Polarization, Populism, and Brinkmanship: The Rise and Fall of Israel’s National Emergency Government

Israel is undergoing a profound and protracted political crisis, despite what appear to be flourishing strategic and diplomatic relations with its regional neighbors. Political turbulence reached new heights after April 2020, during the national emergency precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Following three rounds of elections within eighteen months, the main parties to the contest settled for a power-sharing arrangement to manage the serious social and economic fallout from the pandemic and to facilitate national reconciliation between the different elements of Israel’s highly polarized society. The Knesset swore in the new government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on 17 May 2020, yet it collapsed seven months later. Unable to pass a state budget before the end of the calendar year, as required by law, the government fell automatically on 23 December 2020. The fall of the so-called national emergency government mirrors the deep social, political, institutional, and constitutional crises brewing in Israel since 2009.

Israel’s political stalemate is the result of the intricate relationship between its social and political cleavages and the country’s proportional electoral system, which has led to a plethora of parties in the Knesset and made it difficult to form a stable coalition. That political reality is manifested in the resulting split along two major fault-lines: right and center-left. In more concrete terms, the crisis manifests in the inability of Likud—the largest Knesset party, headed by long-standing premier Netanyahu—to guarantee a stable majority, without which no other party has been able to form an alternative government. It is a paradoxical political reality wherein the only person with enough Knesset seats to enable him to form a government is Netanyahu, but without sufficient support to give him the necessary majority to rule as he wishes.           

The three rounds of elections held between April 2019 and March 2020 were telling of the serious effort involved to dislodge the Likud from its dominant role and replace Netanyahu in the prime minister’s office. That effort resulted in many Israelis voting for the newly established Kahol Lavan party, headed by former chief of staff Benny Gantz. Even though his party won an unprecedented number of Knesset seats in a relatively short period of time over three election cycles, Gantz frittered away the political capital he built up with the public by capitulating and accepting to join a coalition government with Netanyahu following the third round in March 2020. This unexpected development, which immediately led to a split in Kahol Lavan ranks, resulted in the formation of the Netanyahu-Gantz national emergency government. This appears to have been just one more maneuver by Netanyahu to secure a stable majority for a government in which he does not have to share the prime minister’s office with anyone, as he had to do under the coalition agreement with Kahol Lavan.

Netanyahu has thus managed to abolish the threat posed to his sole rule by Kahol Lavan, which has nearly disintegrated as a political party. According to polls conducted after the fall of the Netanyahu-Gantz government, Kahol Lavan, once the promise of the center-left bloc in Israel, with aspirations to oust Netanyahu and the Likud from power, has lost the public’s trust. The party that won thirty-five seats in the April 2019 election now seeks to join with others in order to pass the threshold in the March 2021 ballot. Yet the reality is, no serious center-left challenge to Netanyahu remains. The right-wing bloc’s leading figures and parties are the only serious contenders in the game.

The disintegration of the two major blocs that have dominated Israeli politics in recent decades may yield new opportunities, although these remain difficult to anticipate. But the short-lived experiment with a coalition government of rotating prime ministers is an opportunity to examine the functioning and ramifications of domestic Israeli politics and to explore developments such as the normalizing of relations with several Arab countries. The deep antagonism between various segments of Israeli society, and the resentment of Netanyahu and his corrupt and autocratic leadership style have not been obstacles to Netanyahu’s promotion of a strategic vision that seeks to not only normalize relations with Arab states prior to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, but to instrumentalize normalization to entirely sideline that conflict entire. Israel is bracing for a fourth round of elections in less than two years, and recent polls show the Likud as the single largest party in the Knesset, although it cannot necessarily form a stable government. This reflects the state of deep crisis in Israel, and the public’s growing mistrust in the political system. It also calls into question Israel’s ability to contain the expectations of antagonistic groups in society. The promise held by the establishment of the national emergency government, as well as the institutional and legal changes that were introduced to make it possible, and the implications of its fast disintegration for the future of the Israeli political system all point to the importance of examining that government’s trajectory.

The national emergency government saw two competing blocs—the right-wing bloc, led by the Likud[1], and the center-left bloc, headed by the rump of Kahol Lavan[2]—coming together to heal the rift among Israel’s citizenry after a long period of incitement and mutual delegitimization. Despite the large numerical disparity between the blocs, the government was established on the basis of total parity between the two. The Likud bloc counted fifty-four Knesset members (MKs), of whom thirty-six belonged to the party, while Kahol Lavan counted only twenty MKs, three of them affiliated with Labor and two with Derekh Eretz,[3] the faction that split off from Kahol Lavan after the March 2020 ballot. To satisfy the demands of all partners, the cabinet included several ministerial positions created solely for that purpose. As a result, the national emergency government was the largest cabinet in Israeli history, with a total of fifty-two positions: thirty-six cabinet ministers and sixteen deputy ministers.

Pundits had not anticipated the national emergency government in any of their pre-election scenarios, so it came as a surprise. It also entailed a personal gain for Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister since 2009. Although unable to win a decisive majority in three elections, Netanyahu navigated the near-stalemate to maintain his grip on power and undermine his rivals inside the government coalition while systematically eroding constitutional mechanisms that would limit that power. By challenging the authority of law enforcement institutions, including the judicial system and the office of the attorney general, and by delegitimizing his opponents using every populist tactic in the playbook, Netanyahu destabilized Israel’s political system, weakening the checks and balances that guard against authoritarian rule. At the same time, he succeeded in maintaining Likud’s historical links with the two ultra-Orthodox parties, the Shas (nine seats), and the Yahadut HaTorah[4] (seven seats).[5] He was also able to keep out of the coalition the nationalist-religious list Yamina,[6] most closely identified with the settler movement, and thus did not invite either of its leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, to join the government.

By contrast, the parity government marks a setback for the center-left bloc headed by Gantz, the first candidate to pose a real threat to Netanyahu’s rule in a decade: composed of Kahol Lavan, the Labor party, Meretz,[7] and Gesher.[8] The bloc fell apart soon after the election. Kahol Lavan, which had initially won thirty-three Knesset seats, dwindled to fourteen because seventeen Yesh Atid-Telem MKs, headed by Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon, split from Kahol Lavan and did not join the coalition government. Two other MKs, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, who belonged to Telem and ran on the Kahol Lavan list, established a new Knesset faction and joined the coalition. Simultaneously, one Gesher MK went over to the right-wing bloc, and three Meretz MKs did not join the coalition. These splits within the Kahol Lavan list were, in the long run, big gains for Likud. Despite not being able secure an absolute majority allowing him to form a right-wing government, Netanyahu eliminated the potential threat of a rival party, the first to pose a counterweight to Likud in more than a decade. Using patriotic rhetoric, the heads of the small Kahol Lavan faction cited the necessity of ending Netanyahu’s decade-long solo rule as justification for their decision to join the national emergency government. Gantz emphasized that this was a time of crisis, and that he was committed to help repair the damage done by the previous government. The formation of the parity government, he said, would give him the authority to curb Netanyahu’s power.    

Several questions arise when reflecting on the circumstances that led to the formation of the national emergency government, as well as its functioning and its implications for the Israeli polity. How did Netanyahu succeed in smashing the Kahol Lavan alliance and winning the trust of Gantz despite his constant and systematic attacks on both? What is the division of labor within this government, and how does it function? Not just in terms of how it conducts its business, but in the broader sense—its implications for the Israeli regime and the stability of the entire political system. Before addressing these questions, a review of Israel’s current political reality is in order. What are the circumstances that led to the political stalemate? What are the motivations of the main political parties that joined the government? This context, to be addressed in the following section, will illuminate the implications of the political, social, and cultural cleavages in Israeli society that led to the formation of such an unexpected government.

For the national emergency government to form, legal changes were introduced that will have deep and long-standing constitutional consequences, especially with respect to the government’s system of checks and balances. As a legal document, the coalition agreement highlights the political compromises made to ease the mutual suspicion between the coalition partners and to facilitate the constitutional tinkering required to guarantee parity between two asymmetrical political blocs. Exploring the coalition agreement helps to better understand the ramifications of a populist political discourse and its role in destabilizing the Israeli regime’s institutional structure.[9] Even though the election campaign was harsh and ugly, the competing blocs built a joint coalition, thereby staving off the possibility of an alternative headed by Kahol Lavan with support from the Joint List representing Arab voters. Looking at how this came about provides insight into Israel’s growing ethno-nationalist political culture and the way it is manifested both in the domestic arena and in the state’s regional strategic and security policies. It is important to note that Kahol Lavan won the support of over one million voters. But its willingness to abandon the possibility of building a minority coalition backed by Arab MKs, and its decision to join forces instead with Netanyahu—despite three criminal indictiments against him that required the introduction of serious constitutional modifications to guarantee him the post of premier—deserve closer scrutiny. Growing public mistrust of the Israeli political system and widespread ethno-national extremism in Jewish Israeli society meant that Gantz and his colleagues did not dare establish a government with the support of the Arab Joint List.[10]

The analysis that follows will address these issues by examining the political, legal, and constitutional significance of the coalition agreement. It will also shed light on the government’s decision-making procedures, especially with regard to the enormous disparities in its performance—failing to face the health and economic challenges of the coronavirus crisis, on the one hand, and successfully promoting normalization agreements with Arab Gulf states, and thereby continuing to transform the regional balance of power in favor of the Israeli state, on the other. With this in mind, I explore the debate over the implementation of the Trump “Peace to Prosperity” plan; Netanyahu’s intention to annex large parts of the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt); and the sudden plot twist that apparently traded the annexation plan for a normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, without the knowledge of Netanyahu’s major government partners, the defense and foreign ministers, Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, both from Kahol Lavan. This apparently unscripted development, which followed a heated debate over the annexation plan inside Israel, brings into focus how regional and international conditions enabled the government to circumvent its own policies, and how each of the coalition partners exploited such conditions to promote their own vision and strengthen their hand. I conclude the discussion with a few insights that might point to possible future developments both domestically and in Israel’s regional and international relations, as well as to the interdependency between the two.

 

Rationalizing the Netanyahu-Gantz Parity Government  

Unlike the coalition governments of the 1980s, the parity government of Netanyahu and Gantz is not based on an equal distribution of seats in the Knesset. After three rounds of elections spanning 2019 and early 2020, the right-wing bloc entered into negotiations on the formation of a government with fifty-nine MKs (Likud: thirty-six; Shas: nine; Yahadut HaTorah: seven; Yamina: six),[11] whereas Kahol Lavan came to the table with fewer than twenty MKs.[12] Kahol Lavan’s disintegration during the parity government negotiations created a new reality wherein the larger bloc seized the opportunity to co-opt the rump of the minority party into a government that enabled Netanyahu to continue steering the country from his prime ministerial office. The asymmetry in political power between the two blocs, and Likud’s willingness to consent to a parity government highlighted the degree to which this was a last resort option made inevitable by the election results, especially in light of Kahol Lavan’s unwillingness to form a potential coalition supported by the Joint List. Gantz’s refusal to seriously contemplate such an alternative marks the ethno-national red lines of political legitimacy embedded in the Israeli political system. The center-left party followed its predecessors in not seeing Arab parties as legitimate coalition partners, even when such a partnership could have translated into Joint List support without the Arab party having to join the government.

The parity government also marked the extent of Netanyahu’s political cynicism and seemingly endless maneuvering to safeguard his political rule in the foreseeable future. After the third round of elections, his negotiation strategy was to exploit the health and economic crises precipitated by the pandemic to prevent his opponents from having the Jewish majority necessary to establish an alternative government. Instrumentalizing Israel’s ethnic cleavages, Netanyahu obtained fundamental and strategic concessions from an opponent seeking to become a legitimate player in the political game, the opponent in question being Gantz, who was Israel’s army chief of staff during one of the most tumultuous periods of Netanyahu’s rule, namely the 2014 assault on Gaza, code-named Operation Protective Edge.[13]

The intensive and tense negotiations on the coalition agreement between the two rivals exposed not only the mutual suspicion between them and the social segments they represent but also the no-choice reality they were up against. Both Netanyahu and Gantz had to walk back their campaign rhetoric: for Netanyahu, the manipulative allegation that Gantz did not have the skills necessary to take on a leading role; and for Gantz, that he would never participate in a Netanyahu government. Justifying their decision to join forces and rationalizing the betrayal of their constituencies, both emphasized that the economic crisis/national emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic made it incumbent upon them to work together. Post-election opinion polls indicated that a fourth round of elections would neither break the stalemate nor guarantee either side a decisive majority. This reality forced both sides to swallow the bitter pill of collaboration, and settle for what they saw at the time as the optimal gain to be made in the circumstances.

Be that as it may, it is worth analyzing why a fifty-four strong Knesset bloc was ready to share power with a party less than half its size, a party that went on to lose most of its support because it did not meet voters’ campaign expectations. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that an experienced leader like Netanyahu agreed to share the position of prime minister with someone who has never held a ministerial seat and whom he repeatedly depicted as incompetent during the election campaign. Parsing these two issues is important. First, it provides insight into the nature of the coalition agreement; second, it enables us to better grasp how such an ambiguous agreement came about, even though it was carefully formulated to satisfy all parties’ expectations.

Here, it is worth recalling the official justifications provided by Netanyahu and Gantz for entering into the negotiations that led to the formation of the coalition. Netanyahu claimed that such a government was in line with his long-standing policy of uniting and serving the people. He posted on Facebook: “I promised the people of Israel a national emergency government that would save lives and livelihoods … I will continue doing everything for your sake, citizens of Israel.”[14] In positioning himself as the leader of the entire Israeli people, he attempted to demonstrate that he had delivered on his campaign promises and met the expectations of the wider citizenry, not just his own voters. In contrast, Gantz tweeted that “we prevented [a] fourth [round of] elections. We will protect democracy. We will fight against Corona and take care of all the citizens of Israel. There is a national emergency government.”[15] Casting himself as Israel’s savior, Gantz emphasized three points justifying his decision to join the government. First, taking national responsibility by preventing a further round of elections, something that would be expensive and inappropriate during a health and economic crisis. Second, protecting democracy at a time when his opponent was constantly challenging its institutions and norms. Third, fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the implication being that the previous Netanyahu-led government had not done a good job and that his own participation was necessary to properly address this national emergency.

These official pronouncements do not reflect the real interests that drove the two leaders to put aside the bad blood between them and join forces in a parity government that lacks a minimal common denominator to guarantee its stability. Netanyahu’s reasons for and interest in acquiescing to a parity government are manifold, and combating the pandemic is not among them.[16] If this were a real goal, the filling of the health minister position would not have been an afterthought or a trivial bargaining matter, given the fiasco that was his predecessor.[17] Netanyahu was motivated by several interrelated issues, first among them the need to eliminate any political challenge to his rule. The emergence of Kahol Lavan signaled, for the first time since 2009, that a competing party could win an equal or greater number of Knesset seats than Likud: 35/35 in April 2019 and 33/32 in September 2019. While Kahol Lavan did not garner sufficient support to establish a Jewish-majority coalition, it still posed a danger that Netanyahu had not recently experienced. Furthermore, it was the first time that an alternative coalition supported by Arab MKs became a possibility, as had happened during the second Yitzhak Rabin-led government in the 1990s. The possibility of a government coalition not led by Likud meant losing the powerful prime ministerial post, and the passage of legislation that could block Netanyahu’s ability to ever be prime minister again. The possible amendment of the Basic Law – Government to stop a criminally indicted candidate from heading a government posed a fatal challenge for Netanyahu. Unlike his position as leader of the opposition under Ehud Olmert’s government (2006–2009),[18] when he called on Olmert to resign, Netanyahu argued that the legal order allows him to remain in office until a trial is held and that he would have to leave office only if convicted. Given his electoral invincibility, Netanyahu sees the allegations against him, which he claims are baseless, as an effort to topple him.[19] Deploying populist rhetoric, the prime minister decries the endeavor as a violation of the will of the majority, an anti-democratic move orchestrated by his opponents in cahoots with the attorney general and the judiciary’s top echelons. The accusation leveled against his opponents, as well as the judicial system and the media, reached an unprecedented pitch when Netanyahu spoke in the lobby of the courthouse before his trial opened in May,[20] laying bare his determination to avoid being tried as a regular citizen.

Veteran political analyst Akiva Eldar convincingly frames Netanyahu’s motivation for accepting a coalition government that compromises his power as follows: “It is highly doubtful that Netanyahu presciently identified the coronavirus threat, but he undoubtedly identified its potential to be a vaccine against his personal ruin by a move from the prime minister’s office to a jail cell. The official name of this vaccine is ‘national emergency government.’ But the more appropriate title for this government … would be ‘personal salvation government.’”[21] 

To enhance his position and justify his argument that the emergency government lay at the heart of the national interest, after the election Netanyahu appealed to public opinion with a number of messages in favor of a national unity government.[22]

The first line of argument was economic, with Netanyahu pressuring Kahol Lavan to join forces with him in the name of national commitment and patriotism to alleviate the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. In this context, he argued that going for a fourth round of elections would be irresponsible and dangerous and that he would do everything in his power to prevent it. Were such an election to to take place, he would not bear responsibility for its occurrence, he said. That argument has been constantly undermined by him after forming the government through the lack of commitment to the coalition’s full three-year term, as evidenced by his efforts to challenge Kahol Lavan, exploiting every lacuna in the coalition agreement to advance his own agenda, namely determining the timing of new elections that would deliver the majority he needs to nix his trial.[23]

The second message advanced the notion that because of the public health crisis there had to be deficit spending and the budget needed reconfiguring. He argued that this was better done after a new government was elected, although it was legally possible for his own transitional government to have done so prior to the formation of the parity government. Netanyahu’s intention to exploit the challenging economic situation for his own interests was revealed when a serious crisis around the state budget arose three months after the parity government was established. He blocked the possibility of passing a two-year budget per the coalition agreement and negotiated for passing only a one-year budget in order to retain the option to topple the government whenever he sees fit, and thereby sidestep handing over the post of prime minister to Gantz, as they agreed was to happen in November 2021.

However, when he realized that the timing was not right for another election, as a result of the second wave of the pandemic and of his ultra-Orthodox partners’ reluctance to see a new election held, he agreed in August to postpone the budget issue until 23 December 2020, when the 2021 budget would have to be negotiated.[24] Given the fact that he was not ready to introduce a two-year budget in early December and given his insistence on passing the 2020 budget before 23 December, leaving the 2021 budget up for negotiation in the early months of 2021demonstrates Netanyahu’s cunning: He maneuvered the situation to keep the door open for a crisis that would enable him to call for a new election, all the while retaining his position as prime minister.

Understanding that not passing a budget was the only way to override coalition agreement stipulations enabled Netanyahu to hold the budget hostage. Specifically, if one of the two partners did not respect the agreement and a new election was called, the leader of the other camp would automatically become the head of the transitional government until an election took place. Since he could remain prime minister until a new government was formed following a new election, and since most surveys showed that he was the only leader able to form a coalition, he risked the government’s stability and precipitated a serious coalition crisis around the budget.      A third line of argument Netanyahu put forward was the need for an emergency government to deal with the health crisis, even though he regularly boasted about Israel being in the vanguard of combating Covid-19.[25] Netanyahu concealed that the Ministry of Health was under his direct control and would remain in the hands of Likud appointees after a new government was established.

A fourth message was that a unity government would guarantee stability and avert the need for a fourth round of elections. Therefore, those claiming to speak in the national interest and to protect democracy, such as Gantz, would prove their good faith only if they joined forces with the Likud bloc.

A fifth message was that a unity government would help bridge the gap between the two main blocs and ease the incitement and racism that permeated the campaigns. With such a message, Netanyahu could blame his rivals for the incitement rhetoric and the tribalization/polarization of politics in the country. By calling for an emergency government, he portrayed himself as the most responsible national leader, the only one capable of overcoming Israel’s health, economic, and political crises, as if he had not been the head of the government for the past decade.

In the face of Netanyahu’s rhetoric and in order to secure his own party’s political future, Gantz pushed back against the delegitimization of his leadership and expanded his chances of winning the prime minister’s office. Although he had a Knesset majority and received the go-ahead from the Israeli president to form a government, he could not square the circle of bringing together the radical right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and the ultra-Orthodox parties, on the one hand, and the Joint List, on the other. He gave up on taking the radical step in Israeli politics of winning the majority of Arab MKs’ votes and opted for a national emergency government under the leadership of his bitter rival. He made several arguments to justify his decision, and although his base was left unconvinced, he rallied support from some Kahol Lavan voters.[26]

Gantz argued that although he had won a majority of the Knesset’s support, it was not possible to guarantee a majority to build a government, since several MKs from his bloc were not ready to back a government based on Joint List support. The internal opposition inside his own party and the unwillingness of Derekh Eretz to back him if he joined forces with the Joint List were not the only reasons to decide to establish an emergency government with Netanyahu. Gantz had said during his campaign that the Joint List would not be part of his government.[27] Left with few options, Gantz opted for a national emergency government rather than form a minority government with the backing of the Joint List. Although he paid a heavy price for joining the government in terms of losing voter trust, at least he demonstrated political responsibility, thereby negating his rival’s allegations and  guaranteeing his ability to seriously impact the process of decision-making from within.

A second argument Gantz made to justify his decision to join Netanyahu in forming a national emergency government was that sharing responsibility meant sharing power: a parity government would give Gantz veto power over any matter that threatened the rule of law, democracy, or Israel’s strategic interests—the last alluding to Netanyahu’s plan to annex Palestinian lands, which Gantz alleged would jeopardize Israel’s regional security and international support.[28] That Gantz was unable to curb Netanyahu’s ambitions, which ultimately led to the government’s fall, points to the veteran premier’s ability to subject the entire political system to his whims. It also highlights the disappointment of broad segments of Israeli society that want to see the following: an end to the autocratic populism supported by a loyal conservative and nationalist, and broadly Mizrahi, social base; the restoration of the rule of law; and the triumph of statist values (mamlakhtiyut).[29]  

 

The Coalition Agreement: Political and Constitutional Significance

The national emergency government was established after a long and fractious process of negotiation, marked by manipulation and intrigue. Neither side was satisfied with the new arrangement. Each made clear that it had entered into a partnership because it was left with no other choice. The power-sharing agreement they signed went through several drafts and had to be amended to meet the requirements of the government’s legal adviser, who is also the attorney general.[30] I will address several central components of the agreement to shed light on the motivations for both sides to show flexibility in adapting the institutional and legal structure to the pressing need of unity. Such an exercise reveals the policy approaches and the priorities agreed upon by the parties, and exposes the mutual suspicion that led to formulating the agreed-upon issues in convoluted legal terms.        

Below, I differentiate between three aspects of the coalition agreement that help us better understand the willingness of both sides to submit the long-standing rules of the game to their needs: first, its institutional dimensions, relating to the government’s structure and internal division of labor; second, its legal and constitutional dimensions; and third, those elements that pertain to the strategic and foreign relations of the state, specifically, the most prominent items on the diplomatic agenda at the time, the Trump Peace to Prosperity plan and Netanyahu’s pledge to annex large parts of the oPt.

Institutional Dimensions

According to the agreement, the new coalition government is an emergency national unity government of three years duration, whose first six months is defined as an emergency period when legislation and policies will pertain mostly to the crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, the incoming government’s initial task is to address the most urgent issues arising from the economic, health, and social repercussions of the pandemic, with all other legislative items to be postponed.[31] Accordingly, a special cabinet with its own budget was to be established that would centralize the needed policies and regulations to confront the pandemic and provide the necessary financial relief to the many citizens who had lost jobs and to the businesses that were shut down.

The government’s political authority would be shared by its two constituent blocs, and any disagreement (which arose almost immediately) would be resolved through negotiations between the two blocs’ heads, the prime minister (Netanyahu) and the alternate premier and defense minister (Gantz). This part of the agreement required the introduction of radical institutional changes[32] since the new government would be headed by two people with the same authority, each of whom would be fully responsible for the ministers and deputy ministers from their bloc. The number of ministers was set at thirty-two, with sixteen deputy ministers.[33] Some portfolios, such as foreign affairs, would also be shared by the two blocs, each for a period of eighteen months, starting with Kahol Lavan. Initially, the two parties agreed to postpone appointments to high-ranking civil service positions until the end of the initial six-month emergency period. This compromise over civil service appointments reflected the deep mistrust and profound disagreements between the two sides and became another source of friction between the partners.

The original draft of the coalition agreement invoked the establishment of a special committee tasked with high-ranking civil service appointments, such as those for state attorney and the chief commissioner of police, whose terms had come to an end, and for the attorney general, whose term was ending soon. Given that such appointments have major implications for policy related to the rule of law, especially with a sitting prime minister facing three criminal indictments and a trial in progress, this was a sensitive issue for both parties. Netanyahu’s relentless criticism of all those responsible for bringing charges against him (particularly the attorney general), and his outsize ability to influence the selection process, put Kahol Lavan in a difficult position: While it was able to prevent Netanyahu from being directly involved in the appointment of senior officials with the power to determine his legal and, consequently, political future, it was unable to guarantee that his loyalists would not impact the process. In terms of the coalition agreement, this translated into the establishment of a committee to select nominees for these positions based on the principle of parity, but since the prime minister retains veto power over these appointments, Kahol Lavan effectively granted Netanyahu an indirect say in the process. In effect, the coalition agreement has facilitated the ability of a criminally indicted individual to impact the appointment of the people responsible for his political fate. The agreement has also politicized law enforcement appointments, thereby damaging public trust in the institutions responsible for the rule of law.[34]

Although this is not the place to delve into the section of the agreement that deals with the committee for appointing court justices (including to the Supreme Court), it is pertinent to draw attention to the importance of this committee for two reasons: the first relates to the right-wing bloc’s overarching goal of appointing more conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Achieving such a goal would transform the coutry’s judicial culture, which, for Likud and its partners, has become too liberal and has gradually elevated the principle of equality into a central characteristic of the Israeli constitutional tradition.[35] The second pertains to Netanyahu’s own fate, with attempts to seat less liberal justices on the Supreme Court who would be more sympathetic to his policies, generally, and his personal status, specifically.[36]

Per the power-sharing agreement, the committee for the appointment of justices comprises cabinet members, including the minister of justice and another minister from the Likud bloc, as well as one MK from Likud and one from Kahol Lavan. This effectively allows Likud veto power, and will have an even greater impact given that the representative of the Kahol Lavan bloc on the committee is Zvi Hauser, who does not actually belong to the Kahol Lavan party and was a government secretary in a previous Netanyahu administration. Many experts regard the appointment process as tantamount to granting Netanyahu the authority to intervene in the judicial system that is set to determine his fate.[37] Furthermore, this indirect authority strips of any meaning the mechanism of checks and balances achieved through the separation of powers.[38] In sum, experts argue that the formation of the new national emergency government has entailed compromises that are “ethically questionable and are potentially damaging to the institutional foundations of the Israeli regime.”[39]

Constitutional Dimensions

The coalition agreement’s legal-constitutional dimensions obviously overlap with its institutional ones. Here, I examine three major elements of the agreement’s legal aspect. The first, through which parity is assured, involves the creation of the alternate prime minister position to enable rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz. For Netanyahu and Gantz to alternate positions at the midway point of the three-year government, the Basic Law – Government, which is part of the Israeli constitutional order, had to be amended. (Many other laws were also amended to accommodate the creation of the new position.) The process of rotation between the two positions was made legally deterministic, meaning that the switch would automatically take place at the 18-month mark after the government was formed. For the first time in the history of the Israeli regime, a prime minister and an alternate prime minister were simultaneously sworn in. (This also meant that when the time came to switch between incumbents there would be no need for a vote of confidence by the Knesset.) The switch would not take place if the government fell as a result of the Knesset’s failure to pass the annual budget—something observers feared would give Netanyahu leeway to flout the agreement and call for new elections or at least threaten his partners with doing so if they did not submit to his demands, as happened during the August and December 2020 budget crises and the no-confidence vote in November 2020. 

Another important legal change ushered in by the coalition agreement has been the bypassing of a major Supreme Court precedent, the Deri/Pinhasi norm. Now a pillar of the Israeli political and legal tradition, this precedent relates to the case of Aryeh Deri (the current interior minister) and Raphael Pinhasi. Both were members of the 1993 Rabin coalition government when they were criminally indicted, with Pinhasi serving as Deri’s deputy. At the time, the Supreme Court ruled that cabinet ministers indicted on serious charges could not continue in office and that they must be removed by the prime minister. This judicial precedent raises questions as to the legality of appointing Netanyahu as minister in the second half of the government term. The coalition agreement was carefully formulated to avoid identifying the office of the alternate prime minister with a cabinet position, thereby bypassing the Deri/Pinhasi norm. Furthermore, the agreement preempts the possibility of Gantz firing Netanyahu once the two switch positions, as the prime minister is only allowed to dismiss ministers within his own bloc. These two legal amendments guarantee that Prime Minister Gantz cannot remove alternate premier Netanyahu from office on account of criminal indictments, assuming that the coalition holds together for eighteen months and Netanyahu becomes the alternate.[40]

To block any kind of judicial intervention in the implementation of the coalition agreement, a further clause with important constitutional implications was added. Section 8 of the agreement stipulates that should the Supreme Court intervene to dismiss the prime minister or alternate prime minister from their posts during the government’s first six months in office, both blocs shall refrain from supporting any other candidate able to form a new coalition without first calling a general election. Since new elections are automatically called for in case of Supreme Court intervention, Section 8 effectively negates the court’s judicial review. This sophisticated measure was then turned into a tool to pressure the court not to intervene. The measure’s efficacy was apparent when the Supreme Court unanimously decided that it was premature to intervene in the government’s practice after several opposition organizations filed an appeal against the coalition agreement and against the legality of enabling an indicted MK to form a governmental coalition.[41] In terms of enabling Netanyahu to form a government, the court clarified that the Knesset majority decision to support the move was not illegal. Contrary to the expectation of many judicial experts, the court ruled that the “prematurity doctrine” was applicable. The court further argued that although the coalition agreement raised questions, particularly concerning the legality of several of its clauses, it saw no reason to intervene, as the case was not ripe for adjudication and it was too early to determine its legal meaning.[42] The court was satisfied with requesting several clarifications, which the coalition partners delivered a few days later.[43] The court’s decision not to intervene and to issue a uninamous decision confirming that Netanyahu could form such a government points to its reluctance to intervene in Knesset decisions, especially when it comes to amending or constituting basic laws.

The third important constitutional issue concerns the prime minister’s resignation and the occurrence of a vote of no confidence.[44] According to the Basic Law – Government, a vote of no confidence has to have the support of the Knesset majority (sixty-one MKs), and that the majority cannot vote a government out of office without putting forth an alternative candidate whom they support. And in the case of a prime minister’s resignation, the entire government falls and a new election is called. To prevent either of these occurrences and to make it impossible for either of the parity government’s two leading figures to manipulate the situation, the Basic Law – Government was amended such that neither the prime minister nor the alternate prime minister would be allowed to head a transitional government in the event that either of the two scenarios arose (resignation and vote of no confidence). The amendment provides that, in the event of either occurrence taking place, the alternate prime minister automatically becomes the prime minister and heads a transitional government until an election is held. This legal and institutional measure was made conditional and is only applicable in cases where twelve or more MKs from the prime minister’s bloc support a decision to end the Knesset’s term. This condition was introduced to prevent one individual—the prime minister—from determining the fate of the government.  

As stated earlier, the coalition agreement mirrored the mistrust between the two sides and aimed to overcome the numerical asymmetry and power disparity between them. Former premier Olmert has argued that the coalition agreement is evidence that despite being formally constituted as a parity government, the national emergency government is a fiction.[45] Netanyahu’s relentless efforts to interpret the agreement in ways that advance his interests reflect the chasm between the formal standing of the government and the coalition partners’ constant political maneuvering. An example of this chasm can be seen in the attempt by Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz to push through the annual 2020 budget in July–August, even though the year was coming to an end. Not only did the move contradict the coalition agreement, but it also flouted a tradition established by Netanyahu himself to conduct two yearly budget exercises, partly for the sake of economic stability and partly to limit the leverage of junior coalition partners attempting to secure a greater share of resources than warranted by their actual political power.  

Netanyahu is able to sway his partners and impose his will, as evidenced by his volte-face on the budget and the fact that people from his bloc control almost all the powerful economic portfolios.[46] He turned the budget into a one-year exercise by refusing to introduce a two-year budget and forcing his partners to delay budget discussions until December 2020.[47] By doing so, he violated a central stipulation of the coalition agreement and preserved his ability to precipitate the fall of the government, which would entail a new election. Throughout, Netanyahu has paid no political price other than public criticism and having to contest an election at what he considered an inconvenient time. 

Strategic Interests and Trump Peace Plan

To understand the politics behind Israel’s national emergency government and the disputes within that coalition and in the Israeli political arena, it is useful to explore Netanyahu’s response to the political arm of President Donald Trump’s Peace to Prosperity plan––specifically, the Israeli premier’s intention to unilaterally interpret the plan as a green light to annex 30 percent of the West Bank and thereby extend Israeli law to those areas. Doing so also enables us to look at the pressures driving Netanyahu’s annexation plan and its uses for broader Israeli strategic regional interests, reflecting on the substantive versus the contingent similarities and differences between the right-wing bloc and the center-left bloc as regards Israel’s foreign and security policies in the region.

The timing of the Peace to Prosperity plan’s announcement was dictated by U.S. and Israeli political realities. Because of Netanyahu’s inability to secure a decisive Knesset majority after two rounds of elections and the fast-approaching U.S. presidential election, Trump went ahead and unveiled his plan at the White House on 28 January 2020. Netanyahu attended the ceremony, as did representatives of the Israel lobby in the United States, extremist Israeli nationalists, several members of the settler movement, and three Arab ambassadors. Netanyahu and his supporters celebrated the plan, viewing it as a game changer in the upcoming March 2020 Israeli elections. Indeed, it soon became the Likud campaign’s primary focus, receiving widespread local, regional, and international media and political attention. Officially titled “A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People,” the plan reflects the priorities of Israel’s nationalist camp, and is couched in language straight out of Israel’s security and strategic discourse. As one Israeli commentator stated, “[T]he language of the ‘Deal of the Century’ hints at the identity of the people who drafted it … most probably Jewish-Israelis and those that identify with them who are very remote from the Arab side and its demands.”[48] Another commentator praised the plan, saying that it was “first and foremost a historical victory for Zionism.”[49]

As soon as the plan was announced, Netanyahu spoke of how Washington had given the green light to Israel to annex 30 percent of the West Bank. While still in the United States and also during his flight back to Israel,[50] Netanyahu tried to preempt the international and regional response and selectively implemented parts of the plan that serve his strategic vision and political interests. Since he was in the middle of an election campaign and had failed to win a majority in two previous elections, Netanyahu sought to utilize the tailwind he had received from the U.S. administration to annex the larger Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley, a historic step that he thought would guarantee him victory and mark him as one of Israel’s founding fathers.

However, contrary to expectations, the U.S. president’s son-in-law, close adviser, and the plan’s major architect, Jared Kushner, turned down the dial by announcing that while the Trump administration clearly supported annexation, any implementation of the plan should wait until after the March 2020 Israeli elections.[51] Kushner’s announcement offered a real contrast to the impression created by Netanyahu, in his bid to secure a Knesset majority in March, that annexation was imminent.[52] It also made clear that the Trump plan was not a unilateral measure that Netanyahu could exploit to further his own strategic and political interests. Notwithstanding Washington’s position, which called for a bilateral committee to draw up the maps needed, and with the support supplied by U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Netanyahu insisted that he had convinced the Trump administration that Israel could not wait for the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table and that Israel’s right to extend its sovereignty over areas defined by the plan as belonging to Israel should be kept separate from those components of the plan that related to the Palestinians. We “intend to implement Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the northern areas of the Dead Sea without delay … We will not implant any settlement and we will not evacuate anyone. We will implement sovereignty over all the settlements without exception. We will bring about historic peace agreements with Arab countries, deter Iran, and craft a [mutual] defense agreement with the United States.”[53] Netanyahu reiterated that this was a historic opportunity and that “there’s only one government that can apply sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. A strong right-wing government led by the Likud headed by me …”[54]

Due to delays in implementing what Netanyahu had promised would be Israel’s sole decision, we see that Washington’s ambiguity was not the only reason for the annexation being delayed. Even though Netanyahu’s rhetoric invoked historic, strategic, and security interests, the military establishment expressed reservations and cautioned against rushing to create facts on the ground that might cause security or diplomatic harm.[55] That more nuanced view points to Netanyahu’s policy stance as being driven by his own political interests, and his need to curry favor with the national-religious camp and the settler community in the run-up to the March 2020 elections. Even though his efforts paid off, the fact that he could not garner an absolute Knesset majority to form a right-wing government meant that he was beholden to his main opponent from Kahol Lavan to secure his political future.

During the election campaign, Kahol Lavan took no clear stand on the future of the oPt. While the party pledged to do what was in the strategic and security interests of the state, it did not spell out how this would translate on the ground, or relate the nationalist rhetoric to specific plans. It cautioned against oPt policies that would endanger Israel’s peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt or its developing relations with the Arab Gulf states. For his part, Gantz positioned himself as an alternative to Netanyahu, projecting patriotism and responsibility commensurate with Israel’s regional diplomatic and security interests. After meeting with the U.S. president prior to the unveiling ceremony, Gantz said he would implement the Trump plan only “in coordination with other governments in the region.”[56] Gantz described the plan as “a significant milestone that defines the way the parties to the Middle East conflict can march toward a historic agreement.”[57] He added that, unlike his rival Netanyahu, he would work to achieve a “basis for an agreement with the Palestinians and the countries in the region while deepening the strategic partnership with Jordan, Egypt, and other countries in the region”[58] and that annexing the Jordan Valley was risky since it would endanger relations with King Abdallah of Jordan and place Israel’s peace agreements at risk.[59] Although Gantz promised during his campaign to act to implement sovereignty in the Jordan Valley, his formulation made clear that he differentiated between fully implementing sovereignty and taking some acts to implement sovereignty.[60]

Unaware that Netanyahu’s radical annexation rhetoric was not restricted to domestic consumption but had a foreign policy dimension, Kahol Lavan was convinced that the coalition agreement effectively curtailed the prime minister’s ability to rush into something that the party viewed as potentially harmful to the country’s strategic interests. Two sections of the agreement relate to the issue of annexation, sections 28 and 29. Section 28 states,

The Prime Minister and the Alternate Prime Minister will work together and in coordination to advance a peace agreement with all our neighbors and to advance regional cooperation in a variety of economic spheres, as well as with respect to the coronavirus crisis. … With regard to President Trump’s declaration, the Prime Minister and the Alternate Prime Minister will act in full agreement with the United States, including with the Americans in regard to the maps and with international dialogue on the subject. All of this while pursuing the security and strategic interests of the State of Israel, including the need for maintaining regional stability, the preservation of peace agreements and the pursuit of future peace agreements.[61]

This framing supports the notion that Section 28 of the agreement reflects the stance of Alternate Prime Minister Gantz, expressed both during his campaign and in the course of the negotiations that led up to the establishment of the national emergency government.[62] However, the wording in Section 29 adheres much closer to Netanyahu’s position, reflecting his eagerness to retain leeway in realizing his aspiration to move on annexation with all the implications it might have for Israel’s permanent borders and its security. Section 29 of the coalition agreement states,

After a discussion and consultation between the Prime Minister and the Alternate Prime Minister on the principles set out above, the Prime Minister will be able to bring the agreement that will be reached with the United States on applying sovereignty starting on 1 July 2020 to the Cabinet and the government for approval by the government and/or the Knesset. … If the Prime Minister wants to bring his proposal to the Knesset, he can do so through a member of the Knesset, provided that s/he is from the Likud faction. A preliminary reading would be held so that the legislation could be amended in conjunction with the wording that the prime minister presented to the cabinet and government. After the preliminary reading, and on the assumption that the legislation would be sponsored by the government after the first reading, the bill would be passed into law in the quickest way possible and in a manner that would not disrupt or delay the process by the heads of the Knesset Committee to discussion in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.[63]

This complex formulation reflects the efforts to accommodate conflicting positions, giving both sides the opportunity to propagate a discourse proclaiming the triumph of their stance. Netanyahu insisted that annexation would be declared on 1 July, but after failing to receive the green light from Washington, he and his close aides began referring to intensive negotiations with the U.S. team on staggering the annexation into phases. Having failed to receive Washington’s blessing, and in light of the new working conditions created by the signature of the coalition agreement and the formation of the new government, Netanyahu walked back his annexation rhetoric. It appears that Washington withheld the green light to fast-track the normalization deal with the UAE, a measure that would benefit both Netanyahu and the outgoing U.S. president, who, at the time, was touting his success in promoting peace in the Middle East on the campaign trail.[64] Notwithstanding the importance of this factor, which played out during Trump’s reelection bid in September–October 2020, two other elements were central to the annexation delay calculus: the occurrence of the second wave of the pandemic in Israel in a situation where there was no clear government strategy; and the fact that a large part of the settler community opposed any partial annexation and preferred to maintain the status quo.

Netanyahu’s decision to annex large settlements to Israel, as well as the Jordan Valley, divided the settler community. Among Netanyahu’s supporters are settlers who argue that the Trump peace plan is a historic opportunity that should be seized before it is too late. One of these is Benny Kashriel, the mayor of Ma’ale Adumim, the largest settlement east of Jerusalem, who has stated that Israel should not wait for a U.S. signal to move ahead with annexation. Like Netanyahu, this camp views the U.S. plan as a historic opportunity to free the settlements from military government rule in the oPt and turn them into legitimate parts of Israel.[65] By and large, supporters of immediate annexation live in areas close to the Green Line, or in large settlements like the city of Ariel, and are keen to come under Israeli sovereignty and remove the question mark that has always loomed over their homes. Large settlements close to the Green Line are populated not by so-called ideological settlers but by people seeking affordable housing or a better quality of life, many of them of Mizrahi origin.[66] They argue that their settlements will in any case revert to Israel in any future peace agreement and that the government should therefore seize the initiative and go ahead with annexation without further delay.[67] As Nir Bartal, the mayor of Oranit told the New York Times, “[I]t’s an acknowledgment that the places we are living in are part of Israel for eternity … There have been several decades of people talking about evacuation. We are now saying we are here to stay.”[68]

The second camp of settlers, the apparent majority, opposes the Trump plan for three reasons: First, the plan speaks of annexing 30 percent of the West Bank, meaning the remaining 70 percent would be under Palestinian control, with no possibility for new settlements to be built and leaving the remaining Jewish settlements in these areas disconnected from Israel; second, the settlements within the 30 percent land area annexed could not endlessly expand and would have to build high-rises, something that would endanger their security since these could become easy targets for Palestinian attack; third, many of the settlers in this camp argue that the plan legitimizes the establishment of a Palestinian state, which they hold to be a blatant contradiction since the biblical promise is that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. They view the current situation as preferable to the Trump plan since it allows them to expand without constraint and build settlements in new areas, thereby advancing their aim of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state.[69] In this consituency’s view, partial annexation endangers their future and compromises their fundamental belief that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, in addition to posing risks to the strategic security of the state.[70] Shlomo Ne’eman, the head of the Gush Etzion regional council and a resident of Karmei Tzur, has stated that settlements as “enclaves” are unacceptable. “It’s inconceivable that Jewish settlements in which Israeli citizens live should be joined to their state by a narrow strip of ten meters wide road, with the territory of a Palestinian state on either side. It simply won’t happen …We understood that, for its part, in return for the annexation, Israel was giving consent to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians, but if we are required to agree in advance to the establishment of a Palestinian state, we are unequivocally against it.”[71]

This stance, which is that of a large part of the settler community, clearly demonstrates that the Netanyahu-led right-wing bloc is not unified and that opposition to annexation within the settler community cannot be ignored. Given the lack of enthusiastic U.S. backing, the pandemic-induced economic and health crises, as well as opposition from within the governing coalition, what had been a vocal disagreement between supporters and opponents of immediate annexation within the settler community has come to constitute a red line that Netanyahu cannot cross. Per the coalition agreement, the annexation plan could not move ahead before discussion by the cabinet, and Kahol Lavan appears to have convinced the U.S. administration to wait until an internal Israeli agreement on the topic is reached. A number of Kahol Lavan MKs declared their support for partial annexation[72] if it meant enforcing Israeli law in Ma’ale Adumim and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. In contrast, other party MKs have said that no annexation should go ahead without coordinating with Israel’s U.S. and regional partners. Moreover, supporters of annexation are divided between those who view it as a crucial stage in separating Israel from the Palestinians and who would endorse it if it were put that way, and those with more nationalist views who believe that Jewish settlements and strategic areas in the oPt should remain in Israel’s hands. These differences within Kahol Lavan were critical in terms of the balance of power inside the Knesset.

As 1 July drew closer, leaders of Kahol Lavan further clarified their position on annexation, with Gantz repeating his view on the matter on numerous occasions. “This is not the time to tackle the issue,” he told one interviewer. “I believe that the Trump peace plan is the right political-security framework for the State of Israel … We must do it right by bringing in as many partners into the discussion as possible, with international backing. One million unemployed people do not know what we are talking about right now. Most of them are worried about what they’re going to do tomorrow morning.”[73] Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Kahol Lavan’s second in command, expressed the party’s position in an interview with Army Waves Radio on the same day. Responding to a question about whether the 1 July date for annexation would be set, he stated, “Ask [Prime Minster] Netanyahu, ”[74] adding that it was “unreasonable to expect annexation to happen today.” Gantz and Ashkenazi did not rule out the possibility of going ahead with the plan, but their statements reflected their communication with the U.S. administration regarding the need to bring to the table as many partners as possible.

Kahol Lavan pursued two courses of action that undermined Netanyahu’s efforts. The party established its own independent relationship with the U.S. administration, and while its leaders welcomed the Trump plan, they posed conditions for moving ahead with annexation, making it clear they wanted to avoid unilateral measures that could ignite the region or endanger formal and covert Israeli relations with Arab countries. They seemingly convinced special Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz that internal agreement within the government was necessary for annexation to move ahead. By doing so, they showed responsibility and demonstrated pragmatism and restraint, projecting themselves as moderate actors in the region and internationally. The other tack that Kahol Lavan followed to scuttle Netanyahu’s efforts reflected the party’s domestic concerns. In the context of some one million unemployed Israelis and the second wave of the pandemic, Gantz’s statements about the timing of annexation reinforced the discourse around Kahol Lavan as a party concerned with serving the interests of the Israeli public and as having the power to assert itself despite its position as the underdog in the government—bolstering its image in the public eye as a party endowed with a responsible and mature leadership, in contrast with Likud and its irresponsible policies amid economic and health crises. 

That Netanyahu’s annexation plan was not announced on 1 July does not mean that it was taken off the table. Negotiations held by Berkowitz in Israel at the end of June indicated that Washington was still interested in promoting the Trump plan and discussing its implementation with the Israeli authorities, albeit with some flexibility regarding the actual contours of the annexation map. According to media reports, the negotiations between Israeli officials and the U.S. envoy aimed to slightly alter the proposed map to better connect a group of some fifteen isolated settlements to the rest of the territory sought by Israel. This would allow for the annexation of additional land around those settlements so they would not end up “enclaved,” and thereby easing the settlers’ criticism of the plan. The U.S. delegation apparently tried to convince the Israelis to offer the Palestinians some sort of compensation in exchange for this further bit of annexation.[75] One of the ideas floated, which the Israeli media reported, was the transfer of an area to the Palestinians where they could build without limits, or redefining some Area C land (where Israel maintains full control) as Area B (where Palestinians have civil control).

Netanyahu’s announcement after meeting with Berkowitz, that the 1 July target date would be missed, reflected the reality that annexation could not proceed without Washington’s green light. “I spoke about the question of sovereignty, which we are working on these days and we will continue to work on in the coming days,” Netanyahu said in his statement.[76] His emphasis on the issue of sovereignty did not simply reflect that the groundwork would continue to be laid for full annexation but also that Netanyahu was eager for Israel’s future permanent borders to bear his imprimatur.[77] The ongoing negotiations between U.S. and Israeli officials highlighted how Israel seeks to redraw the annexation map to advance its interests. The two major government parties, headed by Netanyahu and Gantz, agreed on the main principles but differ on the details. They concurred that a balance needed to be struck between strategic interests, namely maximum land with minimum Palestinian inhabitants, and diplomatic interests, namely maintaining good relations with Washington and Arab states. The differences regarding the when and how of annexation concerned the narrow party political interests of each side. Netanyahu was aware of developments in the negotiations between Washington and the UAE regarding a normalization agreement and was therefore reluctant to take steps that might endanger a breakthrough in relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states. Keeping Gantz in the dark on this development reflected Netanyahu’s political cunning and his ability to utilize internal political affairs to promote foreign strategic interests.

July 1 came and went with only a few pro-settler political figures expressing disgruntlement with Netanyahu. Among the most prominent of these critics was former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, who blamed Netanyahu for “giving up” on his promise to annex the Jordan Valley and for “accepting” an indefinite postponement of the annexation plan.[78] But the second wave of the pandemic, the related economic crisis, and the secret negotiations with the UAE, all around mid-August, effectively scuttled Netanyahu’s earlier vision of seizing the strategic opportunity provided by the announcement of the Trump plan to annex large parts of the oPt. Netanyahu kept returning the media’s attention to annexation as a strategy to divert attention from developments on the Israel-UAE front until the official public announcement, as, until then, only he and a small circle of advisers knew of the progress in the UAE normalization talks. The calculated move to not share information with his defense and foreign ministers demonstrates Netanyahu’s growing autocratic populist tendencies, which have intensified since he was indicted, as well as his personal cunning, which is appreciated by his supporters and despised by his opponents.   

 

Israeli Annexation Plans and the Regional and International Arena

The delay in implementing the annexation plan was not solely the result of domestic Israeli considerations. The external pressures on the Israeli government and on the U.S. administration played an equally important role. This is not the place to summarize the international responses to Israel’s stated intention to annex 30 percent of the West Bank. Suffice it to say that mounting international and regional pressures contributed in part to 1 July being just another day in Israel rather than day one of the annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Washington’s reluctance to support the official annexation announcement on 1 July was one important international factor, especially given that Netanyahu was no longer the sole player on the Israeli political scene by this time. In contrast with its robust expressions of support at the Washington D.C. ceremony in January, the Trump administration tempered its enthusiasm for the annexation in light of the Israeli election results and Netanyahu’s inability to win a decisive majority. Having to accommodate the differences between the two main blocs in the Israeli government, the U.S. administration cleaved to the original idea of U.S.-Israeli agreed-upon maps before green-lighting annexation. In addition, the U.S. administration was leading the normalization talks with the UAE, and, in the context of the upcoming presidential election, that development was likely considered a more strategic move in burnishing the U.S. president’s international image as a peacemaker.

The U.S. position on annexation was influenced to some degree by the strong opposition and cautionary voice of leading European and Arab states. The European Union (EU) made clear its view that annexation was illegal under international law.[79] EU representatives who met with Israeli officials stated that it would have negative repercussions on relations between the two sides, although they stopped short of elaborating.[80] Germany, one of the EU’s lead countries and arguably the most supportive of Israel, expressed grave concern about Israeli intentions.[81] During a visit to Israel in early June 2020, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that annexing parts of the West Bank would violate international law and would render the two-state solution, which Germany still supported, even more improbable. Although he did not specify what the “price tag” would be if Israel went ahead, he expressed “serious and honest concern” about the situation, indicating that there were many pressures on the EU to take action if Israel moved on the annexation plan.[82] The German stance was especially important due to the close ties between the two countries and because Germany was set to take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and assume the presidency of the U.N. Security Council on 1 July. Israel’s moving ahead with annexation would have required Germany to choose between its adherence to international law and U.N. resolutions and its historical commitment to Israel.

British premier Boris Johnson, another Israel-friendly European leader, expressed his views on the proposed annexation in an article published in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.[83] Describing himself as a “passionate defender of Israel,” Johnson said that he considered annexation a “violation of international law.”[84] He stated that the United Kingdom would “not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed to by both parties,” adding that he feared that the annexation proposals would “fail in their objective of securing Israel’s borders and … be contrary to Israel’s own long-term interests.” Johnson also warned that annexation would jeopardize “the progress that Israel has made in improving relationships with the Arab and Muslim world” and that Israel’s enemies would exploit the situation to the detriment of all those who wish for progress in the Middle East. Reiterating his own parliament’s earlier statement, he called for a solution that guaranteed justice and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, for his part, stated that annexation would constitute a serious violation of international law. “For the past few days we have held several video conferences with European colleagues … with a view to deciding on a joint preventive action and eventually a reprisal if such a decision were taken,”[85] Le Drian told the French legislative assembly. Speaking during a parliamentary hearing, he said, “Annexation of Palestinian territories, whatever the perimeters, would seriously throw into question the parameters to resolve the conflict … An annexation decision [w]ould not [remain] without consequences and we are examining different options at a national level and also in coordination with our main European partners.”[86]

European opposition to annexation was echoed in the strong reservations expressed by leading Arab countries, especially Jordan and Egypt, which have signed peace agreements with Israel. The Jordanian king has made clear his opposition to Israel’s expansionist intentions ever since the Trump plan was made public.[87] King Abdallah warned that in light of its repercussions on Jordan’s national security, the Israeli measure would have implications for the peace agreement between the two countries: In other words, the annexation plan would rule out a Palestinian state in the oPt, boosting the long-standing Israeli claim that Jordan should be the state of the Palestinians since its population is majority Palestinian. In contrast to Jordan’s outspoken position, Egypt was ambivalent on the Trump plan and expressed mildly worded reservations about Israel’s annexation project.[88]

 Surprisingly, the strongest warning came from the Gulf states, specifically the UAE, which enjoys close ties with regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia. Yousef Al Otaiba, a UAE minister of state and the country’s envoy to Washington (who was one of three Arab ambassadors present in the East Room when Trump unveiled his plan) published an op-ed in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth on 12 June 2020 titled “Annexation Will Be a Serious Setback for Better Relations with the Arab World.”[89] Although the normalization negotiations were still secret at the time, Otaiba stated, “Israeli leaders have promoted excited talk about normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states. But Israeli plans for annexation and talk of normalization are a contradiction.” He described the annexation as a “unilateral” step that not only constituted an illegal seizure of Palestinian land but defied the Arab and international consensus on the Palestinian right to self-determination. The ambassador warned that Israel’s proposed annexation could lead to violence, fan the flames of extremism, and send shockwaves throughout the region. He argued that it would “certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with the UAE.” Making clear the benefits of such cooperation, he emphasized that his country could “be an open gateway connecting Israelis to the region and the world” and that annexation would threaten any such possibility. “Normal is not annexation,” he wrote. “Instead, annexation is a misguided provocation of another order. And continued talk of normalization would be just mistaken hope for better relations with the Arab states. In the UAE and across much of the Arab world, we would like to believe Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy. We face too many common dangers and see the great potential of warmer ties. Israel’s decision on annexation will be an unmistakable signal of whether it sees it the same way.” Such high-level statements appearing in an Israeli newspaper were telling of the intentions of a leading Arab Gulf country and also invoked the price Israel would pay for going ahead with its plan. Otaiba differentiated between the discourse of normalization and its practices on the ground, which mirror Israel’s real intentions. He urged Israel to reveal its real intentions in deeds and not just in words. At the same time, he warned that it would be a mistaken hope for Israel to envisage normalization with Arab states based solely on pronouncements or agreements. It can only be assumed that Otaiba’s article could not have been published without the implicit agreement of the Saudis and his prior knowledge that a peace agreement between his country and Israel was in the offing.

The question of the “price tag,” as the German foreign minister called it, and the potential gains that would accrue to Israel from normalizing relations with leading Arab Gulf states were two issues that Kahol Lavan leaders Gantz and Ashkenazi had in mind when they highlighted the importance of carrying out the annexation responsibly and in coordination with allies, especially the United States and Jordan.[90] It appears that when the two leaders made their pronouncements they were unaware of the advanced state of negotiations between their partner in the national emergency government and the UAE leadership. The announcement on 13 August 2020 of the breakthrough in negotiations between the two sides, under official U.S. auspices, and of the impending signature of a peace agreement between them, without the defense and foreign ministers’ prior knowledge, demonstrates Netanyahu’s masterful political skills: The Israeli premier transformed the freezing of the annexation plan into an immense gain for Israel, regionally speaking, and forced his coalition partners to fall in line. They could not criticize Netanyahu’s purported peace initiative, since it was congruent with their own perceptions of Israel’s strategic and security interests, and thus limited their criticism to the “unhealthy” lack of transparency in the process.[91] Although their criticism speaks to the extent of Netanyahu’s increasingly autocratic style, they prioritized state interests over personal pride. In an effort to temper his gloating over the UAE initiative, they invoked the heavy price that Netanyahu had been willing to pay, in the form of Washington’s sale of F-35 fighter jets to the Gulf state, which they claimed compromised Israel’s strategic superiority in the region.[92]

The UAE deal illustrates how intertwined Israel’s domestic political affairs are with its foreign policy, and it also lays bare the degree to which Netanyahu is willing to exploit internal political rivalries to promote Israel’s foreign interests and vice versa. Forced to yield on the annexation plan as a result of pressures from Israel’s military and security elite, as well as the settler movement’s opposition and Washington’s pull-back, Netanyahu nevertheless used to his advantage the consensus among Israel’s political and military establishment on the strategic interest of establishing diplomatic ties with Arab Gulf states. He thus positioned himself as the sole political figure capable of leading the country in difficult times. The immediate annexation rhetoric was a stick with which to beat his opponents at home and keep the political establishment busy as he pursued the normalization agreement with the UAE and shifted focus away from Israel’s disastrous response to the pandemic.

Controlling the discourse and public agenda, and keeping focus on secondary issues to achieve undeclared goals and to advance secret measures, has been a consistent strategy of Netanyahu’s in recent years; this has included silencing criticism of and protest against his government’s health and economic policies during the pandemic-induced crisis. Following the first lockdown in Israel in March–April 2020, Netanyahu urged Israelis to go out and “have fun,”[93] to signal his government’s successful handling of the pandemic. Such incautious exhortations led to the second wave. In an effort to obscure his long-standing policies of defunding the public health system and weakening the state’s welfare services, Netanyahu distributed billions of shekels to Israeli citizens. Rather than taking responsibility for the crisis, he accused his political opponents of sabotaging his efforts to manage it, claiming that the demonstrations against him were super-spreader events and that “these anarchist and ludicrous protests” actually helped him politically even though “the public [was] sick of them.”[94] The prime minister implemented another self-serving policy, treating prayer services and demonstrations equally and limiting both.[95] Alleging that Kahol Lavan was undermining the government’s ability to manage the public health crisis enabled him to blame it on his coalition partners and also to pressure them on other issues, notably their efforts to block his power to appoint high-ranking law enforcement officials.[96]

 

Israel’s Strategy: Sidelining the Palestinians

Since coming to power in 2009, Netanyahu has pursued a strategy toward the Palestinians based on two premises: first, that so-called economic peace precedes diplomatic agreement, the corollary being that Israel would facilitate the growth of the Palestinian economy in exchange for security[97]; and second, in a reversal of previous policy to pursue peace with Arab states only after the Palestinian question was settled, to move toward normalization with these states before achieving such a resolution, the idea being that once the Arab states are out of the equation a deal with the Palestinians would be more accessible.

Netanyahu’s approach is clearly mirrored in the Peace to Prosperity plan. A perusal of the plan and of the pronouncements of Israel’s foreign ministry makes clear that both sides agree that while some Palestinian demands may be legitimate, they must be met solely on the basis of Israeli interests, and that the Palestinians must themselves meet a long list of demands before progress is made.[98] Furthermore, the U.S.-Israeli consensus entails a linkage between promoting peace with the Palestinians and facilitating normalization with Arab states on grounds that emphasize common strategic interests with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the threats to stability posed by Islamic insurgent groups.[99] In Netanyahu’s strategic vision, which he laid out as early as 2008,[100] the Palestinian issue is marginal to the so-called moderate Arab Gulf states and even a hurdle as they face challenges to their stability.

Both Netanyahu’s willingness to shelve the annexation plan, and what he views as his predecessors’ “waiting strategy,” translated into the normalization agreement with the UAE and Bahrain, signed in Washington D.C. on 15 September 2020. Similar agreements were subsequently signed with Sudan and Morocco. These peace deals provided the Israeli prime minister with proof that the peace process with the Palestinians could be delinked from the normalization of relations with Arab states. Although Netanyahu has cast these agreements in historical terms, equating them with Menachem Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt, and Yitzhak Rabin’s with Jordan, these agreements do not necessarily amount to sidelining the Palestinian issue. The argument, made by several Israeli analysts,[101] is echoed by UAE and Bahraini government officials. As one Emirati diplomat put it, “We will better be able to serve the Palestinian cause by having the direct relationship, by having the economic and commercial ties with the Israelis than by standing outside the tent and waiting for history to take its course.”[102] While one might view such an argument as mere lip service to the Palestinians’ cause, it is still possible to argue that, contra Netanyahu’s vision, normalization with Arab states highlights the uniqueness of the Palestinian issue in terms of its deep historical roots and existential ramifications for Israel’s identity, if not for its security. Notwithstanding the differences between Likud and Kahol Lavan on domestic issues, with the latter considered the more pragmatic of the two, both agree that Israel should not wait for the Palestinians to move ahead with regional peace overtures. This was reflected in Gantz’s statement of 23 June 2020, in which he said that Israel “won't keep waiting for the Palestinians … [who] continue to reject dialogue and to remain in their ‘deep shit.’”[103]

Israeli officials have not commented extensively on the Palestinians’ response to the Trump plan, as they sought to sideline the Palestinian issue, downplay its impact on Israeli government policies, and avoid inflaming the Palestinian community and potentially unleashing violence. President Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would end security coordination with Israel,[104] and Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh threatened to withhold the salaries of over 250,000 Palestinian Authority (PA) employees if Israel went ahead with annexation.[105] The Israeli position was echoed in Israeli media to warn the Palestinian leadership to refrain from inciting violence.[106] The Israeli media reprised the position of the Israeli military and covered the PA’s objection to what it called unilateral Israeli steps by emphasizing the possible violence that would result. Its coverage signaled that the Palestinian leadership would be held responsible for any deterioration in the security situation.[107] The media coverage of President Abbas’ announcement reflected the official Israeli stance, namely singling him out as responsible for any violence. The media discourse accurately reflects the dominant Israeli perception that the Palestinian issue is strictly a security issue rather than a political or diplomatic one.[108] This perception was articulated in the warning by a Likud minister close to Netanyahu who told Al-Monitor, “Abbas needs the security coordination with Israel just as much as Israel does. If he undermines the coordination, he will be hurting himself and he knows it.”[109] The article added, “Neither Netanyahu nor his government colleagues made any statements over the halting of security coordination … Netanyahu is estimating that he should not fan the flames, but rather leave Abbas an opening to withdraw from his decision.”[110] 

Israel’s official silence vis-a-vis President Abbas and Prime Minister Shtayyeh’s statements was indicative of the government’s desire to avert a diplomatic battle with the PA and avoid any deterioration in the security situation, both of which were communicated by directly cautioning the Palestinian leadership. The silence further underlined the precariousness of the situation and official efforts to prevent any change in the status quo, while making the necessary warnings against violence clear to every Palestinian. It also evidenced Israel’s staunch conviction that the Palestinian leadership is unable to seriously impact Israeli decision-making, the implication being that a postponement of the annexation was not due to Palestinian pressures, warnings, or threats, but strictly the result of Israel’s own strategic and diplomatic calculations. One of these is that it is in the PA leadership’s best interest to avoid instigating violence. The renewal of security coordination with the Israeli security forces a couple of months after suspending them appears to be connected to the results of the U.S. presidential election and to the fact that security coordination is important for the PA’s stability in times of declining public legitimacy no less than for the security of Israel itself.

With that in mind, the postponement of the annexation plan should not be read as a change of mind or policy by the Netanyahu-Gantz government, which is committed to deepening Israeli control of the West Bank. But the Netanyahu annexation fracas has revealed that Israel’s actual strategic aspirations go far beyond the mere annexation of 30 percent of the oPt. As far as the military establishment is concerned, it is better to hold out for such future opportunities in peaceful negotiations that both prevent violence and legitimate the current strategic status quo. For the settlers, it is better to maintain the status quo since it enables the state to continue creating new facts on the ground and changes in demographic and geographic realities that will have to be accommodated in any future negotiations, when and if these take place. To an outside observer, it appears that suspending the annexation plan has served the interests of all parties in Israel: Besides satisfying the security establishment and the settler community, postponement also served as a tolerable price to pay for progress on the normalization front with the UAE and Bahrain. Despite the fact that neither Defense Minister Gantz nor Foreign Minister Ashkenazi were informed about the negotiations with the two Gulf states, both of them rushed to congratulate Netanyahu after the official announcement of the forthcoming signing ceremony. The two men agreed with the prime minister that this was a crucial step in guaranteeing Israel’s security in the region, a strategic gain whose price—suspending the annexation of large parts of the West Bank—was worthwhile. And despite the sotto voce criticism of Netanyahu for giving the green light to Washington regarding the F-35 deal, the two men hastened to contact their counterparts in the UAE and Bahrain.[111] Such behavior is a good indication that sidelining the Palestinians and minimizing their significance in the context of regional strategic considerations is a shared value of all partners in the government; it also demonstrates how small is the gap between the political parties on domestic politics and their different takes on strategic and diplomatic affairs, which are mostly determined in consultation with the security establishment.[112] Although Netanyahu’s own behavior in recent years points to a slight erosion of this tradition, it is still premature to evaluate the significance and future implications of this development.

 

Conclusion

Based on the previous analysis, several significant conclusions are in order.

The first, and most obvious, is that Likud has maintained its dominant position in the political system as an indispensable actor without which no Israeli government can be formed. Thus, one might speak of a dominant-party political system, similar to the one that prevailed in the 1950s–70s, when Mapai, or Labor, ruled virtually uncontested in Israel. Despite the different circumstances, the current system, which hinges on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, implies the persistence of right-wing nationalism in domestic, foreign, and security policy and the endurance of neoliberalism in the economic realm for the foreseeable future.

That notwithstanding, it appears that Likud’s pivotal role is guaranteed only as long as Netanyahu manages to hold onto power and to win the support of large swaths of the Israeli electorate. Given the results of the three rounds of elections in 2019–20, Netanyahu, despite the criminal charges against him, has retained his role as a central actor on the political scene. Although Likud under his leadership did not secure a decisive Knesset majority and therefore had to come to some accommodation with its main rival, its nationalist ideology has become hegemonic. It would be very difficult for any rival of Netanyahu’s to ignore what is now part and parcel of Israeli political culture. Domestically, nationalist discourse combined with a neoliberal economic worldview have become the prerequesites for any leader seeking to replace Netanyahu. In terms of the Palestinian issue, the notion that Israel has both the power to enforce its will in the oPt and the right to extend Israeli sovereignty to large swaths of the West Bank that serve its strategic interests has become a precondition for any leader aspiring to Israel’s prime ministership.  

In light of the above analysis, it is reasonable to predict that any future negotiations with the Palestinians will have to accommodate what has become tantamount to a consensus among Jewish Israelis—that settlers will not be evacuated from their homes and that the country’s strategic borders, including a long-term arrangement in the Jordan Valley, are to be determined and controlled solely by Israel. In other words, any future Israeli government would find it very difficult to retreat from the domestic Israeli consensus that Palestinian territorial contiguity or fully independent control of borders with the outside world must be prevented at any cost.

A second conclusion is that the political aspirations of Likud and its current leader do not align with what has traditionally been designated in Israel as mamlakhtiyut (statism), according to which the power of the political establishment is limited by the state’s constitutional and institutional regulations. In a departure from this tradition, Likud leaders, particularly Netanyahu, espouse a more populist notion of governance—that of government representing the free will of the people as a dominant and limitless domain that should not submit to any other authority, especially not that of the Supreme Court, whose justices are not elected by the people.[113]

The willingness of Kahol Lavan and its coalition partners to join a government headed by a criminally indicted prime minister, despite their rhetoric claiming that this was to limit Likud’s ability to violate the rule of law and weaken the judiciary, is another milestone in the process of successful populist challenges to state institutions in Israel. The compromises made by Kahol Lavan and the practices of Netanyahu and his supporters portend what is to come. Kahol Lavan has been unable to oppose Netanyahu on many issues, despite its leaders’ protestations to the contrary. With regard to the annexation plan, it was not so much their opposition that made its postponement possible but Netanyahu’s success in advancing an alternative—normalization with the UAE and Bahrain—which better served his endeavor to portray himself as something of a wizard, a leader who stands head and shoulders above others and who should not be required to submit to the legal and judicial norms that apply to ordinary people.[114] 

The major differences between Likud and Kahol Lavan pertain to the domestic arena, especially the rule of law, the status of the judicial system, and the response to the public health crisis precipitated by the pandemic. Netanyahu has utilized every opportunity to dismiss the criminal charges against him, thereby delegitimizing law enforcement institutions, which he accuses of bias, while Kahol Lavan’s justification for remaining in the national emergency government—under the pretext of protecting national law enforcement institutions, saving Israeli democracy, and bringing rationality to public health policies—has become flimsy. Kahol Lavan’s ostensible remit, which Netanyahu challenges on a daily basis (to wit the budget crisis and the closure policy to contain the spread of Covid-19) convinced a diminishing number of Israelis that the coalition is doing a good job. According to polls, Kahol Lavan continues to lose the support of its base, while Likud, despite some setbacks, has mostly maintained its popularity.[115] In late December 2020, Netanyahu was reluctant to provoke a crisis around the budget, since he was no longer sure he could count on winning the 2021 elections with a clear majority after Gideon Sa’ar, a veteran Likud leader and one of his challengers, left the party and ran as an independent.[116] Netanyahu became preoccupied with timing the next elections to advance his interests, specifically to ensure a result that would allow him to endlessly postpone his trial and maybe even dismiss the charges against him altogether. Secret negotiations between Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan reported in mid-December were based on their mutual interest in postponing the elections, although this common goal has not been achieved because of the deficit of trust between the two sides.[117] The failure of the negotiations has paved  the way for a fourth round of elections within two years, with the possibility that Netanyahu maintains his base and triumphs, while his rivals do not seem to have found the right formula to cooperate in order to curb his intentions.      

The third conclusion to be drawn from this analysis concerns the absence of an alternative vision or unifying values among Israel’s center-left parties that would allow them to launch a frontal assault on Likud and its allies. Notwithstanding the popularity of Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, according to recent surveys,[118] there is no certainty that the party would garner enough votes to enable it to form a governmentafter the upcoming elections. There is therefore little chance that a center-left party could form a winning coalition. The multiplicity of parties at the center of the political spectrum is an indicator of the peace agenda’s weakness in Israeli society. It is possible to state that where Ehud Barak started the peace camp’s slow disintegration in 2000, Kahol Lavan’s rise and precipitous fall provokes doubt as to the very existence of a pragmatic camp that would be able to relaunch negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The popularity of Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and the expected support for Gideon Sa’ar’s new party demonstrate that the political contest in Israel is between right-wing nationalist parties, which, despite the disagreements between them, are expected to gain the absolute majority of Knesset seats in forthcoming elections.[119]

Despite their differences on domestic policy, when it comes to security issues and foreign affairs, the ultra-nationalist right-wing and the center-left are largely committed to the same strategic principles. Kahol Lavan’s political campaign in the three rounds of elections in 2019–2020 demonstrated that nationalist populism is the fastest route to Israeli voters’ hearts. Peace has become an empty trope that is imbued with negative connotations. The dwindling power of Israel’s peace camp is entwined in societal transformations, including the political activism of socially conservative groups such as ultra-Orthodox communities, Mizrahi voters, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These transformations have yielded a discourse that delegitimizes all voices calling for a historic compromise with the Palestinians, especially those of the urban Ashkenazi elite and Arab voters. The result of this radicalization process in Israeli society was in full evidence during the delegitimizing campaign orchestrated by Netanyahu against Arab voters[120] and in which every Israeli Zionist party, except for Meretz, took part. All public opinion surveys demonstrate that the main contest in the next elections will be among parties of the right-wing nationalist bloc, which firmly uphold Netanyahu’s strategic and diplomatic positions regionally, with some of them espousing even more radical views than his. Although some would argue that only right-wing parties are capable of winning public support for a serious peace deal with the Palestinians, it is clear that such a deal would dictate terms that do not meet the minimum basic demands of any Palestinian leadership in the foreeable future.  

Two major takeaways emerge from the conclusion outlined above. The first is that backing Netanyahu has long-term implications for Israel’s entire political system and political culture. It means compromising basic and long-standing constitutional and institutional rules and norms. As the Gantz experience demonstrates, any aspiration to the prime ministerial seat will face fierce opposition, where all means are legitimate. Gantz has already yielded to Netanyahu’s will in the first few months of the parity government, whether on downgrading Israel’s Basic Laws, such that even an individual facing criminal charges can become prime minister, intervening in judicial and other legal appointments assigned to Netanyahu’s case, or promoting legislation that effectively circumvents the Supreme Court and hamstrings its ability to rule on the legality of his policies.[121]

The second takeaway is that nationalist ideology in Israel has become openly and proudly racist, as evidenced in the brutal attacks on Arab parties and leaders during the election campaigns. The mere mention of the hypothetical possibility of establishing a governmental coalition that includes Arab MKs has become a casus belli in the political arena. Gantz’s unwillingness to establish a minority government with the participation of the Joint List is testament to the power of that red line. Even though the results of three rounds of elections demonstrated that the center-left camp could not win the elections decisively enough to form a government without the support of Arab votes, leaders of this camp have not only shied away from that option but also see it as exceeding the accepted norms of mainstream political legitimacy, which stop at the Jewish identity of political parties. As long as Netanyahu maintains his dominant position in the political system, it would be hard for any political force to crack the legitimacy wall and establish a coalition with the support of Arab parties.

This remains true even though the prime minister negotiated a deal with Joint List MK Mansour Abbas that would advance proposals to combat growing violence in Arab society and introduce substantial reforms to planning and housing policies in Arab towns and villages in exchange for the legislative support of Abbas’ party to change laws in Netanyahu’s favor. These negotiations with one segment of the Joint List, which deepened rifts within the Arab coalition and led to the loss of one of its four components, could be used by center-left leaders to legitimize a coalition supported by the Arab parties in the future. However, this does not mean that such a scenario is imaginable under the current circumstances. Such a scenario might play out after Netanyahu leaves the political scene, which may be sooner than expected, and if no charismatic figure emerges to take on his mantle in the Likud. If a charismatic politician from the center-left camp were able to unify its different components and be bold enough to assert that a deal must be struck with Arab parties for there to be a realistic alternative to the rule of Likud and its ultra-Orthodox partners, it should not be read as meaning that the Arab electorate are simply captive voters. By offering center-left parties two alternatives to choose from, their participation in the Israeli political system would be strategic and effective. In the event that the center-left camp regroups, as some have anticipated in light of the decision of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai to enter the national political fray,[122] which has turned in the meanwhile to be an embaressing fiasco, Arab voters and their representatives could offer to either be legitimate partners in the political game and full partners in the formation of a coalition government, or strategically boycott the elections and refuse to grant this camp their support. Without such a staunch and strategic position, it will be hard for the Arab parties to have any influence on the reality in which they live.

In sum, the Israeli political system is in flux and also quite fragile. Grim as the current reality may be, the potential exists for significant changes in the short term. Despite his seemingly unassailable position, Netanyahu may not be at the helm much longer given the criminal charges against him, his government’s poor track record on the pandemic, and mounting criticisms of him within Likud ranks, mostly notably Gideon Sa’ar’s break with the party, which has both weakened Netanyahu and encouraged others, such as Ze’ev Elkin and Benny Begin, to do the same. While it is impossible to anticipate specific events, it is possible to say that the near-to-medium-term future will be determined by the interplay of the following factors: globally, the incoming administration of Joe Biden in the United States, and the 2021 elections in Germany; regionally, how the Gulf Arab states proceed both with Israel and the Palestinians; in the Israeli arena, changes to the political system, especially if a new center-right coalition challenges Netanyahu’s decade-plus solo rule, and how the Arab vote evolves; in the Palestinian arena, whether Fatah and Hamas can heal their thirteen-year rift and adopt a unified and coherent vision for the future of the Palestinian question. While these factors do not enjoy the same valence, they will all influence future developments in Israeli politics and, consequently, in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The different players’ ability to influence these developments will depend on their skillfulness in advancing the direction they see as best serving their interests, with whatever resources they have at their disposal. Despite the huge asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians in general, and Israeli Jews and Arabs, in particular, the future is drawn by those who seize the initiative and launch long-standing strategic processes that determine what the region will look like in the future. The seemingly permanent factionalism of Palestinian politics and the enduring personalization of national political and public institutions prevent the Palestinians from stepping up to challenge Israeli policies. At the same time, the growing autocracy and populism that Netanyahu has entrenched in the Israeli political system have pushed Israel closer to a tribal ethnocracy where the political order is determined by fealty and where polarization between friend and foe precludes compromise or political accommodation.

These political trends in Israel have been furthered by the populist model embodied by the former U.S. president. Even though Trump lost and a new president resides in the White House as of January 2021, Netanyahu’s populist brand of politics will likely not decline in the near future. If Netanyahu maintains his position as the only politician able to form a coalition after a new round of elections in early 2021, the trends outlined above will only strengthen, especially with regard to the normalization of Israel’s relations with a growing number of Arab states and the simultaneous transformation of the West Bank’s demographic and geographic realities, leaving little room for optimism as current settler-colonial policies are maintained, creating an informal apartheid regime in the oPt.

For real change on the Israeli-Palestinian front, a serious and creative Palestinian initiative is needed to repair the fractured Palestinian political arena and rally its actors around a realistic national vision with a clear strategy for the future. Only such an initiative can break the stalemate that sidelines Palestinian rights and subordinates Palestinians to dictates they cannot resist while serving Israeli strategic and diplomatic interests. Such an initiative is also necessary since the Israeli electorate appears largely unconvinced that the tribal political culture encouraged and exploited by Netanyahu is causing them harm and leading them to an apartheid reality.

Now that the U.S. electorate has voted in a new administration, Washington may regain its privileged place at the center of international affairs, although it is unrealistic to expect it to be an honest broker of the Israel/Palestine issue. Under such circumstances, and given that Israel’s right-wing nationalist parties are likely to dominate the political system for the foreseeable future, the revitalization of the two-state formula also looks unlikely, other than as a fig leaf for further creeping Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands. The one-state reality that Israel/Palestine has constituted in recent decades, where a soft form of apartheid has flourished on the basis of “separate but unequal,” cannot easily be dismantled, making a fundamental and genuine shift in Palestinian strategy all the more necessary. Going forward, the democratization of the entire space between the river and the sea is the only viable strategy to counter the polarization of Israeli society and the populist and Machiavellian policies of its nationalist leadership. An increasing number of Palestinians and Israeli Jews who believe in egalitarianism and human dignity are already working together to not only avert another fifty years of Palestinian bantustanization, but to confer a moral center to Jewish self-determination.

Without a serious common effort at the level of Israeli society, the notion that there can be a sudden turn toward reconciliation partakes more of eschatology than of politology.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Likud means unity.

[2] Kahol Lavan are Hebrew words meaning blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag.

[3] Derekh Eretz are Hebrew words figuratively meaning the middle path.

[4] Yahadut HaTorah means Jews of the Bible.

[5] It is important to note that the right-wing bloc was composed of the Likud, Shas, Yahadut HaTorah, and Yamina parties. After the elections, Orly Levi-Abekasis left the Kahol Lavan bloc and joined the Likud bloc. Also, Rafi Peretz from Yamina joined the coalition even though his five colleagues from the party did not. 

[6] Yamina means going right.

[7] Meretz means power.

[8] Gesher means bridge.

[9] For more details on this populist tradition, see Benjamin Moffitt, Populism: Key Concepts in Political Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020).

[10] For the meaning of the democratic deficit, see Pippa Norris, Democratic Deficit: Critical Citizens Revisited (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[11] Yamina has not joined the coalition as a result of differences between its leadership, especially Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, on the one hand, and Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other. One of its members, Rafi Peretz, from the National Union, which is one of Yamina’s three components, ended up joining the coalition.

[12] Kahol Lavan was a combination of three different parties, with Hosen L’Yisrael headed by Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid by Yair Lapid, and Telem by Moshe Yaalon.

[13] For more details on the 2014 war, see Lizzie Dearden, “Israel-Gaza Conflict: 50-Day War by Numbers,” The Independent, 27 August 2014, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-gaza-conflict-50-day-war-by-numbers-9693310.html.

[14] Benjamin Netanyahu, Facebook, 20 April 2020, https://www.facebook.com/Netanyahu/posts/10157289619847076.

[15] Benny Gantz, Twitter, 20 April 2020, https://twitter.com/gantzbe/status/1252276044620607488?s=20.

[16] Ameer Oren, “On the Eve of his Trial, Netanyahu Favors His Self-interest and Cynically Exploits the Corona Crisis,” Walla, 3 December 2020, https://news.walla.co.il/item/3346237.

[17] Amos Harel, “Israel Is Forming an ‘Emergency' Government,’ But Not to Fight the Coronavirus,” Haaretz, 14 May 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/.premium-israel-s-forming-an-emergency-government-but-it-s-not-to-fight-the-coronavirus-1.8843682.

[18] Amnon Merinda, “Netanyahu: Olmert Has No Mandate to Negotiate,” Ynet, 22 May 2008, https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3546668,00.html.

[19] David Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner, “Netanyahu Indictment Closer as Israeli Prosecutor Seeks Charges,” New York Times, 28 February 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/28/world/middleeast/benjamin-netanyahu-indicted.html.

[20] Aron Heller, “Israel’s Netanyahu Attacks Justice System as Trial Begins,” AP News, 24 May 2020, https://apnews.com/article/8e0479ea534139e46dc0df2349b95ba3.

[21] Akiva Eldar, “Netanyahu Has Formed a ‘Personal Salvation Government,’” Al Jazeera, 23 April 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/netanyahu-formed-personal-salvation-government-200423085325571.html.

[22] Airan Heldsheim, “Five Myths Netanyahu Spread About the Emergency Government,” Kalkala Amitit, 29 March 2020, http://amitit.co.il/5-%d7%94%d7%91%d7%98%d7%97%d7%95%d7%aa-%d7%9b%d7%9c%....

[23] For more details on this crisis and what is behind it, see Toi Staff, “Knesset Passes Bill Extending Budget Deadline, Pushing Off Election Threat,” Times of Israel, 24 August 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/knesset-passes-bill-extending-budget-deadline-pushing-off-election-threat/.

[24] Staff, “Knesset Passes Bill Extending Budget Deadline, Pushing Off Election Threat.”

[25] Yossi Verter, “Netanyahu No Longer Wants a Unity Government, He Wants a Government to Overcome the Supreme Court,” Haaretz, 17 April 2020, https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5501931,00.html.

[26] Udi Segel, “62% Support the Netanyahu-Gantz Government, Only 31% Believe That the Rotation Will Be Realized,” 13News, 21 April 2020, https://13news.co.il/item/news/politics/state-policy/survey-government-1048544/.

[27] Yuval Karni, “Gantz: The Joint List Will Not Be Part of My Government,” Ynet, 11 February 2020, https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5676219,00.html.

[28] Danny Zakken, “Israel Before Everything Else, at the End, Gantz Materialized His Slogan,” Globes, 26 March 2020, https://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001323560.

[29] Nir Kedar, “Ben-Gurion’s Mamlakhtiyut: Etymological and Theoretical Roots,” Israel Studies 7, no. 3 (October 2002): 117–133.

[30] Daniel Dolev, “The Attorney General to the Supreme Court: The Coalition Agreement Was Amended and No Place to Dismantle It,” Walla, 5 May 2020, https://news.walla.co.il/item/3355228.

[31] As a result of the intervention of the Supreme Court after an appeal was filed against the legal meaning of limiting the government from making decisions in other issues, the coalition agreement was changed and clarifications were sent to the court in order to prevent it from intervening in the coalition agreement and dismiss parts of it. See Dolev, “The Attorney General to the Supreme Court: The Coalition Agreement Was Amended and No Place to Dismantle It.”

[32] Ofer Kenig, “The Extravagant Size of Israel’s New Government: No Justification Whatsoever,” Times of Israel, 12 May 2020, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-extravagant-size-of-israels-new-government-no-justification-whatsoever/.

[33] As a result of public critique, Kahol Lavan did not file all positions of the deputy ministers, yet they maintain parity power within the government.

[34] During the budget crisis in August 2020, Netanyahu tried to exchange compromising his position regarding the crisis with having more impact on the appointment of the attorney general and the chief commissioner of the police. See Gidi Weitz, “Netanyahu’s Campaign Against Law Enforcement Has Paid Off. Now He Wants to Complete it,” Haaretz, 21 August, 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-netanyahu-s-campaign-against-law-enforcement-paid-off-now-he-wants-to-complete-it-1.9089459

[35] Ido Baum, “Ayelet Shaked’s Conservative Revolution Makes the Justice System Weak and Irrelevant,” The Marker, 18 July 2016, https://www.themarker.com/law/1.3009886.

[36] Omer Nahmani and Osnat Mark, “The Defendant's Representative on the Judiciary Committee,” Haaretz, 30 June 2020, https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.8958661?.

[37] Benny Ashkenazi, “An Expert in Constitutional Law: The Purpose of the Coalition Agreement Is to Fortify the Continuation of the Prime Minister’s Tenure,” The Marker, 22 April 2020, https://www.themarker.com/law/1.8791088.

[38] Chen Maanit, “Violating the Separation of Powers, Contradicting Precedents of the Supreme Court and Changing Basic Laws: Senior Judicial Experts Mark the Dangers of the New Government,” Globes, 21 April 2020, https://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001326051.

[39] Kenig, “The Extravagant Size of Israel’s New Government: No Justification Whatsoever.”

[40] Ido Baum, “Supreme Court’s Judges Wrote a Detached Verdict Which Doesn’t Fit a Shameless Government,” The Marker, 5 July 2020, https://www.themarker.com/law/1.8826617?.

[41] Yossi Verter, “The High Court of Israel Allowed Most Demented Government Ever. Now It Will Get Uglier,” Haaretz, 8 May 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-high-court-allowed-israel-s-most-demented-government-ever-now-it-will-get-uglier-1.8831528.

[42] Netael Bandel, “High Court of Justice Green Lights Netanyahu-Gantz Coalition Deal,” Haaretz, 7 May 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/.premium-high-court-of-justice-green-lights-netanyahu-gantz-coalition-deal-1.8826446.

[43] Daniel Dolev, “The Supreme Court Unanimously Rejected Netanyahu’s Petitions Against Government Formation and Coalition Agreement,” Walla, 6 May 2020, https://news.walla.co.il/item/3355476; Yael Friedson and Moran Azoulay, “The Supreme Court Does Not Intervene, at This Moment: Netanyahu and the Agreement Weren’t Disqualified,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 7 May 2020, https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5726131,00.html.

[44] Jonathan Liss, “The Coalition Agreement Will Require a Fundamental Change in the Basic Laws and Damage the Status of the Knesset and the Opposition,” Haaretz, 22 April 2020, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politi/.premium-1.8788393.

[45] Ehud Olmert, “This Is Not a Unity Government, But Netanyahu Crime Gang’s Government,” Maariv, 10 April 2020, https://www.maariv.co.il/journalists/opinions/Article-759132.

[46] Tal Schneider, “The Most Profligate Israeli Government Ever,” Globes, 21 April 2020, https://en.globes.co.il/en/article-the-most-profligate-israeli-government-ever-1001325983; Hagai Amit, “Gantz Left the Economic Control of the Economy in the Right-Wing Bloc Hands: View Full Coalition Agreement,” The Marker, 20 April 2020, https://www.themarker.com/news/politics/1.8784640.

[47] Yehuda Shlezinger, “Coalition Partners Appear to Reach 1-Year National Budget Compromise,” Yisrael Hayom, 7 July 2020, https://www.israelhayom.com/2020/07/07/coalition-partners-appear-to-reach-1-year-national-budget-compromise/.

[48] Yonatan Mendel, “Who Wrote the Trump Plan? Language Does Not Lie,” The Forum for Regional Thinking, 18 February 2020, https://www.regthink.org/articles/who-wrote-the-deal-of-the-century (author’s translation).

[49] Ari Shavit, “The All-Israeli Plan,” Makor Rishon, 31 January 2020, https://www.makorrishon.co.il/opinion/200923/.

[50] Ran Dagoni, “Netanyahu: The Israeli Law Will Be Implemented in All Settlements in the West Bank,” Globes, 28 January 2020, https://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001316522.

[51] GZERO Media, “Kushner on Israeli Annexation Plans: Not Now,” 30 January 2020, https://www.gzeromedia.com/jared-kushner-interview-israel-palestine-middle-east-peace.

[52] Chris McGreal, “‘Don’t Talk About History’: How Jared Kushner Crafted His Middle East ‘Peace’ Plan,” Guardian, 28 January 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/27/jared-kushner-israel-palestine-peace-plan; “The Annexation - Only After the Elections: Jared Kushner Led Netanyahu to Recant,”  Kan News, 30 January 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBO4-H0zNcI.

[53] Matti Tokfeld, “Netanyahu in the Launching of the Likud’s Campaign: We Will Immediately With No Delay Apply Israeli Sovereignty Over the Jordan Valley,” Yisrael Hayom, 21 January 2020, https://www.israelhayom.co.il/article/726387.

[54] Benjamin Netanyahu, Facebook, 19 December  2019, https://www.facebook.com/Netanyahu/posts/10156905660737076.

[55] Liel Kaiser, “The IDF Warns: Annexation May Lead to Violence in the Region,” Channel 11, Kan, 13 February 2020, https://www.kan.org.il/item/?itemid=66547.

[56] Amir Tibon and Noa Landau, “Gantz Hails ‘Historic’ Trump Mideast Plan After White House Meeting,” Haaretz, 28 January 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-trump-meets-netanyahu-gantz-says-peace-plan-overly-good-to-palestinians-1.8463001.

[57] Tibon and Landau, “Gantz Hails ‘Historic’ Trump Mideast Plan After White House Meeting.”

[58] Tibon and Landau, “Gantz Hails ‘Historic’ Trump Mideast Plan After White House Meeting.”

[59] Eitamar Eichner, Moran Azulay, Eleor Levy, and Elisha Ben-Kimon, “July Came, Sovereignty Has Not: What Do the Different Sides Think?” Yedioth Ahronoth, 1 July 2020, https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5757206,00.html.

[60] Shlomo Pioterkovsky, “The Annexation Announcement of Gantz Will Not Convince Anyone,” Makor Rishon, 21 January 2020, https://www.makorrishon.co.il/opinion/198505/.

[61] The agreement was published by the Knesset in Hebrew. See https://m.knesset.gov.il/mk/government/Documents/CA35-Likud-BW-200420.pdf.

[62] Tovah Lazaroff, “Annexation as Early as July 1 Under Netanyahu-Gantz Deal,” Jerusalem Post, 9 May 2020, https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/annexation-as-early-as-july-1-under-netanyahu-gantz-deal-625304.

[63] The agreement was published by the Knesset in Hebrew. See https://m.knesset.gov.il/mk/government/Documents/CA35-Likud-BW-200420.pdf.

[64] Noa Landau and Jack Khouri, “Palestinians Slam ‘Betryal’ by UAE in Deal With Israel: ‘Reward of the Occupation’s Crimes,’” Haaretz, 13 August 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-plo-official-lashes-out-at-....

[65] Nadav Shargai, “Unleashing a Rope,” Yisrael Hayom, 26 January 2020, https://www.israelhayom.co.il/article/447343

[66] Ron Kahlili, “Mizrahi Jews Are the Majority Also in the Settlements,” Haaretz, 20 September 2017, https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.4299933.

[67] Eichner, “July Came, Sovereignty Has Not: What Do the Different Sides Think?”

[68] David Halbfinger and Adam Rasgon, “Netanyahu’s Annexation Plans Meet Surprise Opponent,” New York Times,1 June 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/world/middleeast/israel-annex-netanyahu-westbank.html.

[69] Eichner, “July Came, Sovereignty Has Not: What Do the Different Sides Think?”

[70] Halbfinger and Rasgon “Netanyahu’s Annexation Plans Meet Surprise Opponent.”  

[71] Dan Zaken, “Settlers Against Annexation,” Globes, 20 May 2020, https://en.globes.co.il/en/article-settlers-against-annexation-1001329275.

[72] Rina Bassist, “Blue-White Lawmakers Said to Support Staged Annexation,” Al-Monitor, 17 June 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/06/israel-palestinians-benny-gantz-annexation-west-bank.html.

[73] “Ashkenazi: Annexation? Ask Netanyahu,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 2 January 2020, https://www.ynetnews.com/article/KAJLYEMWG.

[74] “Foreign Minister Ashkenazi: I Don’t Know About Annexation, Ask Netanyahu,” Jerusalem Post, 1 July 2020, https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/foreign-minister-ashkenazi-i-dont-know-about-annexation-ask-netanyahu-633385.

[75] Toi Staff, “U.S. Seeking Israeli Gesture Toward Palestinians to Offset Annexation — TV Report,” Times of Israel, 30 June 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-seeking-israeli-gesture-toward-palestinians-to-offset-annexation-report/.

[76] Staff, “U.S. Seeking Israeli Gesture Toward Palestinians to Offset Annexation — TV Report.”

[77] Noa Landau, “Netanyahu: The Target Date for the Annexation Is July 1, and We Have No Intentions to Change That,” Haaretz, 25 May 2020, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/.premium-1.8871267.

[78] Peter Beaumont and Rosie Scammell, “Netanyahu’s Annexation Plan in Disarray as Gantz Calls for Delay,” Guardian, 29 January 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/29/netanyahus-annexation-plan-in-disarray-as-gantz-calls-for-delay.

[79] Orlando Crowcroft, “EU Urges Israel Not to Annex Settlements in the West Bank,” Euronews, 18 June 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2020/06/18/eu-urges-israel-not-to-annex-settlements-in-the-west-bank.

[80] Robin Emmott, Luke Baker, John Irish, and Maayan Lubell, “Vexed by Annexation: The Battle Inside the EU Over Israel,” Reuters, 23 June 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-palestinians-europe-annexation-idUSKBN23U1R6.

[81] Emmott, “Vexed by Annexation: The Battle Inside the EU Over Israel.”

[82] Noa Landau, “German FM Warned Israel: Some Nations May Impose Sanctions Over Annexation, Recognize Palestine,” Haaretz, 10 June 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-german-foreign-minister-lands-in-israel-expected-to-warn-netanyahu-against-annexation-1.8910253.

[83] Yaniv Halili, “Annexation Violates the Law, We Will Not Recognize It,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 1 July 2020, https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5757272,00.html.

[84] Peter Beaumont, “Boris Johnson Warns Against Annexation in Israeli Newspaper Article,” Guardian, 1 July 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/01/boris-johnson-warns-against-annexation-in-israeli-newspaper-article.

[85] France 24, “France, UN Envoys Warn Israel Against Partial Annexation of West Bank,” 20 May 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200520-france-un-envoy-warn-israel-against-partial-annexation-of-west-bank.

[86] Zalman Ahnsaf, “France Threatens Reprisal if Annexation Proceeds,” Hamodia, 1 July 2020, https://hamodia.com/2020/07/01/france-threatens-reprisal-annexation-proceeds/.

[87] “Jordan’s King Says Regional Stability Put at Risk by Israeli Annexation,” Reuters, 17 June, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-palestinians-annexation-jordan/jordans-king-says-regional-stability-put-at-risk-by-israeli-annexation-idUSKBN23N3EK.

[88] Hagar Hosny, “Egypt Treads Cautiously in Response to Trump’s Deal of the Century,” Al-Monitor, 14 February 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/02/mideast-plan-egypt-palestinians-negotiations.html.

[89] Yousef Al Otaiba, “Annexation Will Be a Serious Setback for Better Relations With the Arab World,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 12 June 2020, https://www.ynetnews.com/article/H1Gu1ceTL.

[90] Yoval Karni and Yael Friedson, “For or Against Annexation? Gantz and Ashkenazi Maintain Ambiguous Position,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 14 June 2020, https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5748224,00.html.

[91] Tel Lev Ram, “Gantz on the Peace Agreement: It Is Not Healthy That Ashkenazi and I Were Not Informed. I Have Never Leaked Information,” Maariv, 18 August 2020, https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-784587.

[92] Ram, “Gantz on the Peace Agreement: It Is Not Healthy That Ashkenazi and I Were Not Informed. I Have Never Leaked Information.”

[93] Itamar Eichner, “The Opening of Restaurants and Swimming Pools Was Confirmed, Netanyahu: Have Fun,” Ynet, 26 May 2020, https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5737375,00.html.

[94] Toi Staff, “Netanyahu: Lockdown Unavoidable, Claim I’m Imposing It to End Protest Is Absurd,” Times of Israel, 24 September 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-lockdown-unavoidable-claim-i-did-it-to-end-protests-is-absurd/.

[95] Baruch Kra, “Netanyahu’s Equation Demonstration Equals Prayer Is an Evil Lie That Will Cost Us Fortune,” Walla, 24 September 2020, https://news.walla.co.il/item/3388745

[96] Toi Staff, “Cabinet Delays Decision on New Virus Rules as Netanyahu Pans Protest ‘Farce,’” Times of Israel, 22 September 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/cabinet-readies-new-virus-rules-as-netanyahu-pans-farce-of-rallies-against-him/.

[97] Shaul Amsterdamski, “Economic Peace: Empty Theory or Unfortunate Acidification,” Calcalist, 15 October 2015, https://www.calcalist.co.il/local/articles/0,7340,L-3671066,00.html

[98] See the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Israel, the Conflict and Peace: Answers to Common Questions,” https://mfa.gov.il/mfaheb/foreignrelations/foreignpolicy/pages/israel_the_conflict_and_peace_%20answers_to_frequently_asked_questions.aspx.

[99] Yoval Benziman, “Israel-Arab Relations and Their Linkage to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process,” Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policy, February 2018, https://mitvim.org.il/wp-content/uploads/Hebrew_-_Dr._Yuval_Benziman_-_Israel-Arab_relations_and_their_linkage_to_the_Israeli-Palestinian_peace_process_-_February_2018.pdf.

[100] Ora Koren, “Netanyahu: ‘Economic Peace’ Before Diplomatic Negotiations,” Haaretz, 20 January 2008, https://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/1.1301672

[101] Shlomo Ben Ami, “Netanyahu’s Doctrine Is a Disastrous Illusion,” Haaretz, 27 August 2020, https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.9105756

[102] Toi Staff, “Top Emirati Diplomat: Peace With Israel Will Better Serve Palestinian Cause,” Times of Israel, 14 September 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/top-emirati-diplomat-peace-with-israel-will-better-serve-palestinian-cause/.

[103] Yaniv Kubovich, “Gantz on Annexation: Palestinians ‘In Deep Shit,’ Israel ‘Won’t Keep Waiting for Them.’” Haaretz, 23 June 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-gantz-says-won-t-keep-waiting-for-the-palestinians-to-decide-on-annexation-1.8942145.

[104] David Halbfinger, Adam Rasgon, and Mohammed Najib, “Abbas, Cornered by Israeli Annexation, Opts for ‘Judgment Day’ Scenario,” New York Times, 20 May 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/world/middleeast/abbas-israel-security-annex.html.

[105] Toi Staff, “In Efforts to Pressure Israel, PA Said Threatening Not to Pay Civil Servants,” Times of Israel, 11 June 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-effort-to-pressure-israel-pa-said-threatening-not-to-pay-civil-servants/.

[106] Toi Staff and Aaron Boxerman, “Palestinian Forces Said Ordered to Hide Files Ahead of Possible Violence,” Times of Israel, 10 June 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/palestinian-forces-said-ordered-to-hide-files-ahead-of-possible-violence/.

[107] Yoav Zitun and Alior Levi, “Gantz Instructed the Chief of Staff to Accelerate the Readiness of the Army for Annexation,” Ynet, 1 June 2020, https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5740510,00.html (author’s translation).

[108] Udi Dekel and Noa Shusterman, “Annexation of the West Bank: Where Does it Lead?” The Institute for National Security Studies, 14 June 2020, https://www.inss.org.il/publication/annexation-convention-summary/.

[109] “Netanyahu Undeterred on Annexation,” Al-Monitor, 29 March 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/05/israel-annexation-netanyahu-trump-jordan-valley.html.

[110] Mazal Mualem, “Netanyahu Not Destabilized Over Palestinians Cutting Security Coordination,” Al-Monitor, 28 May 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/iw/originals/2020/05/israel-palestinians-us-benjamin-netanyahu-mahmoud-abbas.html.

[111] Tal Schneider, “First Talk Between Foreign Ministers of Israel and UAE,” Globes, 16 August 2020, https://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001339454

[112] Ben Caspit, “Scoop: Netanyahu Stopped the Annexation of the Jordan Valley After Having Received Heavy Critique From Senior Security Figures,” Maariv, 13 September 2019, https://www.maariv.co.il/elections2019/news/Article-718877

[113] Moffitt, Populism: Key Concepts in Political Theory.

[114] Brian Bennett, “‘Only the Strong Survive’: How Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu Is Testing the Limits of Power,” Time Magazine, 11 July 2019, https://time.com/longform/benjamin-netanyahu-interview/.

[115] Audi Segal, Sefi Ovadia, and Raviv Druker, “Channel 13 Survey: Despite Peace Agreements, Netanyahu Loses Some Power,” Channel 13, 16 September 2020, https://13news.co.il/item/news/politics/state-policy/survey-1128211/.

[116] Gil Hoffman, “Gideon Sa’ar Quits Likud, Slams Netanyahu, Announces New Party,” Jerusalem Post, 8 December 2020, https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/gideon-saar-calls-press-conference-t....

[117] Nehemia Strassler, “This Is the New Bibi-Gantz Agreement: To Pay the Price, Hordos,” Haaretz, 15 December 2020, https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.9370197.

[118] Mati Tuchfeld, “Israel Hayom and Ma’gar Mohot Survey: Sa’ar Party Is Expected to Win Twenty Seats,” Israel Hayom, 12 December 2020, https://www.israelhayom.co.il/article/828739.

[119] Tuchfeld, “Israel Hayom and Ma’gar Mohot Survey: Sa’ar Party Is Expected to Win Twenty Seats.”

[120] Isabel Kershner, “Netanyahu Accuses Rivals of Plotting to ‘Steal’ Israeli Election,” New York Times, 9 September 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/09/world/middleeast/netanyahu-israel-ele....

[121] Gur Magido, “Gantz’s Compromises and Accomplishments: What Does the Coalition Agreement Say About the Judiciary System?” The Marker, 21 April 2020, https://www.themarker.com/law/.premium-1.8785235.

[122] Jerusalem Post Staff, “Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai Mulling Run for Prime Minister – Report,” Jerusalem Post, 19 July 2020, https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/tel-aviv-mayor-ron-huldai-mulling-run-for-prime-minister-report-635528.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amal Jamal is professor of political science at the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs and the head of the Walter Lebach Institute for the Study of Jewish-Arab Coexistence at Tel Aviv University. He has published extensively on Israeli politics, the Palestinian national movement, and the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. His last book, Reconstructing the Civic: Palestinian Civil Activism in Israel, was published by SUNY Press in August 2020.

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