Context – After months of political deadlock and the repeated organization of parliamentary elections, Israel finally formed a unity government. It is organized around two key figures: Prime Minister Benyamin Netayahu, leader of the Likoud Party (right wing), and Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White Party (Center). What are the bases of this power-sharing formula? What implications will this situation have on the regional scene? Can we bet on a governmental stability? To understand things better, OCC interviewed Roland Lombardi.

Roland Lombardi is a doctor in Contemporary History, a consultant in Geopolitics, and a specialist of the Middle East. He is the author of several specialized articles. Among his latest publications, we can mention these two valuable books (in French): “The Thirty “Inglorious” Years, or the End of the French Influence in the Arab and Muslim World” (VA Editions, 2019); and “Putin of Arabia, or How Russia has Turned Unavoidable in the Mediterranean and the Middle East” (VA Editions, 2020).

After a long period of political deadlock, the main winners for Israel’s last parliamentary elections, Benyamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, finally agreed on a formula for power-sharing. What does this agreement consist in?

By all means, the last 16 months have been marked by a major political crisis in Israel: three legislative elections have been organized successively, while the coronavirus crisis caused a dramatic health and economic situation. But finally, to everyone’s surprise, on the 20th of April, Benyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Israeli right wing, backed by extremist parties, agreed with his political rival and fierce enemy, the leader of the centrist opposition Benny Gantz, on the constitution of a government of “national emergency”. Most probably, the former Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Benny Gantz, would have never accepted this “deal with the devil” hadn’t Israel been facing a series of crises: the coronavirus; health issues; the ongoing socio-economic tragedy; the existence of one million unemployed with no rights for compensations (short-time working does not exist in Israel); and the worrying general bankruptcy that seems to be looming for many companies.

The three-year deal between Netanyahu and Gantz has been signed under the auspices of president Reuven Rivlin, who has been insisting for months that these two fierce rivals bring together the two pieces of the Israeli society that they represented.

It is also true that, with the ongoing dramatic context, organizing a fourth election was not foreseeable and the Israelis would have rejected this scenario anyway.

In the meantime, Benny Gantz will be Deputy Prime Minister and the minister of Defense. Gabi Ashkenazi, a key member of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, and also a former Chief of General Staff of the Israeli army, will be the minister of Foreign Affairs. The ministry of justice will also be headed by a centrist. Besides, Benny Gantz has also obtained positions for his allies from the Labour Party: Itzik Shmuli will be the minister of Social Affairs, and Amir Peretz will have the portfolio of economy. Therefore, the center and the left will be in cohabitation with the right.

The agreement also states that, past 18 months, without the necessity of organizing new elections, Benny Gantz shall succeed Benyamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister. However, Benny Gantz’s center-left party only forms a minority in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament): some members of his party defected as a sign of protest against the idea of negotiating with Netanyahu. Some of the people that had voted for the Blue and White Party, but also some of its important members like Moshe Ya’alon and Yaïr Lapid, haven’t understood nor accepted seeing Gantz negotiate with Netanyahu. Lapid went up to talking about an unacceptable treason from a “disloyal Army General”. Furthermore, in one of these twists that is so specific to Israeli politicians, Lapid even declared himself ready to side with Netanyahu. He wanted to impede Gantz from becoming Prime Minister and to compromise the rotating law! That said, the majority of the Israeli public opinion welcomed the agreement with big relief.

Can we expect governmental stability now that we have this power-sharing formula?

Israel experimented situations similar to this one in the past. In September 1984, in the midst of a catastrophic economic situation, and despite the fact that the “Peace in Galilea” operation that had been launched in Lebanon in 1982 had left Israel with additional difficulties, then-President Haïm Herzog managed to bring together two men that had nothing in common: Shimon Peres from the Labor party, and Itzhak Shamir, leader of the Likoud and former head of Lehi (or the Stern gang), a terrorist organization from the far-right. Thanks to the pragmatism of these two leaders, a “historical compromise” had been reached: it was based on the idea of having a rotating government, and it worked more or less. Today, with the ruling Israeli Labor party in the ministry of economy, a key strategic institution, the “hyper-liberal” economic policies of Benyamin Netanyahu could be adversely affected. It is also true that the coronavirus has created a new context that may help with that: like for Western countries, the need for the intervention of the State has proven vital. Some are even talking about nationalizing companies partially and/or temporarily. Other factors that Benny Gantz was keen on modifying are the Law of a Jewish Nation-State and the provision of public transportation on Saturdays, although he has yet to actively engage on those aspects.
On the other hand, the new cabinet counting 36 ministers and 16 vice-ministers, perfectly divided between Netanyahu and Gantz’s candidates, has already been criticized for its extremely high costs. Besides, even if the far-right Yamina movement may not be part of the government anymore, Gantz will still have to deal with Yaakov Litzman, an extremist religious leader who, against Gantz’s will, is still the head of the Health ministry. In a nutshell, any governmental coalition remains fragile by definition. But once again, with the unprecedented situation that Israel is living, we can trust that Benny Gantz’s realism and Benyamin Netanyahu’s craftiness put together will make things sustainable. It happens that Netanyahu kept the right to veto the nomination of the judges of the Supreme Court if needed. This is a matter of direct concern for him, especially since his trial is due to start on the 24th of May 2020. Prime Minister Netanyahu already managed to render his destitution impossible if he happened to be condemned in the first instance. For the moment, we are in a honeymoon period, but its duration will mostly depend on the outcome of the health and economic crises. 

What are the consequences for Palestine?

First of all, I would like to point out that, despite the fact that we lack reliable and clear information and data, it still looks as if the territories placed under the authority of the Palestinian Authority as well as the Hamas-led Gaza Strip are not dealing so badly with the coronavirus crisis. As surprising as this may sound, this is due in part to the discrete aid that Israel provides to Palestinians. Israel is used to dealing with deep crises. Some studies have even ranked it as one of the most efficient countries in terms of fighting covid-19.

Regarding the disagreements between Gantz and Netanyahu with respect to the policies that should be adopted towards Palestinians, like for example the annexation of parts of the West Bank, the two rivals ended up finding some points of agreement.

It consisted of Trump’s plan to annex the Jordan Valley.

The day the ongoing international health crisis is behind us, and the “deal of the century” is back on track, there will be no choice but to go back to the table of negotiations with Palestinians. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu considers that all the points of the “Trump peace plan” that are related to the future of the West Bank are crucial, because they condition his relations with his political allies as well as with those of his electors that are at the very right of the political spectrum. Those points state that Israel can annex 30% of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and all Israeli settlements.

Benyamin Netanyahu is quite aware that he must move very fast on the Jordan Valley, that he has to set high standards and go very far before considering making major concessions on other aspects of the Trump peace plan. From Netanyahu’s point of view, the aid that is provided to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to help him deal with the coronavirus crisis is, if I may say, a coarse manner for him to sugar the pill.

But, more importantly, the Israeli Prime Minister also knows that he needs to count on his new “honeymoon” with Benny Gantz to accelerate the annexation.

At the same time, let us not forget that former Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz together with many key figures within the Israeli army are extremely reluctant, if not hostile, to the idea of annexing the Jordan Valley.

In any case, the coalition agreement between the Likoud and the Blue and White Party states that this question could be submitted for vote. The scrutiny would not be organized before the 1st of July 2020, and it would take place in the government, or at the parliament, “after a discussion between the Prime minister and the Deputy Prime Minister”, and with the agreement of the United States. Will the two former Chiefs of General Staff, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, and the current minister of Foreign Affairs succeed in convincing Netanyahu to step back? We shall find out.

So far, Gantz succeeded in conditioning the validation of this plan to its approval by Egypt, Jordan and the international community. Would Netanyahu be ready to sacrifice his good relations with Egyptian president Sisi and King Abdallah II of Jordan, knowing that the public opinions of these two countries are very sensitive on this question, and that they are the only two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel? Not so sure.

This is why I think that considering the potential dramatic consequences for Netanyahu in political and security terms, the question of the annexation of the Jordan Valley could well be squeezed out, and Israel would limit its action to the annexation of several Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In any case, let’s hope that rationality will end up prevailing.

Will Iran remain at the top of Israel’s strategic priorities?

Without any doubt! Especially since Iran is one of the few issues that generates a political consensus between the right, the left and the centrist parties. Even if Iran does not pose an existential threat, especially in the current context, Israel will by no means accept having Iranian forces settle down for long. Just like it will not allow any kind of threat, ballistic or other, to prevail at the Golan’s border, especially since this would add to the threats that are already being constituted by the Lebanese Hezbollah at the North and Hamas at the South. This is the reason why, since the Syrian crisis started in 2011, Israel has been able to strike the Iranian and the Hezbollah forces that are present on the Syrian territory more than 200 times. It did so in total impunity and with the tacit agreement of Russia.

On the other hand, let us be realistic: Russians are not very enthusiastic when it comes to considering a strong long-term Iranian presence in Syria. Nor is Syrian president Bashar Assad keen on this idea by the way. I was in Syria early March 2020, and I have witnessed the strong rejection by a large majority of the Syrian population, and many representatives of the Syrian regime of the Iranian “inlay” in the country.

Iranians may have been complaining repeatedly to their Russian counterparts, but up to now, they gave no serious and frank answer to the Israeli military strikes. They don’t have the means to do that, especially today, with the terribly deteriorating socioeconomic situation due to the coronavirus crisis, not to mention the US sanctions.

Finally, do you think that Benyamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz agree on a common candidate for the US presidential elections in November 2020?

 It is hard to say. The coronavirus pandemic is weakening the United States and its president considerably. Indeed, the ongoing international health crisis had a dramatic impact on the American economy. Trump is not necessarily over, but the current situation is turning out to be more and more complex for him. In a way that is similar to what is taking place in Israel, the 20 million unemployed and the bankruptcy of many companies in the near future will inevitably have consequences on November 2020’s presidential elections. Add to that the fact that nobody knows what the Israeli political landscape will look like by then. In any case, Benny Gantz will have to keep cautious. Netanyahu is a crafty politician, he is a past master in the art of dirty tricks, and he can be as surprising as he is Machiavellian.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

R. Lombardi (2020). “Israel after the agreement”, Observatory on contemporary crises, May 11, 2020, URL: http://crisesobservatory.es/israel-after-the-agreement-r-lombardi/