After suffering perhaps the most drawn out and intense political savaging in Israeli political history, in a year that saw three election campaigns and seemingly endless mudslinging, Benny Gantz, in the space of a few hours Thursday, appeared to become the darling of the Israeli right.
Gantz — who even on Thursday morning was still being attacked by Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies for supposedly planning to appoint MK Meir Cohen of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction of Blue and White as Knesset speaker — was immediately praised and lauded by former foes as it became clear Gantz had made a deal with Netanyahu to appoint himself speaker, paving the way for a unity government deal while breaking apart his political home in the process.
Shortly before the Knesset gathered to vote, and with the entire right-wing bloc set to support him, Education Minister Rafi Peretz (Yamina), who served as chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces when Gantz was chief of staff, tweeted a photo of the two during their time in service, adding: “Good luck my friend.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the severe limitations on gatherings, in order to vote, members of parliament passed through the plenum while stating their support or opposition to Gantz’s appointment. One of Gantz’s more vocal detractors, who had also questioned his mental well-being on several occasions, Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud), when called in and asked to her vote, replied: “Aye. What, can I vote against my neighbor?” (both live in the city of Rosh Ha’ayin) before sidling up to a visibly uncomfortable Gantz to exchange a few words.
מירי רגב זאת שאמרה על גנץ שהוא לא אפוי , שצריך ללכת לרופא , שהוא לא ממוקד , מגמגם , שהוא לא מסוגל לנהל חברה , שהביא את החברה שלו לכישלון ושיש נגדו פרשות שחיתות במימד החמישי והטרדות מיניות – עכשיו אומרת גנץ? ליושב ראש הכנסת ברור שבעד אני אגיד לא לשכן שלי והולכת ללקק ???? pic.twitter.com/YhKSYTQaMW
— Moti Ben Ishay (@MotiBenIshay) March 26, 2020
During the Knesset vote several other right-wing lawmakers exchanged pleasantries with Gantz. Foreign Minister Israel Katz (Likud), who grew up with Gantz in the same neighborhood, bumped his elbow with him instead of a handshake due to viral fears.
The outgoing speaker, Likud’s Yuli Edelstein, was just days ago at the center of a storm of controversy for his face-off with the High Court of Justice over vacating his position, and Gantz’s Blue and White was one of the main petitioners to the court as he disobeyed the court’s orders. On Wednesday he sparked a mini-constitutional crisis by resigning while refusing to comply with a court ruling to hold a vote for his replacement.
But on Thursday Edelstein wished Gantz good-naturedly “to enjoy the job — but only for a short time. We must quickly form a unity government in the coming days, in which you will be a central figure.”
According to the Walla news site, Edelstein privately told associates he had been proven justified in his actions over the past few weeks. “The reality has proven me right. I have worked for unity a full year. That was the essence of my recent actions. All the disparagers can eat their hats,” he was reported to say.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan of Likud praised Gantz for his “correct and brave decision” and for rising above personal interests. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party, also congratulated Gantz on his “brave step,” adding, “This is the right thing for Israel during this time of emergency.” Likud MK Yoav Kisch lauded Gantz for his “courageous” action.
Yamina’s Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted: “It looks like Gantz is finally developing a spine, tearing himself away from the choke-hold of [Yair] Lapid and [Moshe] Ya’alon and beginning to act with national responsibility.”
Likud MK Gadi Yevarkan, who Gantz had dismissed from Blue and White only two months ago for negotiating to join Likud, tweeted: “I believed in the rightness of my path and in the truth. I swam against the current my whole life. Sometimes the current changes direction and follows you.”
As lofty as the praise was for Gantz on the right, so was his lashing on the center-left.
Lapid, formerly Gantz’s closest ally, excoriated him during a press conference with Ya’alon for “crawling” into a coalition of “extremists and extortionists.” He said the former army chief had betrayed Blue and White’s voters, stolen their votes and handed them to Netanyahu. Despite his claims, Gantz was not entering a unity government, but had simply “surrendered” to Netanyahu, Lapid said.
Ya’alon joined in, saying Gantz was joining a government that “represents everything that we oppose” in a move that was “disappointing to say the very least.”
Meretz party head Nitzan Horowitz said in a statement that Gantz “has become a collaborator with the accused [prime minister].” He said Gantz had “built himself on one promise only: an alternative leadership. Entering Netanyahu’s government is to spit in the face and betray the voters of Blue and White and the entire center-left bloc.”
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg warned Gantz from the Knesset podium: “You’ll end up a rug under the feet of an alleged crook, an inciter and racist… What have you done, Benny Gantz? How can you do this to the millions of voters who supported you?”
Joint List chief Ayman Odeh said Blue and White “were always a ‘Right 2.0′” and vowed his party would serve as the spearhead of the opposition against the emerging coalition. His colleague MK Ahmad Tibi said Gantz and his allies “should receive a gold medal for self prostration.”
Labor chief Amir Peretz, who was appointed by the High Court to oversee the vote due to the crisis caused by Edelstein’s resignation a day earlier, made no public comment on Gantz’s actions, fueling speculation he could himself be preparing to join the new coalition.
Explaining his shock decision to join the government despite his election promises, while keeping the indicted Likud leader as prime minister for at least the next year and a half, Gantz said: “At the end of the day, I believe we must not drag Israel to a fourth election at such a challenging time, when the country is dealing with the coronavirus crisis and its fallout.”
He vowed to upkeep the nation’s democratic values from inside the government. “We will regulate [the] system of checks and balances, stop the unbridled attacks from irresponsible ministers, remove ideas of replacing the court and the prosecution, and work to end the rifts between us,” he said in pointed comments in his first speech as Knesset speaker,
According to the reported deal taking shape, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a unity coalition, serving initially as foreign or defense minister and then taking over as prime minister in September 2021, though many political analysts doubt that such a rotation will actually take place.
Members of Gantz’s Israel Resilience parties will be appointed to top ministerial jobs.
Gantz is expected to resign the speakership after a unity government is formed, to be replaced by a Likud MK, potentially even Edelstein.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.