ISRAEL: NEW GOVERNMENT SAILS INTO UNCHARTERED WATERS OF COVID-19 AND POSSIBLE WEST BANK ANNEXATION

Gabi Ashkenazi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz in 2011. (Copyright © 2020 National Photo Collection)

Incredible! After three elections in a year, we finally have a new government led by, surprise, surprise, Bibi Netanyahu. The “startup nation” finally did it after being split down the middle – the right-wing religious bloc that backs Bibi is more or less satisfied; whereas, Banny Gantz split his short-lived Blue and White party down the center in order to prevent yet another election. So far, left out (no pun intended) is the far-right fringe that demands an immediate annexation of Judea and Samaria (West Bank). 

Annexation – to be or not to be?

After already being pulled up short by US President Donald Trump, who has bigger things on his mind these days, Bibi has backed off the annexation for the time being. On this score, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, issued a non-committal statement saying that the Israelis will ultimately make their own decision and, “we will work closely with them to share our views in a private setting.” In any case, Pompea was happy that Netanyahu and Gantz agreed on forming the national emergency government. Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that if Israel goes ahead with the annexation, it would “completely cancel all existing agreements with Jerusalem and Washington.” In other words, all hell will break loose. 

Serving Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (Copyright © 2020 National Photo Collection)

Back in Jerusalem, acting Defense Minister Naftali Bennet is still waiting to see if Bibi will finally decide to annex Judea and Samaria or, at the very least, announce a new settlement building plan before he and his supporters join the national emergency cabinet. It seems to reason, with coronavirus devastating the Israeli economy, and without Trump’s approval, that Bibi will not decide on annexation in the near future. In any case, Gantz split Blue and White to prevent another costly election in such a perilous period. 

Unity government – salvation or abomination?

When Bibi and Benny put their two heads together, they presented the people with a bloated cabinet of 36 ministers, the grossest political monstrosity in Israel’s history. This was a necessity to satisfy the various coalition partners. By comparison, the US cabinet is comprised of 15 secretaries. But Israeli politics always has been a concoction of various political bedfellows that take their particular interests very seriously. 

So, how to explain this new government that most Israelis are still trying to figure out? There is a “certain method to this madness.” Gantz, who is being tarred and feathered by his former Blue and White colleagues and the rest of the center-left bloc, is having a hard time rejecting charges that he sold out to Netanyahu. To make matters worse, Netanyahu will soon appear in court for those three charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Nonetheless, Bibi’s popularity in the right-wing camp has proven to be unshakeable. His supporters accept Bibi’s claim that he has been framed by the legal establishment for what are only minor misdemeanors, and certainly not sufficient to bar him from carrying on as Prime Minister. 

It is fair to say that this unsavory political climate was compounded by the center-left bloc that failed to present a credible and experienced contender to challenge Bibi. And that is why Israel is in such a political mess. To prevent a fourth and possibly another indecisive ballot, Gantz and his partner, Gabbi Ashkenazi (another former IDF Chief of Staff), decided to break up the Blue and White party knowing full well that they would be labeled as political traitors. Rather than continuing to do battle with Bibi, they have joined what many Israelis view as an unholy coalition government. 

Based on a three-year timeframe, Netanyahu will serve as PM (was there any doubt) for the first 18 months, while Gantz will get the French portfolio. In the middle of the term, they will switch jobs, with Gantz finally becoming Prime Minister. Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir formed a similar “rotation” when they were locked in a tie back in the 80s. Was there any doubt that Bibi, the “master politician,” would come out on top in the political bargaining with the total greenhorn, Benny Gantz? 

These are the contours of the current political landscape. The rest of the government’s ministries will be divvied up among the coalition partners. It is fair to say that, so far, Netanyahu has been doing a reasonably good job in running the campaign to bring COVID-19 under control and restarting the economy. It is now running at some 15% and expected to increase to 30% capacity as public pressure, like elsewhere, is demanding a more rapid return to “normal life” and earning a living.

Gabi Ashkenazi, former IDF Chief of Staff (CC IDF)

The Ganz critics decry his naivete, saying Bibi will devise some rouse not to give up the premiership. Consider this “ex post facto” – the fact that Netanyahu has outfoxed Gantz in the coalition negotiation is in itself proof of his superiority in politics – “the art of the possible.” Gantz was a top-notch military commander, but in the months ahead, he has a lot to learn, for better or worse, from Netanyahu. 

Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny’s sidekick, who will take over as Foreign Minister, will be a new politician to watch. When he does speak, a rather taciturn Ashkenazi is worth listening to and will get considerable public exposure. Ashkenazi has another thing going for him in Israeli politics – one of his parents is Mizrachi, and that could be a decided plus among Mizrachi voters who, by and large, vote Bibi and Likud. 

IsraCast outlook

Naturally, Israel, like other countries, is now entering the uncharted waters of (hopefully) the post-corona era. Governments everywhere are being and will be put to the test on when and how to take different steps. And yes, there will be a general diminishing of most people’s standard of living. Bibi, and not Gantz, will have to take most of the flack for unpopular economic measures.

Meanwhile, in US politics…

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (CC Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Photo by Patrick Cashin)

And this observation from afar: By chance, I have been watching New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, and his daily corona briefings. Cuomo is truly impressive with his factual, fluid, and no-nonsense updates. His command of the facts and figures and lack of political hype is outstanding. I found myself wondering how such a down-to-earth, capable politician has not run for President. Compared to Cuomo, Joe Biden, the Democratic forerunner, appears as a genial, doting grandfather sitting in rocking chair reminiscing about the past. 

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