By design or not, Gaza escalation increases chance of unity government

Benny Gantz claims nothing’s changed, but he knows an operation limits his options and bolsters Netanyahu, while putting nail in coffin of Plan B, an Arab-backed minority coalition

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader MK Benny Gantz on Tuesday said the escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip will not affect his ongoing negotiations to form a coalition.

“This action will have no effect on the political processes taking place,” said Gantz, giving a statement in support of Israel’s early-morning airstrike killing a top Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist in the Gaza Strip.

But Gantz is wrong. And he knows it.

With just eight days remaining for Gantz to form a government, and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying the ensuing operation in Gaza “could take a long time,” the action will have a deep effect on the political processes taking place.

President Reuven Rivlin tasked Gantz with attempting to form a coalition after Netanyahu failed in the wake of the September 17 elections. But Gantz’s chances of succeeding where the prime minister failed always appear to be slim, with Netanyahu’s bloc of supporting lawmakers from his Likud, right-wing and religious parties refusing to budge.

Up until Tuesday, Gantz had three options: form a unity government with the Likud with a rotating premiership shared with Netanyahu; form a minority government with the outside support of the Joint List party; or accept defeat — a move that would likely spell the third round of elections in a year.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at his party headquarters, in Tel Aviv, September 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

In the minority

So far unity talks between Blue and White and Likud have stalled, with neither Gantz nor Netanyahu agreeing to accept the second shift in a premiership rotation agreement. Two major stumbling block to those talks have been Netanyahu’s conditioning the government on the inclusion of his right-wing and religious political allies, and Gantz’s refusal to serve under a prime minister suspected of criminal wrongdoing. Netanyahu is expected to be indicted in the coming weeks.

The two major parties have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress in negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to a third round of elections.

At the same time, Gantz has neither signaled willingness to establish a minority government nor denied reports that the option is on the table, but he has met with leaders of the Joint List — the first coalition talks with Arab parties in decades. He would need at least some members of the party to vote in favor of his coalition, even without joining it, in order to receive a plurality of Knesset votes expressing confidence in his leadership.

Blue and White chair Benny Gantz (C) meeting with leaders of the Joint List alliance, Ayman Odeh (L) and Ahmed Tibi, October 31, 2019. (Ofek Avshalom)

According to Likud sources, however, Blue and White has used the idea of a government supported from the outside by the Joint List in an effort to drag Likud to the negotiating table to form a unity government on its  terms.

As of the early hours of Tuesday morning, when an IDF jet targeted senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s Baha Abu al-Ata for elimination, the option of a minority government supported by the Joint List — and therefore the pressure that option puts on Likud — appears to be null and void, several sources from both Likud and Blue and White told The Times of Israel later in the day.

“The political negotiations cannot be unaffected by what is going on in the country on a normal day, let alone when we are almost at war,” a Blue and White MK said.

“We are not saying that this was done with the intention of putting us in a corner, but there is no question that it impacts our options,” the MK said, adding, “especially after Netanyahu’s speech yesterday.”

Arab lawmakers have condemned Israel over the targeted killing, which has been praised by Blue and White.

‘A slap in the face’

Speaking Monday night, hours before the airstrike, Netanyahu took aim at Gantz, who was IDF chief of staff during the 2014 Gaza war, saying the prospect of a minority government that is propped up by the Arab-majority Joint List would be a “slap in the face of IDF soldiers that we sent into battle together.”

Such a government would be “a threat to Israel’s security,” Netanyahu charged, speaking at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper and the Bnei Akiva youth movement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper and the Bnei Akiva youth movement at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, November 11, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu then specifically cited actions taken at the time by Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi to protest the 2014 military offensive, namely claiming Israel was committing war crimes and calling for an investigation. He also mentioned a recent election clip by the Joint List saying Gantz’s hands were “drenched with the blood of Gazan children.”

“And I ask you, Benny Gantz: Are those the people you want to form a government with?” Netanyahu said. “A government that would depend on Ahmad Tibi and [Joint List leader] Ayman Odeh? That would be a direct slap in the face of IDF soldiers, the combat fighters that you and I sent into battle. It’s simply unbelievable. Let go of that insane idea.”

It’s unclear whether Netanyahu knew that the targeted killing would take place just hours later. He explained on Tuesday that the operation had been discussed by the security cabinet for several months and received unanimous approval 10 days ago, but did not say when the final go-ahead was given. But the comments undoubtedly helped frame the Joint List as composed of people who side with Israel’s enemies.

Odeh slammed Netanyahu after the airstrike, accusing him of ordering the killing of Abu al-Ata for political gain at a time when his grasp on the premiership is the most tenuous in a decade.

Leader of the Joint list MK Ayman Odeh attends a press conference in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, November 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“A cynical man who lost two consecutive elections will leave only scorched earth in a desperate attempt to remain in office,” Odeh tweeted. “For ten years he has risen every morning with the aim of deepening the occupation [of the West Bank] and to distance the chances for peace.”

Odeh was backed by fellow Joint List members MK Aida Touma-Sliman, who tweeted that “Netanyahu’s cynicism and cruelty know no bounds — he started a war as a political exercise” and MK Ofer Kasif, who wrote that “to save his own skin — Netanyahu resorted to the only thing he can do — kill, destroy.”

Speaking Tuesday afternoon with a US delegation from the Council for a Secure America, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein criticized members of the Joint List for their responses to the escalation in Gaza. Saying publicly what Likud sources were already telling journalists anonymously, Edelstein said that the responses prove how “irresponsible” it would be to form a coalition based on the predominantly Arab party’s support.

“The only voices we heard this morning that didn’t express support for the IDF came from here, from the Knesset. The Joint List were the only ones who came out with a political statement explaining that this was a political decision,” Edelstein said. “It’s very disappointing and I think it just makes it more clear how irresponsible all this talk of having a coalition or a government based on the support of the Arab List was… and is.”

“Can you imagine the public response if Blue and White was seen as working with the Arabs while they are opposing the IDF?” said one Likud official on condition of anonymity.

New Defense Minister Naftali Bennett meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (R) and Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, the military secretary to the defense minister, on November 12, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

With the Israeli public almost always showing wide support for the army during military operations, it is hard to imagine anything but a vehemently negative public response to minority government backed by Joint List MKs, Blue and White sources agreed.

‘The game has changed’

The military operation diminishes the likelihood of a minority government, but it increases the possibility of Gantz and Netanyahu agreeing to work together — under Netanyahu’s terms.

While several opposition lawmakers besides those from the Joint List accused Netanyahu of being motivated by political considerations in ordering the early morning targeted killing, Gantz said that the government had made the “correct decision,” vowing to support ongoing actions against Gaza.

“The campaign against terror is continuous and requires moments when difficult decisions must be made,” Gantz said. “The political leadership and the IDF made the correct decision tonight for the sake of the security of Israeli civilians and residents of the south.

“Blue and White will back every correct action for the sake of Israel’s security and will put the security of residents above politics,” Gantz continued. “Every terrorist who endangers our security should know that he deserves to die.”

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz speaks at faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In the past, Gantz accused Netanyahu of “erasing” Israel’s deterrence versus terror groups by holding back on firm military action and failing to pursue diplomatic solutions. No such criticism was heard on Tuesday.

Gantz knows that attacking the prime minister during a sensitive military operation, regardless of the political situation, would be perceived as unpatriotic.

He also knows that the same public sentiment could spur support for a unity government, pressuring him to accept a deal in which he serves as, say, defense minister under a Prime Minister Netanyahu in managing an ongoing operation or even war.

“No one wants elections. No one wants war. But absolutely no one wants elections during a war,” a Blue and White official told The Times of Israel. “Whether it’s on purpose or not, the game has changed.”

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