Analysis'Netanyahu can break out the champagne'

Gantz sees ‘opportunity’ in deal with Netanyahu; ex-allies fume: he’ll regret it

Blue and White leader opts for unity pact and aims to become prime minister 18 months from now, in a roller-coaster Israel where reality is changing by the day

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Benny Gantz pictured in Ramat Gan, March 7, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)
Benny Gantz pictured in Ramat Gan, March 7, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

“Every crisis brings opportunities,” the newly elected speaker of the Knesset, Benny Gantz, told his fellow MKs in his maiden speech to the house on Thursday evening, in the midst of a series of political developments extraordinary even for these dizzyingly unpredictable times.

The crisis to which Gantz was referring, he made clear, was threefold: The coronavirus pandemic which, he said, has left “all of humanity” shocked and vulnerable. The paralysis of Israeli governance, which has seen no fully functional coalition emerge from three successive elections in the past year. And the accompanying, escalating threat to Israel’s democracy and internal cohesion, exemplified, Gantz said, by former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein’s “spit in the face” of the country’s highest court, whose ruling on the imperative to elect a new speaker Edelstein simply rejected on Wednesday.

And the opportunities? Gantz was delivering an address as the new Knesset speaker, but, he said, he is simultaneously working to advance a “national emergency government” to grapple with all three crises. “While we’re fighting the coronavirus, we’ll advance unity,” he promised, “and build up democracy.”

Under the terms of the reportedly near-finalized deal, however, that emergency government will see Benjamin Netanyahu — the leader with whom Gantz vowed endlessly never to partner in government — retain the premiership for the next 18 months. Gantz, it is widely reported, will vacate the speaker’s chair as soon as the unity deal is done and become Israel’s foreign or defense minister, and is then supposed to take over from Netanyahu as prime minister in September 2021.

Still unsigned, Gantz’s imminent pact with Netanyahu, the man he entered politics to oust, has already cost the Blue and White leader his alliance with his partner in that mission, Yair Lapid. Now heading into the opposition, Lapid said shortly after Gantz made his speech that his former friend and ally was “crawling” into the “extremist and extortionist” government he had sworn to oppose, stealing the votes of Blue and White supporters and “giving them to Netanyahu.” By evening, other Blue and White sources opposed to Gantz’s move were sniping that he had “signed his political death warrant.”

And therein lies the colossal political gamble Gantz appears to be taking — the leap of faith that will determine whether this relative political neophyte has in fact utilized an opportunity or been subverted, if not devoured, by the immensely more experienced Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 26, 2020. (Knesset)

In a television interview on Saturday night, after he had issued one of his frequent appeals to Gantz since the March 2 election to join him in a unity coalition, Netanyahu, at the request of his interviewer, looked directly into the camera and promised that if Gantz signed the deal he was offering, then, in September 2021, he would indeed hand over the prime ministership — “with no tricks and no messing about.”

Lapid, who previously served as Netanyahu’s finance minister, and Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s long-time defense minister, do not believe Netanyahu for a moment, and thus they have already removed their respective Yesh Atid and Telem factions from the Blue and White alliance. Gantz, and his fellow former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, slated for a top ministerial job in the imminent alliance, are evidently more trusting.

In the meantime, the most challenging opposition Netanyahu has faced in a decade has collapsed. It was the members of Netanyahu’s 58-strong right-wing / ultra-Orthodox bloc who gave Gantz the votes to become speaker, and keep the unity talks on track, and who walked over to Gantz — as they trooped through the Knesset hall one at a time because of the virus restrictions — to congratulate him. The likes of Lapid, and of that other Netanyahu nemesis, Avigdor Liberman, didn’t even bother to show up to cast losing votes against the maneuver. Netanyahu has held his bloc together through three elections, in stark contrast to Gantz, who reportedly kept hitherto allied party leaders including Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) in the dark about his plans.

In the surreal, radically altered new political reality, Likud MK Yoav Kisch praised Gantz for his courage; Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg lamented, “What have you done, Benny Gantz?”

Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman (C) meets Tuesday March 10 with Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz (2L), Yair Lapid (2R), Gabi Ashkenazi (R) and Moshe Ya’alon (L) (Courtesy/Elad Malka)

Gantz’s presence in the speaker’s chair theoretically gives him some leverage. He can, theoretically, control parliament’s agenda. He can thus, theoretically, advance legislation his now collapsed alliance was backing until Wednesday designed to disqualify Netanyahu, an MK under indictment for corruption, from serving as prime minister. Gantz has also reportedly been moving to anchor in law the “rotation” of the prime minister 18 months from now — to ensure that Netanyahu cannot betray him.

But his abandoned allies cannot be relied upon now to save his skin if the deal with Netanyahu goes sour. Quite the reverse.

Ultimately, then, as a Channel 12 reporter summarized Thursday’s bombshell developments, “Gantz chose Netanyahu over Lapid,” and the chance of becoming prime minister 18 months from now in a potentially stable, widely supported government over ongoing deadlock.

Though 61 MKs recommended him as prime minister, and he was given 28 days by President Reuven Rivlin on March 16 to form a coalition, Gantz had no realistic path to a Blue and White-led government after the idea of an alliance with the mainly Arab Joint List proved unfeasible. He chose to avoid placing Israel on the path to yet fourth elections. Incomprehensibly to ex-allies like Lapid and Ya’alon, who accuse him of betraying his principles in an act of foolish egotism, he also chose to eschew the option of supporting a Netanyahu-led coalition from the outside during the pandemic.

With his opposition embarrassed, discredited, disunited and reduced, “Netanyahu can break out the champagne,” as a second Channel 12 reporter put it on Thursday evening.

‘Putting Israel first’

Gantz’s address from the speaker’s chair was full of the high-minded rhetoric that has come to characterize his oratory.

He spoke of a nation battered by the virus — the elderly “sitting isolated from their loved ones, fearing for their lives,” the hundreds of thousands who have lost their jobs, the young couples who cannot pay their mortgages and rent, the entire nation huddled in their homes.

And he spoke of a country divided politically — its democracy battered, huge sums spent on inconclusive elections, a public losing faith in its leaders, a real danger of civil war.

The public, he told the house, is “looking to us” to act responsibly, take care of them, protect them from both infection and anarchy.

Benny Gantz at the Knesset on March 26, 2020, after being elected Knesset speaker. (Knesset)

Gantz said he was “putting Israel first” in heeding what he characterized as widespread public yearning for unity; indeed, it seems unlikely that he would have acted as he did were it not for the coronavirus crisis.

He swore he would not “forget the promises” he had made to voters who supported him, but then highlighted the imperative for compromise. “These are not normal days, and they require atypical decisions,” he said. “This is not the time for rivalries… and factionalism,” he declared. “It is a time for responsible, statesmanlike, patriotic leadership.”

In his hoped-for unity partnership, Gantz said, he would be able to “advance unity, to build up democracy… to sort out the checks and balances [between the branches of government] and remove from the agenda the notion of harming the courts and the state prosecution.”

“Together, we’ll get Israel out of crisis,” he vowed, sounding veritably prime ministerial.

Except, of course, Gantz is not prime minister. Not, barring the always possible unpredictable development, for at least 18 months.

That much we know. The rest, amid the roller-coaster of crises and opportunities, is conjecture.

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