The unity government agreement initially calls for 34 cabinet officers, some running make-work ministries fashioned just to allow an equal number for both sides. Netanyahu and Gantz would rotate the prime minister’s role, with Netanyahu taking the first 18-month term. Each would serve as the other’s deputy, requiring parallel staffs and a second official state residence.
Both leaders would control their own slate of ministries, effectively leaving half the government partially out of reach of the other. For a six-month emergency period, no actions not related to fighting the coronavirus outbreak could be enacted without agreement from both Gantz and Netanyahu.
“There are essentially two governments,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a political commentator and former Netanyahu staff member.
While some hailed the breakthrough as ending an unprecedented period of political stagnation — 17 months without budgets, oversight or initiative — others questioned whether such a bloated, two-headed and factional contrivance would end the dysfunction or prolong it.
“It may be over, but it isn’t done,” wrote Sima Kadmon, a columnist for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, describing the proposed coalition as “an inflated, wasteful, disgraceful government.”
The proposed structure would make ministers and deputy ministers of more than a third of Knesset members, noted Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. The arrangement “represents the ugly side of the political process,” he said.
The deal does little to clarify the legal peril faced by Netanyahu, who is under indictment on three counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His earlier attempt to get a parliamentary vote of immunity failed. But he did defuse another threat when Gantz, who currently serves as speaker of the Knesset, agreed to block proposed laws that would explicitly bar an indicted member from serving as prime minister.
Now Netanyahu’s trial, put on hold after courts suspended most activities because of the outbreak, is scheduled to begin May 24. His refusal to step down presents the judicial system with a number of knots to untangle.
Advocacy groups have filed multiple petitions in the high court, contending that Netanyahu’s indictments should preclude him from forming a government. The court, which had dodged the question on grounds that no government had yet been proposed, may now be forced to rule on that issue along with another. A clause in the deal would allow Netanyahu to stay on as deputy prime minister even after his year and a half in the top job is over, by which time he might have gone from indicted to convicted.
“If the Supreme Court does not rule that this agreement goes against the foundation of Israel’s political system, then it is effectively changing the character of Israel’s political regime,” said Dan Avnon, political science chairman at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “When you change that, then you change everything — values, priorities, quality of life.”
Israel’s boisterous class of commentators, political scientists and pols, most of them stuck in home isolation and eager to pick apart a deal they have waited months to see, were in full voice and largely divided over which of the two politicians got the best of the other.
Gantz got played, was the verdict of many.
After running almost exclusively on the argument that Netanyahu is unfit to lead, Gantz made a turnabout that would allow the prime minister to stay in office.
The sides still need to secure enough votes from smaller parties to ensure a parliamentary majority. The terms of the deal have to be enacted in law by the body. But if those hurdles are overcome, Netanyahu would enter the defendant’s dock as the sitting prime minister, not a former politician. He would have a chance to influence the appointment of members to a Supreme Court that would hear his appeal of any conviction.
“We have never seen anything so personal,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, referring to Netanyahu’s determined quest to hang on to power. “The unabashed individual element to this is definitely unique.”
Gantz had also pledged to shrink the government, delay a vote on annexing Jewish settlements on the West Bank and take the Health Ministry from Netanyahu’s ally, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has been pilloried for his coronavirus response. The former army chief of staff had also advocated limiting the exception that allows ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to avoid military service, the very issue that caused Netanyahu’s coalition to break apart months ago.
None of that came to pass, highlighting for many the newcomer status of Gantz, who had never run for office before jumping into politics at the end of 2018. The rookie gets credit for holding his own in the three close elections, they said, but not so much in facing off against Netanyahu at the bargaining table.
“Exceptionally challenged pupils used to find the following line written in their report card: ‘You have graduated into the second grade, but not at our school,’ ” said columnist Nahum Barnea.
Israel’s political lore is filled with tales of politicians who thought they had ironclad agreements with Netanyahu, only to find themselves sidelined as he continued his rise and reign as the country’s longest-serving leader.
“As someone who worked with Bibi for a while, I was very surprised that he agreed to evacuate the prime minister’s residence a year and a half from now,” said Bushinsky, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “The big question for me is whether he will actually do it.”
Others had sympathy for Gantz, who says that joining forces with his enemy was better than allowing the country to drift through the coronavirus crisis without a proper government. With negotiators at loggerheads and every other proposal already collapsed, Israel was just weeks from triggering a fourth election.
“It’s better than no government,” said Rynhold. “There is no better alternative out there.”
Gantz did try to build in some safeguards, including a provision that would automatically make him prime minister should Netanyahu try to dissolve the government prematurely. And while gridlock may freeze many initiatives, the most urgent issues would be solely in the hands of the two leaders.
“The power is very centralized between Bibi and Gantz,” Rynhold said. “And I believe they should be perfectly capable of dealing with covid, security and economics.”
Others expressed hope that the split government would be able to turn down the volume on Netanyahu’s questionable style.
“Replacing the xenophobic, nationalist, Netanyahu-dominated ultraright government that has ruled Israel for the past five years with a saner, power-sharing rational right or center-right coalition is nothing to be sneezed at,” wrote Chemi Shalev, an analyst for the Haaretz newspaper.