Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz warned on Friday that if his party fails to make it back into the Knesset in next month’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will immediately fire the centrist slate’s ministers, remove all remaining checks on his power and turn Israel into a monarchy.
“If I do not cross the electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset, and there’s a transitional government headed by Netanyahu, the very next day Netanyahu will fire all the Blue and White ministers, appoint [Likud’s Amir] Ohana as justice minister, fire [Attorney General Avichai] Mandelblit, not extend the appointment of [new] state prosecutor Amit Aisman, and turn this place into a monarchy. There will be a fundamental of the structure of the [governing] regime in Israel right in front of our eyes,” an embittered Gantz said during a fiery interview with Channel 12.
Netanyahu has been relentlessly critical of Mandelblit and the state prosecution, claiming they fabricated the three corruption cases for which he is on trial as part of an attempted political coup hatched together with the police, the opposition and the media. Gantz has said repeatedly in recent months that Blue and White’s presence in the outgoing coalition has protected Israeli democracy in the face of concerted efforts by Netanyahu and his supporters to weaken it.
While Gantz campaigned on the promise that he would not sit in a government with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister faces corruption charges, he agreed to do just that in late March 2020, and formed a unity government with Netanyahu in May.
Furious, the Yesh Atid party and a second minor faction, Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem, broke away from Blue and White and went into the opposition. Blue and White has watched its popularity plummet since, leading to a hemorrhaging of lawmakers who have left the party since elections were called last month.
The party is currently hovering around the electoral threshold in polls, with some surveys predicting it will not secure the minimum 3.25% of the public vote to enter the Knesset.
Gantz on Friday said his decision to enter the government was intended to maintain democracy in the face of an ongoing assault by Netanyahu and his Likud party.
“I decided to take half of his government, despite only having a third of the power, to take over control of the Justice Ministry, the Defense Ministry and to safeguard the country,” Gantz told Channel 12, dismissing claims that he could have formed a government without Netanyahu.
“I expected Netanyahu to rise to the occasion” to tackle the coronavirus crisis. “The fact that Netanyahu continues to put his own interests [above those of the state] is a serious problem — it’s like a grenade on the floor and I jumped on it. So why are you mad at me for jumping on the grenade for you?” he asked interviewer Amnon Abramovich.
He went on, using Netanyahu’s nickname: “I entered this government because of the pandemic and not because of Bibi. In spite of Bibi I entered this government. I do not regret entering the government because the reasons I entered were right and justified.”
But Netanyahu, he said, is “a manipulator.” Asked to sum up Netanyahu, he said: “Everything but the truth.”
He claimed that it was his entry into the governing coalition that ultimately prevented Netanyahu from unilaterally annexing large parts of the West Bank. As Netanyahu moved forward with plans to do so in the summer, Gantz and his allies in Blue and White lobbied the administration of then-US president Donald Trump against the move, which they feared would ignite tensions in the region.
Eventually, Israel’s normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates prevented the move, with the UAE conditioning its treaty with Israel on the suspension of annexation (for a reported three years). Blue and White has maintained that Netanyahu would have pulled the trigger had it not been for its efforts to block it.
He also said that claims inflated by Netanyahu that Iran had hacked into his personal phone, with potential security implications, were “absolute nonsense… They hacked a defunct email account.”
When Gantz signed the coalition deal with Netanyahu, critics warned Netanyahu could not be trusted to hand over the premiership in November 2021, as was required by the Likud-Blue and White agreement.
The deal’s lone loophole that allowed the premier to avoid doing so was a failure to pass an annual budget. Gantz now believes Netanyahu used that loophole precisely to prevent the deal from being adhered to. For months, Likud and Blue and White fought over the budget as Netanyahu sought to change aspects of the coalition agreement. Ultimately, a deadline to approve a budget passed in December and the Knesset was automatically disbanded, dashing Gantz’s chances of becoming prime minister at the end of this year.
One element that is widely reported to have swayed Gantz to agree to the coalition deal was Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri’s personal pledge to him that he would join a Blue and White government if Netanyahu walked back on the rotational agreement. Deri eventually reneged on that promise, making clear that he would continue to back Netanyahu while blaming Gantz for the government’s breakup.
Pressed on why he chose to trust Deri, Gantz said the ultra-Orthodox lead had “played” him.
“I now understand that there is no such thing as a guarantee in politics anymore,” he said. “I gained experience. What I learned after two years in politics cannot be replaced.”
Gantz does have a small chance of still taking the premiership: Because his coalition agreement with Netanyahu remains in effect until a new government is formed, if Israel reaches November without a new coalition, Gantz will automatically become prime minister.
In fact, recent polls show that the most likely scenario after the March 23 elections is further deadlock, with Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties and the hard-right Religious Zionism Party falling short of the 61-seat majority necessary to form a coalition, and the anti-Netanyahu bloc likely too fractured to do so either.
However, the scenario in which Gantz becomes prime minister if there is no coalition by November is only possible if he remains a Knesset member. Failure to cross the electoral threshold would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis that could reach the High Court of Justice, which would be called upon to decide who would become prime minister.
Gantz on Friday night again vigorously defended his decision to join Netanyahu, saying the country simply could not afford a fourth consecutive election as the coronavirus pandemic tore up Israel’s healthcare system and economy. But as his poll numbers have continued to nose-dive, he has admitted it was a mistake to trust Netanyahu.