Israel’s coronavirus unity government


The unity government being negotiated in Israel is both a response to the coronavirus pandemic and the need to avoid a fourth national election in the period of a year. And while the political partnership between rivals Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party is likely to be short-lived, it’s what Israel needs at this time and is the right thing to do.

In order to reopen the Knesset, the source of power in Israel’s political system — which had been shut down by Netanyahu ally Yuli Edelstein, in what was developing into a messy confrontation with Israel’s Supreme Court — Gantz nominated himself Knesset speaker. He was elected, with support from Netanyahu’s allies, but was roundly denounced by factions of his own party, which abandoned Blue and White in a very public divorce from Gantz, and tried unsuccessfully to take the Blue and White name with them.

“These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions. That’s why I intend to explore the formation of a national emergency government,” Gantz told the Knesset.

And it appears that Gantz did pretty well in the negotiation, with reports giving Blue and White almost as many ministries as MKs. The defense and justice ministries went to Gantz allies, while Netanyahu’s allies got the finance, health and education portfolios.

Netanyahu, who was on his way to trial for corruption when the coronavirus hit and shut down at least part of the court system, will remain prime minister for 18 months, before handing off the job to Gantz.

Despite its “strange bedfellows” quality, the new government will put Israel back on familiar footing. Even the naysayers — who have good reason to be critical of machinations of each of the players and are understandably curious about where Gantz’s allegiances lie — acknowledge that Israel needs a functioning government to deal with day-to-day issues, and the special circumstances and destabilizing impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

All of that said, this isn’t the strongest of coalitions. Most pundits are cynical — pointing out that Netanyahu’s rule will end either with a conviction or with the planned turnover to Gantz, whichever comes first; and fear that if he is acquitted, Netanyahu will find a way to renege on the unity deal.

The unity government taking shape could fall apart as the winds change, politics play out and new issues arise. And that reality is aggravated by the fact that Israel is in as fluid a situation as virtually every other government in the world. Nonetheless, we find some comfort in the fact that the new unity government can focus most of its attention on governing and on issues of concern to the Israeli people, even if the political knives are still being sharpened and more intrigue is likely to occur in the months ahead.

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