Has the coronavirus saved Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
The sense of urgency created by the pandemic has opened the way for the right-wing premier to stay in power as head of a “corona government” despite his corruption indictment.
After more than a year of political impasse and three elections that ended in deadlock, Netanyahu’s main rival Benny Gantz on Thursday agreed to join an “emergency unity government” to fight the deadly outbreak.
In the process former army chief Gantz saw his own alliance split apart, dividing the most serious opposition Netanyahu has faced since coming to power in 2009.
Such a scenario seemed unlikely, almost impossible, only weeks ago.
In November, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving leader, became the first in the history of the country to be indicted in office on a series of corruption charges that he denies.
His Likud party had won fewer seats in a September election than Gantz’s centrist Blue and White and political obituaries were being readied.
He and Gantz were at each other’s throats and coalition talks failed, forcing a third election in 12 months on March 2, with Gantz vowing to never serve under an indicted prime minister.
Yet Netanyahu pulled off a shock recovery, with his Likud beating Blue and White by three seats, though still three short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament.
But by then the Jewish state was feeling the first effects of the coronavirus.
Three weeks on, the pandemic has gripped the globe and Israelis are desperate for a functioning government, seemingly prompting Gantz’s volte-face.
Political Victim of the Virus?
Gantz was last week given a mandate to try to form a government but although he found allies from other parties he struggled to build a viable coalition.
Israel’s proportional representation electoral system gives smaller parties extra clout.
On Thursday Gantz gave up his chance at replacing Netanyahu, for now at least, instead running for speaker of parliament and winning, in a move widely seen as a step to a unity government with the incumbent.
Half of his political coalition, formed only a year ago, walked out.
“Blue and White is the youngest victim of the coronavirus,” Israeli political commentator Ben Caspit wrote Friday in the Maariv daily.
He called the decision by the former general to sacrifice his political ambitions for the state in a time of crisis “tough, brave and heartrending.”
Gantz himself said in an English-language statement on Friday that he was “more at peace today than ever”.
“I am at peace because I did what my nation needs,” he added. “This is the time for leaders to choose what is right and put the lingering issues and personal scores aside.”
Although the issue of “for or against” Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for years, the coronavirus appears to have recast priorities – at least temporarily.
Gantz’s decision reflects the “fragility” of Blue and White’s makeup – which was more clearly defined by opposition to Netanyahu than for clear political goals – and “the sense of urgency linked to the COVID-19,” said Udi Sommer, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University.
The split means the alliance’s 33 parliamentary seats are divided, with Gantz taking 15 colleagues to join Netanyahu and the other 18 remaining in opposition.
It is not the first such comeback for Netanyahu, who has seen his career written off many times before he went on to destroy his rivals.
Anshel Pfeffer, political commentator at the leftwing Haaretz newspaper, accused Gantz of capitulation to Israel’s most divisive figure.
After more than a year of fighting and at the time of coronavirus, Gantz is “tired” while Netanyahu appears rejuvenated, Pfeffer said.
“It took Netanyahu 14 months to wear Gantz down, but he’s finally done it,” he wrote.