For citizens, allies and enemies of Israel accustomed to the dominant Netanyahu wielding power almost alone, the arrangement may produce shifts in both policy and tone.
“Netanyahu is going to be on a shorter leash,” said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “That’s something we haven’t seen before. We will have to see how much Gantz can rein him in.”
Netanyahu’s reputation as an unparalleled political survivor and operator is such that few observers dismiss the possibility that he could eventually absorb, sideline and neutralize the new government’s other power centers.
Gantz, a former army chief of staff, entered politics 17 months ago with the express purpose of breaking Netanyahu’s grip on power. His decision instead to partner with Israel’s longest-serving prime minister puts him in an unfair fight, said Mordechai Kremnitzer, senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
“On one side, you have a very experienced team and a very shrewd and foxy prime minister, and on the other side, it’s a team of newcomers,” he said. “The question is whether this formal balance of power will survive in practice.”
But at the government’s start, for a change, hands other than Netanyahu’s will be on the levers in such vital arenas as security, diplomacy and — of crucial importance to the prime minister’s pending trial on corruption charges — the criminal justice system.
The coalition agreement provides for Netanyahu and Gantz, who battled each other through three inconclusive elections, to rotate the prime minister’s job. Netanyahu will take the first 18-month turn, with Gantz serving as alternate prime minister. Their agreement stipulates that they seek a loosely defined consensus on most issues coming before the cabinet, potentially creating a mutual veto.
The distribution of ministries was still being debated in the hours before the new government was sworn in. But among major portfolios, Gantz will take over as defense minister from Naftali Bennett, a right-wing fixture of Netanyahu’s previous coalition whose Yamina party has apparently been frozen out of government.
Gabi Ashkenazi, another former army chief and founding partner of Gantz’s Blue and White party, will head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another Blue and White member, Avi Nissenkorn, a former trade unionist, will replace Amir Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, as justice minister.
Ohana, a Netanyahu disciple, sparked controversy when he shut down the Israeli court system, including the prime minister’s corruption trial, at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. He has been central to what critics characterize as a campaign against judicial independence and the rule of law.
Ohana will become minister of public security, where he will have influence over policing, including the appointment of the next police commissioner who may need to oversee investigations against Netanyahu. But while the prime minister is expected to use what power he has to delay, steer or minimize his legal risk, he will not be able to wield the entire government in the attempt.
“The attorney general will still be under attack, but it won’t be a concerted effort of the entire executive branch,” Hazan said.
The ascendancies of Gantz and his allies over such major sections of government could be a solace to those Blue and White supporters who were dismayed when their candidate reversed his pledge to never serve with Netanyahu.
“There will be a restraint on the attacks to democracy,” Kremnitzer said. “Blue and White made a commitment that they would be the guardians of democracy and the rule of law.”
“The problem is,” he added, “Blue and White’s record of keeping their commitments is not very promising.”
After months of political turmoil, many Israelis are encouraged that the new coalition may prove to be a stable one. The coalition will have a substantial majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
But it comes with a bloated government, Israel’s largest ever, with up to 36 ministers, some of whose jobs were specially created to keep coalition partners happy. The ministers, deputies and senior officials alone will account for nearly a majority of Knesset members, a built-in vote of confidence, Hazan noted.
The opposition, too, is fractured. The Blue and White allies who felt betrayed by Gantz — and Netanyahu’s former partners, including the parties of Bennett and ultranationalist Avigdor Liberman — are as alienated from one another as from their former colleagues.
“Our eight years in Netanyahu’s government ends today,” Bennett wrote in a Facebook post. “The prime minister has chosen to get rid of the right-wing that was his spine and chosen the opposite, easier path.”
Stability would be welcome as the country faces the economic upheaval of the pandemic — the coalition agreement requires the government to focus almost exclusively on those issues for the first several months — as well as looming threats within the Palestinian territories and across the Middle East.
Gantz, who as army chief prosecuted a 2014 war in the Gaza Strip, is not expected to emerge as a dove in the security cabinet. There is broad consensus amid Israeli leaders on such key fights as countering the Hezbollah Shiite militant group in Lebanon, the Palestinian Hamas militants who run the Gaza Strip, and Iran and its proxies in Syria.
But there are issues on which Gantz and his team might generate a moderating influence, said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser who teaches at Tel Aviv and Columbia universities.
The newcomers may be willing to take a more diplomatic approach in the efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Freilich said, especially if Democrat Joe Biden replaces President Trump next year.
“I think the general tenor is going to more moderate and more cautious,” Freilich said.
The exception, he said, was the possible annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That issue is baked into the coalition agreement, which permits Netanyahu to bring the issue to a vote in either the cabinet or the Knesset after July 1.
But the scope of annexation, which was envisaged in the Trump peace plan, has yet to be determined. It is unclear whether Gantz, who says he supports annexation if enacted as part of the entire plan that also provides for a Palestinian state, will try to reduce the scale of an action that could spark violence in the territories and roil diplomacy in the region. Diplomats face changes in Jerusalem in any case, said Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
For many years, Netanyahu has largely kept the control of foreign policy in his own office, regardless of who headed the Foreign Ministry. Now, Ashkenazi and Gantz will not necessarily parrot the prime minister’s talking points.
Foreign capitals, including Washington, will have to take note, Shapiro said, noting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting with both Blue and White leaders during his visit to Israel on Wednesday.
“Gantz will have access to senior levels of the administration, and where he differs with Netanyahu, it will be hard for the administration to ignore that,” Shapiro said. “An Israeli defense minister and foreign minister will be listened to. And that’s new.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.