Meet Israel’s new camel. As the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by committee. In Israel’s case, it’s what a government looks like when it is designed by a public that can’t make up its mind.
Currently, there is a cabinet of 32 ministers, which will eventually become 36, with an additional 16 deputy ministers. This process is designed to give equal representation to two “blocs” — one headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud, the other by Benny Gantz and Blue and White. It’s more of a hippopotamus than an agile government. I know, I already said it’s a camel. But it’s both. It’s a camel-opotamus.
After a year and a half of instability, Israel needed stability. The camel-opotamus is well built and hard to move or topple. That’s the whole idea. What are its main features?
- Netanyahu will be prime minister for now. He has been given legitimacy by a rival who said that he would never sit with him because Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges. In return, Netanyahu agreed to an “expiration date”: In 18 months he is slated to move from the prime minister’s office to the office of the “alternate prime minister” — that’s the title for Netanyahu or Gantz when either isn’t the prime minister. Of course, although Netanyahu signed a document of expiration, it doesn’t mean he’ll step down when the time comes. But the agreement does as much as it can to guarantee that Netanyahu will evacuate the office of the prime minister.
- This isn’t a partnership, it’s an arrangement. The government can do only things that close to 80 members of Knesset (MKs) agree on. It can fight the coronavirus because everyone agrees that Israel must deal with the virus. But no controversial legislation should be expected.
- One exception is the annexation of areas in Judea and Samaria. Netanyahu insisted on annexation this summer and will get his way — if the Americans play along. Perhaps Netanyahu wants the annexation as his legacy. Contrast that with previous prime ministers: Yitzhak Rabin evacuated territory; Ehud Barak, too (in Lebanon); Ariel Sharon, too (in Gaza); Ehud Olmert was ready to hand over almost all of it.
- The big question is how long can it last? The answer is: For now. In politics, opportunities determine the moves of the players. If Netanyahu or Gantz sees a better way forward than the one they’ve chosen, both are likely to change course. If this arrangement is the best they can do, they’ll stick to it. Fifty-two MK’s with government positions to lose are the ideal cement for a coalition. The agreement aims to keep everybody happy.
- It’s important to note that appeals before the court are in motion, arguing that Netanyahu can’t serve as prime minister or alternate prime minister. The Knesset must change basic laws to make the agreement legal, and each change could trigger legal challenges. What seems like a minor obstacle can easily become a major crisis.
- The camel-opotamus is ugly. It has two heads, short legs and is fat. It smells and makes unpleasant noises. Supporters of the right will be frustrated by its many shortcomings (reforming the legal system will have to wait). Supporters of the center-left will feel they’ve been sold out (Netanyahu is still prime minister). No small party will have real power because the two blocs can do without them (Yamina might even stay out of the coalition). No big party will have real power because the other bloc stands in its way. The camel-opotamus is the worst option for Israel aside from a fourth election. So shut your eyes and hold your nose and get ready for a strange ride.