Coronavirus crisis: Where in the world is Gantz?

Only this time the question is not where is Gantz the candidate, but where is Gantz the Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister.

Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Last summer at this time, with the second election campaign in 2019 in full throttle, one question on many people’s mind was: where is Benny Gantz?
With the September elections just two months away, Gantz was barely seen and hardly heard.
This seemed an extension of a rather odd campaign strategy adopted by his campaign staff from the minute he officially entered into politics in late 2018: Minimize his exposure.
Gantz came out of the army with the popularity that most chiefs of staff enjoy by virtue of their job. The IDF is the most trusted institution in the country, and the head of the IDF is always popular. People generally don’t know the political opinions of the chiefs and staff, and like and respect them because of their job. As a result, ex-heads of the army generally come out with a head start if they are interested in a foray into politics.
This was very much true of Gantz. People liked him and respected him. He looked good, seemed like a mensch. They didn’t know exactly where he stood on the major political issues, and as a result took him for a centrist. He was once described as attractive vessel into which people could pour all their dreams and aspirations.
The smart campaign strategy, therefore, was just to let this be. Let people see in Gantz whatever they wanted. Why have him take positions that might just alienate part of the electorate.
This worked during the first campaign in the beginning of 2020, and was the strategy last summer going into the September elections as well: Keep the candidate out of the spotlight.
“Left in the dark and keeping quiet, where did Benny Gantz go,” read a headline to a story in June 2019 in Maariv. “Gantz on vacation,” was the headline of another in Haaretz last July.
Fast forward a year, and the same question is relevant. Where is Gantz?
Only this time the question is not where is Gantz the candidate, but where is Gantz the alternate prime minister and defense minister, the man who – according to the carefully crafted rotation procedure in his coalition agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – is to become prime minister in November 2021?
Where is he, what is he doing, what is he thinking? The coronavirus is once again upending the country, so what does he think? Is he in favor of the economic plan, or opposed?
He justified breaking campaign promises to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu by saying such a move was needed to fight the pandemic. But where is he in that fight? Some may say that he is the defense minister, not the health minister or minister for welfare and social services. Why does his voice need to be heard?
But as his predecessor Naftali Bennett showed, the defense minister can play an active role in fighting the virus, as the army and the defense establishment have much to contribute. When it came to the coronavirus, Bennett was nothing less than the Energizer Bunny. Gantz, by contrast, seems like a sleepy opossum.
The opossum, of course, is known for playing dead before predators – that’s a defense mechanism that keeps it alive. Gantz may be doing the same thing, just keen on staying out of trouble, keeping a low profile, not giving Netanyahu any reason or justification for bringing down the government before he is to turn over the reins of power.
Gantz is a rather peculiar situation. Having won 33 seats in the last election, his truncated Blue and White Party – Yesh Atid and parts of Telem broke off after he signed the coalition agreement with Likud – is polling at a meager nine to 11 seats now. That means his political future, his chance of being prime minister, hinges on Netanyahu honoring the agreement.
Actually, neither Gantz nor his party are naïve enough to bank on Netanyahu’s word. The agreement locks in that if the prime minister brings down the government, then the alternate prime minister – in this case, Gantz – will become the prime minister until the next elections take place. This is a disincentive for Netanyahu to call new elections.
But there is one loophole, and that is if the budget is not passed by March 31, 2021, and the government falls by virtue of not being able to pass a budget, then Netanyahu does not have to hand over the reins of a transitional government.
This explains the brouhaha over whether Israel will pass a one-year or two-year budget this year. Netanyahu wants a one-year budget, saying that this is necessary in the time of corona to give the country fiscal flexibility for the following year, while Gantz wants a two-year budget, as stipulated in the coalition agreement.
Skeptics of Netanyahu’s intentions, and they are legion, suspect him of manufacturing a crisis over this issue so that the government will not agree on a budget and will fall in another eight months.
Interestingly enough, Shas’s Aryeh Deri came out in recent days in favor of Gantz’s position. Why? Aren’t the haredi parties Netanyahu’s best and most loyal allies? They are, and Netanyahu met with representatives of the haredi parties on Monday to put their minds to ease on a number of issues.
But as loyal as the haredim have been to Netanyahu, and vice versa, the haredim do not want to see this government fall. This government, even with Gantz as its head, is their dream team since the two parties most hostile to their interests – Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu – are on the outside looking in. For the haredi parties, the makeup of the next government is unlikely to get any better.
Gantz is opting to lay low in an apparent effort to just count the days until he becomes prime minister. But this may be an unnecessary precaution, as the haredi parties are now signaling very strongly that they will oppose any moves that may bring down a government very much to their liking.