New Israeli Government – Unity or Mutiny?

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Yair Lapid said something that I can’t seem to get out of my mind. After seeing his former co-leader of Blue and White, Benny Gantz, join forces with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Lapid lashed out at his former teammate. 

“You don’t fight corruption from within. If you’re on the inside, you’re part of the problem. If you’re on the inside, you’re corrupt.”

If you’ve been a devoted reader to our Weekly, you will know that our goal is not to tell you what to think, but to frame how we can think about ideas. Our goal is not to prescribe; it is to describe. We don’t want to tell, we want to show. We want to help you uncover, excavate, and explore the stories in Israel and then provide ideas, thoughts, questions, and prompts that you can use to think through with your families, your friends, your children, or your students. 

When Lapid made this statement about Gantz and corruption, it caused me to pause and reflect. 

Putting aside one’s position on Prime Minister Netanyahu, as educators, it behooves us to ask the general question: how should one fight corruption? 

In some ways, it is easy for Lapid – who in this case is the outsider – to admonish Benny Gantz for what Lapid sees as hypocrisy and self-centeredness. His righteous indignation seems all too obvious. On the other hand, maybe Lapid can see clearly what Gantz can’t see, because Gantz might have his resume blinders on and only be able to see the possibility of power and leadership. 

  • Is Lapid right or wrong? 
  • Have you ever been in a moral dilemma like the one Lapid describes?
  • If you were in Benny Gantz’s shoes, what would you do? 

Lots to unpack here.

Best,
Noam

What Happened

It may have taken 508 days and an unprecedented three elections in 12 months to get there, but Israel’s political deadlock has finally come to an end. This past week, the 35th Israeli government was sworn in as the Knesset voted 73-46 in favor of the new government. The new government has the most ministers in the history of Israel, with 36 ministerial positions. After a year of bickering and slinging mud at each other, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and Blue and White’s chairman Benny Gantz signed a coalition agreement:  Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months of the government’s tenure while Gantz serves in the position of “alternate prime minister,” as well as defense minister. After 18 months, on November 17, 2021, Gantz will assume the position of prime minister, while Netanyahu serves as the alternate prime minister for the second half of the government’s tenure.

Why Does it Matter

  1. Unity government
    Although many in Israel are pessimistic about the chances of Netanyahu and Gantz’s unity government remaining unified, the current government is still a big deal. Unity governments typically include at least the two largest parties, those that are typically seen as the two alternatives for leading the country. Cooperation between the two main parties is atypical. The two factors that usually lead to the establishment of a unity government are a national emergency and/or a political deadlock. In this case, there is both a national emergency (COVID-19) as well as a political deadlock (see above). There have been a handful of unity governments in the history of Israel, the most famous being the one established on the eve of the Six Day War in 1967. The new government has faced plenty of criticism for the large number of ministers, 36 in total; however, in a poll, 56% of Israelis support the unity government and 29% oppose it. 
  2. West Bank Annexation
    One of the central issues facing the new government is Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank. Before the new government was sworn in, Netanyahu said, “The time has come to write a new and glorious chapter in the annals of Zionism,” while adding that annexation “would not detract from peace, on the contrary, [it will] bring us closer to it.” Under the terms of the coalition deal signed by both Netanyahu and Gantz, the annexation of 30% of Area C of the West Bank can begin as early as July 1. At the same time, most of the international community, especially Europe and various Arab nations, have fiercely opposed the annexation plans, arguing that the West Bank is an essential part of a future Palestinian state. The European Union’s foreign minister said that annexation would violate international law and “seriously undermine” the plans for a two-state solution. In an unprecedented move, Palestinian Authority President Mahmous Abbas has stopped all security coordination with Israel. While he has threatened to  cease security coordination in the past, according to Avi Issachoroff, this is the first time that Abbas is making good on it. 
  3. Netanyahu’s Legal Troubles and Gantz’s Pledge
    Sunday marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faced criminal charges in court (for corruption); the opening hearing was  held in Jerusalem. Netanyahu is on trial for various criminal charges, including fraud, breach of trust, and bribery. Leading up the coalition agreement, Benny Gantz was very clear that he would not sit with a prime minister under indictment. Back in September, Gantz pledged that “we won’t form a national corruption government with Netanyahu.” After facing a plethora of criticism for going back on his promise, Gantz said in an Israeli TV interview this week that he did not join Netanyahu in order to serve him, rather to serve the country during this challenging time in its history. 

Diversity of Perspectives

Yair Lapid, the new center-left leader of the opposition and former political partner of Gantz, blasted the new government and Gantz in particular in a storm of speeches and social media posts. Speaking to Israelis who voted for the Blue and White party, Lapid described Gantz’s switching teams as “the worst act of fraud in the history of this country.” Lapid argued that to fight corruption, “you can’t fight it from the inside. If you are on the inside, you are corrupt yourself.” 

In an announcement on May 15th, Naftali Bennett, the head of the right wing Yamina party and Defense Minister until the new government was sworn in, announced that “due to the make-up of the government and its likely policy as a left-wing government headed by Netanyahu, and in light of the prime minister’s outright disdain towards Yamina and its voters, we have decided to serve the public from the opposition.” Bennett added:  “We are preparing for the day after Netanyahu.” Yamina will join Yair Lapid, the Arab parties, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and the left-wing Meretz party in the opposition.

Netanyahu and Gantz struck a much more positive note. After the government was sworn in, Netanyahu and Gantz spoke to the Knesset. Netanyahu explained, “We went through three elections that deepened rifts and took a heavy financial toll. Another election would have cost NIS 2 billion more.” Gantz added that Israel was finally ending the “worst political crisis in its history” and called for the end of “the era of incitement” and for a fresh start with the “era of reconciliation.” Gantz added that he would do everything so that all Israeli citizens, regardless of background, would “feel at home.”

An op-ed from the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz argues that the new government is wasteful, inflated, and out of touch with Israelis. With the Israeli unemployment rate at a quarter of the entire country, the Haaretz article argues that Netanyahu is “throwing sand in the public’s eyes and salt in its wounds” when he excuses the inflated size of the new government is “incomparably lower than the cost of another election.” “What justifies the unprecedented size and shame of a government with 36 ministers, one in which many of the ministries have been created, sliced up, divided or tailored especially to enable its establishment?” the writer asks.

In another article, written for the right-wing religious Zionist website Arutz 7, the arguments against such a large government are just as strong. The writer Tal Bar-On argues that the larger the government, the less effective it will be for its citizens. Ridiculing the new minister positions, he sarcastically suggests some ideas for new minister positions such as the Minister of Scandal, Shame and Values, as well as the Minister of Efficiency.

Discussion Questions

  1. Prime Minister Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history and has been in office since 2009. There are some pundits who don’t think he will actually hand over the reins to Benny Gantz, and others who think he absolutely will. What is your prediction and why?
  2. Gantz initially vowed to never sit in a government with Netanyahu while he is under indictment, yet now they have formed a unity government. Do you consider Gantz to be a liar, or is he engaging in realpolitik (acting based on practical objectives, rather than ideals)? In your decision making, do you ever engage in “realpolitik,” or are you mostly guided by your ideals? 
  3. Yair Lapid said that to fight corruption, you need to fight it from the outside and that those who try to fight it from the inside are corrupt themselves. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? What do you think is the best possible way to make change politically? 
  4. Watch this video of the first-ever female Charedi member of Knesset being sworn in as a minister (Minister of Diaspora Affairs). She received approval before swearing in to add “b’ezrat hashem” (with God’s help) to her declaration of commitment, an addition that was not part of the original text. As the one Jewish state, do you think there should be a reference to God in the swearing in ceremonies for members of Knesset? Why might this question be controversial?

Classroom Tips

  1. With your students, read the following Times of Israel article, which is the full text of the policy principles of the new government. After reading the 9 principles, ask your students (individually or in groups) to choose their top 5 principles and rank them in order of priority. After the students share their lists, discuss if there are any principles they would have added to the document.
  2. The new Israeli government has the most ministers (36) in the history of the country, with multiple newly created ministries. Ask your students to brainstorm issues that matter to them and then share their ideas for a new ministry. They will need to be able to explain why the issues their new ministry addresses are important enough to receive government funding. 
  3. One of the new ministers in the Israeli government is Ethiopian born Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian-Israeli to serve as a minister in the state of Israel. Show your students the two images below, one showcasing Pnina arriving in Israel as a three-year-old immigrant during Operation Moses and the other of Pnina being sworn in as a minister for the Israeli government this week. Ask your students to share their reflections of what the contrast of these two images mean to them. What do these images teach us about Israel?

In Other News

  1. 119 new immigrants from Ethiopia made aliyah to Israel this week and were greeted by the new immigration minister, an Ethiopian Israeli herself. 
  2. A 77-year-old woman in Khan Yunis, Gaza, was the first in the coastal enclave to die of COVID-19 this week.
  3. On Thursday, 5,000 Israelis packed a beachfront concert in Tel Aviv to support struggling artists, the first gathering of this size in months.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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