Are Netanyahu and Gantz doomed to divorce? - analysis

Netanyahu and Gantz appear to be on a collision course that would end in a historic fourth election.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz pass each other in the Knesset last year. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz pass each other in the Knesset last year.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing strong political pressure, he has been known to provide an alternative account of history to tell a good story.
He has talked about seeing British soldiers in Jerusalem, even though he was born in 1949, claimed falsely that Rehavam Ze’evi was a minister in his cabinet, and in a May 2015 Jerusalem Post interview said right-wingers not voting Likud enabled the Gaza Strip disengagement a decade before.
In the videotaped interview, Netanyahu said nationalist camp voters “paved the way for the Left” when “we [Likud] didn’t get the support, and, of course, Kadima formed the government and went [through with] the withdrawal from Gaza with such horrible consequences for Israel’s security.”
The truth, of course, was that a Likud-led government had carried out the plan, which Netanyahu voted for three times, before quitting when the plan could no longer be stopped. Kadima was founded only months later, ahead of the 2006 election.
Netanyahu resorted to another convenient historical revision when he attacked opposition leader Yair Lapid at Wednesday’s special Knesset session.
In a parliamentary maneuver, Netanyahu was summoned to the Knesset plenum by 40 opposition MKs. He was required to listen to them for at least an hour and then respond to them.
Despite facing fierce attacks from Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz, Netanyahu decided to focus his speech on Lapid.
Netanyahu told him that when he asked his elderly father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, for his advice on what is essential for a prime minister, he told him “higher education” – a reference to Lapid not completing high school or earning a college degree.
But Netanyahu’s own account of what he had learned from his father was different in an interview the prime minister gave to Time magazine in 2012.
In the article in which the magazine crowned Netanyahu “King Bibi,” Netanyahu said his father’s advice included “Never touch money,” don’t attack people personally and to have convictions and the ability to take action.
Prof. Netanyahu’s son’s political future is now in jeopardy due to his difficulties in following that good advice.
Only after those things did Netanyahu recall that his father had also told him to have not higher education but “education,” which he defined as “an understanding of history” and “the ability to put things in perspective.”
Without having Netanyahu’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lapid does know how to put things in perspective. He even wrote the forward to the Hebrew version of British philosopher Roger Scruton’s book How to be a Conservative.
It was noticed in the plenum that Netanyahu chose to not respond to Bennett, who has built himself up as an alternative on the Right and all but declared himself a candidate for prime minister.
Netanyahu tactically chose to focus on Lapid. While Lapid said it was because he had gotten under Netanyahu’s skin, Netanyahu’s associates said it was because Lapid is opposition leader, Yesh Atid gets the second-most seats after the Likud in the polls, and because the opposition leader is an easy target.
In every election, Netanyahu has tried to build up an alternative, in order to scare right-wing voters out of complacency. He did it with Tzipi Livni in 2009 and Isaac Herzog in 2015. When there was no serious alternative in 2013, he tried to make it look like his opponent was US president Barack Obama.
So this time, Lapid is the chosen alternative, even if former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot ends up heading a party or there is a run by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who may have hurt his chances of wooing Likud voters by lighting up his city hall with the Lebanese flag.
Lapid’s soft spot remains the perception that he is anti-Orthodox. Losing Orthodox former candidates like former MKs Shai Piron, Aliza Lavie and Dov Lipman and current MK Tehila Friedman did not help change that perception. The Likud believes that this perception of Lapid is what will prevent him from becoming prime minister, with all due respect to the learning disabilities that led to his leaving high school.
THE ELEPHANT not in the room during Netanyahu’s fight with Lapid was Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz. Likud officials said Netanyahu does not believe Gantz’s Blue and White party would even cross the electoral threshold if an election would be held now.
“Likud and Lapid would both campaign against Gantz and finish him off,” a source close to Netanyahu said. “Lapid campaigned with Gantz for more than a year. He knows where all the bodies are buried. He has a treasure trove of dirt on Gantz.”
Gantz scared his Blue and White MKs on Wednesday when he called a special session of his faction without giving a reason why. The meeting was only 10 minutes, and it turned out that Gantz’s main message was that he would be the party’s candidate for prime minister again, if an election ends up being held.
Both the Likud and Blue and White MKs talked about that possibility more seriously this week, after a dispute over what kind of budget to pass intensified. In a speech welcoming Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh to the Knesset after her maiden address, Blue and White minister Michael Biton said their time in the parliament would be limited, but he later clarified that he spoke philosophically, not politically.
In a private conversation held on the Jewish love holiday Tu Be’av, coalition chairman Miki Zohar compared Netanyahu and Gantz to a couple on their way to a divorce who don’t know how to divide up their belongings.
Netanyahu is still insisting on a one-year budget. While he cites only economic reasons of not being able to plan ahead during a pandemic, even his Likud MKs believe it is because he does not want to carry out a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office and would prefer to have an election before his criminal trial intensifies in January.
Gantz is still insisting on the two-year budget set in the coalition agreement, and top Finance Ministry officials are taking his side. But even the MKs closest to him are having a tough time explaining why.
“If we go to elections in November, there will be a government in December, and then Prime Minister Netanyahu will ask the finance minister to prepare a budget, so what budget would it be?” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told KAN interviewers Yaron Deckel and Akiva Novick Thursday morning in a faux pas or Freudian slip.
The key to forcing Netanyahu and Gantz to compromise could be the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. Channel 12 had reports about the haredim and the budget two nights in a row.
On Wednesday, its report said Netanyahu offered the haredim NIS 400 million in advances on the budget for yeshivot if they would enable an election to take place. The report on Thursday said Gantz offered them a haredi draft law to their liking, but only if they stop elections.
After both reports, it appeared Gantz’s offer had been chosen. They will not cooperate with initiating an election.
They have 17 days left to stop it. If no budget is passed by August 24 at 11:59 p.m., a fourth election in 19 months would be initiated immediately.
MKs left the Knesset feeling more hopeful on Wednesday night, after the Likud and Blue and White collaborated successfully in blocking two humiliating opposition bills. The Likud did not vote for the Supreme Court override bill it had promised to support in the election, while Blue and White MKs shunned a bill calling for a commission of inquiry to probe Netanyahu’s role in the Submarines Affair, which they had promised their voters.
With no compromise in sight, either the Likud or Blue and White will have to realize it is in its interest to surrender. While the Post’s revelation of the Likud’s debts this week indicated the ruling party is not ready for another election, Netanyahu’s associates sounded hungry to go back to battle.
“In the last election, his court case was used by the opposition, and the Likud ended up winning more votes than any point in its history,” a source close to Netanyahu said. “The country doesn’t want elections in the middle of a pandemic. The mood is clear. But we are not the ones politicizing the budget.”
History could end up being the judge of whether that is true.