Israel’s Coalition Government Has Turned Into a National Wound
The relationship between the Blue and White and Likud parties is dysfunctional. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz announced on Tuesday that he will support a vote of no confidence in the government, though he also left open a narrow window for a potential attempt to avoid elections.
When the unity government was formed in April, as an emergency step to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Gantz took the bold step of parting company with his political allies in order to join forces with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But since that time, the pandemic has raged and the government founded as a response to it has floundered.
The government has grown ultra-polarized, with Blue and White turning into an ‘in-house opposition’ within the very government it is a part of. The term “unity” in the government has been emptied of meaningful content, and none of the government’s ministers are hiding this fact. While in April there was a semblance of cooperation, today neither Gantz nor Netanyahu make any pretense that the government is working.
Blue and White point to the failure of Likud and Netanyahu to pass a state budget as a major transgression, and their claim has merit. The coalition agreement stipulates a deadline for budgets, and Blue and White’s expectations for the agreement to be kept have been left unmet.
Yet Blue and White is in a trap. As soon as the party entered the government, all power passed to Netanyahu, and this was a calculated risk that Gantz agreed to take. Netanyahu has repeatedly demonstrated how little he values Gantz and Blue and White’s ministers, as his decision to avoid updating them on his reported visit to Saudi Arabia demonstrates. Netanyahu continues to play a skillful, calculated political game, while Gantz, who remains a political novice, is dragged along.
Blue and White would be unlikely to go to elections if the budget delay lasted just a few weeks.
Yet the party is in a pressure cooker, one which is creating real fissures in Blue and White, undermining Gantz’s leadership as it does so. While Netanyahu has been able to keep the Likud Party under control, despite the occasional complaints within the party, the same is not the case for Blue and White. Serious internal rivalries are emerging. One camp, led by Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, favors an uncompromising approach to Netanyahu, even if another round of elections is the price to be paid.
On the other side of the internal rift, Gantz prefers to avoid elections, despite public statements in which he says he does not fear a return to the ballot box, and despite the looming no confidence vote.
Ultimately, Gantz has struggled to settle a central paradox. While he certainly wants to become prime minister in November 2021, as the coalition agreement stipulates, he does not wish to be perceived as someone who will simply acquiesce in order to reach that objective.
Gantz has already proven that, as his party’s last election slogan stated, for him Israel is the consideration above all others. When he left his political allies to join the Netanyahu government, he demonstrated how seriously he took his party’s slogan.
But he also knows there is a limit to how many more times he can compromise with Netanyahu.
Gantz’s decision to form a Defense Ministry commission of inquiry into the purchase of German-made submarines — an affair that Netanyahu’s opponents claim involves improper conduct by the prime minister — is intended to demonstrate that he is not under the full control of Netanyahu.
That strategic step could end up causing Netanyahu to break up the government and proceed toward elections. It is a step that could bury Gantz’s remaining chances of becoming prime minister.
It is also an effort by Gantz to salvage what remains of his credibility.
If Netanyahu ends up triggering elections, Gantz can save face by pointing to his current warnings, and claim that he was willing to go to elections the entire time. Beneath the radar, however, and despite repeated calls for elections, Blue and White is formulating a compromise offer for Netanyahu as a final test of his willingness to work with them.
And yet, Blue and White is not expected to fare well in any future elections. The latest polls show it barely crossing the two-digit threshold, and for a party that in the last elections gained 33 seats (before its break up with Yesh Atid), this presents a bleak political horizon for the party.
While senior party members speak of not fearing new elections, those who rank lower down the party list know their political survival is unlikely.
In the near future, the Blue and White Party is expected to hold primaries. Senior members of the party no longer wish to defer to Gantz. They want greater involvement in the decision-making. Some see themselves as future replacements for Gantz. The primaries will revolve around the central dilemma hovering over the party: Should it fold and remain in the coalition, or should it face the prospect of vanishing in the next elections?
Opposition Chairman Yair Lapid — Gantz’s former partner in Blue and White — is, for his part, satisfied with all of these developments. His position in the polls is excellent, and it is clear that he wants elections as soon as possible. Lapid imagines linking up with other political forces, such as Naftali Bennet’s Yamina party, and foresees a new path to the premiership. Yet Lapid seems more interested in his political future than in the national interest of avoiding elections at this time.
The political system has not yet passed the final point of no return leading to a fourth round of elections since April 2019. While chances of new elections are certainly high, the Israeli political system, true to form, remains unpredictable.
Danielle Roth-Avneri is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute and is currently a leading political correspondent and editor for the Israel Hayom/Israel Today newspaper, the most widely circulated publication in Israel.
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel-focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.