High Court greenlights Netanyahu’s unity government

The High Court ruling of last night enables Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to go ahead with their deal and establish a unity government.

al-monitor A panel of judges of the Israeli Supreme Court wear face masks as they address a discussion on a petition asking whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form a government legally and publicly when indictments are filed against him on a charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, at the Israeli Supreme Court, Jerusalem, May 4, 2020. Photo by Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS.

May 7, 2020

In a unanimous and unambiguous ruling delivered in the late evening hours of May 6, an expanded panel of 11 Israeli Supreme Court justices green lighted the power-sharing agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. The ruling paves the way for the May 13 swearing-in of Israel’s 35th government, ending months of interim governments and setting aside prospects of a fourth round of elections.

With the High Court ruling published, the Knesset adopted on the morning of May 7 amendments to quasi-constitutional basic laws, thus enabling Likud and Blue and White to proceed with the unity deal signed on April 20. Netanyahu is expected to present today to President Reuven Rivlin a Knesset majority backing him for the mission of composing the new government.

The power of the ruling lies in its unanimity. Following two days of lengthy deliberations, the panel, led by Chief Justice Esther Hayut, rejected all the petitions filed against Netanyahu’s eligibility to form a government in light of his indictment on charges of corruption and against his rotation deal with Gantz. While the judges voiced reservations about the public and moral implications of a government led by an indicted politician, they stopped short of intervening and adhered to the letter of the law that does not disqualify Netanyahu for the position.

The ruling brings to an end the political-legal drama that played out this week in two Jerusalem arenas: the Supreme Court and the nearby Knesset building, with its plenum and committees. While the justices were hearing the petitioners’ arguments, lawmakers conducted a blitz of legislation to anchor the coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White party, which entails unprecedented amendments of basic laws anchoring the authority of the government and Knesset.

The court left open the possibility that it may intervene down the line on the issue of Netanyahu’s term as “alternate” prime minister, a newly minted title designed to cement the arrangement between Gantz and Netanyahu. However, the two will undoubtedly be able to overcome that obstacle by additional legislation when the time comes for them to switch seats 18 months from now.

Netanyahu and Gantz are the two biggest winners of the ruling. Against all the odds, Netanyahu has not only managed to survive three rounds of elections in the past year and to dismantle Blue and White, the only party to seriously challenge his rule in over a decade, he has received a seal of approval from the nation’s top court to remain in power despite his indictment for bribery. Equally impressive was his feat in obtaining the support of his rivals, chief among them Gantz, who for the past year and up until weeks ago had been calling him a corrupt dictator — Gantz even referred to him as an "Israeli Erdogan" — and vowing never to join a government under his leadership.

With the virtuosity of a master, Netanyahu played out a fascinating poker game in recent weeks, constantly upping the ante. With polls strongly in his favor, his evident success in curbing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and in breaking up Blue and White, he could have gambled on new elections. Experienced politicians, such as Yisrael Beitenu chief Avigdor Liberman, considered an expert on Netanyahu’s inner workings, warned Gantz that Netanyahu was setting him up for a fall and looking for suitable accuses to wriggle out of their deal.

That did not happen. Since the March elections, Netanyahu had been engaged in risk management along two parallel axes: preparing for fourth elections while conducting negotiations on a power-sharing government with Gantz. A court ruling disqualifying him would have handed him the ultimate election campaign vis-a-vis his devoted voters convinced the system is hounding him. However, even without more elections, Netanyahu is getting a fifth term even as he faces the start of his trial on May 24. What's more, once he hands over the reins to Gantz in late 2021, he will continue to run the affairs of state as the “alternate” prime minister.

Gantz is also a winner, having taken a tremendous gamble by dismantling his partnership with Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, who refused to join a Netanyahu-led coalition. Gantz opted for uncharted waters, negotiating with Netanyahu despite his deep mistrust of the man, and ultimately ensuring his future term as prime minister, to the extent possible.

Had Netanyahu chosen the route to new elections, Gantz would have found himself at a grave disadvantage, bereft of the strong voter backing that made him a realistic challenger to the prime minister in three election rounds. Instead, Gantz will be running the affairs of state alongside Netanyahu, while his former Blue and White partners — Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon — are stuck on the benches of an opposition greatly outnumbered and outmaneuvered by a broad coalition of over 70 of the 120-Knesset members.  

Many losers have emerged from this controversial coupling, chief among them Liberman and Lapid, who cooperated over the past year and a half in a failed bid to bring down Netanyahu. Lapid, at least, will get a consolation prize as leader of the parliamentary opposition, a statutory role that provides him with various official trappings such as Shin Bet bodyguards. Liberman, on the other hand, will have to reinvent himself under less than auspicious terms as head of a small seven-member opposition faction.

The Netanyahu-Gantz government is emerging after a painful birth, having overcome exhausting negotiations and devious machinations on the part of Netanyahu, who refused to give in on most of his key demands. The air in the closed-door negotiating rooms was thick with mistrust, with Gantz harboring well-founded concern that his interlocutor would bolt at the last minute.

Nonetheless, surprisingly so, the new government could turn out to be one of the most stable to rule Israel in recent times. Neither side would have an interest in dismantling this platform. A few hours before the Supreme Court ruling, Netanyahu and Gantz decided to extend their agreement from three to four years, providing their government with a broad horizon. This will provide Netanyahu with political immunity during the period of his trial, safeguarding his position as head of the Likud and allowing him to push ahead with what he hopes will be his historic legacy — the annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the auspices of the Donald Trump administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reportedly planning to visit Israel next week and the Trump plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace will likely be on the agenda of his talks with Netanyahu.

Gantz will have no incentive to walk away from this government, certainly not in its initial 18 months with the prize of the prime minister’s office dangling before him. Not only that. Gantz is a convenient partner, a good-natured, newbie politician with a solid military background, able to put aside hurdles of ego and strife. In terms of ideology, too, he and Netanyahu are not too far apart, improving prospects that they will work together in harmony.

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