A banner depicting Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 2020
Ammar Awad / Reuters

In Greek legend, the Hydra is a gigantic water snake with nine heads, only one of which is immortal. The 35th government of Israel, sworn in on May 17, 2020, looks like a Hydra. Instead of nine heads, it has 36 ministers, 16 deputy ministers, and an “alternate prime minister.” Like the Hydra, it too appears to have one immortal head: Benjamin Netanyahu. He was sworn in for his fifth term as prime minister, having already served in that post continuously since 2009.

This time it took Netanyahu three elections over 18 months to form a government. In each of those elections, his bloc of right-wing and religious parties failed to secure a majority. Netanyahu was able to put together this government, on his third attempt, only by co-opting Benny Gantz, the leader of the center-left opposition bloc. The maneuver was masterful, since Gantz had run on the promise of never joining a government under Netanyahu because of his indictment on charges of bribe-taking, fraud, and breach of trust.

Gantz could have formed a minority government, depending on outside support from the Joint List of Arab parties that had recommended him to do so. But he had promised not to do that, either. Forced to choose, he went with Netanyahu, arguing that the emergency created by the COVID-19 crisis required a national unity government—a higher duty that justified the betrayal of his voters. He paid a heavy price for that, since his decision precipitated a split within his Blue and White party. His erstwhile partner, Yair Lapid, led 18 of the party’s 33 Knesset members into opposition.

Netanyahu had to pay a heavy price, too. He signed an agreement with Gantz, subsequently written into legislation, that provides for a three-year government term and a mutual veto over all policy decisions. Under this supposedly binding arrangement, Netanyahu will serve for 18 months and then hand over the prime ministership to Gantz on November 17, 2021, for the second 18 months. In the meantime, Gantz will be the “alternate prime minister,” a newly created position that Netanyahu will assume when the rotation takes place.

Each leader has 18 portfolios, even though Netanyahu has 52 seats in his bloc and Gantz has only 17 (including the two seats of the shrunken Labor Party). That distribution has produced a risible situation in which Gantz has too many portfolios for his Knesset members and Netanyahu has too few.

The structural imbalance between the two blocs creates an inherent tension, with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud followers motivated to be rid of his “leftist” partners, especially if polls continue to show that the right-wing/religious bloc could secure a majority in its own right in new elections. Those polls also tilt the psychological balance of power in Netanyahu’s direction, since Gantz’s party would likely be significantly diminished, if not wiped out, in another round. That is the traditional fate of most Israeli center parties. If exercising his veto could bring the government down, Gantz might therefore hesitate to use it on critical issues. Such reticence will undermine his party’s ability to counterbalance the right-wing agenda of its coalition partners.

Israelis disdain this bloated government, even though most prefer it, for the moment, to the alternative of a fourth election.

Israelis disdain this bloated government, even though most prefer it, for the moment, to the alternative of a fourth election. In the end, they will judge it on results. In that regard, Netanyahu has already received high marks for his handling of the novel coronavirus crisis. Fewer than 300 Israelis have died, new cases in May were close to zero, and the virus has been contained among Palestinians in the neighboring West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu and Gantz have set their priorities as reviving the Israeli economy and preparing for the expected second wave of the virus. Beyond those imperatives, the purpose of this Hydra-headed government is unclear, as the two blocs have no agreed guidelines. Given the veto that each side holds over the other, the ambiguity may provide a welcome respite from the issues that roiled the Israeli polity under Netanyahu’s previous right-wing government.

In particular, Netanyahu’s ministers had attacked the independence of the judiciary and sought to remove the Supreme Court’s ability to act as a check on the Knesset. Since Gantz’s party holds the Justice Ministry that legislative agenda should be moderated, if not shelved, although it appears that right-wing incitement against the Judiciary will continue unabated. The specter of legislation to protect Netanyahu from the prosecution of his corruption charges, too, has been removed. Netanyahu had to turn up in court for the opening of his trial a week after being sworn in as prime minister.

On security issues, Netanyahu’s innate caution is likely to be reinforced by Gantz’s control of the Defense Ministry. Gantz’s deputy, Gabi Ashkenazi, will serve as foreign minister before the rotation and defense minister after it. Both Ashkenazi and Gantz are former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and they will represent the seasoned, pragmatic views of Israel’s defense establishment in the security cabinet. Ashkenazi is credited with playing a key role in restraining Netanyahu from launching a preventive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities during the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama.

That pragmatism will be critically important when it comes to annexation, the only policy issue that was written into the Netanyahu-Gantz governing agreement. Netanyahu insisted that after July 1, he have the right to bring to the cabinet his campaign commitment to annex the Jordan Valley and all 131 of the West Bank settlements, constituting some 30 percent of Palestinian territory. Moreover, the agreement specifies that if the cabinet blocks annexation, Netanyahu will have the right to take the issue directly to the Knesset for expedited legislation. The bill is expected to have majority support even if Gantz’s faction and others in the opposition vote against it.

Even as Netanyahu proceeds with annexation, his agreement with Gantz requires that Israel strive to maintain relations with its Arab neighbors and the international community, which has repeatedly declared annexation to be illegal. How the government will resolve this tension is a mystery.

Already, the threat of annexation has brought strong protests from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, the Arab League, the United Nations, and leading members of the European Union. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced an end to all agreements with Israel, including security coordination. The highly respected former heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security services have both warned about the threat that annexation poses to relations with Jordan and calm in the West Bank.

Gantz is known to be particularly sensitive to the immense strain that annexation of the Jordan Valley would place on the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty and on the security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, which has done much to prevent violence and terrorism in the West Bank. Nevertheless, he endorsed annexation during the campaign, accepted the annexation clause in his agreement with Netanyahu, and is known to favor at least partial annexation of settlement blocs adjacent to Israel’s 1967 border.

Gantz’s dilemma found expression in Ashkenazi’s acceptance speech as foreign minister after the new government was sworn in. On the one hand, Ashkenazi welcomed the “historic opportunity” presented by U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan “to shape the future of the State of Israel and its boundaries for decades to come.” On the other, he pledged to advance the plan while “maintaining all of the State of Israel’s peace agreements and strategic interests.”

If Netanyahu pushes annexation through the Knesset before the U.S. elections, he may well be creating a big problem for Israel with a new American president afterward.

There is only one explicit condition on annexation in the coalition agreement: it must have the full support of the U.S. government. The stipulation creates a quandary for Netanyahu as the U.S. presidential election looms. Trump has already greenlighted the annexation as part of his vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has expressed his clear opposition, branding it as “bad for peace” and vowing to reverse Trump’s actions. Annexation will inevitably make Israel a divisive issue in the campaign. Trump’s evangelical base will applaud it; Biden’s Jewish and progressive bases will, for the most part, deplore it. If Biden wins, he could well withdraw recognition, removing the only international legitimacy the annexation is likely to acquire.

If Netanyahu pushes annexation through the Knesset before the U.S. elections, he may well be creating a big problem for Israel with a new American president afterward. Israel would then reap international opprobrium for no gain. But if Netanyahu doesn’t go through with the annexation, he’ll face a revolt within his own party and withering criticism from Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, the leaders of the two right-wing parties he left out in the cold when he decided on cohabitation with Gantz.

How Netanyahu and Gantz resolve such dilemmas is likely to become the defining test for the new Israeli government, which will still be in its formative stages as the July 1 date for the consideration of annexation approaches. But those who would doubt its chances for survival should remember that it took a Hercules to slay the Hydra.

  • MARTIN INDYK is a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy.
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