Israel awaits its two prime ministers

Having made the toughest decision of his life, Benny Gantz is about to enter a unity government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

al-monitor A laborer walks past campaign posters bearing the portraits of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and the leadership of Blue and White, (L to R) Moshe Ya'alon, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, Tel Aviv, April 3, 2019.  Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

Apr 7, 2020

For the first time since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the country will soon be ruled by two prime ministers: the first, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be the active prime minister over the coming 18 months, while the second, Benjamin “Benny” Gantz will be the “designated prime minister in rotation” and replace Netanyahu in September or October 2021. Both Benjamins will enjoy the same government perks: an official residence underwritten by the government, a fleet of official automobiles, a Shin Bet security detail and more.

To prevent Netanyahu from reneging on the rotation agreement and actually allowing Gantz to assume the premiership, an unprecedented “rotation law” will codify the process and put it on automatic pilot. When voting on the government, Knesset members will authorize the process, including blocking the possibility of changing it. Netanyahu and Gantz will both be sworn in as prime minister, the only difference being that one will begin work immediately and the other one later.

A date will be determined for the exchange of roles, and on it the switch will take place without the need for another vote or any kind of confirmation. On that date, Gantz will become prime minister of Israel, and Netanyahu becomes his substitute. Also according to the agreement in the making, each of the two leaders can fire ministers, but only those “on their side.” Netanyahu could fire or replace ministers from the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc that he heads, while Gantz could do the same to ministers from Blue and White and the Labor Party entering the coalition with him.

A variety of other political innovations, contrivances and special procedures were devised in addition to those above to convince Gantz that Netanyahu has no intention of fooling him. These should also convince Netanyahu's wife, Sara, that her status will not be adversely affected after the rotation. That is, she will be able to continue as the “prime minister’s wife,” with all the requisite perks.

Befitting Israel's status as a start-up nation, it has outdone itself on new format, stretching political creativity beyond previously imagined limits. In addition to the innovations involving the premiership, the government will have 30 ministers at the outset and later increase to 34. This is to alleviate the pressure for portfolios that senior members of the Likud and the right are putting on Netanyahu. Thus, the next government will not only be the strangest and most complicated in Israel’s history, it will also be the biggest.

For the moment, negotiations are once again on the shoals, with the signing of the far-fetched agreement further delayed. At the last minute, Netanyahu regretted forfeiting control of the judicial system and demanded veto power over appointments to the High Court of Justice. Meanwhile, Blue and White has been congratulating itself over the very significant negotiating achievement of gaining control over the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee.

The assumption is that the two sides will somehow resolve the issue over the judiciary and ultimately sign the agreement. The last thing Gantz needs is a fourth election campaign after Blue and White crumbled in his hands and split into two competing parties. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is toying with the idea of a fourth election, mainly due to very positive polling. He knows, however, that elections can be tricky: you know where you stand when you enter them, but you can't predict where you'll be standing afterward.

Gantz dismantled Blue and White only after much soul-searching. He decided to believe Netanyahu and therefore violated his campaign promises: He tried initially to establish a government with the help of the Arab Joint List despite his promise not to do so. After that, he agreed to serve under Netanyahu for a year and a half even though he had promised never to do so. Gantz defends himself by arguing that he did not violate his most important campaign promise, which is also the motto of the party he founded: “Israel is above all.”

Gantz believes that under the current circumstances and in light of the coronavirus crisis, Israel urgently needs a unity government. That is why he went along with the deal. Instead of his promise to bring down Netanyahu in one fell swoop in the elections, Gantz now talks about replacing Netanyahu within a drawn out time frame, through rotation instead of a quick political beheading, slowly pushing him out. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has the opportunity to slowly exit center stage. He can negotiate a lenient plea bargain with the attorney general from the position of prime minister. It is better than nothing and better than another round of elections, Gantz says.

Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, Gantz’s former Blue and White partners, are furious over Gantz's deal, which, they say, was done behind their backs. Gantz has also created another new enemy: Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, the architect of the previous plan to oust Netanyahu.

“If they would have given me the keys and followed my plan, Netanyahu would have been replaced quickly, or at least reached the coalition negotiation table in a weakened state,” Liberman told Al-Monitor. “All that was needed was to take control of the Knesset [through house committees] and have the plenum adopt legislation that would prevent tasking an indicted person with composing a government. That would have pressured Netanyahu and averted a fourth election. But these generals [Gantz and his partner Gabi Ashkenazi, a former military chief of staff ] are not as smart as they think. In politics, they are absolute rookies.”

This week, Gantz made the hardest decision of his life, harder than any decision he made as an officer or even as chief of staff. He now faces furious friends and quite a number of voters who believed in him. Gantz, however, is determined not to give up midway. If negotiations ultimately fail, he will find himself thrown under the political bus. It will mark the end of his political career. If real negotiations take place, and the zany government described here becomes a reality, then the chances of Gantz becoming Israel’s prime minister in about a year and a half will be quite high. In that case, Gantz will have the chance to jump-start his political career and do what only one other person in Israel, Ehud Barak in 1999, has managed to do before him: replace Netanyahu in the role of prime minister.

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