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World & Nation

Israel’s ‘magician’ clings to power in a nation weary of politics, leery of coronavirus

Billboards show Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu
Campaign billboards in Bnei Brak, Israel, in February promote Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, left, and his rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
(Oded Balilty / Associated Press)

A few weeks before Benjamin Netanyahu sealed a deal keeping himself in power for another year and a half, a humorous meme made the rounds on Israeli social media touting a new book supposedly written by the country’s longest serving prime minister.

The meme showed the cover of the imaginary tome, “‘Saved by a Bat’ — A novel by Benjamin Netanyahu,” with the wings of an artistically rendered bat spread across a sky-blue background.

The title alluded to the suspected source of the novel coronavirus, which has upended nations and societies around the globe. That includes Israel, where it has helped propel Netanyahu, who was at a political nadir, back into the winner’s circle.

Despite failing to win enough support to form a government after three elections within a year, Netanyahu this week cut a power-sharing deal that, if ratified, will see the man dubbed “the magician” postpone his departure from the prime minister’s office for 18 months. His rival, Benny Gantz, will hold veto power and serve as defense minister before succeeding Netanyahu at the head of a national unity government that some in Israel are calling the “Frankenstein government” because of its mismatched parts.

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Netanyahu, who still faces trial on corruption charges, had seemingly done it again. Gantz, who had vowed never to serve under an indicted prime minister and campaigned on a promise to remove Netanyahu from office, cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for his about-face.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival Benny Gantz announce they have forged a deal to form an emergency coalition government.

“Some may have preferred political victories over winning the battle against the coronavirus crisis,” Gantz said after the deal was announced Tuesday. “We chose to preserve democracy, and to combat the coronavirus and contend with its many repercussions.”

The power-sharing agreement surprised many Israelis, who were already girding for a fourth electoral campaign. But they are also weary of their bickering politicians and worried about their futures in an economy hard hit by the government’s anti-coronavirus measures.

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After living without a fully functional government for 17 months, some just want their leaders to get on with the business of leading.

“I’m not in love with this government, but I think this is what Israel needs right now with this coronavirus crisis,” Haim Ben Ezra, the owner of a postal distribution center in central Jerusalem, said as he handed packages to masked and gloved customers who lined up at medically responsible distances. Ben Ezra, 40, voted for Shas, a small religious party aligned with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.

Israel’s lockdown has caused unemployment to spike from 4% to over 25% in little more than a month.

But the country has also successfully avoided the widespread deaths other nations have suffered. To date, fewer than 200 Israelis have died as a result of COVID-19.

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The crisis has provided Netanyahu, who began closing down Israel’s borders in January, with an opportunity to remind his compatriots of his long years of government experience and his management chops.

“If I were Jewish, I’d vote for Bibi,” said Issa Muhammad Elayan, 68, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He’s the strongest leader Israel has had in the last 30 years.”

Elayan is director of human resources for East Jerusalem’s Al-Mukassad Hospital, and was still wearing his badge and hospital-issue mask as he waited for a parcel at Ben Ezra’s distribution center.

A lifelong Jerusalem resident who is currently helping to manage a $562,000 grant the hospital received from Israel’s health ministry to establish a new, specialized department solely for coronavirus patients, Elayan is not an Israeli citizen and thus did not vote. But if he could, he said, he’d have cast a ballot for the Arab-majority Joint List, Israel’s third-largest political party.

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Tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers working inside Israel can no longer travel back and forth from their homes in the occupied West Bank.

He holds the conservative Netanyahu responsible for failing to advance peace talks with the Palestinian Authority during his 12 years in office. But the new unity government may offer some hope, Eyalan said.

“I hope it changes Netanyahu’s position, or Gantz, when he becomes prime minister, will reach out to [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas,” Elayan said. “This is the last chance we have for peace. Netanyahu will never get a more pro-peace Palestinian leader than Abbas.”

The power-sharing deal makes no mention of peace initiatives, however. Instead, it grants Netanyahu the option of introducing legislation to annex more of the West Bank.

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But political realities may present insurmountable obstacles to any plans to redraw Israel’s borders.

Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust is scheduled to open in May. In addition, the coalition agreement requires formal U.S. approval of any annexation bill. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said the matter remained “an Israeli decision,” leaving American intervention in doubt.

The power-sharing deal also faces legal challenges. The agreement envisions 36 ministries — an unprecedented number in Israel — and up to 16 deputy ministers. Various good-governance groups have appealed the agreement, and Israel’s Supreme Court is expected to address some of its more controversial clauses, as well as respond to petitions over the legality of an indicted prime minister taking office, a matter that has never before arisen in Israel.

In a radio interview Thursday, Elyakim Rubinstein, a retired Supreme Court justice, said the agreement, which modifies Israeli law so as to permit two men, in effect, to hold equal power in the government, “is frightening, trampling basic laws as if they were [municipal] regulations on waste management.”

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The announcement of a national unity government between two leaders who recently described each other as unfit for office concluded a dizzying 18 months in Israeli politics.

As late as mid-March, Netanyahu’s prospects for remaining in power appeared close to nil. After an election March 2, the third in under a year, Gantz received backing from more elected parliament members than Netanyahu did to form a government. On March 16, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin granted him a four-week window to put together an administration.

Gantz struggled to do so, hampered by right-leaning members of his Blue and White party, an alliance of anti-Netanyahu factions, who objected to joining forces with the Arab-majority Joint List.

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Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said he was skeptical of Netanyahu and Gantz’s “justification that the reason for this bloated government is [the coronavirus]. Instead, I think it comes from an inability to decide on any matters of substance. It is continued political paralysis.”

After the deal was announced, Yair Lapid, Gantz’s former deputy in the Blue and White alliance, split away, taking half the party with him and further casting doubt on the ability of the unity government to govern effectively.

Lapid apologized to the party’s supporters for what he characterized as Gantz’s perfidy.

“I didn’t believe that they would steal your vote and give it to Netanyahu, or that they would use your vote to form the fifth Netanyahu government,” Lapid said. “It’s the worst act of fraud in the history of this country.”


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