How the coronavirus could force Benny Gantz to shake Benjamin Netanyahu's hand

Having postponed his own trial for two months, Prime Minister Netanyahu may have left his rival with no option but to accept an offer to form a unity government

Leader of Israeli centrist party Blue and White electoral alliance Benny Gantz arrives for a meeting with hed of the Israeli secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party in the central city of Ramat Gan, on March 9, 2020. / AFP / JACK GUEZ
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Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's caretaker prime minister, is preparing to squeeze every last drop of personal advantage from a local and global crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He has needed to move fast.

Following this month’s election, Mr Netantyahu’s efforts to establish a governing coalition appeared to have been thwarted yet again – for the third time in a year of elections. His ultra-nationalist bloc fell short by just three seats of winning a majority in the Israeli parliament.

And looming large has been his trial for corruption, which was due to start on Tuesday. His main opponent, former general Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, vowed during the campaign not to sit in a government with Mr Netanyahu as long as he faces criminal charges.

But the coronavirus crisis appears to be coming to Mr Netanyahu’s rescue.

Last week he ordered a raft of emergency measures, including the effective closing of the country’s borders, and the shutting of schools and colleges, and large parts of the economy. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been required to quarantine themselves at home, and gatherings of more than 10 people are banned.

epa08294786 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the Corona virus in Israel, at his Jerusalem office, 14 March 2020. Netanyahu said Israel would shut down eateries, shopping centres and gyms in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus. Netanyahu also said he would ask the government's approval in the upcoming cabinet meeting set to be held via video conference to allow "technologies used in the war against terror" to be used to track the movements of Israelis with coronavirus.  EPA/GALI TIBBON / POOL
If the pair do not agree a unity government, Israel is most likely heading for a fourth election – and one in which an exasperated public might punish the Blue and White leader for refusing to compromise

Given Israel’s self-proclaimed status as a sanctuary for Jews, following the trauma of the Holocaust, these precautions have been readily accepted by the public.

But they are also playing to Mr Netanyahu’s talent for manipulating a crisis.

On Sunday his trial was postponed for at least two months, after the justice minister, his appointee, declared new powers and effectively shuttered the courts.

Now pressure is mounting on Mr Gantz to set aside “petty politics” and support Mr Netanyahu in a unity government embracing the main Jewish parties. The prime minister told his rival: “Together we will save tens of thousands of citizens."

Mr Gantz is struggling to resist. The election – and the resulting political impasse – was bad for him, too: his party won three fewer seats than Mr Netanyahu’s Likud.

If the pair do not agree a unity government, Israel is most likely heading for a fourth election – and one in which an exasperated public might punish the Blue and White leader for refusing to compromise.

A picture taken on February 21, 2020, shows a portrait of Arab Israeli member of the Joint List Ahmad Tibi on a campaign poster, with the Arabic writing which reads "i am staying seated" in the northern Israeli City of Tayyiba.  / AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI

Mr Gantz should be sitting pretty, given that he heads a bloc that commands a 62-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. But deep internal tensions in his bloc are already bedevilling efforts to oust Mr Netanyahu.

The cause is the record 15 seats won by the Joint List, a faction comprising parties that represent Israel’s Palestinian minority, a fifth of the population. Mr Gantz has no hope of forming a government himself unless he allies with the Joint List, the third largest party in the parliament.

But during the election campaign, Mr Gantz promised not to rely on the Palestinian parties, after relentless goading from Mr Netanyahu that, if he did, he would be bringing “supporters of terrorism” into government. The former general fears that a chunk of his right-wing voters might desert him as a result.

Mr Gantz’s bind precisely illuminates the conundrum of Israel’s constitutional set-up as a so-called “Jewish and democratic” state.

No party representing Israel's Palestinian citizens has ever been invited to participate in government. As Ahmed Tibi, a legislator from the minority, once neatly observed: "Israel is a democratic state for its Jewish citizens, and a Jewish state for its Arab citizens."

But by shunning both Mr Netanyahu and the Joint List, Mr Gantz has painted himself into a corner. Now he is keen to find a way out.

Leader of Israeli centrist party Blue and White electoral alliance Benny Gantz (R) and leader of the Israeli secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Lieberman (L), give a press statement after a private meeting in the central city of Ramat Gan, on March 9, 2020. / AFP / JACK GUEZ

Last week, in a bold move, he began negotiations with Joint List leaders, asking them to support him as head of a minority government. They would recommend him as prime minister but would not serve in the government.

Aware that this might be the only way to avoid a catastrophic fourth election, most of Mr Gantz's allies, including former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, a hawkish settler, agreed in principle.

The aim, Mr Lieberman made clear, was to strong-arm Likud into ousting Mr Netanyahu. Then Mr Gantz could ditch the Joint List and create a strong unity government with a Netanyahu-free Likud.

But this skullduggery was almost immediately sabotaged from within. Some of Mr Gantz’s bloc could not stomach any partnership with the Joint List, even of the treacherous kind being proposed.

And further, the Joint List demanded an impossible price from the Zionist parties: the overturning of the worst of discriminatory laws oppressing the minority, as well as abandonment of the Trump “peace” plan allowing Israel to annex much of the West Bank.

Several legislators recoiled at the legitimacy such a deal might confer on the Palestinian parties and their demands for equal rights.

A partnership of the type contemplated by Mr Gantz has occurred once before – in the early 1990s. Then Yitzhak Rabin headed a minority government that depended on outside backing from Palestinian parties, as the only way to pass legislation to implement the Oslo peace process.

The opposition leader at that time was a younger Mr Netanyahu. He railed against the deal, implying it was treason, just as he is doing now. That incitement was widely seen as spurring on a right-wing extremist, Yigal Amir, who assassinated Rabin in 1995, derailing the Oslo process.

Mr Netanyahu has learnt no lessons, it seems. He has continued to demonise Palestinian citizens, last week claiming that they were “not part of the [political] equation – this is the will of the people”.

Such statements earned him a rare rebuke from the Trump administration last week. The US State Department’s annual global human rights report castigated Mr Netanyahu’s party for its repeated “messages promoting hatred against Arab citizens”.

(FILES) A file photo taken on September 13, 1995 shows (L-R) Jordan's King Hussein, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tour the White House Rose Garden on September 13, 1995 before ceremonies for the signing of an Israeli-PLO agreement on Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.  Egypt's former long-time president Hosni Mubarak died on February 25, 2020, at the age 91 at Cairo's Galaa military hospital, his brother-in-law General Mounir Thabet told AFP. / AFP / - / J. DAVID AKE

Predictably, Mr Gantz – like Rabin 35 years ago – is being inundated with death threats from Mr Netanyahu’s supporters. Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency has had to issue him a special bodyguard.

In the current febrile atmosphere, the Blue and White leader has warned of a “political murder around the corner”.

But Mr Gantz is not just in physical trouble. If Mr Netanyahu can prise away legislators in Mr Gantz’s bloc who vehemently oppose any dealings with the Joint List, he can form a government. Then he might free himself from his trial.

Mr Gantz has responded to Mr Netanyahu’s plea for an emergency unity government by calling for it to include “all parts of the house” – a cautious reference to the Joint List.

But in typical fashion, Mr Netanyahu replied that he did not want “terror supporters” in the government, even in an emergency.

What does Mr Gantz fear most: Mr Netanyahu exploiting the coronavirus crisis to evade justice and stay in power, or damaging his own public image by seeking temporary assistance from the Joint List? The next few days should provide the answer.

Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist in Nazareth