It Takes a Pandemic to Elect a Prime Minister

March, 30 2020
Israel, Latest
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1. How Bibi pulled it off again

While the world is busy with the worst pandemic in decades, politics quietly rolls on, and in some cases—such as in Israel—big things are taking place while everyone else is busy stocking up on food and toilet paper and trading human interactions for spotty Zoom connections.

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has all but secured his next government, and it is about to be bigger, more stable, and easier to manage than many of the coalitions he’s led in the past decade.

How did a politician facing trial on two corruption cases, who came out second in the latest elections and who failed to receive the mandate to form the next government manage to end up keeping his post as prime minister?

First, a brief recap of the latest political developments in Israel.

After being entrusted by the president of Israel with the first shot at establishing a new government, Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, engaged in talks with potential coalition partners. He came up short of the 61-member minimum needed to win approval for a narrow center-left government, mainly because two of his own party members refused to approve a coalition based on the support of the majority-Arab Joint List party.

From that point, events evolved quickly.

Gantz engaged in secret negotiations with representatives of Netanyahu and reached an understanding on forming a national unity government (there was also a complicated detour regarding the election of the next Knesset Speaker, but let’s leave that aside.).

Meanwhile back home, Gantz’s partner Yair Lapid was livid when he learned of the plan to join Netanyahu. As was Gantz’s third partner, former general Moshe Ya’alon. At the end of a tumultuous couple of days, Lapid and Ya’alon took their supporters and broke up Blue and White, arguing that Gantz betrayed his promise never to serve under Netanyahu. Gantz, with about half the members he started off with, agreed to join a national unity government led by Netanyahu, with a promise to rotate the prime ministership in a year and a half.

Details are still being finalized, but assuming no last-minute hitch, Israel’s next government will be led, again, by Netanyahu, and will include not only all of his previous coalition partners (the ultra-Orthodox and settler parties) but also the centrist Blue and White and probably even a couple of former Labor Party MKs who will join in.

Gantz’s promise to never sit in a Netanyahu government, and his argument that an indicted politician should not lead the country, were cast aside.

2. The lesson Israeli politics offers American Jewish voters

The surprise twists and turns of Israeli politics offer several takeaways, some of them potentially relevant to American voters preparing for the November elections.

First is to never underestimate the power of a talented politician. And more importantly, never underestimate the ability of a politician willing to play dirty. Netanyahu used every trick in the book, from accusing Gantz of cooperating with terrorists to utilizing the coronavirus crisis to force an emergency government. It all worked.

Gantz played nice, and as always, nice guys finish last.

It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind if and when the U.S. elections end up becoming a similar race. Beware of the good guy’s ability to win.

The other takeaway has to do with the false political notion of unity and reconciliation. It’s an idea politicians like to throw around and that voters like to say they support. After all, what’s worthier than aspiring to see your nation working to heal its wounds in the spirit of bipartisanship? But at the end of the day, as Netanyahu has shown, the winners are those who turn to ideology and identity and those who feel free to attack their opponent. A year and half of political turmoil in Israel demonstrated that centrist messages are great, but they don’t bring out voters.

And the most relevant point is the one relating to the current state of the world. Netanyahu took full advantage of the unprecedented crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic, and come November, so will Donald Trump. Emergency situations can go either way, so expect both sides to make use of them. It’s very likely that the choice in November will be whether or not to rally round the flag at a time of crisis.

3. Will a new government in Israel revive the “deal of the century”?

This, in fact, is one of the issues Netanyahu and Gantz are still at odds about. Both have endorsed Trump’s peace plan, but while Netanyahu wants to move ahead with his favorite element of the American plan—massive annexation—Gantz wants no more than a limited annexation in the Jordan Valley. He has also spoken about the need to use Trump’s program as a basis for outreach to the Palestinians and Arab nations.

But the entire debate is moot. The Trump administration has zero interest or capacity right now to deal with the Middle East, and until the end of the year, it will be fully consumed with the coronavirus crisis and the economic disaster it caused.

4. Will the coronavirus outbreak impact the Jewish vote in 2020?

Who knows?

But it would make good sense to assume that Democrats have little to worry about. Jewish voters who planned to vote Democratic have seen no reason to change their minds, and, if anything, they have been proven right on issues of health care, social safety nets and Trump’s ability to lead.

Jewish Republicans are also unlikely to see much change. As the economy goes south, they’re likely to turn to a Trump-style Republican president to help businesses, keep taxes low, and work hard to revive the stock market.

5. Passover in the time of coronavirus

It’s not a political question, but at least in New York, the needs of the Jewish community are something no politician can ignore.

Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged the difficulty facing those forced to celebrate the Passover seder, and those wishing to celebrate Easter, under strict limitations that will not allow sharing the festive moment with their friends and extended family.

“It’s hard. It’s hard. But on the flip side, I say look at what happened in New Rochelle. Those gatherings that brought people together were religious gatherings and brought hundreds of people together, which was beautiful. But it made many, many people ill. And density is the enemy here,” Cuomo said. “You worship, worship the way you can, but the gatherings are just not a good idea.”

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