Conversion therapy vote marks beginning of end for Israel's unity government

The vote to ban conversion therapy in Israel has exposed the depth of the crisis between the Likud and Blue and White.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara Netanyahu cast their ballots during the Israeli legislative elections at a polling station in Jerusalem on March 2, 2020. Photo by ATEF SAFADI/AFP via Getty Images.

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conversion, israeli elections, israeli politics, benjamin netanyahu, unity government, benny gantz, blue and white party, likud

Jul 23, 2020

The coalition partners running the Israeli government have been trying to conceal the vanishing trust between them. But the July 22 vote over a bill banning conversion therapy exposed the depth of the crisis. Though a new round of elections  in the heat of the coronavirus crisis seemed improbable until recently, another vote seems almost inevitable now.

The best and fastest way for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make new elections happen would be insisting on a one-year budget, which his coalition partner Defense Minister Benny Gantz opposes. The last possible date to approve the state budget is Aug. 25. According to Israeli law, a vote on the budget equals a confidence vote in the government. If the budget fails to be approved, the Knesset is dissolved automatically and new elections will take place in November. That fate looked likely as of yesterday, and the blame game is already in motion.

If new elections do materialize, the conversion therapy vote would go down in Israel’s political history as the catalyst. It will be seen at the event that accelerated the collapse of the coronavirus government after barely three months in office.

The depth of the crisis between the Likud and Blue and White parties unfolded yesterday in front of the cameras, minutes after the Knesset passed the preliminary reading of the law. From the podium Minister David Amsalem, whose responsibilities include Knesset liaison, accused Blue and White of being political grifters.

It turns out that in an earlier agreement, the Likud and Blue and White agreed that they would not support the law proposed by Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz. Then, at the last minute, Gantz and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn supported it despite their previous commitment and it passed.

Amsalem was livid: “Three minutes before the vote, you tell me that you’re voting with the opposition and that is where you stand. That was chutzpah. You lied!” The cameras were rolling as he continued, “You sit here deceiving us with no shame at all. The gall of the Blue and White Party! You’re a bunch of liars, just like [Yesh Atid leader] Yair Lapid!”

With that, chaos erupted in the coalition. Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members raged at Gantz, heckling him after the vote, “You will not be prime minister.” But they also attacked Netanyahu, claiming that he didn’t do enough to ensure the law would not pass. They pointed out that several Likud Knesset members were not present when the vote was taken. It didn’t help that the advisers of Likud ministers were filmed in the plenum applauding and cheering the actual vote.

Meanwhile, Gantz tweeted, "Conversion therapy was born in sin and its place is outside of the law and the public norm. That is why we will vote today in favor of the law and against conversion therapy. That’s why we are here. We promised and we intend to follow through. It is the right thing to do."

The clash between Gantz and the ultra-Orthodox is a devastating blow to any chance they would help him when the time comes to force Netanyahu to keep the rotation agreement and put Gantz in the prime minister’s office. It also raises questions about their stance on the budget. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the clash is laying the groundwork for early elections.

Both the Likud and Blue and White have been campaigning from within the government, indicating that neither party believes that this government can survive. Blue and White is trying to signal to the liberal voters it lost by joining the coalition that it will stick to its agenda. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is unwilling to give up his fight against the legal system. Ironically, there has been no commitment to the joint struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic the unity government was founded to wage.

People in Netanyahu’s inner circle now say that his patience with Blue and White is wearing thin. They believe that he has concluded that nothing good will come out of this partnership. Netanyahu must feel unable to make important decisions and manage the coronavirus crisis with contrarian partners blocking his every move.

Netanyahu has appeared worn out over the last few weeks, unable to convince the public that he is in control of the situation. The virus is spreading, demonstrations against him are gathering momentum and the economic measures he is trying to advance, such as the distribution of six billion shekels ($1.76 billion) among the public, are being hampered by Blue and White. Netanyahu must understand that his reputation will only suffer further when he appears in court. By that point, even his most zealous supporters could well abandon him.

The bickering over the state budget issue isn’t helping. Netanyahu wants a one-year budget to keep his election options open for this coming November, while Gantz insists on a two-year budget, as agreed in their unity deal. Finance Ministry seniors support Netanyahu’s argument that it is impossible to make long-term plans amid the coronavirus crisis. Clearly the budget dispute is not economic but political.

Netanyahu sees the polls and hears the unrest within his own party. He must realize that someone will sniff out his vulnerability and strike.

How close is Netanyahu to making a decision? Some indication might be found in a tweet by coalition chairman Miki Zohar yesterday morning. He wrote, “The political ties between us and Blue and White cannot continue if there is no change. … It is time to make a decision: Either pass the budget, maintain a stable government and keep the coalition functional, or go to elections.”

If that were not enough, Netanyahu didn’t even bother to inform his alternate prime minister that he had appointed former Health Ministry director Ronni Gamzu as coronavirus czar. Gantz heard the news from the media as Netanyahu took revenge on Blue and White and signaled that the coalition is in its final days.

It looks like the die is cast. Now Netanyahu has to convince his supporters that despite the collapsing economy and hundreds of thousands of people out of work, holding a new election is the right thing to do. President Reuven Rivlin rebuked the behavior of Israel's politicians this morning, dragging Israel toward new elections that could endanger the country. Still, it is unlikely that Rivlin’s call would be enough to stop this train.

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