Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem in March. He will serve as Israel’s prime minister for the next 18 months.
Benjamin Netanyahu will serve as Israel’s prime minister for the next 18 months © Gali Tibbon/Reuters

After more than a year of fighting for his political survival, Benjamin Netanyahu has secured a record fifth term as prime minister, extending his 11 straight years in office and ending a political paralysis that had brought much of Israel’s government to a halt.

Under the deal signed on Monday, Mr Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the next 18 months before the leadership rotates to his rival Benny Gantz as the two leaders work together in a unity government — something Mr Gantz swore he would never do.

In the end, it took Mr Netanyahu just under 13 months to wear down his opponent. For three back-to-back elections, Mr Gantz, a retired army chief who had made his stamina a mainstay of the campaign, held together a fledgling electoral alliance united in one goal — unseating Mr Netanyahu by capitalising on his pending trial on corruption charges.

Mr Netanyahu was unfit for public office, Mr Gantz said over and over again, as election after unprecedented election finished deadlocked, with neither leader able to form a governing coalition of 61 parliamentary seats. 

Government budgets stagnated, new infrastructure projects were delayed, and the repeat polls became a punchline, even in Washington, where Mr Netanyahu’s closest ally, US president Donald Trump, joked that the country did not know how to pick a winner.

But then came coronavirus, an unexpected crisis that played to Mr Netanyahu’s strengths.

As caretaker prime minister, he made near-daily broadcasts, predicting tens of thousands of deaths unless the country took his instructions seriously, and demanded that Mr Gantz drop his political ambitions and join a unity government to battle the virus. 

Benny Gantz has agreed to work in a unity government © Abir Sultan/EPA/Shutterstock

Even before the outbreak, it appeared that Mr Gantz had begun to tire of the constant electioneering, while Mr Netanyahu, a consummate political tactician, seemed energised, according to interviews with three former members of Mr Gantz’s now disbanded political alliance.

“On the last election night, when it became clear that he hadn’t won, Gantz was deflated. It’s like the energy in the room changed,” said one of the people, declining to be identified.

The pandemic delivered the final blow after polling suggested that public approval of Mr Netanyahu’s response to the crisis could give him the edge in a fourth election, said one of the other people, who also asked not to be named.

“It was clear that Bibi was going to get the credit for the nation’s sacrifice, as if he was some sort of messiah who had saved the Jewish people from annihilation,” the person said, using Mr Netanyahu’s childhood nickname.

Faced with uncertainty of a fourth vote, Mr Gantz decided it best to use the spectre of coronavirus to justify taking a unity deal now and the premiership later, said Aviv Bushinsky, who served as an adviser to Mr Netanyahu. “He thought it better to absorb the mud that his ex-friends will start throwing at him while knowing that in a year and a half, he will be the prime minister and then he'll lead the country the way he thinks the country should be led.”

The agreement, detailed in a 14-page coalition document, brokered over weeks of cumbersome, often angry, talks, provides for a 36-month unity government that will spend the first six months focused on responding to coronavirus.

Mr Gantz will serve as deputy prime minister for 18 months, living in a newly designated residence, before swapping roles with Mr Netanyahu.

Coronavirus is an unexpected crisis that has played to Benjamin Netanyahu’s strengths © Oded Balilty/AP

After the first six months, the Israeli government will swell to the largest in its history, as the two men share the spoils of the awkward compromise with their parties, appointing 18 ministers each.

Despite the rhetoric of political co-operation in the face of a national emergency, many see the deal as a cynical move on both sides.

“I apologise to all those people who I convinced to vote for Benny Gantz this past year,” said Yair Lapid, Mr Gantz’s former political ally. “This is the worst act of fraud in the history of this country.”

What those documents created was not a radical new unity government, but an “awkward, inelegant democratic ceasefire”, said Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute and a former member of parliament.

Devoid of any grand visions or concrete proposals to resolve the economic aftermath of the coronavirus shutdowns, it has produced a government “burdened with numerous wasteful ministries and cumbersome political agreements based on distorted legislative constructs”, he said.

Indeed, Mr Gantz’s only public statement since capitulating to almost every demand made by Mr Netanyahu was a single tweet. “We prevented fourth elections. We’ll safeguard democracy,” he said. “We’ll fight the coronavirus and look out for all Israeli citizens. We have a national emergency government.”

But one Likud insider, who was briefed on a late-night Zoom call with Mr Netanyahu’s negotiation team, described the focus on the unity government fighting coronavirus as a political fig leaf demanded by Mr Gantz. “Gantz needed this, and it’s mostly a legal issue anyway — anything can be related to corona.”

Even on the issue of the proposed annexation of wide swaths of the occupied West Bank — a sticking point in the negotiations and a move that will test Israel’s relations with European allies — Mr Netanyahu is said to have got his way.

“Gantz wants to annex, Bibi wants to annex. The question was always how to go about it — now we know the answer,” said another person briefed on the talks. “We do it the way Bibi wants.”

Israel’s American allies have made it clear that they do not plan to interfere. Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said on Wednesday that annexation was “an Israeli decision” and that the US would share its views “in a private setting”.

Mr Pompeo added that the US was “glad” there was now a fully formed government, as a fourth election would not have been in the best interests of Israel or the rest of the world.

Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington

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