Former IDF Chief Gantz Makes The Right Gamble by Joining Netanyahu

Choosing the health and safety of the nation over ideology.

Benny Gantz, the former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief-of-Staff (2011-2015), displayed a measure of leadership last month when he pulled out of the Blue and White triumvirate with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction, Moshe Ya’alon Telem faction, and his own Hosen L’Israel (Resilience for Israel) faction. Gantz, along with Gabi Ashkenazi, number four in the Blue and White party list, decided to join a national unity coalition government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led government. It ended the stalemate that bedeviled Israel for a year, with three unresolved elections.

Benny Gantz (center in photo above) put together the Blue and White party and burst like a storm onto the Israeli political landscape. It also successfully challenged the Likud supremacy in the first two elections. Given the unresolved political paralysis after the third election, Gantz chose to be true to his constituents and his country rather than to his partisan former partners, Lapid and Ya’alon, who considered Netanyahu a greater threat than the national crisis over the coronavirus, and the economic downturn.

Gantz and Ashkenazi’s decision to end their partnership with Lapid and Ya’alon is a responsible move on the part of the two, and in particular shows a degree of statesmanship that has been lacking thus far. The Israeli public is widely supportive of Gantz’s move. Gantz warned his former Blue and White colleagues that a fourth round of elections was not an option, and he asked them to put “personal scores aside.” Yet, Gantz is being eviscerated by the left-leaning Israeli media and accused of betrayal. He has been similarly attacked by his former partners and accused by them of “crawling toward Netanyahu.” A Jerusalem Post opinion piece (3/30/2020) headline read “Benny Gantz – The Responsible Adult of Israeli Politics.”

In joining the unity government, Gantz has abandoned the radical wing of the Blue and White party that demanded a narrow government supported by the single list of Labor-Meretz-Gesher with 7 seats, Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu 7 seats, as well as the Unified Arab list with 15 seats. It thus sought for the first time in Israel’s history to abandon the Zionist consensus, which excluded the radical anti-Zionist and anti-Israel Arab representatives. The same group however, which included Gantz and Ashkenazi, vehemently refused to sit in a government under Netanyahu, allegedly because of the criminal charges against him. In fact, Gantz previously vowed that he would never enter into a unity government with Netanyahu.

As a political novice, Gantz made impressive gains in leading the Center-Left Blue and White party. While he made a significant and steadfast showing in the March 2, 2020 parliamentary elections, gaining 26.59% of the votes, Netanyahu’s Likud topped him in receiving 29.46% of the votes, and garnering 36 seats in the 120 Israeli Knesset (parliament) to Gantz’s 33. But for Gantz, it was the best result of the last three elections. It exceeded the percentages his party received in the previous two elections in April and September, 2019. While Netanyahu’s Likud gained 4 seats in the March, 2020 election, Gantz’s Blue and White stayed the same.

Gantz, with a possible coalition of 47 seats combining Blue and White’s 33, the unified list of Labor-Meretz-Gesher 7, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu’s 7, required the backing of the Unified Arab List, which received 15 seats (third largest party in the Knesset). While he commenced talks with the Unified Arab List, and seriously considered their backing, he understood that he had given his constituents a pre-election promise not to rely on the Arab list’s backing. Moreover, two members of Telem, a faction of Blue and White, refused to support such an arrangement, hence reducing Gantz’s ability to form such a government. He must have realized that in a subsequent election, his voters would mistrust him and reject his party. Gantz also tried to lure defectors from the Center-Right camp of Bibi Netanyahu, whose bloc garnered 58 seats (Likud 36, Shas 9, Torah Judaism 7, and Yemina 6). All three parties, the two religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as the nationalist Yemina, remained loyal to Netanyahu and rejected Gantz’s offer. 

In considering his chances of becoming prime minister at that point, Gantz had to have taken into account the fact that the majority of the Israeli electorate was leaning to the right, and had there been a fourth election, it would most certainly spell a decisive defeat for Gantz, and his Blue and White party. Gantz also had to have postulated that with the country going through a pandemic at this time, it needed an experienced and steady hand to guide it through the crisis. That one person is the current prime minister - Benjamin Netanyahu. The lack of executive experience in government must have crossed Gantz’s mind. In joining Netanyahu as deputy Prime Minister, and as either Defense or Foreign Minister, he will be able to accumulate needed experience and build relationships under the tutelage of Bibi Netanyahu. 

As co-leader with Netanyahu in a government under the coronavirus emergency, Gantz will gain necessary exposure and credibility as a partner in defeating the coronavirus. The Israeli public will get used to seeing him in action and seeing him as a leading figure. And, when the courts in Israel reopen, in the aftermath of ,the coronavirus, Netanyahu is likely to be on trial. It would then position Gantz to serve as Netanyahu’s proper successor, provided of course that he handles his tasks successfully. This would clearly mark him as the rightful successor to Netanyahu, especially if he should merge his party (Hosen L’Israel) with the Likud.

Under the Netanyahu-Gantz rotation agreement, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the next 18 months. In September, 2021, Gantz will take over as prime minister. While the two sides agree on the rotation, there are still unresolved issues including who will get the Justice portfolio, appointment of the police chief, the Knesset speakership, and the Jordan Valley annexation. In the meantime, Likud ranking Knesset Members and current cabinet members, as well as other coalition partners including Naftali Bennet’s Yemina, are demanding prestigious portfolios.

Likud’s current ministers and Netanyahu in particular, must be uplifted and highly encouraged by a new poll (April 2, 2020) from the Smith Institute, as reported by Israel TV Channel 12, indicating a sharp decline to Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and a spectacular rise for the Likud, creating a huge gap between the Likud and the next largest party. Likud came in with 41 seats (gaining 5 seats), to second place Gantz’s Blue and White with 20, the Unified Arab List 16 - adding a seat, Yesh Atid 9, Shas 9, United Torah Judaism 7, Yemina 6, Labor-Meretz 6, and Lieberman 6, down a seat. This would give the Likud-led nationalist-religious bloc 63 seats, Gantz’s and the left 57 seats, including the Unified Arab List, Yesh Atid, Labor-Meretz and Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu. This can only affirm Gantz’s smart decision to join the Likud coalition. 

It seems rather ironic that the coronavirus has accomplished what three elections were unable to do. Gantz concluded correctly that the health and safety of the nation trumps political ideology and personal ambitions. In retrospect, Gantz made the right gamble.

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Photo courtesy of IDF