Pollak: What a ‘National Unity’ Government Could Mean in Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz (Yonatan Sindel / AFP / Getty)
Yonatan Sindel / AFP / Getty

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered opposition leader Benny Gantz a “national unity” government — one in which the two leading parties agree to govern together.

In a practical sense, what that would mean is that Gantz’s Blue and White party — which received the most votes — and Netanyahu’s Likud party would divide the Cabinet positions and take turns having their respective party leaders lead the government as prime minister.

There is ample precedent for national unity governments, in Israel and elsewhere — especially during times of conflict and transition. Israel formed a national unity government several days before the Six Day War in 1967, for example. South Africa formed a “government of national unity” after the transition from apartheid. The stability offered by such governments, however, is usually transitory, as each side can easily cause the coalition to collapse.

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the small secular nationalist party that forced the collapse of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government earlier this year, emerged as the kingmaker after this week’s elections, because the left- and right-wing blocs were both deadlocked at 56 seats apiece — five seats shy of the 61-vote majority needed to form a majority in the 120-seat Israeli Knesset. Liberman initially said he wanted a national unity government.

But then things became more interesting. Netanyahu initially said he would try to form a right-wing government, theoretically with Lieberman in it. But Lieberman rejected serving in a government with the religious parties that have been part of Netanyahu’s coalition. Netanyahu then formed a pact with those parties to negotiate together as one 56-seat bloc: that is, the religious parties would not serve in a Blue and White-led government on their own.

What that means is that the only way for the left and the right to join together in a national unity government would be without Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party — unless Lieberman was prepared to abandon his promises to his voters. The alternative, for Lieberman, would be to ditch the national unity government and back the left-wing bloc. But that includes the Arab parties, with whom Lieberman also does not want to serve (the feeling is mutual).

There are hints that Lieberman may be willing to compromise, with the Times of Israel reporting that he intends to recommend Gantz for prime minister. That means one of two things: either he is willing, after all, to work with the Arab parties on the left, but not the religious parties on the right, in a center-left government; or he is willing to be part of a national unity government with both the Arab and the religious parties. Both involve risks for Lieberman.

The most feasible arrangement would seem to be a national unity government that excludes the Arab parties as well as Lieberman, who is a destabilizing force. Ironically, that would mean Lieberman would be left out of the unity government: he would have succeeded in crashing Netanyahu’s government without securing a place in the one that followed. The remaining question would be whether Netanyahu or Gantz would lead first. No one knows — yet.

Gantz is still, as of this moment, refusing to serve under Netanyahu, who faces bogus corruption allegations. That means one of three things may happen. First, the other members of Likud may decide to oust Netanyahu and bring their party into a national unity government. Second, Gantz may have to compromise and allow Netanyahu to be prime minister for at least some of the time. And third, Israel could be headed — once again — for early elections.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He earned an A.B. in Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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