After a year and a half of political instability and three inconclusive elections, a new Israeli government was finally sworn in on May 17. It is a national unity government in which leadership as well as ministerial portfolios are to be shared between the Likud party (headed by Benjamin Netanyahu) and the Blue & White party (headed by Benny Gantz).
Israel faces myriad challenges in so-called "normal times," including the Iranian nuclear threat, Syria's civil war and its potential to spill over, the terrorist threat of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, the threat of renewed Palestinian violence in the West Bank, and more.
Those challenges have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its staggering economic effects, which inflated our rate of unemployment from 4% to 25%. We need a stable and functioning government and parliament to tackle these challenges and opportunities. This is "the good."
The stalemate reached in three electoral campaigns within one year-an unprecedented event for Israel-led to a lose--lose choice that Benny Gantz had to make. He could either break his electoral promise not to serve in a government under an indicted Netanyahu (whose trial on three counts of bribery was just beginning as
went to press) or force the country into a costly, dysfunctional fourth election.
One staple of our political system is the perennially painful process of coalition-building. All our prime ministers have had to forge a coalition with smaller parties, thereby relinquishing some of their platform items and adopting those of coalition partners. This time, and in order to accommodate the political needs of both major coalition partners, the government will include a record-breaking 36 government ministers and 16 deputy ministers-half from each party.
In order to appoint 36 ministers, many offices had to be invented, reinvented, or split up from existing ministries. Thus, we will have a Minister of Education, but also a separate Minister of Higher Education and Water Resources (no, there is no connection between the two), a Minister for the Promotion of Communities, and a Minister in charge of Coordination between the Government and the Knesset. All these ministries, many of which are clearly born out of mere political necessity, will end up costing tax-payers millions, and adding very little benefit to the nation. This is "the bad."
Perhaps the most important detail that hangs above Israel's political system in the past years and has conditioned many of the events of the past 18 months has been an unprecedented event: Prime Minister Netanyahu was first under investigation and later indicted on three serious charges of bribery, corruption, and breach of trust.
Surprisingly, while the law forbids an indicted citizen from serving as minister, it does not forbid an indicted politician from heading the government. In the past, when ministers were indicted, they resigned to face charges in court. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was under investigation (before his indictment) he stepped down, was indicted, and stood trial- in which he was found guilty and sent to prison.
To many Israelis, the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has not stepped down and will begin his trial while serving as Prime Minister symbolizes an erosion of our public standards and a dangerous precedent.
The presumption of innocence until proven guilty stands, of course, when it comes to Netanyahu as it does for all citizens. But the fact that under indictment he is allowed to form a coalition, appoint a Minister of Justice, and later appoint the Attorney General, is part of "the ugly."
As in a western movie, there is a good ending to this plot as well. Our justice system will not flinch, and all citizens are equal before the law. Netanyahu will face his charges. The trial will begin, and the ordeal of a prime minister under indictment will come to an end with an innocent or a guilty verdict, and a strong Israel will continue to deal with other important-current and unforeseen- challenges.
Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.