces); rather, it was the prime minister’s paranoid ego ensuring that the glory was all his.
In his attempt to escape criminal conviction, he is prepared to sacrifice good governance and rational decision-making processes, and instead prefers to work with those who are accountable to him personally. The normalization issue was yet another opportunity to belittle his coalition partners, whom he fears as rivals, at the price of compromising the public’s trust in those who lead two of the state’s most security-sensitive ministries. When the moment to hand over the premiership arrives, this manufactured distrust will become another excuse to violate the rotation agreement.
The budget bill was an opportunity for Blue and White to get back on its feet after being sidelined from the UAE normalization process. For once, Gantz’s gloves were off, as he called Netanyahu’s bluff about another election and refused to agree to a one-year budget instead of the two-year deal earmarked by the coalition agreement. Since failure to pass a budget bill means the automatic dissolution of the Knesset, it offered the prime minister an opportunity to dissolve the Knesset at a point convenient for him, depending on the stage and state of his trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, and the looming date of the handover to Gantz. Scaring Blue and White with the prospect of an election, in which, as a divided party, it could expect to lose many seats, was merely a crude attempt by Netanyahu to renege on his agreement to have no say in the appointments of the next state prosecutor and attorney general — two positions that could have a crucial influence on his current and future legal tribulations.
No one expected the current coalition government to be a harmonious one but, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is spreading relentlessly, a fifth of the workforce is unemployed, and Israel’s citizens face police brutality as they protest in the streets against a prime minister who has long since lost his self-respect, integrity and sense of shame, the country cannot afford its governing bodies to turn its affairs into a tragic and abusive farce.
- 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