Gantz plugs possible alliance with Haredi politicians, but UTJ says it won’t zigzag

Defense minister tells campaign event lines of communication with ultra-Orthodox parties open, but election results will determine if they can be pulled away from Likud

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Benny Gantz, left, shakes hands with UTJ MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on August 15, 2022. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, left, shakes hands with UTJ MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on August 15, 2022. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Presenting himself as the only post-election alternative to a right-religious government or a sixth election, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz touted his links to Haredi politicians Monday, saying he believes they will reconsider their years’-long alliance with Likud.

“Without getting into details, there are a lot of communication channels between us,” Gantz said at a Tel Aviv campaign event geared toward English-speaking voters. He noted that though he had yet to receive any commitments from ultra-Orthodox parties, their politicians could be swayed in order to avoid more time in the opposition, depending on how the November 1 vote shakes out.

The defense minister is widely considered a third potential prime ministerial candidate to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and current Prime Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party leads the caretaker government after the Knesset called for snap elections at the end of June.

He has campaigned as a centrist candidate unsaddled by the baggage carried by the other two. A cadre of parties, including National Unity, are vocally committed to not joining a Netanyahu-led government and Lapid’s secularist policies have made an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox a non-starter.

However, he faces a number of hurdles to reshuffle the competing political blocs, including dissolving a tight alliance between the Haredi parties and Netanyahu and arranging a coalition without Likud and without parties vocally antagonistic to Haredi interests such as Yisrael Beytenu.

United Torah Judaism chief Yitzhak Goldknopf, slated to enter Knesset after the November 1 election, said earlier on Monday that his party, forecast to get around seats, remains committed to a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu.

“We are following the line we believe in – only with the right, and Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister,” said Goldknopf when asked about the option of forming a government with Gantz by a Chabad website. “We are not zigzagging.”

Agudat Yisrael chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, July 28, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz has maintained a good relationship with UTJ’s former leader, Moshe Gafni, who has spoken positively of Gantz in the past. Gafni’s office held the UTJ line, telling The Times of Israel that he supports going with the right and with Netanyahu.

It’s unclear whether the electoral math would add up for Gantz, even with the support of UTJ and Shas, polling at around 8 seats. Gantz has already said that he will not form a coalition including Religious Zionism and majority-Arab party Hadash-Ta’al, whom he brands as extremists. He has spent considerable airtime in recent days reaffirming that he would not join Netanyahu in a government, although he would sit with other Likud members.

According to current polling numbers, a National Unity led government including Haredi parties but without Likud, Yesh Atid, Religious Zionism, Yisrael Beytenu or Hadash-Ta’al would barely scrape 40 seats, well below the 61 needed for a majority government.

Most polls show Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc garnering around 60 seats and a Lapid led-center-left government sitting at around 56.

The defense minister’s big tent National Unity party combines politicians from the left, right, and center, and as such has absorbed criticism that it may not be able to form policies on contentious issues such as how Israel should handle relations with the Palestinians.

Dismissing the criticism and noting that the ideological diversity within his own party “is the whole idea” of a centrist-led unity government, Gantz said that his party leaders “agree on 80% of the issues.” The line echoed a claims by the outgoing coalition, formed from parties across Israel’s left, right, center, and Arab corners.

Just like the coalition was ultimately felled by the sliver of ideological diversity it contained surrounding issues like Palestinian affairs, National Unity may also be vulnerable to this rift.

Highly-placed on National Unity’s list are politicians like former military leader Gadi Eisenkot who want to separate from the West Bank and pro-settlement Knesset veterans, like Gideon Sa’ar and Ze’ev Elkin, who oppose Palestinian statehood. Gantz said that the party, which did not include a stance on settlements in its published platform, is aligned on the need to manage the conflict rather than resolve it.

“We eventually came to an agreement that we can’t see a permanent agreement between us and the Palestinians happening so let us minimize the conflict with the Palestinians while keeping security in place,” Gantz said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends the Maariv Conference in Tel Aviv, October 24, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flas90)

In contrast, Lapid and the leaders of center-left Labor and left-wing Meretz have all expressed support for a two state solution, with the latter two pushing to return it to the national agenda. On the opposite side of the Knesset aisle, Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit has pressed to open a conversation on extending Israeli sovereignty throughout the heavily Palestinian populated West Bank.

As defense minister, Gantz has absorbed flak from Likud and Religious Zionism over what they say is a worsening security situation in the West Bank, with ongoing tensions in West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus, and areas of Jerusalem.

“It’s important to know what you’re doing and they simply know nothing,” the former IDF chief of staff Gantz said of Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, who respectively served a shortened military service and was denied enlistment.

A Palestinian protester returns a tear gas canister amid clashes with Israeli security forces following a demonstration demanding the opening of roads around Nablus city, closed-off by the Israeli army. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

“Security issues are a matter of professionalism, of experience, of actually being a bit more moderate. I would rather speak with a softer voice and use a big stick when I need it,” he added.

He played up the army’s efforts to rein in Palestinian armed group Lion’s Den, currently entrenched in the old city of Nablus.

A Lion’s Den member was assassinated on Sunday, in an action attributed to Israel but not claimed by the country. Gantz demurred on Israeli responsibility for the strike, but said that the rest of the group will “go to jail or we will end up killing them, if that’s what we need to do.”

Earlier on Monday, Gantz married security with diplomacy when he spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart. In the conversation, he said that Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov “totally understood” Israeli limitations preventing the country from expressing its support for Ukraine’s armed struggle against Russia’s invasion with weapons deliveries.

“I had a good discussion with the Minister of Defense of Ukraine and he totally understood and we tried to move forward with what Israel can do within its limitations,” Gantz said.

He also added that even if Israel were geopolitically able to supply weapons, it did not have a reserve ready to ship.

“Even industrially speaking, it would take time,” he said, adding that countries not facing ongoing military threats can transfer their supplies to Ukraine and wait to be replenished, whereas Israel would expose itself to threats by shipping off its defenses.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed Israel on Monday for not supporting Ukraine militarily, going so far as to say Israel’s withholding of defense aid led to a chain of actions that may result in Russia helping Iran to develop its nuclear program.

In the past, Zelensky has accused Israel of not speaking truthfully about its ability to transfer weaponry to other states.

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