In 1996, then-Likud candidate for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted then-prime minister Shimon Peres for arranging himself a meeting at the White House with then-US president Bill Clinton, who admitted years later that he did everything in his power to bring about Peres’s victory over Netanyahu.
Fast forward 24 years. Netanyahu is the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, and the administration in Washington is still interfering in American elections, this time on Netanyahu’s behalf.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz succeeded in avoiding one trap over the weekend, when Vice President Mike Pence and Netanyahu both announced that Gantz’s invitation to Washington came at Netanyahu’s request, as if he was doing a favor for his competition in the March 2 election. The plan of the Americans was apparently to let Gantz sit in the crowd at the White House and applaud, while Trump and Netanyahu signed the deal on stage.
That political disaster was avoided when Gantz succeeded in getting his own separate meeting with US President Donald Trump on Monday. That meeting proved Gantz a player on an international stage at a time when he desperately needed it, and showed that the US realizes Netanyahu’s political future is in jeopardy.
But there are clearly more traps set for Gantz that he must avoid in the days ahead.
First of all, while Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump will be a major political event that will be played up for the press around the world, the White House press corps has not even been invited to cover the Trump-Gantz meeting. If the administration wants Trump’s plan to be seen as supported by a consensus in Israel, why is he not rolling out the red carpet for the leader of Israel’s largest party?
Secondly, there was even a report on Sunday that Trump might end up meeting with Netanyahu before he meets with Gantz, even though Gantz purposely came to Washington several hours before the prime minister. There are logistical pitfalls that could happen at any moment that could make Gantz look bad.
Finally, Gantz needs more than a picture with Trump to release to the press after his meeting with the president. He needs an accomplishment, namely to persuade the president to hold off on implementing the plan until after the March 2 election.
If part of the plan is brought to the Knesset in the weeks ahead, it could force Blue and White to make premature decisions that will highlight the vast differences within the party on diplomatic issues. Blue and White set a precedent when it initiated a vote in the Knesset plenum on immunity and lost justification for preventing votes on annexation that could cause the party significant political problems.
If Gantz wants to be a statesman, he will have to be very clear and very public on his political views in a manner that no political strategist would recommend just ahead of an election. So far, Gantz has gotten away with keeping his cards close to his chest – but that might not end up being possible anymore.
Just like Netanyahu back in 1996, Gantz is working against not only a sitting prime minister, but also a sitting president of the United States, and that makes the odds go against him.
But Netanyahu succeeded in that race against all odds. It is possible for Gantz to overcome that difficult challenge as well.