In a time when the weakness of democratic governance is everywhere on display, Israel dwells alone and displays the dangers of strength. After an unprecedented three elections in less than a year, and coalition negotiations that placed a pandemic second to horse-trading, Benjamin Netanyahu remains in the saddle. This time he is supported by Benny Gantz, whose Blue & White coalition was formed for the sole purpose of unseating him.
Like Doron Kabilio in Fauda, Netanyahu survives by short-term maneuvers and deceptions. Crosses are doubled and friends are lost, but the star survives for yet another season. Stability is supposed to be the elixir of good government in multi-party systems with proportional representation. But the stability that Netanyahu brings is bad for Israeli democracy.
Once, Israeli politics was organized by the antagonism of socialists and liberals. Later, it was organized by the by the antagonism of peace-processors and annexationists. Now, it is organized into the temporary allies and temporary enemies of Benjamin Netanyahu.
So great is the gravitational field around Netanyahu, and so numerous are the ranks of his enemies, that he has even broken the once-permanent organizing principle of antagonism between Jews and Arabs: early in the negotiation cycle, Gantz agreed the terms of an informal coalition with the Joint List, a mostly Arab party whose representatives have even less respect for Israeli law than Netanyahu has.
The three-party Blue & White coalition formed around Gantz’s party, Israel Resilience, for the sole reason of beating Netanyahu and exposing him to prosecution for alleged graft. Instead, Netanyahu has won with Gantz’s support and Blue & White now exists in name only. Gantz’s erstwhile partners Moshe Ya’alon and Yair Lapid have led a 16-seat faction into opposition.
Gantz is claiming a deferred victory, because Netanyahu has agreed to cede the prime minister’s job to him after 18 months. But Gantz’s share of the 120-seat Knesset has been reduced from 33 seats, second only to the Likud, to 15. Further, the terms of the coalition agreement shield Netanyahu from the attentions of the High Court.
The agreement also allows Netanyahu to initiate the Trump ‘peace plan’ by calling a free vote on annexing 30 percent of the West Bank. Gantz has said he would support annexation only if the ‘international community’ approves; translated, this means he won’t support it because it would benefit Netanyahu. But Gantz’s opinion no longer matters once Netanyahu calls that vote.
Coronavirus permitting, the vote could be held as early as July. There is more than enough support in the Knesset for annexation. Gantz would then be left with a choice between leaving the government, and losing his chances of the prime ministership, over a policy he agrees with in principle, or remaining in a government and losing the remains of his credibility. The 14-page ‘coalition agreement’ sounds less like Gantz’s roadmap to power and more like a political suicide note, written for him by Netanyahu.
Gantz’s blunders confirm that, though military prestige wins votes in Israel, generals struggle to retain power and maintain parties. Of course, Netanyahu is a master of guerrilla warfare, but this pattern predates him. Though politicians like military metaphors, the formal difference between war and liberal democracy is clear. A general issues orders in the expectation that they will be followed, but the orders of an elected leader are frequently subverted by the bureaucracy and by rivals in his own command. A general is praised for saving lives through a judicious ‘tactical withdrawal’, but a politician is a coward and a failure for retreating under fire. A general probes his enemy’s lines, but a politician is derided for failing to follow a clear line of attack. A general makes alliances of convenience, but a politician is shamed for them.
Netanyahu has forced Gantz into alliance with Islamists, split Gantz from his allies, and invited Gantz to further discredit himself by entering the trap of coalition. The effects are already clear. In one recent poll, less than half of Gantz’s voters were willing to repeat the experience. Another poll predicts that if another election were held, Netanyahu and the Likud would rise from 36 seats to 40. Gantz now has no prospect of forming a coalition, but Netanyahu, who can already call on a 59-seat coalition, can reach the necessary 61 by drawing in defectors from the sinking ship of Blue & White.
Eighteen months is a long time in politics anywhere. In a state where governing coalitions form and dissolve with the seasons, it’s an eternity. Once the Knesset has endorsed annexation, Netanyahu can go to elections and gather the double dividend of annexation and Gantz’s defeat. Gantz will pay the price of his failure. Israeli democracy is already paying the price of Netanyahu’s victories.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts editor of Spectator USA.