For Israelis, a vague feeling of siege is second nature. So the common response to the coronavirus threat—to government exhortations to shelter—has been reasonably stoic. Israelis are more rattled by more than five thousand diagnosed cases portending the collapse of its underfunded health-care system, and by imminent economic paralysis, with more than twenty per cent unemployed and tens of thousands of small businesses and freelancers contemplating bankruptcy. Israelis have already been rattled by three elections in one year, which produced a continued electoral stalemate, a defiant Prime Minister facing trial on corruption charges, and political divisions pitting the claims of democracy against those of “Zionism.” Given all that, it is hard to imagine Israelis being shocked.

But shock is just what Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s main opposition party, Blue and White, managed to deliver this past Thursday in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Owing to the results of the nation’s most recent election, on March 2nd, Gantz held a Presidential mandate to form the next government. The Knesset was assembled under a High Court order, in spite of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to obstruct it, to elect a new Speaker—one who would not be beholden to Netanyahu. At the last minute, Gantz put himself forward for the job with, of all things, the support of Netanyahu’s rightist bloc, led by the Likud party.

This was Gantz’s first public step in surrendering the mandate and entering an “emergency” government of national unity under Netanyahu; Gantz was duly elected Speaker 74–18. “These are not ordinary days, and they require extraordinary decisions,” he told an eerily vacated Knesset. “I will not compromise on the principles for which more than a million citizens voted.” Joining Gantz in Netanyahu’s government will be Gabi Ashkenazi—like Gantz, a former Army chief of staff, and a founder of Blue and White—and the two prominent members of what’s left of the Labor Party. Blue and White had won thirty-three seats; Gantz would now lead a faction of seventeen members, almost all of whom would be promised ministerial posts, and keep the party’s name.

But Yair Lapid, another Blue and White leader, and Moshe Yaalon, the third former general among the party’s founders, announced that they considered Gantz’s move treachery. Both men have worked for Netanyahu and abhor his deceit and venality. They continue to refuse to serve under an indicted Prime Minister. They will, they say, quit Blue and White and lead the new opposition, with a faction of sixteen members. “Gantz surrendered without a fight and crawled into Netanyahu’s government. He joined the ‘Haredi-extremist bloc.’ ” Lapid said.

Just when to “fold ’em” is never as knowable as Kenny Rogers’s song suggests, but nobody doubted that Netanyahu was holding the stronger hand. He has been playing on public fears of the coronavirus and an imminent lockdown to promote himself. Yet the need for authoritative action was clear. Public estimates suggested that the government would spend itself into a ten-per-cent budget deficit. The coronavirus is spiking in dense ultra-Orthodox communities. Nobody seriously doubted Gantz’s patriotic impulses.

In addition, two Blue and White Knesset members, citing the need for “unity,” had preëmpted Gantz’s formation of a minority government that would be dependent on the Joint List, an alliance of mainly Israeli-Arab parties, led by Ayman Odeh. Gantz reportedly polled voters and saw that, should there be a fourth election, Netanyahu would trounce him. So nobody doubted, either, that some form of national-unity government was inevitable—even that Netanyahu might serve as Prime Minister first, before Gantz rotated in.

What many did doubt was that Gantz would capitulate, just as Blue and White was gaining leverage, to shape the terms of a unity government. With Odeh’s support, Gantz had whipped sixty-one seats in the Knesset, out of a hundred and twenty, and had already gained control over key oversight committees; the High Court had backed up the right to elect a new Speaker, who would be responsible for advancing, or obstructing, all proposed legislation. So Gantz might have proposed legislation that, for example, prohibits an indicted member from serving as Prime Minister. Would Netanyahu force “a fourth election” under the threat that such a law could be passed?

Nor is a unity government really required to deal with the urgent business of the coronavirus crisis. All of Netanyahu’s decisions—about quarantines, oversight of police monitoring, budgeting of disaster spending and taxes—derive from epidemiological and economic models worked up by professionals at the Health and Finance Ministries and the Bank of Israel. The cabinet and the Knesset committees are reviewing and endorsing these decisions irrespective of who runs a particular ministry. On Monday, Netanyahu—himself under quarantine after exposure to an infected adviser—unveiled a twenty-two-billion-dollar package including unemployment benefits and subsidized business loans. Meanwhile, the current Health Minister, the ultra-Orthodox Yaakov Litzman, was “praying and hoping” for deliverance from the virus by the Messiah, who would hopefully arrive, Litzman said, “before Passover, the time of our redemption.”

Most significantly, Gantz was not simply the head of an opposition party but—by default, in the course of three election campaigns—a leader in Israel’s culture war, resisting theocracy and Messianic justifications for the occupation and reproving Netanyahu’s violations of the law, assaults on the press, and self-aggrandizing diplomacy. Gaining leverage in that battle was especially important to Israeli-Arab citizens. It hardly seems arguable, given our times, that an elected leader, backed by a panicked nationalist majority, can, with many small cuts, hollow out a democracy. Netanyahu’s first cuts, for which he was eventually indicted, centered on efforts to use regulatory power to control the press. The unkindest cut has been his yearlong campaign to whip up Zionist disdain for Arabs, posturing as the fierce leader of the Jewish people’s nation-state and fending off the efforts of the Arab minority and Jewish liberals to accept Israel as a “state of its citizens.” This continued even as the nation has watched Arab doctors and nurses working ceaselessly with their Jewish counterparts to fight the virus.

Gantz, in negotiating with Odeh, implicitly accorded Israel’s Arab minority an unprecedented public dignity. Then, in an instant, he seemed to yank it away. One member of his faction, the Druze Arab journalist Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, immediately repudiated him. She had come to politics to replace, not join, a “racist government,” she said.

If Gantz needed a reminder of those stakes, he got it last week, when Kan, the publicly funded state media corporation, fired Lucy Aharish, a popular Arab-Israeli journalist who had famously acculturated into Hebrew civil society, becoming the first Muslim Arab-Israeli to anchor a newscast on a major television channel. In 2015, she was one of twelve citizens chosen to light a torch in the annual Independence Day celebrations, on Mount Herzl. Three years later, sloughing off rightist bigotry, she married the popular Jewish-Israeli actor Tzachi Halevy.

In early March, the thirty-nine-year-old Aharish contracted with Kan to co-host a daily cultural-affairs program, and it was going well. Then, Netanyahu used the pretext of the health emergency to suspend the lower courts, postponing his own trial. A civil-rights organization called a protest on Facebook, and an unprecedented bloc of more than half a million Israelis logged on. Among those who spoke in defense of Israeli democracy were former heads of the Secret Service and Mossad, and a former Justice of the High Court. Aharish had been asked to chair the session, and she added an appeal of her own.



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