Not quite a year ago, at the end of March 2020, Benny Gantz decided to do the very thing he had promised voters in three successive elections that he would not do: join a government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gantz gave three key reasons at the time: Although he had been recommended as prime minister by 61 of the 120 MKs, he said he couldn’t build a stable coalition and wanted to spare Israel a rapid return to yet a fourth election. That being the case, he argued that only his presence in government could save Israel’s democracy from an indicted Netanyahu’s battering. And, perhaps most importantly, he said, Israel needed an emergency unity government to tackle the emerging devastation of COVID-19.
A year on, Israel is nonetheless heading back to the polling stations. And while Gantz argues that he has managed to thwart Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken our democracy and evade his corruption trial, and that Blue and White’s cabinet ministers have been working crucially for the national interest in the battle against the pandemic, he is no longer a significant political force.
His Blue and White alliance with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Telem’s Moshe Ya’alon collapsed when he partnered with Netanyahu and they went fuming into the opposition. And the surveys in the run-up to the March 23 polling day show Blue and White, which won 33 seats a year ago, drastically reduced to about 5.
In an interview Wednesday at his party’s Tel Aviv offices, Gantz, the defense minister, justice minister and still theoretically the alternate prime minister, radiated a mix of profound grievance, anger, and determination. Grievance that, the way he sees it, he is widely derided and clearly about to be punished by voters for having tried to “put Israel first,” as his political slogan promised — while Netanyahu, a “liar” and a “manipulator,” is held to a different standard. Anger that the saga of the past year is, he believes, misrepresented by his critics, including erstwhile political allies and the media. And determination not to end his political career in failure, but rather to rebuild Blue and White as an electoral force.
Entering a unity government with Netanyahu, he said, “was the right thing to do at the time, with tragic results that I’m not responsible for. That Netanyahu is responsible for. Okay? Blame Netanyahu… I’m the one who is here to do things differently.”
He’s adamant that he is not about to deliver a further extension to Netanyahu’s 12 consecutive years in power by slipping below the electoral threshold and sending tens of thousands of anti-Netanyahu votes to waste. “I simply won’t be in that situation.” And he’s insistent that, after a nearly 40-year career in uniform that culminated in his four years as chief of IDF staff, he’s learned in the past two years the rules of the political game. Bitterly, he sums these up as “not to believe people.”
Gantz was polite but combative in our conversation, plainly indignant at the critical treatment he has received, and intent on presenting his narrative. He challenged my questions, and threw some of them back at me, as you’ll see. We spoke in Hebrew; the following is a lightly edited transcript.
The Times of Israel: You have had a very hard period in politics. You’re running again. What achievements can you point to, so that voters, nonetheless, will choose you again?
Benny Gantz: People have to understand why I entered the coalition with Bibi [Netanyahu]. I have to spell this out. I didn’t enter because of Bibi, nor with Bibi. Rather, despite Bibi. Because of the pandemic, and the situation Israel found itself in.
The fact that we’re sitting here now, the two of us, vaccinated, feeling well — that wasn’t where Israel was less than a year ago. There was such an immense health crisis, with such vast economic consequences, and hugely problematic repercussions for Israeli society. I decided it was simply not right to continue to tear Israeli society apart.
The second thing to understand is that there was no alternative. All the talk, the stories — there was no alternative.
You didn’t have the support of 61 MKs [for a coalition without Netanyahu]?
Not even with Arab MKs’ backing from outside?
No, no, no. It’s all empty stories. It was 61 minus Orly Levy, and minus Yoaz [Hendel] and Zvika [Hauser]. That’s 58. There was no 61 to establish a government; no 61 to legislate to prevent Netanyahu passing personal laws, the French law [to try to avert his trial].
Why is all this important? Netanyahu is someone who cannot be a [genuine] partner. He can be a partner, at best, for his own bloc [of the political spectrum], and even then only when he has no other option — because he also dumped them [in the past]. The political conditions when working with Netanyahu are very tough. He’s a manipulator. He’s not straight.
Despite all this, despite these difficulties, we [in Blue and White] managed to achieve things that people forget.
We became a full half of the government. The whole center and center-left camp should ask itself, when was the last time that it made up half the government? The whole center and center-left camp should ask itself, when was the last time it held veto power over the government’s agenda? The whole center and center-left camp should ask itself, when was the last time it managed to protect Israeli democracy, the way I have succeeded in doing now?
Let’s look at the achievements. We prevented harm to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, because if unilateral annexation [of parts of the West Bank] had been carried out, we would have lost the Jewish, democratic [character of] Israel, and lost our international credit. We managed to preserve the Israeli judicial system, despite all the challenges and all the attacks on it.
Now, look at the relative miracles achieved by every one of our ministers in his or her ministry. Let me start, if I may, with me in the security arena. I ensured the preservation of Israel’s ongoing QME [Qualitative Military Edge]. Without me, this would not have happened. Six weeks of frenzied work, with experts. Three meetings with the [US] defense secretary to ensure this — to enable the normalization process [with the Gulf states] to move forward without endangering Israel’s security.
Look at the Foreign Ministry. Gabi [Ashkenazi] resuscitated it. The Foreign Ministry was dead. Dead. And we still have 35 emissaries, who have been approved by all the relevant committees, and Netanyahu simply isn’t approving them. These aren’t political appointments — they are professional appointments that should have been approved long ago.
Look at the Justice Ministry — and the protection it ensured for the judicial system — in [Avi] Nissenkorn’s time [as justice minister] and now in mine.
Take the Defense Ministry, in addition to the QME: The IDF’s move [of key bases] to southern Israel — 30% of people in the periphery are going to be absorbed in our technological establishments and the special training bases we’ll establish. We’ve maintained quiet in the south [on the Gaza frontier]. We continue to fight against Hezbollah; to tackle all the efforts to transfer [weaponry] in Syria.
Look at the Ministry of Culture and Sport. Finally, there’s a minister who doesn’t seek to impose a kind of national censorship on the arts and culture in Israel. At the Agriculture Ministry, for the first time in 10 years, there’s a minister who actually deals with agriculture. Take the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs — the government decision for a strategic plan on working together with Diaspora Jewry, the wide-ranging work that Minister [Omer] Yankelevich is doing. She’s still with us, though I’m sorry she’s made a personal decision [not to seek reelection to Knesset]. Take the Tourism Ministry — the opening of the green cities. The opening up [of tourism] now.
Look at the coronavirus cabinet — the very establishment of the coronavirus cabinet. Take the fact that we brought the IDF’s Homefront Command [into the handling of the pandemic]. The crisis was being handled largely without the Defense Ministry, because Netanyahu didn’t want [previous defense minister Naftali] Bennett to gain any prominence. Now, the IDF is helping 300 local councils from morning till night.
So we’ve done all this. We have not been just sitting at a keyboard and typing.
And yet, you understand that support for your party has collapsed because you abandoned the one core pledge you had promised your voters — not to serve in a government with Netanyahu [so long as he was facing criminal charges].
Indeed. That’s why I began by explaining to you that I truly didn’t want to sit with Netanyahu. And I won’t sit with Netanyahu now. But the bottom line is that there was a pandemic. You can’t pretend that this factor didn’t exist.
People get mixed up between being bummed out together with me, or bummed out at me. But I would like to know when Yair Lapid exerted more control over Netanyahu than I did. Give me one example. Then I’ll be silent. Ask him, when did he exert more control over Netanyahu than I did?
Who disbanded Blue and White? Yair Lapid and [Moshe] Bogie Ya’alon. If they’d gone into the coalition with me, with 35 seats do you know how much political strength we would have had?
I did have to compromise on certain things because ultimately I only had 17 seats in the coalition. With 35 seats in the coalition, the country would have looked very different. If Yesh Atid had been part of the unity coalition, Meir Cohen would have been speaker of the Knesset and not Yariv Levin. [Lapid] stuck with his agenda. Does he have political achievements? I’m not certain.
I’m already at five seats, and I’ll get to 6, 7 and 8. Why not call on Meretz to quit the campaign?
Nonetheless, you now risk again extending Netanyahu’s term in office if you fall below the electoral threshold [and votes for Blue and White go to waste].
I’m not falling below the threshold. That’s all empty stories. I’m already at five seats, and I’ll get to 6, 7 and 8. Why not call on Meretz to quit the campaign?
If two weeks before the elections, they’re below or hovering around the threshold, I’m sure…
Well, I simply won’t be in that situation.
You’ve been warning that, in a transitional government after the election and before a new government is formed, if Blue and White is not back in the Knesset, Netanyahu will be able to do all kinds of dreadful things…
He’ll fire [the Blue and White ministers] and start legislating [to evade his trial]…?
I’ll give you an example. In a cabinet meeting last month, I opposed a decision [on extending the lockdown]. Netanyahu brought it to a vote against my will. The attorney general invalidated it, because the vote was illegal [a breach of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government, as amended by Netanyahu and Gantz in their coalition agreement last year]. Netanyahu said to him, You’re only an adviser. [But] a revote had to be held.
And that’s a hint of what is to come [if Blue and White is not returned to the Knesset]?
That’s the legal advice you’ve been given?
There are those [legal experts] who say one thing, and those that say another.
So it’s not clear?
It’s not clear.
But he’ll try it?
For sure! Does it seem reasonable to you that the country has had no budget for two years? Not to me, it doesn’t. But the fact is that this served his interests, so that’s what he did. He has no boundaries. His only consideration is his own interest. [The failure to pass the state budget was the sole pretext by which Netanyahu could trigger early elections, and avoid his coalition pledge to rotate the prime minister’s job with Gantz in November 2021.]
Where do you see this, specifically? He’s not a military adventurer. He steers the country reasonably in terms of the region. Why do you insist he is so dangerous to the state?
The impact of his personal and legal distress crosses all boundaries. That’s what this is about. He’ll sacrifice the economy. He’ll sacrifice the democracy. He’ll sacrifice everything. This is a man who said he has faith in Israel’s judges, but once it came to his case, he has been castigating them relentlessly. This a man who recognizes Israel needs a stable economy, but he wouldn’t pass the budget. This is a man who so inflates himself that he only told me two days before the normalization agreement [with the UAE]; I then had to take care of the QME.
He is not the same person he was until 2015. And I have no explanation except for the legal burden he’s now under.
His handling of the pandemic — opening the airport, setting up the vaccinations. That’s all calculated with one eye on the elections and his interests?
He would have wanted to maintain the full lockdown, and only begun to open now, because he thinks that would have boosted him in the election. We pushed for the earlier partial reopenings, balancing health and economic considerations, and their consequences for Israeli society. All this got in his way.
Netanyahu thinks of himself as bigger than Ben-Gurion and he’s trying to catch up with Putin
He didn’t bring the Defense Ministry into the picture early. He didn’t deal consistently with the airport. The “traffic light” plan, differentiating professionally between higher and lower contagion areas, hasn’t been approved to this day because it would be inconvenient for him with the Haredim, inconvenient for him politically. He ruled out the Arab electorate, and then went off to do [electoral] business with them. It’s all politics.
He’s a talented politician. That’s why I initiated legislation to limit a prime minister to eight years. That capping would reboot the political establishment. Obviously, he opposes it. He thinks of himself as bigger than Ben-Gurion and he’s trying to catch up with Putin. He’ll try whatever he can to neutralize [that legislation].
And what of his handling of the Iranian threat, and Biden’s intention to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal?
There are things we do agree on. We completely agree that Iran must not be allowed to attain nuclear weapons. And that it not be able to break out to the bomb. We completely agree on the desired result.
I favor engagement with the US administration, maintaining the strong ties. Ultimately, we have three sources of strength, of Israeli national security: Our own security and military capabilities. Our morality. And the backing we get from the world in general and the US in particular.
Now, when we’re up against the ICC, who supports us? When we need the fighter planes and the huge [military] procurements that we buy with foreign currency, who supports us? By the way, these are purchases that were approved back in the Obama era, not Trump’s time. We must not neglect our alliance with the Americans, our dialogue with the Americans. And we also mustn’t neglect our capacity to influence their thinking. In intensive, protracted discussion with them, we can reach a situation where we influence their thinking. That’s incredibly important.
So the point where we disagree is regarding the strength of that connection with America on the Iran issue, not regarding where Iran can get or cannot get. On that, we see things identically. We agree completely that Israel must maintain its independent operative military capability when it comes to Iran, and we work together. When it comes to national defense and security, in general, in most cases, we see eye to eye. And we seek to separate those issues from the political sphere.
There is a contradiction between you saying that you knew Netanyahu couldn’t be trusted, while also acknowledging that he played you.
Because he nonetheless tricked us on the budget. All of us.
You are all passing judgment on me for expecting that the leadership of Israel would act according to the required norms. That’s what you’re saying to me. You’re saying it’s better to be a corrupt, cunning politician than a person of integrity and statesmanship
But he played you, specifically, big time.
Yet you say you knew he couldn’t be trusted.
We were facing the coronavirus, a pandemic of historic proportions, and I expected that a leader would behave differently. And why is it wrong to expect that a leader should act like a leader, not only like a politician? Why is it wrong to expect a prime minister, facing so great a social crisis, to behave with the requisite responsibility?
You are all passing judgment on me for expecting that the leadership of Israel would act according to the required norms. That’s what you’re saying to me. You’re saying it’s better to be a corrupt, cunning politician than a person of integrity and statesmanship.
You’re describing a kind of tragedy, in which a noble man enters politics in order to contribute and do good…
What do you want…?
…and is felled by someone acting precisely as it was known he would.
But what do you expect will happen in our country? [Who do you want running the country:] A man of integrity, with an ideology, serious, statesmanlike, or a maneuverer and a liar? You tell me.
Well, there you are then!
But for the former to attain power, he has to play the political game — the awful, cruel political game.
Listen carefully: I had 26 seats [in the polls] before I went in with Yair Lapid. [Israel Resilience, the party founded by Gantz, was polling in the mid-20s in some surveys in early 2019.] Can you show me somebody else who has 26 seats now apart from Bibi? Does Yair Lapid have 26 seats?
And that’s the tragedy.
I’m not saying it isn’t.
Because you did take the high road. You were on track to [eventually] win power with your values intact.
But David, ultimately, there’s reality.
Well, maybe it would have been better to go into the opposition? As it is, we’re two and a bit weeks from elections again anyway.
Okay, but the bottom line is that we got through the pandemic with a unity government. Ultimately we managed to deal with it despite all the difficulties. And now, we’re going to elections.
At the end of the day, you do not want to legitimate liars and maneuverers
So you’re saying: It was worth it. We saved the country. We did wonderful things. And we deserve some credit, and some more voters?
Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think more and more people are recognizing this. That’s why I’ve risen from below the threshold, to above the threshold, to five seats and toward six. Because more and more people are realizing what we prevented, what we achieved, and, no less important, what has to happen here. At the end of the day, you do not want to legitimate liars and maneuverers.
Do you think Netanyahu will accept the election result if he loses?
I hope so. I’m not certain.
I’m not certain because the legal onus on him is so heavy. The man may be looking at a prison term. I don’t believe anything from him anymore.
The attorney general is straight? You have faith in the legal process?
Yes. The law enforcement process — the prosecution, the courts — are statesmanlike establishments that operate according to the law. His attacks on them are irresponsible and unfounded. And I’m doing whatever I can to thwart those attacks.
Some of your party MKs have quit or joined other parties.
Yes, for narrow personal reasons. Avi Nissenkorn thought he was going to be some king of the world. Ram Shefa realized that, with me, he’s in a low position [on the Knesset slate] and would be higher elsewhere…
So what have you learned in the past two years?
Not to believe people.
That’s sad. That generalization is very sad.
In politics. In politics.
You are telling me: be a maneuverer or you won’t survive.
What would you have done differently, if you knew two years ago what you know today?
I’m not sorry that I entered the government, for the reasons that I entered. I’m very sorry about how it finished up. I wouldn’t have agreed to the Hauser compromise: I wouldn’t have given him [Netanyahu] those additional three-four months. I could have ended it then. I thought he’d pass a budget.
Do you have a good mechanism for getting out the vote on election day? Because the alliance with Yesh Atid helped with that.
I don’t think it’s that big a deal. We have a big campaign mechanism, strength on the ground, a broad election day mechanism. We’re well organized. We have our data. We’re not going to disappear. We’ll continue to grow, to deepen our base.
Ultimately, the voter goes into the polling booth and asks: What’s preferable: Benny Gantz with his 40 years of security experience and his political integrity, or something else? You answer that.
But they’ll also say: And yet he joined up with Bibi.
Yes. And Yair Lapid didn’t sit with Bibi? Gideon Sa’ar wasn’t with Bibi for years?
But [not when Netanyahu was facing charges,] not after promising…
But you’re ignoring the fact that there was the coronavirus. It’s simply not fair, David, to judge it against that pledge not to sit with Bibi. It has to be judged against the situation we were facing. There was an electoral result in which we didn’t have a government, and there was a pandemic that had to be handled. Whoever ignores that isn’t acknowledging the reality.
[A voter] can then say he prefers Yair Lapid to me. Okay. But that was the reality. There was no alternative government. There was a pandemic. It had to be dealt with. Now, people can choose their preferences, and I will respect them of course. But that was the reality. There wasn’t a different reality.
[Entering the coalition] was the right thing to do at the time, with tragic results that I’m not responsible for. That Netanyahu is responsible for. Okay? Blame Netanyahu. Fair enough. What do you want from my life?
After the second campaign, he [Netanyahu] offered me rotation after six months. I didn’t go with him. In hindsight, you could say, how foolish that you didn’t. I did join him, under worse conditions, after the third campaign, because of the pandemic. That was the reason. And 66% of Blue and White voters backed me entering. That’s the reality.
It was the right thing to do at the time, with tragic results that I’m not responsible for. That Netanyahu is responsible for. Okay? Blame Netanyahu. Fair enough. What do you want from my life?
I’m the one who is here to do things differently. I’m the one who gets up in the morning and fights from morning to night with Netanyahu in the government, and achieves more than the entire opposition. What achievements does the opposition have? Look at what I’ve achieved, as a kind of co-opposition — within the coalition, but standing by my principles. There’s no comparison!
The High Court of Justice decision to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions for citizenship purposes presumably doesn’t help you? It will help drive the ultra-Orthodox campaigns, and maybe the Likud’s?
There’s nothing to be done about that. I can’t complain about High Court decisions. We should have recognized all the conversions, legalized them through legislation. The High Court waited and waited for years…
Waited for the politicians.
And ultimately took a decision.
Do you see a need to change the balance between the judiciary and the government and legislature?
There are some reforms that can be undertaken — but not by a defendant facing three corruption charges. They need to wait for somebody else.
Do you hope he’ll be acquitted? Do you think he’ll be acquitted?
That’s a matter for the courts.