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Netanyahu faces a rebellion on the right as new government takes shape

Benjamin Netanyahu has a problem. After much fanfare and congratulations last Thursday from his right-wing allies over his successful breakup of Likud’s greatest political threat in over a decade — the 33-seat Blue and White faction led by Benny Gantz — the prime minister has spent the past five days coming to terms with the cost of that success.

The coalition talks between Netanyahu and Gantz are entering their sticky middle phase. Grand pronouncements and posturing have been replaced by the dry, complex bartering and persistent but unreliable leaks that signal they are at their most serious stage. It is here, in the hammering out of the most minute details of the next coalition’s decision-making process and ministry distribution, that the heart and soul of the next government, its fundamental workings and, ultimately, real center of power, will be determined.

The old Blue and White is broken up. Gantz has nowhere else to go. Netanyahu has won the election in the most fundamental sense: no one else has any real chance of becoming prime minister.

But Gantz, long derided by Likud’s campaign as a neophyte and fool, has poked some very large holes in Netanyahu’s grand designs, holes the prime minister can only patch at the present time by allying with Gantz himself.

The greatest of these is Gantz’s current post: speaker of the Knesset. Getting himself elected speaker on Thursday was Gantz’s precondition for entering into coalition talks with Netanyahu. The post gives Gantz the power to stymie Netanyahu at every turn. The speaker has the authority to schedule votes in the plenum, or to refuse to schedule them and freeze all legislation, slowly grinding the government to a halt. It is Gantz’s insurance policy. If Netanyahu reneges on their unity agreement, Gantz remains speaker. It takes 90 MKs’ votes to oust an elected speaker, and no imaginable coalition of 90 MKs in the current Knesset is likely to unite to help Netanyahu oust Gantz.

Gantz won’t be prime minister for now, but has managed to grant himself the ability to prevent Netanyahu from forming a workable government as long as their coalition talks are underway. It was a brilliant move, unforeseen by anyone and in fact unprecedented in Israeli political history. No candidate for prime minister has had themselves elected Knesset speaker as a negotiating tactic. Now that Gantz has demonstrated its usefulness, it is likely to enter into the arsenal of political maneuvers of future competitors for high office.

And Gantz needed that insurance policy because in their initial agreement last Thursday, Gantz extracted from Netanyahu some extraordinary concessions, not least to hand him ministerial posts as if he led the 47-seat alliance he had on election day (33-seat Blue and White, 7-seat Yisrael Beytenu and 7-seat Labor-Gesher-Meretz), and not the 15-seat faction he was bringing with him after the breakup.

Gantz’s leverage in the Knesset means Netanyahu can’t just backtrack on that promise, or on the commitment he made to Gantz to hand him all the agencies of government he needs to put the right’s major policy aspirations into a deep freeze. That includes the Defense Ministry, which would implement any West Bank annexation; the Justice Ministry, and with it the keys to any reform of the judiciary or the legal bureaucracy; major regulatory ministries like the Communications Ministry and the Economy Ministry, and many more.

Promises, promises

But Netanyahu has other promises to keep. The most prominent is his promise to Yamina’s Rafi Peretz to keep him as a minister in the new government. The promise came in January as part of Netanyahu’s efforts to convince the many splintered factions of the Israeli far-right to unite and avoid losing right-wing votes to small parties that don’t clear the 3.25-percent electoral threshold. To convince Peretz to dump his partnership with the extremist Otzma Yehudit party and enter into an alliance with the New Right and National Union factions, Netanyahu promised him a ministerial post.

Peretz, wielding that promise and holding the no. 2 slot in Yamina, is now looking to collect.

There’s just one problem: Yamina has already promised itself at least three other ministries.

In November, Netanyahu appointed then-New Right leader Naftali Bennett, now the head of Yamina, as interim defense minister in order to keep him from abandoning his right-wing bloc and joining a Gantz-led coalition following the September elections. Before he accepted the defense post, Bennett promised his no. 2 in New Right, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, that his appointment didn’t place him above her in their longstanding political partnership: the two of them would have equally senior ministerial roles in the next government, he assured.

Then, as part of the New Right-National Union unity talks in January, Bennett promised National Union’s Bezalel Smotrich that he, too, would be one of the faction’s ministers in the next government.

Fast forward to March 2, election day. Yamina loses some 20,000 votes compared to its September showing, winning enough seats for just six MKs — four of whom now hold significant promises from either Netanyahu or each other that they would be appointed ministers.

Yamina’s leaders now see Netanyahu’s generous commitment to Gantz as a way out of their predicament. If Gantz can claim some 15 ministries for perhaps 19 MKs (Gantz’s 15, plus two MKs each in allied Labor and Derech Eretz), then surely Yamina can demand four ministries for its six legislators.

Netanyahu, however, is refusing to budge. If he grants Yamina’s demands, after all, what will he tell his 36-seat Likud party or his Haredi partners, nine-seat Shas and seven-seat United Torah Judaism?

His generosity has already sparked unprecedented anger in Likud’s ranks. Even loyalist middle-benchers like MK Miki Zohar, who would be keeping quiet if they didn’t believe they were reflecting the widespread feelings of the party’s rank and file, are openly criticizing the prime minister’s deal with Gantz.

“A unity government is important,” Zohar tweeted on Monday, “but not at any price. It’s inconceivable that 19 MKs will receive 17 portfolios and three [Knesset] committees.”

Netanyahu’s recent primary challenger, MK Gideon Sa’ar, sounded a similar alarm: “There have been large governments before in Israel’s history, but it’s wrong to establish the most bloated government ever during the greatest-ever economic crisis.”

Zohar, Sa’ar, even ex-Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein publicly announcing on Monday that if he doesn’t return to the speaker’s chair he’ll refuse to serve as a cabinet minister — the glimmerings of rebellion within Likud are coalescing.

And not only in Likud. On Monday, an unnamed Yamina official issued this startling threat to the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom: “If Netanyahu forms a left-wing government [i.e., with Gantz in control of key policies], we will try to topple him from the opposition.”

Apparently confirming that the threat was real, Shaked said in an Army Radio interview on Monday, “We understand we can’t form the right-wing government that we wanted, but for 17 seats we’re selling to the left everything that’s important to the right.”

Would Yamina bolt the coalition, Shaked was asked, and answered: “None of us was born a minister. Opposition isn’t a dirty word. We’ve walked a long way with the Haredi parties and Likud, but preserving this partnership doesn’t come at any price.”

Indeed, principles aside, Yamina may well prefer a spell in the opposition to the internal rancor, bitterness and even dissolution it faces if it joins the new government by breaking half its promises to its many constituent parts.

Holding Netanyahu’s feet to the fire

In the end, Gantz believes he needs real influence in the new coalition, and not just the appearance of influence. He must justify to himself and his voters his decision last week to demolish his old centrist alliance, and the best way to that is by demonstrating he can disrupt the right-wing policies that his collapsed alliance had vowed to stop.

That’s why he also needs the appearance of influence, and not just because of his promises to his voters. He knows Netanyahu is not an honest man. On that far-away day in September-October 2021 when Netanyahu must abandon his seat and allow Gantz a turn as premier, Gantz believes he will need powerful leverage to force Netanyahu to carry out their agreement. He is already at work building that leverage — in part by weakening the right’s automatic commitment to Netanyahu.

Gantz seeks to coax the right’s authentic bitterness and indignation at Netanyahu’s concessions to a frenzy in order to cement the narrative of the prime minister selling out his closest allies. The greater the schism and distrust on the right, the less likely Netanyahu will be to risk early elections in a bid to deny Gantz a turn as premier.

If Yamina winds up in the opposition, it will have a shared interest with Gantz in creating photogenic crises on left-right issues to make Netanyahu look compromised. That’s not as strange as it sounds; the edges of parliamentary coalitions often join forces to weaken the center, and Gantz would be an eager partner in such an effort.

Gantz gave up his political safety net last week by agreeing to join a Netanyahu-led coalition, in a breach of his central pledge to Blue and White voters. He is working hard to deny Netanyahu his own safety net when the tables are turned in 18 months.

That’s also why Gantz has held his ground in the talks, even as Netanyahu has come pleading to scale back Blue and White’s demands in the next government in order to mollify the right.

Safely ensconced in the Knesset speaker’s chair, Gantz has systematically refused Netanyahu’s many entreaties. He rejected a novel suggestion from Netanyahu that Blue and White retain its cabinet votes but lose ministries — that is, Blue and White’s votes in the cabinet would receive extra weight when policy decisions are being voted on, but fewer ministers would be casting those super-votes.

On Tuesday, he even rejected a request from Netanyahu — delivered by Shas leader Aryeh Deri to Gantz’s chief political partner, former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi — to at least switch Blue and White’s left-leaning justice minister-designate Avi Nissenkorn for the more centrist Blue and White MK Hili Tropper.

As Gantz grows more defiant and Netanyahu’s right-wing flank angrier, Netanyahu has made a few initial feints to reset the relationship, to appear less generous and acquiescing toward his centrist partner.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu informed Gantz he was backing out of their agreement not to return Likud’s Edelstein to the Knesset speaker’s chair — just as his rejection of Nissenkorn was returned to the negotiating table.

Much of this is theater. It seems to have taken Netanyahu a few days to grasp Gantz’s strategy. He is now trying to appear to be upping his demands in order to neutralize the effect Gantz is having on his rightist flank. That showdown doesn’t hurt Gantz; he welcomes it as a furthering of his influence strategy.

Gantz’s term as prime minister-designate ends on April 12, and some in Blue and White are worried that Netanyahu is planning to run down the clock, get his own mandate from the president and force Gantz to join his coalition for far less that Netanyahu’s initial promises. Netanyahu may try to form a coalition with Gantz’s fellow-travelers — Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abekasis and Derech Eretz’s Yoaz Hendel and Zvika Hauser are enough to give him a narrow 61-seat majority.

But if Netanyahu does so, Gantz will still retain the speaker’s seat and can make Netanyahu’s political position untenable from there. It would also mark Netanyahu, not Gantz, as the side that reneged on the grand unity deal that both sides depicted last week as an attempt to rescue the country from the coronavirus calamity. Gantz’s leverage on Netanyahu doesn’t flow from the president’s mandate, and both men know it.

In the end, it’s hard to see how either man can form a government without the other. Everything else, the rumors and leaks and threats that are sure to flow in a steady stream for the duration of the negotiations, is the inevitable background noise of two sides seeking leverage in do-or-die negotiations neither can leave.

Header: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to deliver a statement regarding his intention to file a request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Original: Haviv Rettig Gur – The Times of Israel’s senior analyst.