A file photo taken on February 17, 2020, shows an election banner for the Israeli Blue and White political alliance with the face of (L to R) its leader retired army general Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: AFP/Jack Guez

After an almost year-long game of chicken between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz, the latter finally blinked. In a shocking move, Gantz was elected Speaker of the Knesset with the support of the entire right-wing bloc, signaling the formation of a unity government involving the Likud and most of the Blue and White party.

The optics of continuing to contest a standing, experienced prime minister and plummeting the country into yet another election while a deadly virus spread throughout the country seemed dangerous, and even unfeasible.

“These are not ordinary days and require extraordinary decisions,” said Gantz in his first speech post-deal.

The details on the deal leading to this outcome are still somewhat sketchy, but Gantz will almost certainly take the post of defense minister or foreign minister in the new government. The new coalition will likely consist of between 78 and 82 members with Likud, Israel Resilience, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism and possibly Labor in the fold, along with another member or two of Blue and White.

Netanyahu will most likely agree to promote immunity less in exchange for Gantz abandoning legislation to bar him from seeking re-election.

In September 2021, the two are scheduled to rotate their positions and Gantz will take the premier position. However, this particular part of the deal has rained guffaws considering the determination Netanyahu has shown to cling to power and pursue immunity.

Therefore, few believe Bibi will actually allow himself to be rotated out of power. They have good reason for doubt he would accept a ministerial post, given that lawmakers under indictment cannot serve as cabinet ministers, according to Israeli law.

The background to this move is complex and unprecedented. Gantz had cobbled together a motley assortment of 61 votes, a bare majority. His supporters did not believe a government could be formed under these conditions and undertook an aggressive legislative campaign to replace Netanyahu, which involved the forcing out of Likud member Yuli Edelstein as speaker of the Knesset.

This was to be followed by legislation designed to bar Netanyahu, indicted for several charges and facing court dates later this year, from running in new elections.

The plan was already well underway and had forced Edelstein’s resignation on Wednesday. However, as Covid-19 spread throughout Israel, the political calculus changed. The idea of running a hostile maneuver to replace Netanyahu no longer seemed feasible, given the real risks of coronavirus spread and the weariness of the public after a string of elections.

Not ordinary days

In his first speech as Knesset speaker, Gantz exclaimed the Covid-19 crisis demanded an emergency unity government to address it.

He promised he would not betray the desire of his voters to “build and strengthen democracy” and promised to “regulate its system of checks and balances, stop the unbridled attacks from irresponsible ministers, remove ideas of replacing the court and the prosecution, and work to end the rifts between us.”

These are all not particularly veiled attacks at the policies of Netanyahu and his government, a government he is now propping up in power. Gantz is widely expected to resign the speakership after the proscribed unity government is finalized, to be replaced by a Likud member, making a mockery of his fight to replace Edelstein as Knesset speaker.

The move has massive political consequences for Gantz as it ends the alliance of his party with that of former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and former Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon, which was known as the Blue and White party. Losing the support of not only the other parties but also the hardcore anti-Netanyahu core of his own supporters, it is not clear on what platform Gantz would run in future elections and what constituency would support him. There is a very good chance that this move eviscerates his long-term popular support.

If so, why did Gantz take this extreme plunge? He had recently been recommended by a majority of 61 Members of Knesset to form a coalition, and in theory, had the upper hand.

However, it was an illusion. His supporters ranged from the most anti-Zionist Arab party to the most right-wing members of Blue and White, and could not possibly cooperate within a government.

The ravages of Covid-19 had brought the country together, and Netanyahu’s firm and effective response to the crisis has been impressive. With eight deaths from 2,693 infected in the country, quick Israeli moves to isolate cases and close down the country have limited its worst effects.

The idea of running against Bibi and trying to figure out the logistics of an election while the prime minister monopolized the media with responsible and stately speeches every evening would likely have led Gantz to a crippling defeat.

“This is not the time for rivalries … and factionalism. It is a time for responsible, statesmanlike, patriotic leadership,” said Gantz.

Opportunity in crisis

Lapid, seeing an opportunity to seize the anti-Netanyahu mantle, did not mince words at what he saw as an outrageous move and accused Gantz of abandoning his principles by “crawling” into a coalition of “extremists and extortionists.”

“The coronavirus crisis doesn’t give us the right or permission to abandon our values. We promised not to sit under a prime minister with three criminal indictments … and on this week of all weeks, in which the attacks on the justice system were at their worst, a prize is given to those who disobey the law. A prize to criminality. You can’t crawl into a government like that and tell us you did it for the good of the country,” he said.

Lapid is now set to lead the opposition against the new unity government and set himself up as the safe harbor for the considerable anti-Netanyahu vote. He said he aims to maintain the support of “Good, honest Israelis. People who serve in the IDF [the Israeli military], pay their taxes, obey the law. They feel betrayed today, and justifiably so. Their votes were stolen and given as a gift to Netanyahu.”

His Yesh Atid and Yaalon’s Telem factions both filed formal requests to break away from Blue and White late on Thursday afternoon, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience party to join the new coalition. However, former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi will come along with Gantz and is expected to take a top portfolio in the new government.

For all intents and purposes, this removes any realistic political challenge against Netanyahu from the table. Gantz was a particularly useful figurehead for the resistance to Netanyahu due to his military record and “decent guy” demeanor. Though Lapid is a far cannier political operator, his elite pretty boy image does not inspire confidence in Israelis in the same manner.

King Bibi has managed to cement his leadership against all odds by making the utmost of a national crisis. In the Darwinian world of Israeli politics, the fittest has survived yet again.