Has Netanyahu lost to Gantz as he flip-flops on settlers, slides in polls?

Analysis - In a strange turn of events it is now Gantz who has appealed to Netanyahu not to freeze planning for new settlement construction.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz [L] and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [R] wearing masks in the Knesset (photo credit: ADINA VALMAN/KNESSET SPOKESPERSON)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz [L] and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [R] wearing masks in the Knesset
It has to give one pause that even Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz appeared to do a better job this week at championing the settlements than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White) might speak of how annexation has replaced normalization. But when it comes to the litmus test of whether sovereignty was suspended or eliminated, Gantz has come down in support of suspension, not with his words, but through his actions.
Wasn’t it just months ago that the tall, silver-haired Blue and White Party leader was Netanyahu’s electoral punching bag as the dreaded “left-wing” leader, who would destroy the settlements?
In his pursuit of retaining both his prime ministerial seat and a right-wing government, Netanyahu, during the last electoral round, repeatedly warned that Gantz would evacuate settlements. Whereas he – the true leader of the Right – would save them and ensure that not a single setter was uprooted.
Now, in a strange turn of events it is Gantz who has appealed to Netanyahu not to freeze planning for new settlement construction, by urging him to convene the Higher Planing Council for Judea and Samaria, which last met in February.
It’s a call that from Gantz has more significance than from any other politician, because as defense minister he has direct oversight of the council that authorizes construction in Area C of the West Bank, superseded only by the prime minister.
In the past, defense ministers have often had the thankless task of playing the stooge to Netanyahu’s policies, thereby funneling the anger of the Right in their direction rather than leveling it at the prime ministers.
It’s a drama that is designed to make it appear as if left-wing West Bank policies are not Netanyahu’s fault, but of his terrible defense minister.
The only person to have escaped this trap is former defense minister and Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett, who held the post during the recent rounds of elections, when Netanyahu couldn’t afford to be seen as holding back on settlement building.
When Bennett was in office, the council met twice in 2020, in January and in February to advance plans, including the controversial E1 project.
But since the elections, authorizations and advancements of projects with respect to settlements has ground to a halt. Annexation was suspended, the council has not met, and east Jerusalem’s Givat Hamatos project has been delayed.
At issue for settlers and the Right is the question whether the suspension of annexation is a technical detail to allow Israel’s burgeoning peace deal with the United Arab Emirates to move forward, or was it a policy reversal that permanently halted the process.
The best litmus test is the normalization of Jewish building in the West Bank and the advancement of sensitive east Jerusalem projects such as Givat Hamatos.
The theory is that if these projects move forward, there is de-facto annexation, and the Right can rest assured that sovereignty will eventually follow.
As long as the council fails to approve and advance setter building projects, including Givat Hamatos, then the stronger the appearance that the option of annexation has been erased.
Gantz’s decision to send Netanyahu a letter asking him to allow the council to convene to advance settlement building, makes a silent statement that he would authorize these projects if he could, and that the responsibility for the silent freeze lies with Netanyahu. In short, he has no intention of being Netanyahu’s stooge here.
It also completes a political picture of Netanyahu isolated from the Right and even the Center-Right when it comes to the settlements. Yamina obviously supports settlement building. In a show of solidarity, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman held a press conference in the Har Bracha settlement on the matter, flanked by settler leaders from Likud.
In the aftermath of Gantz’s letter to Netanyahu, NGO Peace Now urged Gantz to return to the left-wing fold. It is no accident that Gantz made this move, just as a Channel 13 poll showed that if elections were held this week, Yamina would secure 21 Knesset seats, compared to the six the party received in the April election. Likud went down from 36 to 31, and Blue and White dropped from 15 to 11.
Overall, the right-wing block of Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism rose by eight seats, up from 58, in the April election.
If Gantz wants to attract voters, appealing to the Center-Right is a logical move.
The issue is more than votes, but a sudden elimination of a major policy stance that divided Gantz and Netanyahu.
Gantz can be somewhat of a diplomatic chameleon on issues that relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was considered the leader of the left-wing bloc in the last election, an impression that was strengthened by Netanyahu branding him as such.
But he had a platform that was similar to Netanyahu’s when it came to the West Bank and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with one difference. He wanted to place the settlements under Israeli sovereignty within the context of a peace process.
True, he spoke specifically of strengthening the settlement blocs, a term Netanyahu had claimed was irrelevant. But Gantz also referenced normalizing life where Israelis were located and he made no mention of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu told his voters that he would apply sovereignty unilaterally and with US backing.
During the election Gantz visited the settlements, including in the Jordan Valley. He spoke of the importance of placing them under Israeli sovereignty, but again, within a peace process.
What placed him in the left-wing camp was his desire to do all this through negotiations and agreements, including with Arab nations and the international community, a philosophy that at the time seemed like mission impossible.
But a Trump-led peace process, that freezes unilateral sovereignty – in other words annexation – in favor of agreed-upon sovereignty through negotiation with the Palestinians and the agreement of the Arab world, is fairly close to the Blue and White platform.
Right now, there is little that divides Netanyahu on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, except for Gantz’s willingness to advance settlement building and Netanyahu’s refusal to do so.
MK Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina) noted the switch at a meeting of the Knesset Land of Israel Caucus on Monday, when he thanked Gantz for doing all he could to approve and advance settler building projects. “I hope the prime minister won’t allow Gantz to remain on his political Right,” he said.