The virus may continue to spread, but one man has reason to be happy.
Thanks to the emergency the epidemic has caused, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has pulled off yet another great escape.
The country’s last election left him unable to form a government for the third time in a row. And this time, there was not only no majority for him, there was also a majority against him.
More than 61 members of the Knesset were prepared to install a speaker hostile to him.
Yuli Edelstein, the outgoing speaker tried everything to prevent a vote on his own removal taking place, but resigned after the Supreme Court ordered him to hold one he was certain to lose.
The opposition would replace him with Benny Gantz, the former Chief of Staff of the IDF, whose Kahol Lavan party formed the core of the anti-Netanyahu Knesset majority.
Its next step was to have passed a specific law preventing a prime minister under indictment from holding office.
Had it not been for Covid-19, the opposition would have got its way, and Citizen Netanyahu would have found himself in front of the District Court in Jerusalem defending himself from allegations of corruption.
The virus however demanded urgent action. Caretaker Prime Minister Netanyahu began issuing orders for a lockdown. He was denounced for his “Corona Coup”. The public, sick of elections, hoped for a government of national unity, to deal with the epidemic, which was beginning to ravage Israel’s densely populated ultra-orthodox communities despite some of the most draconian quarantine restrictions being imposed.
Now, Netanyahu saw his chance and made the offer to Gantz. Gantz’s campaign promise, to oust Netanyahu and never to go into coalition with him evaporated. He announced he would enter negotiations.
This is where Netanyahu deserves his reputation as more subtle than any beast of field of Israeli politics, for by doing so, he persuaded Gantz to betray his voters, and split Kahol Lavan in two.
This immeasurably strengthened Netanyahu’s position. Beforehand, had no government been formed, the country would have faced another election between the judicially-harried Netanyahu, and Cincinnatus Gantz, the honest soldier called to save the republic.
Each time the public voted, the scales tipped ever so slightly more away from Netanyahu. Another election was a risky proposition indeed. But now Cincinnatus had sold his soul and betrayed his allies. A further election would finish him off.
So Netanyhahu offered him half of the posts in the Cabinet, though rump Kahol Lavan was now itself half the size of Netanyahu’s Likud, and the “rotation” of the Prime Minister so that in 18 months time Gantz would become PM, and Netanyahu his deputy.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu didn’t get what he really wanted – immunity from prosecution. He had to make do with the lesser protection of a veto over the appointment of the new Public Prosecutor and Attorney General, and influence over the judicial appointments committee, which could affect the makeup of the Supreme Court should Netanyahu be convicted and need to appeal.
Legally-speaking Netanyahu has emerged in a better situation than before the epidemic. He can fight his case from the Prime Minister’s official residence (and a newly created deputy-Prime Minister’s official residence should he last long enough to need to rotate out of the top job).
But his political position is more precarious than he had hoped before he provoked the series of inconclusive elections back in 2019. Then he built his majority from a bloc of ideological allies from the Russian-immigrant right, religious-zionist hard right and ultra-orthodox parties.
Now he has fallen out with Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian-immigrant party as well as the nationalists Nafthali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked (whose party changes its name more frequently than Shaked sprays herself with “fascism” perfume), and depends on a man who will self-destruct next time he goes to the polls.
Reversing Israeli military doctrine, he has given up space to buy time. For the first time since returning to power he has to watch his right flank, for whom a “patriotic, not corrupt” message has got to have some appeal.
Yet, Gantz’s party of securocrats is now in position to block the distribution of red meat to Bennet and Shaked’s supporters. Gantz himself will be defence minister, Gabi Ashkenazi (another ex-Chief of Staff) Foreign Minister and Avi Nissenkorn, also from Gantz’s party, the vital justice ministry.
Netanyahu defied the odds, and exploited the virus, to escape once more, but his room for manoeuvre is limited, and the clock is now running against him. What’s certain is that he’ll focus the next eighteen months devote use every last drop of his political skill to what has become his central preoccupation: his own survival.