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Finally … Israel forms a government




Coming at a time of crushing unemployment (an estimated 25% of Israelis are jobless in the wake of coronavirus) critics complain that several portfolios were especially created to satisfy coalition promises made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His party and that of Blue and White – headed by his rival-turned-partner, Benny Gantz – are on an almost equal footing. Their blocs have a similar number of ministers and virtual veto power over the other’s major decisions. Gantz and his allies received major ministries as a solace to those Blue and White supporters who were dismayed that the two had formed a unity coalition.

The good news is that the coalition is stable. Nearly the majority of Knesset (parliament) members are ministers, deputies, or senior officials. In this way, it has a built-in vote of confidence.

But there is deep distrust between the opposing camps which has given rise to doubts about how they can govern together.

They’ve agreed that for the first 18 months, Netanyahu will be prime minister; after that it’ll be Gantz’s turn. But most Israelis don’t believe that Netanyahu will vacate his office and hand it over to Gantz in spite of what the 14-page agreement between the two leaders stipulates. As it is, even after the rotation, Netanyahu will retain the position of “alternate” prime minister and be allowed to remain in the prime minister’s residence in Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

Three-quarters of the government is made up of right-wing parties who feel no real allegiance to Gantz. This ensures Netanyahu that he is likely to remain the most powerful and influential figure even when Gantz is heading the government.

Among the challenges facing the new government is dealing with the economic crisis wrought by COVID-19. Israel fared better than Western Europe and the United States, but hasn’t been able to escape the financial downtrend. On the defence front, the Israeli army will need to balance its budgetary demands with the economic crunch. The foreign ministry also has its hands full. It needs to rehabilitate its status after not having a full-time minister for years and suffering from a lack of prestige and budget. The ministry also needs to “sell” Israel’s plan to unilaterally annex the Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank to the international community that is against it.

Late on Tuesday night, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came out vehemently against the proposal, announcing that Ramallah would no longer be bound by agreements it has signed with Israel and the United States.

As part of American president Donald Trump’s Mideast plan, the proposal envisions handing 30% of the West Bank to permanent Israeli control. Netanyahu said in a speech late last month that he was “confident” he could annex occupied territory with the support of Washington from 1 July. Last week’s visit to Jerusalem by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a message that Netanyahu was free to do as he saw fit.

Pompeo said, “The Israeli government will decide on the matter, on exactly when and how to do it. I hope the Palestinians understand that peace is good for them.”

But the Palestinians are enraged. Jordan’s King Abdullah has warned that if Israel annexes the area, it will lead to a massive conflict with Amman. The international community is opposed, including the US public at large and the American Jewish community.

Some observers suggest that Netanyahu used the promise of annexation as an election pitch, but he knows that if he follows through on it, he will also need to agree to the rest of Trump’s deal – founding a Palestinian state on the remaining two-thirds of the West Bank. This raises questions as to whether he really intends to annex, as his nationalist base will never support such a Palestinian state. Nonetheless, they are pushing for annexation before the US election in November as concern grows that Trump could be replaced by Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic candidate, who has stated he opposes unilateral annexation.

Gantz, who was army chief during the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip, isn’t expected to emerge as a dove in the security cabinet. There is broad consensus amid Israeli leaders that their key fights are countering Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and Iran and its proxies in Syria.

But there are issues on which Gantz and his team might generate a moderating influence. The newcomers might be willing to take a more diplomatic approach in the efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, especially if Biden replaces Trump. Biden is likely to push for the nuclear deal.

One last thing to watch. This coming Sunday, Netanyahu’s trial begins. He faces accusations of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, all of which he denies. As an indicted prime minister, he has to step down only when he’s convicted, and only after that conviction is upheld through the appeals process. The legal process might last as long as two years. Three elections later, and Netanyahu remains in the driving seat, just like he’s been for four previous governments.

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