Gantz agrees to join Netanyahu in unity government — what does it mean?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, take part in a ceremony formally promoting Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, center, to lieutenant general and making him the 20th chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces Feb. 14, 2011, at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen was among the guests in attendance. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade/Released)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t have scripted a better ending to Israel’s year-long election saga. Benny Gantz, the head of the rival Blue and White coalition, was going to have the opportunity to form a new government, then he suddenly reversed himself and agreed to a unity government with Netanyahu. 

Why did Gantz cave in —  especially at that moment? Some have suggested it was Gantz’s way of getting out of the race, as he had been playing the electoral game for well over a year and was simply exhausted. He competed half-heartedly from the start, and it was clear that he did not have the same energy and drive for the game of electoral politics as Netanyahu. This was the most difficult election cycle in Israeli history, and it was more than Gantz signed up for. He didn’t have the extra motivation Netanyahu does of using the prime minister’s position to avoid a criminal trial and, very likely, a prison sentence. Read more at Responsible Statecraft

Israel’s Post-Election Tangle

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin

The second Israeli national election of 2019 has led to a lot of confusion. It has not resolved the question of who will fill the prime minister’s office on a permanent basis, nor has it cleared up the political logjam the country has been dealing with all year. Contrary to what many believe, the decision by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to give incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the first try at forming a governing majority coalition is not at all the same thing as Netanyahu having successfully held on to the job.

Here are a few key points to help untangle this mess. Read more at LobeLog

Israeli Elections: Round 2

On Tuesday, Israel held its second national election this year. With most of the ballots counted, neither Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud coalition nor Benny Gantz’s Blue

Benny Gantz

and White grouping had enough support for their parties and their natural allies to form a new government. The absentee ballots and those of the active military are still due to be counted, so there might yet be some minor changes in the final tally, but it will not be enough to grant either of the largest parties a majority coalition.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has the job of deciding how to proceed. He can tap the leader of any party to try to form a majority or he can try to work out an arrangement for a government of national unity between Likud and Blue and White, among other options. What he will do remains a mystery, as there is no obvious and clear path to the next government.

The reason for the impasse is the same as it was back in April—Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Israel Beiteinu party. His refusal to join Netanyahu’s coalition in April, unless Netanyahu stepped down and allowed for a government of national unity, eventually led to this second round of elections, and his stance is not only unchanged, his party picked up four more Knesset seats, so his position is even stronger now.

So was it all for naught?

Not quite. While the next Israeli government is unlikely to materialize for some time, and when it does, its basic policies are unlikely to be very different than they have been for the past years—even if, as seems likely at the moment, Netanyahu is finally ousted—this election established some important facts that should not be overlooked. Here are a few of them. Read more at LobeLog

Demography Is Not A Threat

Last week, just ahead of the failed “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham spewed some venomous anti-immigrant statements. She said that “in major parts of the country, it does seem that the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”

Plenty of people lined up to criticize Ingraham, and rightly so. But I wonder how many would have similarly criticized this statement:

In about a decade, the Arabs between the Jordan and the Mediterranean will be a majority and the Jews a minority. The Jewish national home will become the Palestinian national home. We will be again, for the first time since 1948, a Jewish minority in an Arab state. I want to separate from the Palestinians. I want to keep a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. I don’t want 61 Palestinian MKs in Israel’s Knesset. I don’t want a Palestinian prime minister in Israel. I don’t want them to change my flag and my national anthem. I don’t want them to change the name of my country to Isra-stine.

Those remarks were made in June 2015, at the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel. Who made them? Benjamin Netanyahu? Or perhaps one of the far-right figures in his government such as Ayelet Shaked, Miri Regev, Avigdor Lieberman, or Naftali Bennett?

No, those words were uttered by Isaac Herzog, who was, at the time, the opposition leader and chair of the Labor Party, the largest part of Zionist Union coalition. He was the leader of the center-left in Israel. Notably, his words drew little attention. Laura Ingraham would wish for such indifference. Read more at Lobe Log

A new defense minister for Israel? Cause for concern

Earlier today, it was reported that Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel’s right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, has agreed to join the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in the post of Defense Yvet
Minister. This is a concerning development for a number of reasons.

The agreement between Lieberman and Netanyahu comes in the wake of Netanyahu’s negotiations to bring the Zionist Union into the government, during which Netanyahu made a point of refusing to offer the Defense portfolio to ZU Chairman Isaac Herzog. While it might seem that Netanyahu turned to Lieberman only because he was unable to come to satisfactory terms with Herzog, Labor Party MK Stav Shaffir is likely correct in observing that “It is now clear that Bibi used (Herzog) in order to bring Lieberman into the government.” That is, Herzog was used as bait.

But the real context for the decision to move Lieberman into the Defense Ministry is the need to replace Likud Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon and Netanyahu have been at loggerheads in recent weeks. The disagreements have centered on two specific events.

The first was the widely publicized video of an Israeli soldier shooting and killing a Palestinian who was already laying on the ground, subdued and semi-conscious. Ya’alon had made it clear that this was a serious violation of Israel Defense Forces rules of engagement. At first, Netanyahu agreed, but after being slammed by right-wing critics, and public support for the soldier swelled, he changed his position.

More recently, Netanyahu strongly criticized the Deputy Chief of Staff, Yair Golan, for a speech he made on Holocaust Memorial Day expressing concern about the growing “intolerance and violence” within Israeli society. Ya’alon explicitly pushed back on Netanyahu’s criticism of Golan, insisting that such statements, even if unpopular, are within the purview of IDF leaders.

Netanyahu has long had an uneasy relationship with the Israeli military and intelligence. He views the military as a tool of the government, and its duty is to enact and support the policies the government decides upon. The military, on the other hand, sees itself as having a key role in deciding Israel’s security needs, and has, throughout Israeli’s history, held an esteemed position in Israeli society not only as protectors but, whether one thinks it justified or not, as a symbol of Israeli ethics and morality.

As Aluf Benn, editor of Ha’aretz put it, “The IDF is still the most popular body in Israel, and over the past few weeks its leaders have made clear that they do not intend to be the military arm of the Beitar soccer club’s extremist fans, La Familia, or of the right wing singer the Shadow.”

But that is exactly what Avigdor Lieberman is going to want to turn them into. Indeed, Labor MK Erel Margalit stated it clearly: “Netanyahu decapitated the defense minister on live TV, and the gangs have triumphed over democracy. This is a day of celebration for extremists, La Familia and the hilltop youth, and at this rate Elor Azaria (the soldier who shot the subdued Palestinian terrorist referenced above) will be appointed deputy defense minister by Bibi.”

It is precisely this difference that led Netanyahu to replace Ya’alon with Lieberman. Where Ya’alon fought for what he saw as the independence and integrity of the military, Lieberman’s views line up perfectly with the Israeli political right’s.

During recent conflicts with Hamas, Lieberman was at the forefront of stirring up internal tensions. He called for boycotts of businesses owned by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and has accused Israeli human rights groups of supporting Hezbollah and other militant groups. As a 2014 editorial in Ha’aretz put it, “This incitement, which rolls from the top echelons of the Israeli government down into society, eventually evolves into the physical violence that has become commonplace at demonstrations, when right-wing activists attack those protesting government policy while shouting ‘Death to Arabs,’ and ‘Death to leftists.’”

Moshe Ya’alon is a committed member of the Likud and the Israeli right. One should not forget that only recently, he stirred controversy and engaged in incitement himself when he called the human rights/IDF veterans’ group Breaking the Silence “traitors” for publishing testimonies of IDF soldiers about their experiences in combat and in the occupation (a charge he later withdrew).

But Lieberman is a different breed. This is a man who advocates a loyalty oath for non-Jewish citizens of Israel, wishes to excise towns populated by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and whose statements have often been seen as encouraging attacks on Arabs and leftists in Israel. He is someone who has a warm relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and a difficult one with much of the United States government.

If anyone envisioned Isaac Herzog joining the government and making it easier for the European Union and the United States to work with Israel, Lieberman’s appointment brings the opposite result. Israel is now led by a trio of right-wingers in Netanyahu, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, each more radical than the last. The opposition, such as it is, is now weakened even further by Herzog’s failed attempt to join the government, a move opposed by most of his own party.

Many observers have voiced concern about the decline of Israel’s democracy under Netanyahu. We have now seen another significant setback with Lieberman’s appointment as Defense Minister. Perhaps the one hope, if any is to be found, is that the opposition may now find new leadership which might start to regain the ground liberal Israelis have lost.