The two Benjamins whose ongoing battle led to three Israeli elections in the course of twelve months formalized a truce on Monday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kachol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz signed a deal to create a 36 month unity government. The deal has many specific elements, from a prime ministerial rotation, to the precise allocation of ministries and Knesset committee chairmanships, to setting July 1 as the date on which annexation proposals can move forward. But nearly every element in the agreement comports with a few broad thematic contexts that demonstrate what each side was aiming for and what each side received.
Netanyahu has had a few substantive goals in mind throughout the entire process that has unfolded over the past year. The primary overarching goal whose shadow has fallen across nearly every action he has taken has been to remain in office irrespective of his legal troubles. The deal that he worked out with Gantz accomplishes this through multiple avenues. It lets him remain prime minister for the next eighteen months as his trial on three separate indictments takes place, granting him the ability to maintain all of the privileges of his office despite the legal circus that will inevitably ensue. It puts not-so-subtle pressure on the three judge panel of the Jerusalem District Court that will decide his case and on the Supreme Court that will hear any prospective appeal, as they are dealing with the unprecedented situation of criminal charges against a sitting prime minister and will have to weigh the impact on Israeli democracy and society of convicting someone who holds that office. It allows him to maintain the privileges of being prime minister after eighteen months by creating the new position of alternate prime minister, which will also exempt him from the requirement of resigning once indicted, a requirement that applies to all other ministers save the prime minister. Netanyahu could not have drawn up an agreement that lets him circumvent the consequences of his legal issues so thoroughly short of having his trial actually canceled.
Netanyahu has also consistently raised the issue of West Bank annexation and applying Israeli sovereignty to settlements since he first pledged to do it days before the first election in April 2019. He has talked about it during the campaigns, he has talked about it during the government formation windows, and he has talked about it during every mention of the Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts with regard to Israel and the Palestinians. By explicitly including it in the coalition agreement with Kachol Lavan – and all the more so by setting a specific date for its consideration and initial implementation – and by granting it the status of being the only policy issue exempted from the new government’s six month emergency moratorium on substantial legislation, Netanyahu has elevated fulfillment of his annexation pledge to the policy issue with which he will now be singularly associated. Furthermore, by nesting its contours in the coalition agreement within the precise ones drawn up by the Trump administration, he has taken any independent veto he may have had in moving forward and instead provided the Trump team with near absolute power to implement whatever vision it desires. While Netanyahu’s powers of wiggling out of tight spaces are legendary, he has created a self-binding mechanism here that makes no sense for someone who does not want to actually go through with annexation come July 1.
Along with annexation, the other issue that was reportedly holding up an agreement for three weeks was that of the judges selection committee that picks new Supreme Court justices, and on that issue Netanyahu got his substantive win as well. Installing right-wing judges in order to roll back the so-called judicial revolution instituted by former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak and limit the power of the judiciary relative to the Knesset has become as important to the Israeli right as the issue of confirming federal judges is to the American right. Because seven votes are required on the nine member committee to confirm a new justice, a three member bloc on the committee can exercise a veto over new appointments. In the deal agreed to between Netanyahu and Gantz, of the four political members of the committee – two ministers and two MKs, one of whom is traditionally from the opposition – Likud is guaranteed one minister and one MK, and the “opposition” MK is Tzvi Hauser, one of the two renegade Kachol Lavan members who formed the two person Derech Eretz faction three weeks ago and who is one of the more right-wing members of the entire Knesset. There is thus a three member right-wing bloc on the committee, guaranteeing that no justice will be appointed who does not meet a right-wing litmus test. In addition, despite the fact that the justice minister will come from Kachol Lavan, Netanyahu gets a veto over the appointments of the new state attorney and attorney general, the two positions that not coincidentally had to recommend and approve the indictments against him. From a substantive perspective, the deal with Gantz has gotten Netanyahu all of the things he prioritized the most.
For Gantz, it is the opposite. Whereas Netanyahu is sacrificing some measure of political power in return for tangible policy wins, with this deal, Gantz gave up on every substantive issue that he has spoken about as critical over the past year and a half in return for political power, both real and perceived. Gantz spoke about not legitimizing a prime minister under indictment and under no circumstances serving under one. He spoke about preventing any West Bank annexation not endorsed by the international community and/or done in coordination with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. He spoke about protecting the judiciary from political influence or attempts to circumvent its authority. On every one of these issues, Gantz folded. Even on the very last one that he hung on to until the end – safeguarding the authority of the Supreme Court – Gantz not only capitulated but actively participated in the principle’s destruction, agreeing to a clause that mandates new elections should the court rule that Netanyahu cannot form a government because he is under indictment; in other words, explicitly establishing the new principle that the Supreme Court’s rulings can be blithely circumvented without consequence.
In return for all of this, Gantz becomes defense minister – no small prize, to be sure – with the promise of becoming prime minister in eighteen months, though it is noteworthy that only 31% of Israelis think the rotation will actually take place. Kachol Lavan also gets parity with the right-wing bloc in each receiving sixteen cabinet positions and splitting committee chairmanships, which is remarkable given that there are seventeen Kachol Lavan MKs (including Hauser and Yoaz Hendel) to Likud’s thirty six. Kachol Lavan gets the defense ministry, the foreign ministry, the justice ministry, chairmanship of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and a host of other plum posts, all of which give it authority over a wide set of issues.
The flip side of this is that in many ways, these are Potemkin positions that appear powerful but due to the agreement Gantz signed actually are not. Gantz is defense minister, but Netanyahu is free to decide the ultimate fate of the West Bank on his own. Avi Nissenkorn will be justice minister, but anything he does can be hampered by the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, which is chaired by Likud, not to mention the veto Netanyahu has over senior Justice Ministry appointments and the situation with the judges selection committee. Assuming that Netanyahu honors the rotation agreement and yields to Gantz after eighteen months, Gantz will take his new position with Israel’s longest serving – and arguably politically savviest – prime minister still enjoying the trappings of the office as alternate prime minister, and saddled with a Knesset majority that relies on more than twice as many Likud MKs as his own Kachol Lavan MKs. The entire arrangement is reminiscent of Netanyahu appointing Tzipi Livni to lead Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2013 but making his personal attorney Yitzhak Molcho her minder and giving him a veto over anything she did or any decisions she made.
The deal is being portrayed as a mechanism for transitioning away from the Netanyahu era, when in reality it appears to set the stage for him to remain in power in the short term, maintain power after he officially steps down in the medium term, and give him the ability once 36 months are up to continue to run for office and bury Gantz politically. This is all essentially a bid for time on the part of both Benjamins: time for Netanyahu to sort out his legal troubles while staying in power and then reestablishing a more solid foundation under his feet, and time for Gantz to figure out how to take his illusory gains and turn them into real ones. We don’t know with certainty which one will use his time to better effect, but considering which of the two men got nearly everything he wanted out of this deal and which did not, I know where I would be placing my bets.