“I am not able to sit [in government] with Netanyahu,” Blue and White leader Benny Gantz told The Times of Israel in an interview just over a year ago. “Friends, I am facing reality — I am telling you, we are speaking about a corrupt man who is destroying the country, and I cannot sit with him.”
“Bibi is not a king and not the messiah and it’s possible to go on without him,” Gantz added later in the conversation. “He has done his work. He served his party. He served his country. He served himself. Okay, let’s move on…”
In the wake of that April 2, 2019, interview, Gantz fought three election campaigns against the Likud incumbent, coming close but ultimately failing to oust him. On Thursday evening, having abandoned the core commitment of those three campaigns, and the only common thread that held his Blue and White alliance together, Gantz will be sworn in as Netanyahu’s minister of defense. Half his collapsed alliance, helmed by Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Telem’s Moshe Ya’alon, will lead the opposition, while Gantz will bide his time as the newly titled “alternate prime minister,” hoping that the coalition deal he signed with his former nemesis will indeed compel Netanyahu to hand over the premiership to him 18 months from now.
The swearing-in of the Netanyahu-led coalition, ending over 500 days in which Israel has labored without a fully functioning government, marks a political defeat for Gantz, notwithstanding his presence and that of his allies at the extended cabinet table and that distant promise of the premiership.
Opinion polls suggest that most Israelis support the new “emergency” unity coalition — assembled as the COVID-19 emergency is gradually being lifted, but with a deepening economic crisis after two months of national near-shutdown — and are relieved to have been spared yet a fourth election. But Gantz, as he made crystal clear in that interview and every speech on those three campaign trails, did not enter politics to help Netanyahu lengthen his record-breaking stay as Israeli prime minister, and to serve at Netanyahu’s pleasure in the hope of eventual reward.
The Netanyahu-Gantz arrangement guarantees the Blue and White leader equal representation at the cabinet table for his “bloc,” but the prime minister comprehensively outmaneuvered him in most every aspect of the coalition’s composition and direction, further undermining Gantz’s already weakened position.
Netanyahu has found a ministerial post for Yoaz Hendel and a key committee chairmanship for Zvi Hauser, easing those two Gantz allies into his own orbit. He’s created an absurd ministerial post — at the new Community Empowerment and Advancement Ministry — for another former member of the opposition bloc, Orly Levy-Abekasis, ensuring she sticks with him.
Acceding to Gantz’s request that the High Court-defying ex-Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein not return to that post, Netanyahu has instead inserted as speaker another Likud loyalist, Yariv Levin, who is even more critical of the judiciary and is certain to further challenge another of Gantz’s ostensible key causes — the protection of the current balance of power between Israel’s judges and its politicians. Gantz didn’t even have the sense to insist that the speaker’s role “rotate” so that he could insert his own nominee when, or rather, if he becomes prime minister — a demand Likud sources have indicated they had anticipated and would have accepted.
No sway on annexation
Regarding the most fateful of the substantive issues on the new government’s agenda, Gantz also relinquished any meaningful ability to impact Netanyahu’s policies on annexation.
Whereas the prime minister, from the very day US President Donald Trump unveiled his “Peace to Prosperity” vision on January 28, promised to unilaterally implement its provisions to extend Israeli sovereignty to all West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley, Gantz had carefully agreed to back the plan as a basis for negotiation with the affected parties such as the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.
Under the deal they signed on April 20, however, Netanyahu is free to advance the annexation process starting July 1 whether Gantz likes it or not. The United States had conditioned its support on Israel having a fully functioning government, on the completion of the relevant mapping process, and on Netanyahu accepting the Trump deal including a readiness to negotiate with the Palestinians on their future West Bank entity should they choose to engage. In other words, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been saying repeatedly, including in Israel on Wednesday, it’s Israel’s “right and obligation” to decide on annexation.
In fact, given the terms of the coalition deal, it’s Netanyahu’s.
Does Netanyahu truly intend to go through with all or part of his promised expanded sovereignty? Does he want his legacy dominated by a decision to revive full Israeli rule in parts of the biblically resonant Judea and Samaria, the sovereign realization of the settlement enterprise?
Or does he fear for the landmark Jordan peace treaty; for a rollback in the warming regional ties of which he is so proud; for an alienation of at least parts of the Diaspora; for a loss of support from previously quite friendly governments; for a tougher battle to defend Israel against allegations of racism, and worse, in the oversight of two sets of laws — one for Jews and another for Palestinians — in the disputed territory; for the demise of the two-state solution, of any viable path to eventual separation from millions of Palestinians?
Having formally surrendered the right to determine, or even co-determine annexation policy in the April 20 coalition deal, Gantz, like all the rest of us, in Israel and worldwide, can henceforth only watch and wait to find out.
One more reversal ahead
Gantz’s decision to reverse his core positions and join forces with a man who 13 months ago he insisted was “corrupt” and “destroying the country” is not the only political about-face enshrined in the establishment of Netanyahu’s new government Thursday.
On rotation, Gantz has no political leverage to exert — just a signed piece of paper no court will enforce, and some swiftly amended laws that can as swiftly be reverted
Also to be seated around the cabinet table are Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli of the Labor Party, for decades the key ideological rival of Likud, and the primary, implacable and declining opposition to Netanyahu until the advent of Blue and White. Like Gantz, Peretz has torn his party apart by switching sides, though Labor — in large part because of center-left support switching to Blue and White — had run out of road anyway, reduced to a pitiful three seats in March’s elections.
The only question now is why Gantz, having found justification in the COVID-19 crisis for reversing his solemn commitment to voters, thinks Netanyahu can be relied upon to honor his solemn commitment to hand over the premiership on November 14, 2021. Gantz, after all, has no political leverage to exert — just a signed piece of paper no court will enforce, and some swiftly amended laws that can as swiftly be reverted.
Netanyahu’s about-face, if and when it comes, will merely be the breach of one politician’s promise to another. And far from abandoning his voters, Netanyahu would surely be able to claim that he is honoring their will.