‘Israel is bigger than Bibi and me’

"I still think it is wrong to have a prime minister with three indictments," Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz told The Jerusalem Post.

Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz had already been through his share of battles in a military uniform before entering politics. After enduring three intense elections against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he made a controversial decision to join him in a unity government and spare Israelis from going to the polls for a fourth time.
Gantz prevented an election again last month in another battle with Netanyahu that appeared to be over the state budget but was actually an attempt by a prime minister under three criminal indictments to influence key law enforcement appointments.
In an interview following that rare political victory over Netanyahu, Gantz talks about whether he ever truly trusted Netanyahu, whether he still believes he will become prime minister in the rotation agreement he signed with the prime minister and why he is confident despite the many security threats Israel is facing.  
How did you stand up to Netanyahu in the political battle, and how will you continue to fight or cooperate with him?
We entered the government to cooperate at a time of a health emergency with extraordinary economic and social ramifications and security challenges from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. We did it for the State of Israel, while conceding on our principles as little as possible. I still think it is wrong to have a prime minister with three indictments. We joined to have influence from within the system. Others merely talk about all the problems; I do what’s possible to resolve them. For the first time in a decade, our camp has a foothold in the government. Before that, there was one-man rule with no way to have influence. Just like we never stop trying to achieve peace and security, we will never stop working in the government for maintaining rule of law, keeping Israel united and easing rifts in Israeli society. 
Did you ever trust Netanyahu?
In lieu of trust there is a coalition agreement, and we will work in accordance with the agreement. So far, Netanyahu has not kept one of the most fundamental parts of the agreement, his commitment to a two-year budget. He has an agenda of not fulfilling his commitment to a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office. I entered the government with a top priority of helping Israel and a secondary priority of the rotation, so if I achieve my top priority and not my second one, I won’t regret it.
How can you work with Netanyahu without trusting him?
We worked together on security and diplomatic issues when I was IDF chief of staff and he was prime minister, and we continue to work well together on these issues today. When it comes to politics, he will continue to do what is right for him and we will continue to deal with the situation and do what is right for the people.
Have you ever regretted joining the coalition?
I knew it would be a minefield, but I had goals to achieve. If we hadn’t entered, would there be an agreement with the United Arab Emirates? Would annexation have been prevented? Would our democracy be unharmed? It’s not easy to be in the government, but it’s important to be there. Israel is bigger than Bibi and me. I have acted responsibly. Those who put themselves before the country are not acting responsibly. Netanyahu would help Israel more if he worked less for himself.
Are you happy with the UAE deal despite Netanyahu keeping you in the dark about it?
We are very glad about the diplomatic developments and appreciative of what Netanyahu, Trump and Kushner have done. The agreement is good for the UAE and Israel and beyond. It is not just bilateral. It can cause a positive domino effect. Anything to advance peace in the Middle East, or at least normalization, must be welcomed. It is improper that I was not told of the deal in advance, but what matters is that the deal was made at all. There is a difference between a basic surprise out of nowhere, being astounded, which is not what this was, and a situational surprise that it happened now.” 
Regarding the F-35 and the UAE, you’ve said that it wouldn’t be good if other countries got their hands on the advanced jet, but would it really be so disastrous if the UAE procured the plane? Is it not better to have a regional ally fly such a jet (that both the US and Israel have) should there be a need for a coalition operational activity against Iran?
“Qualitative military edge (QME) is a critical aspect of Israel’s security. There are advantages and disadvantages in selling advanced weaponry to countries in the region. Yes, it could be that there might be something like a possible coalition that might be positive. Others would say that it’s better that they have American weapons systems rather than Russian or Chinese – but there are always two ways it can go. I have said, and I will repeat, we will know, as a security establishment how to accommodate this deal while maintaining Israel’s security interests, especially in regard to our QME. But it’s not a one-sided street. We also make deals with the United States and we can also get more platforms and systems. This is not a one-sided deal.”
With Israel not really in charge of the decision, rather Washington, if the UAE does get the F-35 what should Israel demand in return to keep our QME?
“We know what we want to ask for and what we might be able to get in order to make sure that we can act professionally and strategically with the developments in the Middle East. I will ensure Israeli security and I know what I’m talking about.”
Defense Minister director-general Amir Eshel, a man with whom you have worked many years, is heading to Abu Dhabi in the coming weeks. What do you expect to come from the meetings he will be holding?
“We will know how to develop security ties with UAE and adding more here would only cause harm. Better not to expand on that.”
You’ve spoken to your UAE counterpart, now when do you plan to meet with him?
“I’ve spoken with the defense minister of the UAE. It was an introductory meeting and there will be more. There’s no date set to meet and doesn’t matter where the meeting will happen, here or there.
Israel and the UAE have a decades-old security relationship, with countless secret deals signed over the years. Will the security cooperation/relationship with the UAE only strengthen with this deal? Or do you think some companies will start looking at other countries where they can continue their work behind closed doors and under the radar?
“I don’t see why it should be a problem. Deals will continue, and perhaps the opposite. What before was B2B or B2G can now be G2G.  I have no doubt that it won’t be a smooth walk in the park, we have a good number of bumps ahead of us.”
Now, let’s turn to our northern borders where the IDF is still on high alert, more than a month after the alleged Israeli airstrike. Hezbollah has tried at least three times to hit IDF soldiers but has not yet succeeded. Do you think they will tire of trying or is this the new normal until an attack succeeds?
“It will happen. We haven’t stopped our activity in the North and we will continue to stop the transfer of advanced weapons that are going to Hezbollah via Syria. We haven’t stopped since July 20 and our strategic objective, not only along the Syrian border, this is something that will continue. There have been incidents on our northern border and we foiled them all and responded. We won’t let our forces be attacked. Hezbollah understands that and in my opinion, the Lebanese government and civilians are hostages to Hezbollah’s activity. I hope there won’t be activities where we will have to respond, but we won’t hesitate to act.”
How has Israel’s war-between-war (Mabam) campaign affected Hezbollah and Iran? Your predecessor Naftali Bennett said as he was leaving office that Iran was starting to withdraw bases and troops from Syria, is that still accurate?
“I prefer to express myself more modestly. We have achievements, but we are continuing to see Iran’s activity in Syria and around it. I don’t see Iran fleeing Syria. We will continue to intercept their shipments and we have freedom of operation to act in order to implement our agenda over Syria and the region. We will continue our activity across the region, but we aren’t imperialists wanting to conquer. Our only interest is security. That’s it.”
Now to Gaza. We are seeing non stop fires being caused by incendiary balloons, and while you have said that the IDF is responding to every balloon/rocket, is that really a strategy that the IDF can maintain in the long run?
“We’ve changed our strategy of not accepting any security violations. A balloon is as unacceptable as rockets, but we decide the strength of the response based on our interest. We have levers to push against Gaza and we will not stop the food and supplies, but there are other non-kinetic levers that the leaders in Gaza understand. I am open to many options in Gaza, such as humanitarian steps and economic development that will continue. But we don’t accept any violations and at the end of the day, I have not left any balloons or rockets unanswered over the past two weeks. We have offensive systems that are intended to minimize damage. I hope Yehye Sinwar will realize that he’s hurting Gaza. If we need to call up the army and be stronger we will.”
With a growing coronavirus outbreak in Gaza, is it not in Israel’s best interest to help Gaza get a handle on that?
“We don’t want a corona outbreak in Gaza and we are ready to help with medical equipment. I hope that they will come to their senses and remove the security aspect so that we can help, but it’s in their hands.”
 What is your message to Diaspora Jewry for the new year?
It is very important that the ministry is in the hands of Blue and White. Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevitch is doing wonderful work. She speaks Russian and English, she is haredi yet open. She has a strategic plan for ties with Diaspora Jews. I have been meeting with Jewish communities around the world, unfortunately lately only over Zoom. The Diaspora is facing tough times with the coronavirus and antisemitism. Both sides want to deepen ties and that is the key for success.