Finally, a new government in Israel seems set to arise

… and it will be “new” in many ways

Knesset building image
Knesset building

After the longest political stalemate in its history and an unprecedented three elections in the course of one year, Israel is finally on the brink of having a new government.

The virtual ties in three successive elections failed to produce a clear winner who could form a Knesset majority. Public pressure on Likud (headed by Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu) and Blue & White (headed by retired General Benjamin "Benny" Gantz) to form a national unity coalition grew stronger when the COVID-19 crisis began. That pressure finally brought the two parties together in a coalition pledging to deal with the pandemic first and foremost.

The three election campaigns were detrimental in many ways. Financially, they were a burden on Israel's economy. Having an interim government for a year and a half also created political instability and a Knesset shutdown which prevented almost all legislation, including a national budget.

But, perhaps most important, the election cycles created growing animosity and polarization among voters with each subsequent election campaign becoming more virulent and divisive.

With the impetus of the growing number of Israelis infected with the coronavirus and the considerable damage to the economy likely to grow, Netanyahu and Gantz heeded broad-based public demand and hammered out an agreement. That agreement is yet to be ratified by the Knesset and there are considerable legal issues to iron out.

The construct devised by the two sides is unprecedented and requires amendments to Israel's basic laws. For example, the agreement stipulates that the two leaders will serve as prime ministers in rotation, each serving half a term, while the other serves as "alternate prime minister," an unprecedented position. In order to form that position and define its powers, the laws need to be amended.

Additional legal changes need to be made. For example, there is a law limiting the number of government ministers to 17. In order to accommodate the demands of the two main parties and their coalition partners in the government, Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to have no fewer than 36 ministers.

Setting aside the question of the sheer economic cost of maintaining 36 ministries-an issue already raising concern among many-there is the legal question of creating such a sizeable government. With 16 deputy ministers, the total member in government will be a whopping 52, or almost half the members of Knesset.

National unity governments have been formed in Israel in the past-twice. Once during the crisis leading up to the Six-Day War, when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (Labor) invited his archenemy Menachem Begin (Likud) into a national unity government to face the impending war. The second time was in 1984 when Yitzhak Shamir (Likud) and Shimon Peres (Labor) shared power following a close tie in the elections and a huge economic crisis.

The Six-Day War cabinet performed well and gave the leaders the popular support they needed in order to handle the crisis successfully. After the war, Likud reverted to the opposition. The second national unity government between Shamir and Peres was, by most accounts, a failure which created deadlocks in government and an inability to pass meaningful legislation as each party pulled in a different direction.

What kind of government will Netanyahu and Gantz form? Will it be a government which can mend the tears in our social fabric, bring people closer together, and heal the polarization?

Or will the two Benjamins disagree on the important political and strategic issues at hand, creating a legislative stalemate and a leadership vacuum? Only time will tell, but at least, after a year and a half, Israel will finally have a government.

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.

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