Even as Israel struggles with the novel coronavirus, it appears that a year-long political struggle, which had held the system in a state of paralysis, has reached resolution. Indeed, COVID-19, more than any other factor, was the element responsible for the conclusion of the crisis.
With Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz's decision on Thursday to join a government led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (thus splitting and effectively destroying Gantz's own party), the system is now unblocked. Israel is on its way to having a government again. Some Israelis, nevertheless, argue that the integrity and coherence of Israel's very system of governance has been placed under strain in recent months, with various questions remaining unresolved.
Let's recall how Israel reached this 12-month political impasse. The elections of March 2 were the third round of general elections in Israel in the space of a year. Like their two predecessors, they failed to produce a clear winner. The issue preventing the formation of a government in Israel was not any deep or implacable difference among Israelis over matters of high policy. Nor was it the often fractious and divided nature of Israeli civil society.
A broad consensus on the core issues of national security has emerged over the last two decades.
On the contrary, on the core issues of national security that dominate the Israeli political discussion, a broad centrist consensus has emerged over the last two decades, to replace once deep divides.
Regarding the regional turmoil and the Iranian challenge, the two biggest parties – Netanyahu's Likud and former Israeli Defence Force chief of staff Gantz's Kahol Lavan – had identical stances. On the Palestinian issue, both parties and a broad public consensus had drawn the conclusion that there was at present no partner for a compromise peace deal on the other side. The two biggest lists had slightly differing proposals for the management of the resulting ongoing conflict.
So if, on the big issues, there was precious little to choose between the largest parties, what explains the long and unprecedented paralysis of the system, from which it now appears to be emerging?
The fate of Netanyahu was the single matter blocking the formation of a government.
The single matter blocking the formation of a government in Israel was the deep divide among both MPs and the public regarding the preferred fate of the prime minister: namely, should Netanyahu continue at the helm of the administration, or should he depart the political scene, to deal with the criminal indictments hanging over him (and go from there to a prison cell, according to the hoped-for scenario of his most-fervent detractors)?
The centre-right bloc led by Netanyahu as traditionally conceived (that is, the totality of right-wing Jewish nationalist and religious parties) outperformed the centre-left bloc (consisting of left-of-centre Jewish parties, plus the Joint List – an amalgam of Arab leftist, nationalist and Islamic lists) consistently across the last three elections.
Following the March 2 poll, what would traditionally have comprised the centre-right bloc had 65 seats, compared to 55 for the Centre Left bloc in the 120-member Knesset. A similar margin resulted from both the elections of April and September 2019.
The system was, nevertheless, blocked for a year because of the determination of a single politician, Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the secular, rightist Yisrael Beiteinu list, to end the political career of Netanyahu.
Lieberman currently controls seven seats in the Knesset (down from eight after September). By detaching his seven-eight seats from the rightist bloc, Lieberman created a situation in which neither list could form a government with a clear majority.
A national unity coalition featuring the two largest parties, meanwhile, also proved elusive because Gantz's list consisted of an amalgam of parties with little in common other than their loathing of Netanyahu.
What lay behind Lieberman's unexpected stance, which triggered the crisis? He and the prime minister have a long and interesting history together. When Netanyahu returned from his post as Israel's ambassador to the UN in 1988, it was Lieberman, then a prominent grassroots Likud activist, who assisted him in building a base of support in the party. When Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996, Lieberman came with him, serving as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office.
The alliance between the two men frayed long ago. The exact point when the coolness of their relations turned to the current enmity is hard to pinpoint. A recent broadcast on Israel's Channel 12 News reported that the decisive factor is Lieberman's suspicion that the prime minister was behind a number of legal threats made against him and his children last year.
Whether or not that was the case, the upper echelon of the Israeli political scene is notably populated by individuals who began their careers close to Netanyahu, and later became estranged from him. In addition to Lieberman, this list would include prominent Kahol Lavan leader Moshe Ya'alon, MPs Tzvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked.
Lieberman's refusal to stay with the centre-right bloc made a right-wing coalition unachievable. Kahol Lavan's long refusal to join a government headed by Netanyahu (or, conversely, Netanyahu's refusal to step down) made a unity coalition of the two big parties elusive. A third possibility was the formation of a narrow centre-left coalition relying also on the votes of Lieberman's party and of the Joint Arab List.
The anti-Netanyahu coalition contained forces opposed to one another on core issues.
According to the arithmetic of the Knesset, such a coalition ought to have been possible. But the anti-Netanyahu coalition contained forces opposed to one another on core issues. Specifically, one component of the Joint Arab List, the Balad Party, adheres to hardline Arab nationalist views. Members of the party have been convicted of security offences and some of its parliamentarians have expressed support for terror. After the September election, the rightist Lieberman refused to join a coalition that would have been supported by the Joint Arab List.
President Reuven Rivlin gave Kahol Lavan the first shot at forming a coalition after the March poll. Gantz had 28 days to achieve this.
Gantz made some progress toward the narrow coalition that proved elusive after September. Kahol Lavan achieved Lieberman's agreement to support him as prime minister, even if his coalition depends on the support of the Joint Arab List from outside.
But a narrow centre-left-Arab supported coalition remained elusive.
The heterogenous nature of the anti-Netanyahu coalition was again the issue. Two MPs from one of the component parties of Kahol Levan — former cabinet secretary Hauser and former senior Netanyahu aide Hendel – would not support a narrow government dependent on the support of the radical Arab nationalists of Balad. Without their votes, such a coalition could not achieve the required 61 seats.
A parallel effort by Kahol Lavan was under way, meanwhile, to move forward in taking control of the legislative process, using its slim parliamentary majority. On Monday, the Knesset approved the formation of the arrangements committee, which handles appointments to all Knesset oversight committees.
The next move was replacing (Netanyahu-aligned) Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. His removal would make possible the tabling of legislation according to which anyone charged with a crime could not serve as prime minister. This would solve the problem by forcing Netanyahu's resignation. Gantz could then theoretically begin unity negotiations with a new Likud leader.
The Speaker sought to block the vote on his replacement, leading to a ruling by the Supreme Court instructing him to hold the vote by Wednesday. Instead, Edelstein announced his resignation on Wednesday.
Given the difficulties Gantz would face in forming a minority government, however, along with the problematic nature and likely brief shelf-life of such a government, many observers considered it most probable that these Knesset moves were intended to strengthen the Kahol Lavan leader's hand in ongoing negotiations with Likud.
And given the apparent impossibility of a narrow right/religious or left/Arab coalition, the urgent demands of the moment, and the awful, and maybe also unfeasible prospect of a fourth election, it seemed most likely that a unity coalition of some kind was the arrangement to eventually emerge from the mess.
But how to bring this about when two of Gantz's partners – former finance minister Yair Lapid and former IDF chief of staff and defence minister Moshe Yaalon – flatly rejected the prospect of sitting in a government headed by Netanyahu?
On Thursday, Israelis received their answer. Gantz chose to unblock the situation by splitting his party, taking 15 of its members with him into government with Netanyahu.
The remaining 18 will remain with Lapid and Ya'alon in a rump Kahol Lavan which will lead the opposition. Netanyahu is due to remain prime minister for 18 months, after which he is due to hand the reins to Gantz.
Israeli politics waits for no virus. Then again, with cases multiplying daily, the coronavirus wasn't waiting for Israeli politics, either. This, more than any other factor, appears to have been the motivating factor for Gantz to commit what looks like political hara-kiri, and in so doing to end Israel's long state of political paralysis. COVID-19 was the missing ingredient whose appearance enabled the concentration of minds necessary to resolve the crisis. At least for the time being.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, a Ginsburg/Ingerman Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy.