It almost sounded like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s message to the Israeli people was something like: “Be careful what you wish for.” Instead, what he said in his Knesset speech as Israel’s 34th government was sworn in was: “The public wants a unity government and this is what the public is getting today.”
With the installation of a new government headed by Netanyahu and his partner, newly minted Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Israelis ended a year of political stalemate. That came as Israelis struggled to address issues surrounding the coronavirus and braced for the commencement of Netanyahu’s long-anticipated trial for corruption. The new government promises to get Israel moving again. But at what cost?
The size, complexity and transparent patronage-bloated structure of the country’s new government tells the story. Never has Israel had a government so large — 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers — most of them divided between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White. And, in order to make sure their supporters got their promised political rewards, Netanyahu and Gantz had to create a few new ministries: community development, settlement affairs and higher education, and water resources. There will even be a minister to act as liaison between the Knesset and the cabinet.
There was another complicating factor in the dizzying patronage polka of the coalition partners: Netanyahu had too many people contending for too few cabinet posts, and Gantz didn’t have enough. That’s because Gantz’s former political allies broke away from him when he partnered with Netanyahu, leaving the remnants of Blue and White with only 15 Knesset members — not even enough to fill Gantz’s bargained-for ministerial slots.
Under Israel’s “Norwegian Law,” ministers who resign their Knesset seat are replaced by the next person on the party list. The new government sought to change the law — fearing that Blue and White ministers who resigned could be replaced by someone from a breakaway faction — but the change effort failed. An alternative seat-saving maneuver was pursued, and Gantz seems satisfied.
But this is a government of compromise, whose top priority is to maintain the balance of interests for everyone to stay in power. It is not a government built for innovation. And there is very little room for creativity.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid denounced the government, and was particularly critical of its bloat: “After all the empty talk of an ‘emergency government,’ the government being formed today is the largest and most wasteful in the history of the country,” he said.
Lapid may be right. But after three inconclusive elections in a year — and prospects pretty good for a four-peat if they tried again — the new oversized compromise structure may be the best Israelis can hope for until something breaks the country’s political stalemate.