The last remaining impediment to the formation of a unity government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — followed by Benny Gantz after 18 months as per their agreement — is the Supreme Court verdict on the legality of Netanyahu forming a government when he is under indictment (as well as several legal challenges to specific aspects of the agreement).

Last week, the Israeli High Court of Justice deliberated on these issues — livestreamed for the first time — and struck down or deemed problematic several aspects of the proposed unity government agreement. However it also struck down the petition against Netanyahu and declaring it legal for him to form a government and serve as Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by Likud MKs

The reason for this decision was the judges’ fear of appearing to meddle in the democratic process, and leading the country into its fourth election which would have been inevitable because the unity agreement states that, if Netanyahu is forbidden to form a government, Israel would automatically hold another election. The last obstacle facing Gantz and Netanyahu has been removed and was swiftly followed by a roundup of recommendations by 72 members of Knesset which gave Netanyahu the mandate to form a government.

Currently there is no real reason for this not to happen. We are mere days away from the swearing in of this new unity government, and the ministries have been distributed between Likud, the Ultra-Orthodox parties, Blue and White, and Labour. In the opposition, we will see a strange assortment of parties: the right-wing Yamina Party led by Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked has chosen to remain outside the coalition, most likely because of a dispute over ministries. It will be joined in opposition by the Arab Joint List, the left-wing Meretz, the right-wing party Yisrael Beitinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, and Gantz’s former partners, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon.

This ended the 17 month saga of failed attempts to form a government which has resulted in the biggest and most bloated government in Israel’s history. The swearing in ceremony will take place on 14 May unless one of the parties to the agreement backs down. The only chance of that happening is if Netanyahu decides that he would rather takes his chances in another election after he succeeded in vanquishing his main opponent. Knowing this, Gantz has no interest to backtrack and both sides are likely to ‘walk down the aisle’ this week.

The next couple of days will likely be dedicated to final decisions about the distribution of ministries. Blue and White is already pretty clear about which ministries they are getting, with Benny Gantz slated for the Defence Ministry. The question now is which Likud parliamentarians will get which ministries when — because it will need to appease Blue and White, and Labour — there will be few portfolios left and some Likud MKs will be left empty-handed. Which ministry goes to which politician is comparatively irrelevant and the most interesting question is whether this government will survive, and how likely is it that Netanyahu will actually hand over, as promised, to Gantz.

First, it should be said: the new coalition is more stable than previous ones because it is wider. This basically means that there are more people in the government so it is unlikely that the resignation of one or two individuals is unlikely to result in the government losing its majority. Given that the coalition includes a wider array of parties, there is less interest in actively undermining the government and causing its collapse. This is especially true in its first year and a half: Gantz’s side of the coalition (Blue and White and Labour) are less likely to undermine it before Gantz’s part of the rotation agreement starts.

This raises the question of the likelihood that the rotation agreement will be honoured by Netanyahu. Given his past record, some argue that he will not, and instead may dissolve the Knesset before it takes place and the calling elections instead. The pushback to this widely held belief is that the agreement between Likud and Blue and White takes this possibility seriously, and has put in place safeguards to prevent such a possibility taking place, precisely because there is so much mistrust of Netanyahu and the belief that he would never willingly step down. These safeguards are not fool proof, however, and will simply make it harder, but not impossible, for Netanyahu to find ways to avoid stepping down and handing over the premiership to Gantz.

Source: Monfort Advisory Brief / May 2020. Contact for further information

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