'We lay on the fence; some say, we jumped on the grenade'

Claiming Blue and White ‘saved Israel,’ Gantz says he’ll lead party in election

Defense minister vows to create ‘alliance’ to unseat Netanyahu, castigates ‘whiners’ and ‘cowards’ who criticized him for joining Likud-led government

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks at a press conference, December 29, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks at a press conference, December 29, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced Tuesday night that he will continue to lead the ailing Blue and White in the upcoming elections in March, claiming the party “saved the country” and set the course for the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.

Gantz’s fiery address came as many of his party members announced they would not run with Blue and White in the election — the fourth national vote in two years — and as the centrist party tanked in opinion polls.

In his first press conference since the dissolution of the Knesset last week after the government failed to pass a budget, Gantz castigated Netanyahu, saying he caused the new election and would ultimately pay for it.

“The upcoming elections, which Netanyahu arrogantly dragged us into, are the last thing the people of Israel need now,” Gantz said. “There was not one minute in this government when Netanyahu viewed us as partners or acted for the country’s benefit.”

“The light at the end of the tunnel that awaits us all in the upcoming election campaign is that in the end, Netanyahu will free the country from his clutches. He will no longer be able to sacrifice the future of Israel for his personal, legal, and political future,” Gantz said, predicting the prime minister’s downfall.

Blue and White’s “great achievement” will be “the ending of Netanyahu’s political path,” Gantz said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The former IDF chief of staff entered politics two years ago, vowing to replace Netanyahu, then merged his nascent Israel Resilience party with Telem and Yesh Atid to form Blue and White, and narrowly failed in three elections to form a coalition without Netanyahu’s Likud.

While Gantz campaigned on the promise that he would not serve in a government with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister faces corruption charges, he agreed to do just that in late March, and formed a unity government with Netanyahu in May. Furious, Yesh Atid-Telem broke away from Blue and White and went into the opposition.

Netanyahu and Gantz reached an agreement that was supposed to see Gantz replace Netanyahu as prime minister in November 2021, but a loophole in the agreement saw the coalition collapse due to Netanyahu’s refusal to pass an annual budget.

Israel is consequently now gearing up for a fourth election after the Knesset dissolved last week, but polls have made clear that Gantz has lost the support of almost all of the voters who got behind him in the past three elections.

In an apparent attempt to prove his party’s worth and justify its entry into the failed government, Gantz said that “Blue and White saved the country,” by committing an act of heroism for which it is now paying the electoral price.

“We lay on the fence; some would say, we jumped on the grenade,” he said. “Only the good of the country is guiding me, even if I pay a price.”

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz (second left) with colleagues (from right) Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi at party headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, early September 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Gantz said the other options were “dangerous” when he joined forces with Netanyahu. Had Blue and White not entered the coalition, he said, Netanyahu would have used the transitional government to push through measures to give himself immunity from the corruption charges he is currently facing in court.

The Blue and White chair said he had been “scared to entrust the management of the coronavirus crisis to Netanyahu alone during another election period.”

Casting his critics as “whiners” and “cowards,” Gantz said that he and Blue and White had protected key state institutions while others sat on the sidelines and did nothing.

“While you tweeted, I safeguarded the justice system” and created a working mechanism to fight the coronavirus, thwarted “unnecessary lockdowns” and “saved democracy,” he said in comments apparently directed at his former partner-turned-rival Yair Lapid, at media critics, and at some who criticized him from within the party.

With several lawmakers having already split from Blue and White since the Knesset dissolution, Gantz delivered a message to would-be future deserters.

“You’re welcome to leave, the door is open,” he said. But “here a strong and cohesive group will remain and work hard, only for the state.”

Hours before the press conference, it was reported that Blue and White’s No. 2, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, is set to announce that he is leaving the party and will likely take a break from politics.

Ashkenazi will declare that he is not running in the coming March elections by Wednesday, according to Channel 12 news and Haaretz.

Benny Gantz (L) and Gabi Ashkenazi at a Blue and White campaign event in Kfar Saba on February 12, 2020. (Gili Yaari/ Flash90)

The reports came hours after Gantz fired Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, who earlier in the day delivered a blow to Blue and White’s election campaign by announcing he was leaving to join a rival center-left movement being set up by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.

Earlier Tuesday, MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh said she would not run as a candidate for Blue and White in the elections. On Sunday, Gantz informed MKs Asaf Zamir and Miki Haimovich that they will not be included on the party’s electoral slate due to their decision to vote against extending the state budget deadline last week, ultimately causing the fall of the government. Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay has also decided to leave, according to Channel 12 news.

Other lawmakers in the party are also looking elsewhere, according to TV reports, inquiring into the possibility of joining parties across the political spectrum, from Lapid’s Yesh Atid in the center to Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina on the right, though it is unclear whether any of these three parties is interested in taking them.

Gantz said his party will remain in the current, transitional government until the March 23 election. After it, he said, there will be an “alliance” against Netanyahu — a likely indication that he intends to join forces with another party.

“As we knew how to save the country from Netanyahu, we’ll know how to steer the country to better waters,” he concluded.

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