How the supposedly inept Benny Gantz found a strategic path (almost) to the top

He’s not prime minister yet, but the ex-army chief has defied his critics and proven his political mettle against the formidable Benjamin Netanyahu

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, speaks at an  election campaign event in Ramat Gan on Feb 25, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, speaks at an election campaign event in Ramat Gan on Feb 25, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

For several days now, Benny Gantz’s coalition-building strategy has mystified many.

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a unity government on Thursday amid an unprecedented shutdown of the Israeli economy to stem the coronavirus outbreak, Gantz’s response seemed flatfooted and myopic.

He responded to Netanyahu on Thursday night saying he welcomed a unity coalition, but demanded one condition for his Blue and White party to join it: that Netanyahu forge a “broad national government including representatives of all parts of the house [the Knesset]” — that is, including the Arab-majority Joint List party.

It was a surprising move. The Arab factions united in the Joint List are a diverse collection of liberals, Islamists, progressives and ultra-nationalists. Most are openly anti-Zionist and some have expressed proud and open support for ruthless terrorists responsible for some of the most infamous atrocities ever inflicted on Israelis.

It was also surprising in the narrower sense of political tactics. Netanyahu’s campaign had focused for months on the claim that Gantz could not govern without the Joint List’s support; now Gantz himself seemed to acknowledge that dependence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The left celebrated the move on Thursday as a blow for equality, a first-of-its-kind injection of the Arab minority’s representatives into the heart of mainstream Jewish politics. But Gantz is not the idealist, starry-eyed progressive that the right has been claiming over the past year. He was the IDF chief of staff who oversaw the military’s incursion into Gaza in the 2014 war with Hamas, and in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, when he led the Grounds Forces Command, urged a broader ground campaign in Lebanon. In the years before the two became political rivals, Netanyahu repeatedly praised both his “calm” and his “determination.”

So why, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, would Gantz condition joining an emergency unity government on the inclusion of the Arab factions — a political self-immolation and, from Gantz’s own perspective, an ethical compromise of the highest order?

One simple answer: He appears to have calculated that for the first time in their history, Israel’s Arab political factions, fresh from an unprecedented 15-seat win at the ballot box, had finally come to play ball in the hard-nosed game of Israeli coalition politics. No more mere complaints from the sidelines, posturing over symbols, or campaigns consumed by shows of defiance of the Jewish majority. Joint List chairman MK Ayman Odeh yearns to make himself and his community a force to be reckoned with in the halls of the Knesset — and the deadlock among the Jews has given him the opportunity to do just that.

One signal of a political faction’s seriousness can be found in its willingness to soberly prioritize its many goals and to sacrifice less-important ones for those that matter more. That may sound obvious, but a party like Balad, one of the four factions that make up the Joint List, had proved over the years that it could not look past its obeisance to radical Palestinian nationalism. Its members have joined the 2010 Turkish flotilla to Gaza, praised a murderer of Israeli children, and even spied for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

That same Balad was the only Arab party that couldn’t bring itself to back Gantz, reviled architect of the 2014 war, after the September election.

Mtanes Shihadeh of the Joint List, leader of the Balad party, attends an election campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

On Sunday, that changed. Gantz thrust the Arab parties center-stage, and they showed — to themselves, their constituents and the intently watching Jewish Israeli political world — that they could come through. With Balad’s votes, Gantz now had 61 recommendations to the president, the thinnest of majorities that now gives him the first shot at forming a government.

So far so good. Gantz’s costly gamble paid off for the moment.

But has Gantz’s position really changed? He remains vulnerable on all sides. If he becomes prime minister, he remains dependent on those Arab votes, including from political factions that despise everything he stands for, to appoint ministers and approve budgets. And he is desperately exposed to Likud’s next campaign warning about that very dependence.

It is in contemplating that predicament that one finds in Gantz a political foresightedness usually attributed only to his rival Netanyahu.

There is an irony in Gantz’s situation that is not lost on him — indeed, that he seems to have carefully planned. In linking his fate to despised Balad, and in Balad linking its own to the despised ex-general in return, both have achieved an unexpected freedom from the other.

President Reuven Rivlin (L) meeting the leaders of the Joint List party (L-R) Ayman Odeh, Mtanes Shihadeh and Ahmad Tibi, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Joint List chief Odeh, of the formerly communist Hadash faction, could conceivably support Gantz’s government for the duration of a term — and hold him politically dependent the entire time.

Balad, on the other hand, is a far less reliable partner as far as Gantz is concerned, if only because the party’s internal politics could at any moment rebel against the monstrous compromise represented by Sunday’s vote.

Gantz can’t rely on Balad, and it won’t easily stomach the political cost of propping him up indefinitely, especially if a crisis with the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank suddenly finds its way onto the agenda.

No, a Balad-backed Gantz is a Gantz who by definition must quickly find new partners.

Why do it then? Why ride the Arab parties to the President’s House, only to find yourself in a Balad-backed coalition that’s untenable from the start? And why would the Arab parties, including some wily old political operators like Ahmad Tibi, play along?

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz after voting at a voting station in Rosh Ha’ayin, on March 2, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The answer to this is the simplest part of the whole calculation: On Thursday, Netanyahu invited Gantz to be his junior partner, and left him in the position of either agreeing or finding himself publicly refusing to help rescue the nation from a global emergency.

By Sunday, Gantz had assured his appointment as prime minister-designate, and could make Netanyahu a not dissimilar offer in reverse — what with the national coronavirus emergency and all. With Gantz having secured the president’s mandate, it would now be Netanyahu digging in his heels to avoid being no. 2 while the virus spreads and Israeli families contemplate their emptying bank accounts and diminishing food supplies.

The Joint List, meanwhile, has proved not only that it can bring ever-growing numbers of voters to the ballot box, but that it knows how to use that leverage with discipline and cunning; that it is not merely loud in declaiming its politics, but actually formidable in implementing them. We can reasonably expect to hear growing calls in Likud in the coming months for a new outreach by the Israeli right to the long marginalized Arab minority.

Gantz will repay the Joint List if the broader gambit succeeds and he becomes prime minister, perhaps with an influential Knesset committee of the sort that might have the power to pass budgets on to their communities — the sort of arrangement Likud has had with the Haredi parties for years. After all, Gantz will still need the Arabs’ support in a future unity government — not to pass budgets or appoint ministers, which he will do with his Likud partners, but as a bulwark against any Likud attempts to destabilize him.

The Arab parties threaten to become Gantz’s crutch, Likud warned. But if he can pit the two forces against each other – a position the Arab parties are likely to relish after Likud’s repeated resort to anti-Arab campaigns – each may ironically deliver Gantz his political independence from the other.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)

Likud has spent the past year insisting that the former army chief is unintelligent, even mentally ill. And, to be sure, Gantz may still fail in the delicate maneuver he is attempting. He faces one of the craftiest politicians Israel has ever known in the person of Netanyahu.

But nearly a year and a half since he founded his Israel Resilience Party, Gantz has proven himself a highly capable manager. Not a great orator like Netanyahu, nor even a particularly good campaigner — as Blue and White’s consistently reactive election campaigns and a long string of damaging leaks have shown. Yet one does not rise to the top of the Israeli military hierarchy entirely devoid of skills in leadership and strategy.

Blue and White is an unlikely alliance of extraordinarily ambitious personalities; of right and left; of at least three fellow leaders who each dreams, if not plots, to replace the other. Gantz has managed to harness them all – Yair Lapid’s ground operation, Gabi Ashkenazi’s popularity and Moshe Ya’alon’s policy credibility – and held them together for three consecutive elections, through scandal and disagreement and even, on occasion, open feuding; through the recent crisis of relying on Balad and the persistent crisis of Likud’s unceasing efforts to poach away MKs. In short, through circumstances that might have bested older and more established political parties.

And Blue and White as a whole, as a unified edifice and a threat to Netanyahu’s long reign, has held firm. It is hard to imagine another Israeli politician who might have accomplished a similar feat with such scattered parts.

Netanyahu may yet win this round and remain in the prime minister’s chair. But he’s unlikely to underestimate Gantz again.

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