Gantz demands more authority for the Defense Ministry in pandemic response

Blue and White chairman downplays reported disagreements with Netanyahu, stands ground on 2-year budget, saying whoever walks back agreement on matter would be inviting elections

Defense Minister Benny Gantz is interviewed on Channel 12 on July 15, 2020. (Screen capture/Channel 12)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz is interviewed on Channel 12 on July 15, 2020. (Screen capture/Channel 12)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz called for his office to be given more authority in the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic during a primetime Wednesday interview.

“We think the Health Ministry is the leading medical regulator, and offer the Defense Ministry to support the population,” Gantz told Channel 12. “This is what is done in times of emergency.”

“We are the ministry that knows how to manage the most complex systems in the country, so it would be a pity not to use us,” he said.

“I do not even want to think that these powers are not being transferred due to political consideration,” he added in an apparent reference to reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted placing the Defense Ministry in charge of the pandemic response as he did when his rival Naftali Bennett was defense minister.

The Blue and White chairman acknowledged that the government is very close to ordering a complete lockdown for the second time in months, in what many analysts say would mark a major failure of the new coalition to utilize the time offered by the first lockdown to institute contact-tracing measures, testing systems and a long-term economic plan to endure the pandemic without destroying the economy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

“I promise the public that we will not move to shut down the country if there is another alternative,” Gantz said.

On Tuesday, Hebrew media outlets carried leaked comments from a “senior Likud official” who said that Netanyahu was “furious” with Gantz for apparently blocking a series of new restrictions meant to halt the virus surge during a meeting of top officials hours earlier.

Gantz and Blue and White were “undermining the necessary steps to slow down the virus and save lives,” the unnamed senior Likud official quoted Netanyahu as saying in what appeared to be an attempt to blame the Blue and White chairman for the spiraling economic and health situations.

Reports indicated that representatives from the National Security Council who participated in a Tuesday meeting of senior officials on the pandemic recommended that restaurants be shuttered, save for delivery services, and that beaches, synagogues and yeshivas be closed as well.

Gantz objected to the recommendations, saying that it would be best to wait another week to see the effects of the latest round of restrictions before moving forward with additional measures.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with senior defense officials on July 2, 2020 to discuss mobilization of reservists in the wake of a surge of COVID-19 cases. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)

Pressed to comment on the report and the Likud response, Gantz told Channel 12 that no one could accuse him of acting based on narrow political considerations as he had decided to enter a unity government with Netanyahu at extensive political cost.

However, he avoided criticizing the Likud leader and said that talks with Netanyahu would continue on all matters in order to “find the balance.”

Gantz also stood his ground on the need for a two-year budget despite  Netanyahu’s reported threats that Israel will go to fresh elections if the government fails to pass the one-year budget he wants.

“I assume the coronavirus crisis will continue at least until the end of 2021. This necessitates an expanded annual plan,” he explained, adding that the two-year concept is ingrained in the coalition agreement, by which he expects Netanyahu to abide.

“Whoever takes us back to the polls will be doing an irresponsible act, and it will not be me. We will insist on our principles and on holding to the agreement,” Gantz said.

He was then presented with survey numbers showing his Blue and White party polling in the single digits. Gantz downplayed the numbers and said: “I believe that the public will know how to show its appreciation for the work we will do, together with our friends in Likud. In polls, there are 20 seats that have not yet been distributed.”

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