Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz clashed on Monday, further shaking up the already rickety unity coalition and signaling that the long-expected fall of the government was nearer than ever.
They traded allegations over the inquiry Gantz announced Sunday into the so-called submarine affair, and Gantz also said Israelis should be concerned about the leaking of news that Netanyahu flew Sunday to meet with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, implying that the story was published for Netanyahu’s partisan political purposes.
Tensions have been growing for months between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White over the failure to pass the state budget and to make a series of senior appointments, including a police chief, attorney general and Justice Ministry director-general.
According to the coalition deal reached in as Gantz went from Netanyahu’s chief rival in three elections to his most senior political partner and alternate prime minister, Netanyahu is to serve as prime minister until November 17, 2021, when Gantz will succeed him. However, if the government falls due to failure to pass the budget, Netanyahu retains the premiership until the next election. He has been accused of using the budget as leverage, while charging that Gantz has been violating the coalition agreement himself.
As several ultimatums by Gantz to pass the budget have been ignored, both parties have indicated that they don’t believe the partnership will last much longer. The current deadline for passing the 2020 state budget is December 23, after it was pushed off from the original August 25 deadline. Gantz is demanding that the 2020 budget be approved along with next year’s, which must be passed by March.
Tensions erupted once again on Sunday after Gantz announced that he had formed a government committee to investigate the so-called submarine affair, which has ensnared several of the premier’s allies, but not Netanyahu himself.
The affair, also known as Case 3000, revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.
On Monday, Netanyahu lambasted Gantz for that move.
“It’s shameful that Gantz is using the IDF as a political battering ram,” he said at a Likud faction meeting. “After all law enforcement officials ruled that the prime minister has no connection to the submarine affair, Gantz appointed a biased committee with a predetermined conclusion for one goal — to gather votes.”
“It is a great shame” for Gantz, he went on, adding that no defense minister had ever “made such a blatant political use of the IDF.”
Netanyahu is already on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three other cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing and claims to be a victim of an attempted political coup involving the police, prosecutors, left-wing opposition and the media.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri — head of the Shas party and a close Netanyahu ally — urged Gantz to cancel the inquiry committee.
“The defense minister crossed a red line due to political considerations,” Deri said.
The committee, Deri argued, would transform the Israeli military “into part of election campaigning.”
He said it was the “hour of truth” for the coalition. “In light of recent conduct I am doubtful there is justification for this partnership to continue,” he said.
The comment was seen by analysts as going back on a promise Deri made to Gantz on primetime TV before the power-sharing coalition deal was signed, giving him a “personal guarantee” that Netanyahu would honor the arrangement and hand over the premiership at the agreed-upon date.
Gantz himself said Monday that the prime minister “should be more interested than anyone” in an inquiry committee.
“If, as he and his people claim, the issue has been thoroughly probed and his conduct was spotless — then any man convinced of his innocence should be happy for the chance to prove [it] to all,” Gantz said at the weekly Blue and White faction meeting.
He also said he was “not afraid of elections” but believes they are not “what is needed for Israel.”
In another manifestation of the coalition crisis, reports said Monday that Gantz and his No. 2, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, were kept in the dark about Netanyahu’s secret visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday, where he reportedly met with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In the first visit of its kind, Netanyahu flew to the Saudi Red Sea City of Neom for the first known high-level meeting between an Israeli and a Saudi leader, an Israeli official told Hebrew media on Monday. He was accompanied by Mossad intelligence chief Yossi Cohen, according to reports in Hebrew-language media citing unnamed Israeli officials. Saudi government advisers confirmed the details to the Wall Street Journal, but the Saudi foreign minister denied the crown prince had met with Netanyahu or any Israeli.
Israeli officials were quoted in Hebrew-language media as saying neither Gantz nor Ashkenazi were given advance notice of Netanyahu’s trip to Saudi Arabia.
It would not be the first time the two were kept out of the loop on government activities within their purview regarding contacts with Arab states.
Gantz and Ashkenazi were not told of talks earlier this year with the United Arab Emirates, which were largely handled by Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer. Netanyahu later said he did this because of fears they would leak the news and the plans to formalize relations would be disrupted by regional foes.
On Monday, Gantz accused others of “leaking” the prime minister’s trip to Saudi Arabia, calling it “an irresponsible move.”
He said Israelis “should be worried” about who leaked the information and why. “I do not behave in this manner, I never have and I never will.”
Israel’s military censor, in charge of preventing media reports that undermine national security, is part of the IDF, of which Gantz himself is in charge. It wasn’t clear whether Gantz himself had the power to prevent the reports of Netanyahu’s trip from coming out.
The coalition tensions have also strained the seams of Blue and White, with Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn reportedly boycotting Sunday’s cabinet meeting in protest of a deal that was reached between Blue and White and Likud on two senior appointments that he was not told about, and that failed to fill a key position in his own ministry.
Critics believe Netanyahu has been engineering the ongoing dispute with Blue and White over the budget and the other issues, as he wants to hold elections before the premiership rotates to Gantz. Should elections be called, they would be the fourth within two years.