In a widely reported dust-up at a Blue and White faction ahead of the year’s second national election in September 2019, lawmakers in the centrist alliance pressed their party chairman Benny Gantz to ratchet up the rhetoric against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the final month of campaigning.
Having heard enough, Gantz slammed his hands on the table and rejected the calls offhand. “For me, statesmanship is a religion. Whoever this does not suit can get up and go. It is not going to change now, and it will not change in the future either,” he snapped.
The term “statesmanship” is used regularly in Israeli political discourse, but translates horrendously into English. It is used by some lawmakers to signify the importance of respecting state institutions, while others employ it to describe the need to place the greater good above political interests.
Or as Blue and White puts it, “Israel before everything else.”
The party plugged the slogan at every opportunity over the past three election campaigns, but the phrase was drawn up even before Gantz agreed to team up with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem and former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi to form the centrist alliance in February 2019. Gantz walked on stage for his first speech upon entering politics a month earlier to the song written for the occasion, “There’s no more right or left, just Israel before everything else.”
The short jingle played on repeat for hours that night as hundreds of supporters and reporters waited for him at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, and it continued until the very last person had left the convention center.
Gantz tweeted as much Thursday evening after being elected Knesset speaker, in a move slated to pave the way for a unity government led by Netanyahu: “Israel before everything else,” he wrote.
While it is too early to know whether the move will yield what’s best for the country, what does seem clear is that Gantz allowed his political standing to take a back seat.
In heeding Likud’s ultimatum that the election of Blue and White member Meir Cohen as Knesset speaker would mark the death knell of its unity government negotiations, Gantz revealed all of his cards to Netanyahu without any insurance policy.
The leverage of 61 MKs standing with him to counter Netanyahu, if he decided to put his foot down, has all but dissipated.
There is no longer a Blue and White party to return to, as Yesh Atid and Telem filed requests to break away from Gantz’s slate immediately upon his election as speaker. This leaves just 15 Israel Resilience Party MKs marching behind him toward a Netanyahu government — less than half of the 33 that were voted into the Knesset earlier this month in an election that feels light-years away.
The remaining 28 lawmakers who endorsed him as prime minister in their consultations with President Reuven Rivlin, who thus gave Gantz the first stab at forming a government, similarly want nothing to do with him. From Yisrael Beytenu on the right to the Joint List and Meretz on the left, none of them have come to Gantz’s defense, instead accusing him of selling out for an improbable promise to serve as premier in 18 months under the emerging agreement with Netanyahu, who is set to go on trial for criminal charges in May.
“I want to congratulate the Knesset speaker-designate, Benny Gantz,” Labor-Meretz MK Merav Michaeli said in disgust Thursday, moments before the Israel Resilience Party chairman took the gavel.
“Congratulations, you and your friend Gabi Ashkenazi will become members of government under the defendant Benjamin Netanyahu. Congratulations, you’ve joined the long, long list of people who believed Netanyahu and where are they today,” she continued, listing lawmakers from across the political spectrum who had been willing to enter previous Netanyahu governments only to see the Likud leader turn on them.
Gantz’s former deputy Lapid was just as blunt, accused him of stealing the party’s votes and giving them “as a gift to Netanyahu.”
Lapid and Michaeli were part of a bloc that twice elevated the Blue and White chairman within reach of the premiership. The motley crew of Gantz-backers bridged their ideological differences over their shared desire to oust Netanyahu.
Until Thursday, Gantz had shared that goal of deposing the long-time premier and had hoped it could co-exist with his similar determination to place “Israel before everything else.”
Ultimately, though, he appears to have concluded that it was either one or the other.