Netanyahu has formed a ‘personal salvation government’

Israel’s new national emergency government was established not to defeat COVID-19, but to keep Netanyahu out of prison.

Netanyahu Gantz campaign banner Reuters
A banner depicts Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White alliance and Israel Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel on February 17, 2020 [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

“Unlike the Holocaust, this time we identified the danger in time,” Israel’s interim (for now) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on April 20, patting himself on the shoulder in a recorded statement marking Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

“We made important decisions, such as closing off the borders,” Netanyahu continued, reading to the camera. “We mobilised all the systems of the state for the war against the corona.” 

Netanyahu’s distorted exploitation of this memorial day for the six million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis in order to boast of his supposedly “early detection” powers is somewhat reminiscent of his “revelation” in 2015 that the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was the one who dreamed up the plan to exterminate the Jewish people. 

It is highly doubtful that Netanyahu presciently identified the coronavirus threat, but he undoubtedly identified its potential to be a vaccine against his personal ruin by a move from the prime minister’s office to a jail cell.  

The official name of this vaccine is “national emergency government”. But the more appropriate title for this government, whose guidelines and composition were finalised and inked on April 20, would be “personal salvation government”.  

Shortly after his Holocaust speech to the nation was aired, Netanyahu signed a 14-page power-sharing agreement with his chief political rival, Blue and White alliance leader Benny Gantz, that establishes Israel’s most bloated government ever – with 36 cabinet posts and 16 deputy ministers.

Under the deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister through the first 18 months of the three-year term, with Gantz serving in the newly created position of “alternate prime minister”. Netanyahu will hand power to Gantz once his time is up, and serve as “alternate” PM for the second half of the term. 

“I promised the people of Israel a national emergency government that would save lives and livelihoods,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page. “I will continue doing everything for your sake, citizens of Israel.” 

The power-sharing agreement was signed after weeks of intense negotiations. But the issue that held up the signing of the document was not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the apartheid regime in the West Band and the blockade on Gaza.

The only hint of the chronic disease known as the occupation in the document is to be found in the section relating to US President Donald Trump’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which stipulates that as of July 1 of this year, the prime minister could ask the government and Knesset to approve the agreement reached with the US under the Trump blueprint on imposing sovereignty over Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

According to the deal, Gantz will also be invited to take part in consultations with the prime minister on this paragraph in the agreement, which practically spells the demise of the two-state solution.

The issue that held up agreement between the two sides was also not related to the official raison d’etre for an emergency government – easing the coronavirus crisis. In fact, the deal barely mentions the matter, but it does leave the incumbent Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, in place even as it entails job changes or demotions for most other current coalition ministers.

This is the man who could not even enunciate the word “corona” at the start of the crisis, who himself contracted the disease when he prayed in a group in contravention of his own ministry’s instructions and has spent most of his time since the start of the pandemic advancing the interests of his ultra-Orthodox constituency. 

With Litzman staying in his post, Netanyahu will continue to run the ministry de facto as he has been doing so far. He will also replace the head of the Knesset’s special corona crisis committee with one of his loyalists, making it easier for him to whitewash the many failures of his government in dealing with the epidemic that have already been exposed.

Should an inquiry commission be established to examine the state’s handling of the crisis, it will find grist for its work in the interim report issued on April 7 by the Knesset oversight committee chaired at the time by opposition Knesset member Ofer Shelach. 

The report found, inter alia, that the social and health repercussions of the economic chokehold imposed by the government had already become as real and great a threat as the virus. The political price for these harsh economic and social repercussions will now be divided equally among all the partners of the new coalition government.

The signing of the agreement was held up because of an article that relates only to one single Israeli whose trial on corruption charges is set to open on May 24 and sets a dispensation for him, unprecedented in Israel’s political history. 

Its convoluted language essentially stipulates that should circumstances, such as a Supreme Court ruling, for example, prevent Netanyahu and/or Gantz from serving as prime minister and “alternate” prime minister, the Likud and Blue and White parties would not propose anyone else for these posts and instead jointly disband the Knesset and schedule new elections. 

Had Netanyahu not adamantly refused to step down after being indicted on charges of bribery, Israel would not have found itself dragged into three back to back, inconclusive elections within the past year and threatened with a looming fourth election unless an agreement was reached on a new government.

From the start, the Blue and White leadership made clear its preference for a unity government with the Likud. Its key, if not sole condition, was Netanyahu’s replacement by another member of his Likud party. Had he truly been willing to “do everything” in his power for the sake of Israel’s citizens, as he declared in his Holocaust memorial speech this week, Israel would not have needed an emergency government. All he had to do was step down, even temporarily, and spend his time wisely convincing the courts of his innocence.

The cowardice of other top Likud figures left Gantz and his friends between a rock and a hard place. They were forced to choose between joining a Netanyahu-led government, against the wishes of a majority of voters who gave Gantz and his bloc a Knesset majority of 62 seats, and lending a hand to fourth elections under the shadow of a deep economic and social crisis. 

The decision by Blue and White and its Labor party allies to ignore their main campaign pledge of not entering into a coalition government with Netanyahu is expected to shorten their political life span. They will have a hard time convincing voters that they had no choice but to partner with Netanyahu in a government of more than 40 ministers and deputy ministers simply to deal with the epidemic. 

The ball is now with the Supreme Court, which has been presented with several petitions asking it to void the coalition deal, among them an appeal by dozens of former security officials, academics and business people against the appointment of a prime minister under indictment. 

In a letter to Netanyahu published on April 20 in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Knesset’s former legal adviser and attorney Nurit Elstein wrote, “The court could decide that you’re not fit to be prime minister in light of your corruption indictments involving violations of integrity, or more specifically, moral turpitude … No legal model will provide you with complete protection or, as long as Israel is a democracy, grant legitimacy to a matter that’s fundamentally crooked.” Given the make-up of the designated government and its guidelines, the emphasis should be placed on the words “as long”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.