Monday, May 18, 2020

We Beat Italy

After 18 months, three elections, myriad negotiation sessions, party splits, realignments, name calling, fear mongering, flirting, ministry-creating, and lots more that now seems de rigueur in Israel coalition-making, Israel has a government. Or, perhaps more accurately, two parallel governments, or one government with another in waiting.

There is the old saying: If you like law or sausage, don't watch how either is made. In this case, sausage is due an apology.

The intricacies of this deal make Rubik's Cube look simple. Indeed, this mishmash would confound Mr. Rubick himself. The agreement, negotiated by two candidates that have absolutely no trust in the other, creates some of the strangest governance provisions one could imagine.

The Israeli High Court of Justice held two days of hearings on eight petitions hearing challenges on the right of a Knesset member under indictment to form a government, as well as on the complex and convoluted coalition agreement between indicted Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and former Opposition Leader and now "alternative" Prime Minister-to-be Benny Gantz.

The Court ruled that Netanyahu could be designated to form a government. It largely avoided ruling on the agreement, putting that off until the provisions enshrining the agreement in law were enacted. Those challenges should be coming soon. The Court did make some pointed criticisms of some of the provisions that would have required the most glaring revisions of law and process. The would-be coalition partners thereupon made some overnight revisions.

The High Court was damned if it did and damned if it didn't. If it ruled that Netanyahu could not be tapped to put a government together, or that substantial parts of the coalition agreement violated Israel's Basic Laws, which pass for a kind-of Constitution, it would have been accused of being a liberal, activist court that was thwarting the will of the voters and of undermining democracy.

Thanks at least in part to the coronavirus crisis and his leadership of Israel's positive response to it, and perhaps also a symptom of Israelis' election fatigue and their dread of going through a fourth campaign, Netanyahu's polling numbers are up. Polls indicated that notwithstanding indictments and other Netanyahu baggage, Likud would have won about 40 seats in new elections, a gain of about seven or eight seats.

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The Prime Minister probably would have liked nothing more than to be freed of the many limitations he agreed to with Gantz and to go into an election campaign using the Supreme Court as his punching bag.

The Court allowed a Prime Minister accused of serious crimes, including bribery, to attempt to form a government. And, at least for now, it has permitted an agreement that required substantial amendments to several Basic Laws, eliminates powers of the Knesset, and essentially creates a government with two prime ministers, each with his own appointment and veto powers, and with about 36 ministers and 16 or so deputy ministers.

That's a total of 52, eight short of half of the number of members of the Knesset. Bloated is an understatement. There are ministries with names unique in the history of parliamentary governments.

There are ministries with portfolios transferred from other ministries. There are ministries with portfolios they once had but gave up to other ministries in order to serve the politics of previous coalition deals.

At a time when many Israelis are hurting due to the economic impact of the coronavirus shutdown, there will be ministers and deputy ministers with virtually nothing to do but to tell their state-provided drivers where to drive them in their state-provided cars and to ask the name of their state-provided guard.

It is unlikely that this is something that a Court that sees itself as the repository of rational thought and as the protector of Western-democracy in a democracy-starved region wanted to put its imprimatur on.

The binding glue of Gantz' Blue and White Party was its promise never to sit in a government with Netanyahu while he was under indictment. Gantz galvanized all those who found repugnant the idea of a Prime Minister leading a government in the morning and defending himself against charges in three serious corruption cases in the afternoon. He managed to bring together four parties, each led by leaders with sizable egos who, when they looked in the mirror in the morning, no doubt saw the next Prime Minister.

Gantz came within a few votes of putting together a coalition and toppling Israel's longest-serving Prime Minister, a Prime Minister who, for all his many faults, has the support of many Israelis because they believe he has kept them safe and prosperous for 10 years and he has now led them safely through the dangers of the coronavirus.

Netanyahu has managed to obliterate Blue and White and any opposition with a critical mass. When Gantz abandoned his pledge never to serve with Netanyahu, Yesh Atid, led by former journalist Yair Lapid, and Telem, led by former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, refused to follow along. They cited the Blue and White's commitment not to support a government led by an indicted Prime Minister as well as their general distaste for Netanyahu's ethics and governing style.

Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, both Lapid and Yaalon previously served as ministers in Netanyahu-led governments, Lapid for two years as Finance Minister and Yaalon for three years as Defense Minister. Gantz and the other party leader who opted to join the coalition, Gabi Ashkenazi, have never served as ministers in a Netanyahu government.

Netanyahu is a political magician. He seemingly has more lives than the proverbial cat. With Blue and White split, there was no chance of a coalition without Likud in the lead coming together.
Repeatedly citing the need to urgently form a unity government in order to confront the coronavirus, Netanyahu implored Gantz to join him.

According to Netanyahu, coronavirus was the challenge of the century and millions of lives were at stake. He brought up the Black Plaque . A unity government needed to come together quicker than now. Better yet, yesterday. The nation was at stake.

And yet he could have brought about a unity government in a nano-second: If he had agreed to not be Prime Minister, a government would have been formed months ago. Moreover, it would not have involved the tangled web that finally did get negotiated.

But, for all of the professions of urgency, Netanyahu found it more important that he remain Prime Minister than see a unity government formed quickly. A cynic might conclude that remaining Prime Minister was paramount because it gives Netanyahu his best shot at staying out of prison.

As soon as Gantz abandoned his pledge and the opposition split, and Netanyahu could see his pathway to a coalition, as convoluted and ridiculous as it is, the life-and-death urgency evaporated. It took weeks to negotiate the deal, largely because Netanyahu's need to remain as Prime Minister and Gantz' complete lack of trust that Netanyahu will stick to the deal's provisions, the most important one being that he turn over the gavel in 18 months.

Is Gantz a patriot, a shrewd operator playing the hand that was dealt him? Is he a hero who got the best he could get under a weakening position and who is trying his best to preserve what he can of Israel's democracy? Or is he a naive fool with noble intentions that has been out-played by Israel's master politician?

Or is he a calculating opportunist that has sacrificed his allies, the opposition, and any principles he had for some semblance of power? Is he contributing to the decline of democracy by enabling Netanyahu and agreeing to some of the unprecedented and outright bizarre provisions in the agreement?

David Horovitz, editor of The Times of Israel, clearly thinks Gantz is a first-rate freier (Yiddish for "sucker." Real Israelis will endure almost any epithet other than being called a freier.) Others think Gantz is taking one for the team, dying on the sword for the good of the country.

Choose your metaphor, but they contend that Gantz is doing what he has to do in an effort to put the brakes on an otherwise very right-wing government that would do serious damage to Israel's judiciary and other aspects of its democracy and that would proceed with unilateral annexation without regard for the repercussions on Israel's international support, its relationships and alliances, and its democracy and security.

I think it is fair to say that there has never been a parliamentary democracy that has done what Israel has done: Three elections. Myriad negotiations. Convoluted provisions that diminish the parliamentary branch and try to control the future, including the future of a Prime Minister whose primary objective is to stay out of prison.

It's insane. But, hey, why not do it in the middle of a pandemic? Why not give it a try when Iran threatens daily to obliterate you? When you've got Hamas on the south and Hezbollah on the north? When your essential ally has what could charitably be labeled erratic leadership and when serious efforts are being made to make you into a partisan issue?

This situation has to be a first in dysfunctional government. It is doubtful that even Italy could top this. Mazel tov. We beat Italy.

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

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