Gantz rules out joining gov’t to secure Saudi normalization, would offer safety net

Former defense minister says he could back deal from the opposition, with Riyadh expected to make demands for concessions to Palestinians opposed by PM’s hardline allies

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Then-defense minister Benny Gantz and then-outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Knesset plenum, June 13, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)
Then-defense minister Benny Gantz and then-outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Knesset plenum, June 13, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

National Unity chairman Benny Gantz said Tuesday that he would not join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government in order to help push a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia over the finish line, but that he would be willing to back it from the opposition.

Netanyahu has placed securing such a deal at the top of his agenda, but Saudi officials have conveyed to US mediators that an agreement will require a significant Israeli gesture to the Palestinians, in addition to major American security and economic assurances for Riyadh, a senior US official told The Times of Israel in May.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners, particularly the far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam factions, are ideologically opposed to advancing Palestinian sovereignty, which may force the premier to look for alternate allies to meet potential Saudi demands for normalizing ties with Israel.

During an event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Gantz was asked whether his 12-strong Knesset party would be willing to swap out some of the more hardline elements of the coalition if they threaten to leave the government in the event that such a normalization proposal is signed.

Acknowledging that Netanyahu’s partners would likely form obstacles to Saudi demands, Gantz said his faction would not join the government but would act as “strategic backup” from the opposition benches.

“I think that peace is always a good trend for the State of Israel, and if it needed my backup for that, it will get my backup for that, but I will not get into this government,” he said, speaking in English.

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Gantz partnered with Netanyahu in 2020 as part of a rotation agreement, after months of vowing he would not join the Likud leader. Netanyahu later torpedoed the arrangement, triggering elections, and thus avoided giving Gantz the premiership.

“I think that I should not join Netanyahu, who betrayed my confidence,” Gantz said.

Former prime minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has been named as another potential lifeline for Netanyahu, though the centrist party is thought less likely to be even less interested in joining a Likud-led government than Gantz’s center-right slate.

Gantz was defense minister when Israel signed a normalization agreement with the UAE in 2020, though he was largely kept in the dark about it.

A senior US official who spoke to The Times of Israel last month said Riyadh has indicated that the Palestinian-related gesture it will want would be more significant than what the UAE received in 2020: the shelving of plans to annex large parts of the West Bank.

Underlining the difficulty the prime minister will likely face in meeting Riyadh’s asks, officials familiar with the negotiation with the UAE said Netanyahu nearly backed out of that deal due to feared backlash from his political base, despite heading a significantly more moderate coalition at the time.

The Biden administration is still determined to try and secure such an agreement or at least have the parties take steps that will make a deal more likely in the future. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took off on Tuesday for a three-day trip in Saudi Arabia, and he said before leaving that he would be raising the issue during his meetings with top officials in Riyadh.

Former president Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Gantz also said Israel could potentially support the US signing off on Riyadh establishing a civilian nuclear program — one of the Gulf kingdom’s conditions for a deal, according to a senior Middle East diplomat.

The former defense minister and IDF chief of staff said Israel must be able to maintain its qualitative military edge over its neighbors, which he proposed also extends to technologies.

“Getting into nuclear energy is very sensitive… but if we can make sure that QME… can be maintained then it’s a discussable issue,” Gantz said, while clarifying that he would have to see the details of such a proposal before offering a formal opinion.

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