Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (March 30, 2020) - A Unity Government that Serves Beyond Corona Could Yet Try to Deliver the Trump Deal of the Century


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. As of Monday, March 30, a portion of the Blue-White party and of Labor appears to be on its way to joining a “unity” government under Netanyahu. What happened?

A. The convoluted contortions of last week’s crisis of Israeli governance and the rule of law are almost too complicated to follow. First, Blue-White’s plan to take over the Knesset with 61 MKs was thwarted when Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) refused to obey a High Court ruling, thereby setting a new low in respect for legality and constitutional rule in Israel. Ultimately, rather than hold an election for a new speaker, Edelstein resigned. Blue-White leader Benny Gantz then abandoned the party’s plan to legislate against the indicted Netanyahu holding the premiership in future, in favor of getting himself elected Knesset speaker and moving ahead directly with negotiations for a unity government.

Gantz apparently assumed he could negotiate while holding out the threat of legislating against Netanyahu. Instead, the Yesh Atid faction of Blue-White under Yair Lapid refused to vote for Gantz, refused to join any government under Netanyahu, and abandoned Blue-White and opted for the parliamentary opposition. Gantz argued that not joining a coalition with Netanyahu at a time of national crisis would mean a fourth round of elections, delayed by corona, and ultimate defeat for Blue-White. Instead, he claimed, here was Netanyahu offering Blue-White an extraordinary coalition deal along with legal guarantees that the premiership would rotate to Blue-White in 18 months.

Yet Blue-White and two MKs from Labor, along with two former Likudniks in Blue-White, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, who are also joining the coalition, will hold barely 25 percent of the coalition’s votes. Hendel and Hauser, by the way, are calling their breakaway faction Derech Eretz, which is roughly translated as “good manners” or “proper behavior”. Note that it was their racist refusal to be in a coalition with the Joint Arab List that prevented Gantz from forming a genuine coalition of 61 and ousting Netanyahu.

Q. Does all this make any sense?

A. Gantz has backtracked on his two main electoral promises. He tried to form a coalition with the Joint Arab List, which he had pledged to the right not to do, and now he is joining a government under Netanyahu and abandoning efforts to prevent the indicted prime minister from serving, which he had pledged to the left-center not to do. His rationale is that this is better for the country at this time of corona than the alternative, a fourth round of elections that Netanyahu might win anyway. In 18 months, he believes, Netanyahu will cease to run the country. Anyway, it can be argued that Blue-White embodied so many contradictory elements that it was destined to disintegrate anyway once it confronted a serious parliamentary challenge.

Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid argues that Blue-White could have held onto the Knesset and supported Netanyahu’s emergency health and economic measures to battle corona without losing its honor and without risking endless embarrassment and humiliation at the hands of Netanyahu and the Likud.

Gantz's move is so controversial that left and liberal political commentators are not of one mind. Here is Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, a far-left-winger who has essentially given up on Zionism and the entire Zionist establishment, left and right, writing on Sunday this week, “:This is not the time for intrigues and conspiracies, nor for fighting over principles . . . . we need new rules of the game. The ‘just not Bibi’ camp is not prepared to recognize this.” And here is left-wing commentator Raviv Drucker in Haaretz: “Deep mourning has descended on the [center-left] camp. Gantz did a terrible thing. But he had no alternative.”

On the other hand, here is Yedioth Aharonot’s liberal Nachum Barnea warning Gantz “if he wants to survive in politics he must set himself red lines” like opposing at any cost Edelstein’s reelection as Knesset speaker. And here is Haaretz Editor Aluf Benn calling Gantz “Erdogan’s deputy” (Erdogan is the highly authoritative and oppressive president of Turkey) and reminding us that Netanyahu is returning as prime minister even though he did not win the elections and, according to Benn, his indictments will soon be tossed into the trash.

Q. Let’s assume some sort of unity government in which Gantz, Ashkenazi and about 15 additional Blue-White members of Knesset (some still in the process of switching allegiance between Gantz and Lapid) serve as a minority faction but enjoy agreed parity with Netanyahu’s bloc in ministerial strength and many aspects of decision-making. What awaits them beyond shared success in overcoming covid-19 and implementing a plan to revive the economy?

A. Knowing Netanyahu, it’s safe to assume that the corona era will seem to Gantz like a honeymoon compared to what comes next. By giving the defense and foreign affairs portfolios to Gantz and his partner Gabi Ashkenazi, the ever-crafty Netanyahu awarded the two former IDF chiefs of staff what are ostensibly and traditionally the two most important jobs (after prime minister) in any coalition. But these are not traditional times. The critical issues facing this government are health and the economy, which will remain largely in the hands of Netanyahu’s three quarters of the coalition, his right-religious “bloc” of loyalists.

What can a foreign minister do when he cannot even board a plane to meet world leaders? What can a defense minister do when IDF troops are needed for patrolling the streets and bringing food to the elderly, and Israel’s enemies are themselves preoccupied with corona? Besides, Netanyahu’s faithful “bloc” of 58 or 59 MKs all hail from political parties that represent established and veteran institutions: educational, social and economic. Blue-White, in contrast, was founded less that 18 months ago, just disintegrated, and has no institutions to fall back on at times of inevitable conflict within the coalition. Government resources will be devoted to Likud and its right-religious partners, not to Blue-White.

So when cracks appear in the unity government, no one will be surprised. Over the past 25 years, every centrist party or politician that joined a Netanyahu government has been marginalized by Netanyahu. Lapid is a good example. Even independent right-wingers like Moshe Yaalon have joined the opposition after being exposed to Netanyahu’s politics and ethics. That’s why they refused to stick with Gantz and join the coalition.

Q. Is there a strategic issue that could be divisive--one that could prove a deal-breaker for Gantz and Ashkenazi in their ministerial positions of defense and foreign affairs?

A. Yes. Unilateral annexation. One key issue that Netanyahu might well revive in the hoped-for post-virus era, say, sometime around summer, is US President Trump’s “deal of the century” and its promise of a green light for Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and all the settlements, including those inside Palestinian Authority-administered territory.

Here we recall that Trump and his project manager Jared Kushner froze implementation of the deal pending the emergence of a government in Israel. Kushner also cited a somewhat artificial requirement to survey the precise boundaries of areas to be annexed--as if he didn’t look closely at the map before he presented the plan!? Behind the scenes, the administration may also have taken into consideration strong objections by Jordan, not to mention the PLO, to annexation measures that foreclose the option of a two-state solution that satisfies Palestinian national aspirations on West Bank soil.

Yet by summer, conceivably, all the stars could align for Netanyahu to embark on a unilateral annexation initiative. Trump, in need of an electoral issue to galvanize his Evangelical support base, would announce a renewed effort to implement his peace plan, which Evangelicals generally support. Inevitably the PLO, backed at least at the declarative level by the Arab world, would reiterate its rejection of the deal. That, as apparently calculated by Kushner and Netanyahu, would leave the way open for Israel, in accordance with the plan, to implement its territorial provisions unilaterally.

Netanyahu would present the initiative to his coalition, noting that Trump’s support gives Israel a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enjoy American backing for territorial expansion within biblical Israel. Gantz, we recall, carefully endorsed the notion of unilateral annexation only if the international community concurred--a non-starter insofar as only the Trump administration and perhaps allies Brazil and Hungary would back the idea. Would Gantz abandon this campaign commitment too? Or would he, backed into a corner, resign, long before 18 months have elapsed and he could take over the premiership.

Netanyahu presumably would calculate that he is in a win-win position. In the worst case, Gantz would rejoin the opposition and try to bring down the government. Either way, Netanyahu could now initiate new elections and make unilateral annexation backed by Trump, which remains a popular idea with the nationalist-religious mainstream, his election platform.

So, according to this scenario, Netanyahu proceeds with annexation. He will have Trump’s backing. The Palestinians, Netanyahu calculates, will be too weakened by corona and their own internal divisions to do anything about it. So will the Arab states, who in any case are fed up with the Palestinians and need Israeli help to deal with Iran and a resurgent ISIS.

Israel just took a giant step toward becoming an apartheid state.

Q. Hold on now. Surely it is also possible that after corona, the stars will not align for Netanyahu, Trump and unilateral annexation . . .

A. Indeed, here we encounter, equally at the speculative level, the possible strategic impact for Israel of the corona experience--at home, regionally and globally.

At home, corona may still be rampaging in July. In the absence of a vaccine, a renewed wave of the virus in the fall is confidently predicted by the pandemic experts. Israeli efforts will for months still be focused on hospital facilities, respirators and protective equipment rather than on gobbling up West Bank territory. The economy will almost certainly be far from recovery.

Close to home, covid-19 in the Gaza Strip could turn that small, impoverished and overcrowded territory into absolute hell. Imagine tens or hundreds of thousands of Gazan civilians--not Hamas, not armed, not aggressive, but ill--lining up at the Gaza-Israel border fence and begging for aid. Imagine Hamas threatening to fire rockets and start a war unless Israel shares with Gaza the respirators and test kits it has sent the Mossad to obtain for it at any price, anywhere in the world.

One or both of these scenarios or some variation thereof is more than likely in the months ahead. Gazan corona could merge with corona in additional troubled neighboring countries and territories, from Iran to Iraq to Yemen to Idlib on the Syria-Turkey border. Being surrounded by plague-fueled mayhem throughout the region is dangerous: hardly a time to gobble up territory. Trump is contributing further by encouraging Iran’s collapse, which could bring to power in Tehran even more hostile and aggressive actors than the ayatollahs. ISIS is reportedly gearing up to carry out terrorist attacks against a plague-stricken Europe.

Then too, looking further abroad, corona may so overwhelm the United States in the months ahead that Trump will have little margin of maneuver to encourage new Middle East adventures like Jordan Valley annexation. By the same token, if he smells a Democratic presidential victory in the US, thanks at least in part to Trump’s mistakes in managing the pandemic, Netanyahu could hold off on an annexation initiative precisely in order to avoid financial and other penalties from a liberal US political establishment that is fed up with him. He could always cite Gantz’s opposition as an excuse. That, by the way, would make Gantz a hero to liberal, democracy-minded Israel and rationalize his move to join the coalition.

And let’s not forget Netanyahu’s legal troubles. A half year from now, he might negotiate a plea-deal under which he exits politics and Gantz actually does take over. One reason Blue-White is insisting on the Justice Ministry portfolio in the emerging coalition is to try and make sure Netanyahu indeed stands trial.

Incidentally, on Monday it was announced that Netanyahu went into corona self-isolation due to exposure to a sick aide, thereby introducing yet another variable into our speculations.

Q. While you’re going from disaster to disaster, are there any negative spinoffs of the virus experience for Israel that would not be directly related to unilateral annexation?

A. Israel’s think tanks are busy drawing up lists. The lists are long and, while the virus experience is still with us, most remain highly speculative, e.g., new standards of social distancing, gratuitous new appreciation for Israel by its Arab neighbors.

But here and there we can point to ramifications that are hard to challenge or doubt. We have already experienced a serious virus-fueled challenge by the religious and secular right to the rule of law: Edelstein’s rebellion against the High Court. The refusal and in some cases willful ignorance by some Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) factions in Israel, New Jersey and London to honor government edicts regarding quarantine and social distancing is almost guaranteed to fuel displays of heightened religious-secular tension in Israel and anti-Semitism elsewhere.

Then too, we have already mentioned the potential challenge posed by Gaza and the region in general, if and as they are engulfed by the virus. Regional instability poses unpredictable consequences for everyone. Corona in Iraq, for example, is hastening the American military withdrawal from the region. Russia stands to gain. This too has consequences for Israel.

Israel will soon have one million unemployed and furloughed wage earners. Businesses are crumbling. An economic rescue plan, which Netanyahu has yet to produce, could leave the country in deep recession for many months, with consequences for national security.

Q. Bottom line?

A. One corona lesson is clear, not just to Israel but especially to Israel. It was not prepared for a crisis of this nature. Its health system entered the crisis seriously underfunded and led by a Haredi minister who actually believes the messiah will arrive within a week and whose party has the clout to keep him in office in the emerging coalition. Israel’s political system is hard put to make and enforce the hard decisions required by the fight against covid-19. It has three neighbors, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, with which it can only with difficulty communicate about cooperative anti-virus efforts.

These and additional unique challenges require a national security assessment and decision-making apparatus that does a better job. True, most otherwise successful and functioning countries appear to be similarly challenged. But they don’t have Israel’s security problems, whether self-inflicted or generated by actors and events beyond its control.

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