Israeli politics wins — thanks to coronavirus

Bittier political rivals Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Grantz (R) joins hands in forming national unity government. (File photo)

Imagine, in the 2019 poll, the BJP-led alliance led by Narendra Modi just fell short of securing an absolute majority and despite all the super genius of the party to do horse trading, a majority still remained elusive by just one vote, following which President Ram Nath Kovind most reluctantly called upon Rahul Gandhi to try his luck, which the Congress leader did with aplomb by moving heaven and earth to cobble together a majority with support of all and sundry — including the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen led by Asaduddin Owaisi — and almost succeeded in his shenanigans, but only to develop gnawing second thoughts at the penultimate hour about the absurdity of it all and decided instead to accept a standing offer from Modi to form a national unity government of the BJP and Congress with a power-sharing formula that would give them both a rotating chance to be PM. 

Outlandish? Yes, of course. Well, this is broadly what is happening in Israeli politics last night. (In many ways, arguably, Israeli mainstream politics bears striking similarity with India’s.) 

A breathtaking scenario has sailed into view whereby Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief rival through three consecutive unproductive election cycles, Benny Gantz announced last night after a whirlwind week of desperate politicking — when he even toyed with the idea of getting the support of the Arab List — that his centrist party faction would join the right-wing Likud coalition to form a new national unity government.  

Gantz has been performing theatrically on the political stage in a no-holds-barred campaign against Netanyahu (ostensibly on corruption) that even took on the hues of a visceral personal antipathy. But he has explained away the volte-face saying that his commitment to Israel’s interests comes first, which in turn demands that the country should have a national unity government as it battles against the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic! 

Gantz could have had any number of alibis, but he wisely chose coronavirus. It not necessarily an alibi, either. In reality, Israel is indeed battling with its back against the wall as the figure of infected citizens is nearing 2700 and eight people have died — heavy loss for a small country 8.7 million population. Even the spy agency Mossad has been put into service to secretly procure corona test kits and ventilators from abroad.  

According to the Faustian deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for 18 months before handing the premiership as part of a rotation to Gantz, who will serve under Netanyahu as deputy prime minister and defense minister for the first 18 months, and then become prime minister in September 2021. 

The new coalition will likely have 75 seats in the 120-member Knesset — a rock solid majority that will put behind for the near term the nagging political instability. 

Gantz’s dramatic compromise has jolted not only Israel’s political system and public but also split his own Blue and White Party. The dissenters have laid claim to the party’s official name and will sit in opposition. But Gantz is unperturbed: “This is not the time for fighting and splits. This is the time for responsible statesmanship, patriotism and leadership.” 

But an erstwhile party colleague and Knesset member Yair Lapid scoffed at Grantz: “Corona is not a permit to give up on our values.” There isn’t really much difference between Netanyahu and Grantz in their political outlook. Grantz earlier served under PM Netanyahu as Israel’s army chief and on core national security issues such as Gaza and Hamas or Syria and Lebanon, there is no daylight between them. 

In a way, this opens a window of opportunity for Netanyahu to reduce his heavy dependence on minuscule far-right coalition partners who often played larger-than-life roles in setting the national agenda — such as the Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist right-wing political party Yisrael Beiteinu. 

There was always been a tantalising question: ‘Who is the real Netanyahu?’ There is one school of thought which insisted that he is quintessentially a pragmatist who does grandstanding to take radical stances while navigating dissimilar interest groups and political forces comprising his coalition. 

If so, he now gets a splendid opportunity to break out of the siege and come on his own. For Netanyahu personally, the vista now opens to avoid a near-certain prison term (on corruption charges) that awaits him unless he enjoys parliamentary immunity from prosecution. The desperation in his overture to Grantz was self-evident: “Benny Gantz, … We both know that the gaps between us are small, and we can overcome them. Let’s meet now and establish a unity government. I am waiting for you.”

There is no contradiction between Netanyahu and Grantz and no major shifts need be expected in the Israeli regional policies (such as toward Iran) or its harsh policies toward Palestinians, which are driven by national consensus.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s return to the centre stage of Middle East politics after a prolonged hibernation due to the stalemate in domestic politics will be keenly felt in several theatres ranging from Syria and Lebanon to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Israel will be returning with a bang onto the regional geopolitical landscape that is ravaged by coronavirus, with its existential enemy Iran much devastated and weakened and its covert ally Saudi Arabia in quarantine and in disarray.