Is a Unity Government Finally in the Making in Israel?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


More than a month since the conclusion of the latest parliamentary elections, Israeli voters await the creation of a new government. After going to the polls for the third time in less than a year, news of a possible national unity government has provided some hope that the recent political paralysis may be coming to an end. Based on various reports, the agreement between the two opposition representatives—Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Resilience Party’s Benny Gantz—foresees the creation of a national unity government with a 3-year mandate with the premiership rotating between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz. To appease their respective political allies, both leaders seem to have agreed to increase the number of ministerial posts, a development that has invited widespread criticism from the public. And yet, with Likud not rushing to sign the agreement anytime soon, there is a fear that Mr. Netanyahu may try one last escape act.

Writing for the Jerusalem Post, Susan Rolef sums up the general attitude of the Israeli public, and especially those who voted to oust PM Netanyahu, by characterizing the proposed unity government as a ‘lesser evil’ since “A minority government headed by Blue and White, supported by the Joint List from the outside, was never an option, because at no moment in time was it supported by at least 61 MKs. A fourth round of elections – which is the only possible outcome of a failure to form a viable government, with a properly functioning Knesset at its side – is also not an option in the current situation, primarily for physical, economic and tactical reasons. Besides, no one really wants fourth elections…. The other way of looking at the situation is to note that since there is really no option to replace Netanyahu at this juncture…, the only way for Blue and White (or part of it) to remain politically relevant… is to join Netanyahu.”

It appears that despite having to renege on one of his campaign promises, opposition leader Benny Gantz stands the most to win from the creation of a new national unity government as his status as a statesman, as this recent Jerusalem Post editorial puts it, becomes solidified in the minds of the Israeli electorate: “Last week Israelis witnessed something rare. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, who holds the mandate to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin, said he would join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and serve in his cabinet. Gantz, the former IDF chief of staff, did so because he understood that Israel is at war…. It is rare to find this kind of mamlachtiut (statesmanship) in Israel, and Gantz got it right. It is time to end this crisis as soon as possible and get Israel back on its feet with a stable, solid and wide-as-possible government.”

However, the negotiations are already creating divisions among erstwhile allies and are reconfiguring the Israeli political landscape. Commenting on reports of a limited number of a ministerial posts for the right-wing bloc, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Moran Azulay adds that “The agreement on unity government… which is taking shape and promises the right-wing bloc only 15 ministerial portfolios, may bode ill for Netanyahu’s alleged natural partners. While the ultra-Orthodox parties will keep the government offices they have held so far, the Health Ministry in the hands of United Torah Judaism and the ministries of interior affairs and religious services in the hands of Shas, the situation remains unclear for the Yamina alliance…. Sources on the right claim that such a government, in which Gantz – who only has 15 seats – receives an equal treatment as the 58-seat-strong right-wing bloc, will face strong opposition.”

One of those taking issue with such limitations is former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked who in an interview with Arutz Sheva’s Shimon Cohen was quick to note that in the run up to the elections, “the prime minister pledged to the leaders of the right-wing bloc that he would conduct negotiations with them first. Instead, we see that he’s talking to Blue & White and not us, and the media is reporting all sorts of alarming and far-reaching concessions that Likud is considering, in order to reach an agreement. As far as I’m concerned, the prime minister has an obligation to fulfill his commitment to the right wing, to the parties who remained loyal to him throughout three election campaigns, in order to preserve the power of the right wing. This isn’t a time to capitulate to the left wing when we should be shoring up our own power…. I very much hope that Netanyahu will keep his promises to the right wing, and to religious Zionism.”

Mr. Gantz’s decision to join a government led by PM Netanyahu after repeatedly refusing to do so has also caused rifts within his Blue and White coalition, with some of his allies refusing to join him in the government. Meanwhile, in the latest twist in the drama, the Globes’ Tal Schneider reported that “Labor party chairman MK Amir Peretz has formally requested permission from the Knesset to split from the Meretz party, and he has announced that he plans merging with Blue & White. Peretz said, ‘We unified because there was a risk that Meretz would not pass the minimum threshold. Now we are separating with mixed feelings. I decided to examine serving the public from within the government.’ The way the national unity government coalition talks are going, Peretz is expected to become Minister of Economy and Industry and Itzik Shmuli Minister of Welfare. Both have previously vowed not to serve under a prime minister who has been indicted.”

Despite the overall positive reception to the creation of a government with broad political and public support, and Mr. Gantz’s willingness to set aside his personal animosity towards PM Netanyahu, many have expressed dismay at the proposed size of the new government. As Ofer Kenig points out in a recent op-ed for Times of Israel: “According to latest reports, the new government will be made up of between 30 and 34 ministers. If this turns out to be the case, it will equal or break the previous high record, set by the second Netanyahu government exactly eleven years ago. Before that happens, and before the coalition agreements are signed, we must shout and scream our disbelief at our elected representatives…. This is the time to call on our elected representatives to set a personal example and take a small step towards rebuilding public trust in the institutions of government, which has been ground to dust over the past year.”

Ben-Dror Yemini makes a similar argument in an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth, contrasting the country’s deteriorating economic situation in light of the Covid-19 pandemic with the government’s ‘bloated’ ministerial cabinet: “With almost one million unemployed, both those who have been laid off and those forced on unpaid leave have turned to the country’s leadership and are wondering why is there such an overabundance of ministers…. Gantz promised us a new way in politics; you can understand or even justify one broken promise, but there is no excuse, no explanation and no understanding for an extravagant overly bloated government in which almost every MK from Gantz’s party is a minister…. It is up to Gantz, who owes a debt to his voters, to prove that a unity government is a necessity and not moral bankruptcy on his part.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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