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AnalysisIf he falls below threshold, he could keep PM in power again

Benny Gantz won’t quit the election race. Is that for Israel’s sake, or his own?

A mocked and detested Blue and White leader says he’s in it ‘to the end’ so he can rein in Netanyahu’s interim government. In fact, he can do that from outside the Knesset

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Election campaign posters showing Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz next to the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. February 1, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Election campaign posters showing Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz next to the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. February 1, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

There’s no getting around it: Benny Gantz has become a despised figure among a great many of his former voters.

In March 2020, Gantz broke his main election promise and entered into talks to form a unity government with Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s hard to believe now, but it was a relatively popular move at the time. The country had just been through three indecisive elections in a single year. The political system was deadlocked just as the nation found itself charging headlong into a global pandemic. Polls showed a majority of Israelis, including a narrow majority of Blue and White supporters, favored unity.

A February 6, 2020, poll conducted a full month before Gantz’s fateful decision to launch unity talks with Netanyahu found a nation tired of incessant electioneering and hoping for unity. The poll (Hebrew link) found 52% of Israelis favoring a Gantz-Netanyahu unity government, and just half that, 26%, opposed to the idea. The figures were almost identical among self-described right-wing voters (51% in favor, 27% opposed) and center-left ones (54% to 24%).

Seven weeks later, on March 27, 2020, after Gantz had taken the leap that would seem to have all but destroyed his brief political career, a new poll found that support for unity had risen. Among all Israelis, 61% favored unity. But even among those who had just voted Blue and White in the March 2 race, 56% supported the move — that despite the fact that 46% of the country and 67% of Blue and White voters were sure Netanyahu would renege on any rotation deal.

A year later, whatever benefits that unity was supposed to bring have failed to materialize. Israel is going to the polls yet again in three weeks’ time. And to most on the center-left, Gantz is now the man who cruelly betrayed their trust out of a shockingly naive belief that Netanyahu could be relied on — or at least be forced — to carry out his commitments under the unity agreement.

As Blue and White now hovers within a single seat of dropping out of the Knesset altogether — and losing the anti-Netanyahu bloc votes that could prove critical to unseating the long-serving prime minister — calls are mounting for Gantz to quit the race.

Israelis protest outside the house of Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Rosh Ha’ayin. February 23, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On social media, many now refer to Gantz as “a soldier of Netanyahu,” warn he will once again join a Netanyahu government if given the chance, or otherwise argue he is doing the right’s bidding by remaining in the race.

He is mocked relentlessly on social media.

Protests are being held outside his home in Rosh Ha’ayin. One prominent organizer explained the motivations for the protests on Twitter:

“1. He’s treacherous. 2. He’s spineless. 3. He’s dangerous to the bloc because he’s currently the most likely [center-left party] not to pass the threshold. 4. He must pay for his actions. 5. He’s an embarrassment to politics who makes many not want to vote.”

His critics have a point. With polls showing the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps almost exactly equal in strength, if Gantz stays in the race but fails to clear the 3.25 percent vote threshold, the loss of those votes for the center-left could tilt the balance and deliver Netanyahu a victory.

‘Supreme gatekeeper’

Gantz has so far refused to drop out — not, he assures Israelis, because of his own desire to remain in politics, but because his quitting the race would only strengthen Netanyahu.

“I’m the supreme gatekeeper,” he told the Kan public broadcaster in an interview over the weekend. “If I don’t exist, then the system is unprotected. If I don’t exist, there’s no more attorney general. If I don’t exist, there’s one-man rule by Netanyahu. And I won’t let that happen.”

Benny Gantz, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 10, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset spokesperson)

What is Gantz talking about? He’s talking about his role as “alternate prime minister.”

The “alternate prime minister” post was invented as part of the rotation deal that was the core compromise at the heart of the Netanyahu-Gantz unity government. It was conceived as the position that would be held by whichever of the two men was not serving as the actual prime minister at any given time.

And its powers are enormous: The alternate PM can veto any vote from coming up in the cabinet; only the alternate PM can fire ministers appointed by himself.

Those powers are also hard to overturn. They were written into Israel’s quasi-constitutional basic laws.

If he doesn’t make it into the next Knesset, Gantz is warning the center-left, he will no longer be part of the interim government, and those special powers reserved for the alternate PM — the only meaningful checks the center-left has on Netanyahu until a new government is formed, which recent experience has shown might be a while — will disappear with him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a gym on Saturday, February 20, to urge vaccinated Israelis to use a ‘Green Pass’ to access sports and culture as Israel begins reopening (PMO/Amos Ben Gershon)

Netanyahu will be able to fire Gantz and his Blue and White ministers, and become the lone master of the government for as long as the political deadlock continues. Netanyahu will thereby regain control of the Justice Ministry and will be able to appoint an attorney general more to his liking; he’ll control all pandemic policy, defense policy and economic policy unchecked.

It’s right there in the amendment passed last May that formed the “alternate PM” post, in Article 5B of the Basic Law: “A prime minister, and in an alternating [i.e., rotation] government — also an alternate prime minister — shall be a Member of Knesset.”

“If I don’t exist,” Gantz told Kan — and everyone else who will listen in recent days — “then the system is unprotected.”

Autopilot

There’s just one problem with Gantz’s argument: a consensus is developing among legal experts that he’s wrong.

The argument is surprisingly simple.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi in Jerusalem on July 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

When a government resigns or is made to fall by a Knesset no-confidence vote, the prime minister and the cabinet do not simply walk away from their posts. The country cannot be leaderless in between governments. Instead, the outgoing government continues to serve in an “interim” capacity until the Knesset votes to confirm its replacement.

As Article 30 of the Basic Law stipulates: “With the election of a new Knesset or resignation of a government… the outgoing government shall continue to fulfill its duties until the new government is established.”

That’s the legal principle that has allowed Netanyahu to serve as “interim prime minister” for 19 of the past 26 months.

The upshot: Gantz remains Israel’s “alternate prime minister” in the transitional government regardless of whether he holds a seat in the next Knesset. The laws and rules that stipulated that Netanyahu cannot fire Gantz, or any minister appointed by Gantz, remain intact in that interim period.

Minister of Defense Benny Gantz speaks to the media and protesters outside his home, during a demonstration of Israeli workers from the culture and art industry in Rosh Haayin, on August 9, 2020.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Unless he resigns from the government of his own accord, Gantz will retain his position as alternate PM, complete with a veto on cabinet votes and control of the ministries of defense, justice and communications.

Gantz’s continued service in the position would, as he rightly argues, be a boon for the center-left, if only because it would reduce the attractiveness of interim rule for Netanyahu.

Netanyahu will almost certainly try to oust Gantz if Blue and White evaporates on election day, and the point will inevitably come before the High Court. But the court is quite likely to let Gantz remain in the government. The principle that a transitional government continues to serve as-is has been accepted practice since the founding of the state.

From Gantz’s perspective, sticking it out after a ballot-box defeat would be a selfless act by an otherwise failed and frustrated politician. Then again, it seems the least his angry former voters can expect from a man who still insists he’s their “supreme gatekeeper” and whose favorite campaign slogan over the past two years was, “Israel above all.”

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