With submarine probe, a cornered Gantz shows he’s willing to sink the coalition

Buffeted by criticism, defense minister formally launches an investigation into an affair that has stained his ostensible partner, all but officially triggering the 2021 election

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Defense Minister Benny Gantz seen in the Knesset on November 10, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz seen in the Knesset on November 10, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz had a rollercoaster of a day Sunday.

In the morning, his embarrassing deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu highlighted how frozen and dysfunctional the government had become because of the two men’s interminable political maneuvers.

Under the deal, the Likud-led Finance Ministry would be permitted to appoint a new accountant-general for the country in exchange for Gantz’s “Alternate Prime Minister’s Office” being allowed to appoint its own director-general, his longtime friend Hod Betzer.

There was no good way to look at the deal. It showed Gantz had been holding up the appointing of a desperately needed accountant-general in the middle of the country’s battle against the pandemic. It showed, too, that Gantz’s constant efforts to force Netanyahu to fulfill his previous commitments were resulting in absurd situations.

In exchange for allowing the accountant-general appointment through the cabinet, Gantz had extracted from Netanyahu a ludicrously unimportant appointment to a nonexistent ministry, even as vital posts like the director-general of the Justice Ministry and commissioner of the Israel Police remained unfilled. On Saturday, the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office had seven employees. On Sunday, with Betzer’s addition at the expensive pay scale of a full-fledged director-general, the figure rose to eight.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, both wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)

Even cabinet ministers in Gantz’s own camp were incensed. If an accountant-general was vital for the country — why was the appointment ever held up? And if there was logic to always demanding a quid-pro-quo in any dealings with Netanyahu, as some around Gantz believe, then why demand an almost entirely fake appointment in return?

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn informed Gantz they would boycott Sunday’s cabinet meeting in protest of the deal. Every Hebrew-language media outlet led with the news for hours.

Submarines resurface

Then, at about 4 p.m., Gantz delivered his second dramatic political headline of the day, his bombshell decision to appoint a Defense Ministry inquiry into allegations of corruption in the Israeli navy’s purchase of submarines and other vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.

The inquiry isn’t really about the allegations; it’s about Netanyahu.

The so-called “submarines affair” has ensnared some of Netanyahu’s closest confidants, but the prime minister has never been a suspect in the case. His many opponents and critics, however, have had trouble believing he was ignorant of and uninvolved in a scheme taking place under his nose among his close advisers.

A man rides in a mock submarine during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 14, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Yet the timing indicates that the committee is a political maneuver, not an effort to bolster good governance and law enforcement by examining alleged past misdeeds. Even if the committee’s members are experienced, honest and worthy individuals — their resumes include posts like the former head of the navy, a former district court chief judge, and the former head of procurement for the Defense Ministry — the timing of its establishment and the late-March deadline for publicizing its report, close to the likeliest date of the next election, make clear that its existence is tailored to the political needs of the interminable Netanyahu-Gantz rivalry.

In the Betzer appointment, Gantz seemed to reach the ludicrous nadir of his efforts to keep Netanyahu to his word. In the inquiry announcement, Gantz declared he had finally given up. And that’s bad news for Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has a problem

Netanyahu wants elections to get him out of the rotation deal he signed with Gantz back in May. But polls right now heavily favor Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, who has received as many as 25 Knesset seats in recent surveys, only a few seats behind Netanyahu’s Likud.

Facing withering criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic — and of the interminable infighting with Gantz, which has slowed and in some cases gutted many of the government’s efforts to combat the pandemic — Netanyahu needs time for his poll numbers to improve.

But he overplayed his hand. Everyone understands that Netanyahu is driving the country toward an election to avoid the rotation, and Netanyahu has tried to explain that looming election with leaks of comments attributed to him that say Gantz is “unfit” to be prime minister, that it would simply be “irresponsible” of him to carry out the rotation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/Flash90)

Gantz, alas, was listening. Sunday’s inquiry committee is his response.

In the labyrinthine coalition agreement Netanyahu and Gantz signed back in May, Gantz left the Likud leader one viable path for escaping the agreement, apparently in the belief Netanyahu wouldn’t dare take it: the agreement left in place the law stipulating that if the Knesset fails to pass a state budget by the end of March, it dissolves and new elections are called.

Gantz apparently did not imagine that Netanyahu would unceremoniously freeze the state budget bill for a year, despite a pandemic and economic crash, shuttering education programs and poverty organizations, helping drive an exodus of top officials, epidemiologists and economists alike, from the treasury and health ministry, all in his bid to duck the agreement.

Gantz apparently did not imagine that Netanyahu’s loyalists in the Likud Knesset slate and among the Likud base would remain quite so loyal and quite so forgiving of the frozen budget.

But Netanyahu froze everything, and Gantz found himself at the end of 2020 without a state budget and without a rotation deal.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to IDF Home Front Command soldiers during a visit to the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on September 14, 2020. (Flash90)

And now, Netanyahu is realizing belatedly, Gantz is left with nothing to lose.

Gantz goes over the edge

If elections are coming, Gantz gains nothing by playing nice. He polls between six and 10 seats. His remaining supporters appear to be sticking by him only because they believe he reined in what they see as Netanyahu’s worst excesses and inclinations. If elections loom, Gantz must find new ways to show himself reining in the prime minister. He must be the man who made the best of a bad situation, and is now making Netanyahu’s life as miserable as possible.

By Sunday evening, Likud realized they had pushed Gantz over the edge too soon. The plan, known to all, had been to pretend to advance a 2020 state budget until the deadline of December 23, by which time Netanyahu would have a better sense of the vaccine schedules. If the vaccines were on track to reach Israel before a March election, the 2020 budget was going to fail in the Knesset and the parliament would dissolve itself on December 23 and call an election for 90 days later.

If, however, his political situation on December 23 was no better than it is now, the 2020 budget would pass, the foolish Gantz would be convinced he had earned yet another reprieve on his long slog to the premiership, and the dissolution of the Knesset would take place in late March after the 2021 budget failed to pass — with the new election in late June.

In its response to Gantz’s new committee, Likud pointedly avoided threatening a new election, instead complaining that Gantz had told an interviewer in July that he was not troubled by the submarines affair.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen at a welcoming ceremony for a new submarine, Rahav, at the Israeli navy base in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO /File)

Likud’s Finance Minister Israel Katz tweeted on Sunday evening his assurances that he “intends to bring to the cabinet’s approval the ’21 state budget with the arrangements laws and broad reforms during December, in order to finish the Knesset approval [vote] in February.”

It was an attempt to placate Gantz. Not only will we pass the 2020 budget, you’ll see the 2021 budget with your own eyes already in December, Katz was saying. No need to blow up the coalition agreement yet.

Katz might have been more convincing had he not made the same pronouncement before, promising imminent cabinet votes on the budget bill perhaps half a dozen times in recent months, most recently in mid-October. None of those promises materialized.

It makes good political sense for Katz to continue advancing budget bills, irrespective of Gantz. For one thing, it’s his job, and he has already shown he’s eager to rehabilitate an image tarnished by chaos in his ministry and the accusation that he was helping Netanyahu avoid passing a state budget. For another, if the country really is hurtling toward elections, a major theme of the next campaign will likely be the question of who’s at fault for the collapse. Likud needs a paper trail that will let it argue that Gantz toppled the government right before the long-awaited budget was set to pass.

Finally, of course, there’s the obvious point that Netanyahu might blink first. If a third coronavirus wave hits or some other factor drives Netanyahu’s polling numbers further down, he may decide the rotation agreement is better than risking an outright loss at the ballot box. In that case, he’ll need a budget bill, and quick.

The submarines inquiry is thus only the beginning of the crisis, a shot across the bow, a signal from Gantz that he sees nothing left to fight for in the coalition, and that the 2020 election campaign has therefore begun.

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