Announcing Tuesday night that his Blue and White party would vote for a preliminary motion to dissolve the Knesset — a threat he implemented on Wednesday afternoon — Benny Gantz issued a stinging indictment of the man with whom he chose to partner in government a mere 200 or so days ago.
In their brief coalition life together, charged Gantz, Netanyahu had proven himself “a serial breaker of promises.” He had lied about truly seeking national unity. He had lied when promising “no tricks or shticks” in a coalition deal that was supposed to see Gantz take over as prime minister next November. He had claimed personal credit for every success in Israel’s mixed battle against the pandemic, marginalizing the roles of everybody else in government, the civil service and the national health care apparatus. He had left Israel without a budget for all of 2020, and was holding up the 2021 budget, too — radically exacerbating the devastation caused by COVID-19 on Israel’s legions of broken-hearted businesspeople, its hundreds of thousands of newly jobless.
Netanyahu likes to compare Israel to the world’s leading nations, Gantz noted bitterly, but where else in the world would a prime minister be so irresponsible as to leave his country without a budget in the midst of a pandemic? The prime minister’s refusal to pass the budget, he charged, was a veritable “economic terrorist act.”
The trouble with Gantz’s assault on the integrity and motives of his rival-partner-rival was that he delivered it as though it were revelatory. Yet his assertions that “Netanyahu reneges and the public pays,” that our prime minister is a deeply cynical political manipulator, and that for the last two to three years he has been making decisions with at least one eye on his corruption trial, are the very reasons Gantz cited upon entering politics two years ago. They are the very reasons why Gantz assembled a political alliance and campaigned in the last three elections on a platform with one core promise: that he would not sit in government with Netanyahu, a man he deemed dangerous to Israel.
And yet, eight months ago, Gantz announced that he was opening negotiations on a deal that would keep Netanyahu in power. And barely six months ago, he joined a Netanyahu-led coalition — delivering to the prime minister the votes he had won on that core pledge to do nothing of the kind.
Gantz explained Tuesday night that he had hoped Netanyahu “would rise to the occasion.” Except that the weeks of coalition talks underlined he had no such expectation. Gantz, instead, was so mistrustful of Netanyahu that he and his advisers negotiated a partnership that they believed would give the prime minister no wiggle room, producing an immensely complex coalition agreement, remaking Israeli election laws in the process. In May, Gantz even had himself sworn in as prime minister-in-waiting, so that no new Knesset vote would be required down the line when the rotation was supposed to come into effect.
But Gantz was predictably outwitted by Netanyahu in those negotiations, and left the prime minister a loophole: If the budget isn’t passed, the coalition falls and rotation is off. Naturally, therefore, Netanyahu hasn’t passed the budget.
In Tuesday night’s address, beamed live into the nation’s living rooms, Gantz claimed “It’s not me Netanyahu lied to; he lied to you. It’s not me Netanyahu duped; he duped all the citizens of Israel.”
But that’s not what happened at all. Many Israeli citizens were and are prepared to vote for Netanyahu, knowing, indeed in some cases appreciating, that he is a cunning political fox who can’t be fully trusted. Many of those Netanyahu voters believe the corruption charges against him are unfounded, and many others think they may be solid but don’t outweigh the advantages offered by an experienced, wily prime minister who has kept this country relatively safe, who is facing down Iran, and has lately overseen a succession of normalization agreements in partnership with the Trump administration.
Most of those who weren’t prepared to vote for Netanyahu in the last three elections, however, instead placed their faith in Gantz. And the truth of the matter, then, is not that Netanyahu “duped all the citizens of Israel.” That formulation is doubly off-target. What actually happened is that Gantz allowed himself to be duped, and then he duped those citizens of Israel who had voted for him.
Willfully blind to the contradictions he continues to generate, and to the devastation he has wreaked upon centrist opposition to the prime minister, Gantz on Tuesday night simultaneously asked “who can believe further promises” from Netanyahu, and offered to continue to sit with him if he would only pass the budget.
And he topped that off by declaring that if Israel does now head back to the ballot boxes, he will run again and seek to set up a genuine unity government “in which you, Netanyahu, will play no part.”
That he could bring himself to say those words, to revive the broken pledge of his three past campaigns, almost defies belief. In the distance, I thought I could hear Netanyahu laughing.
** A version of this Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
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