Gantz got played - analysis

Gantz may have been the chief of staff of the IDF, but in politics, he is a rookie.

Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, attends an election campaign event, in Kfar Ahim, Israel, September 16, 2019 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, attends an election campaign event, in Kfar Ahim, Israel, September 16, 2019
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
As Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s mandate to form a government draws to a close, officially ending at midnight between Monday and Tuesday, it’s hard to escape the sense that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoodwinked him.
Gantz may have been the chief of staff of the IDF, but in politics, he is a rookie. He went through three election cycles – more than many MKs ever get – but has very little experience in the negotiating and wheeling and dealing involved in regular political life, starting with coalition negotiations, followed by the years of trying to get policies approved and laws passed in the years between elections.
And as a result, Gantz has been left almost empty handed: He lost half of his party, his leverage over Netanyahu, and by Monday night, his mandate to form a government.
Netanyahu started calling for an emergency unity government almost a month ago, as the coronavirus crisis became more acute, schools were canceled and Israelis were encouraged and then required to adopt social distancing practices.
"We must unite forces and establish a strong and stable government that can pass a budget and make hard decisions," Netanyahu said. He suggested that the government be for six months, that he would not be allowed to fire Blue and White ministers and Blue and White would not be able to submit no-confidence motions against him.
Publicly, Gantz said he was unimpressed, tweeting that the offer was "spin."
"One who wants unity does not postpone his own trial... and does not send proposals for emergency unity through the media; rather, he sends a negotiating staff to a meeting," Gantz wrote. "When you're serious, we'll talk."
Then they started talking behind the scenes. Gantz warmed up to the idea of an emergency government, thinking that putting political differences aside was necessary to help the country pull through this massive public health and economic crisis, even though he still deeply distrusted Netanyahu.
Eleven days after his tweet dismissing the prime minister, Gantz found himself elected Knesset speaker.
In between, Blue and White pushed out MKs from the right-wing bloc who served as committee chairmen and attempted to do the same to then-speaker Yuli Edelstein, arguing that Gantz had the support of the majority of the Knesset – though custom in the legislature had always been to wait for a new government to be formed. Edelstein ended up resigning following a court order to allow a vote on his removal, and it looked like Blue and White candidate Meir Cohen was a sure thing.
When Gantz submitted his candidacy as Knesset speaker it sent shock waves through the political field. It wasn’t that he so coveted the position – in fact, he was caught on camera joking to MK Miki Haimovich that he never before hoped to win a vote for a job that he didn’t want. Gantz became Knesset speaker as a placeholder to stop further moves hostile to Netanyahu in the Knesset and facilitate continued coalition talks.
This showed just how serious he was in negotiating a unity government with Netanyahu.
It also led Blue and White to break apart, with Yair Lapid-led Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem forming a separate faction. Gantz had broken the agreement forming the Blue and White bloc, which stipulated that a Yesh Atid MK would get the role of Knesset speaker.
But more than that, Lapid and Ya’alon, who had both been politically burned by Netanyahu in the past, had no trust in the prime minister, and for that reason – and because Netanyahu is under indictment on several counts of corruption – did not want to be in a government with him.
So Gantz was left with less than half of Blue and White – 15 seats out of the 33 it won – compared to Likud’s 36 and the 58-seat right-wing bloc. If Labor’s announced merger with Blue and White becomes official, Gantz’s seats will grow to 17.
In theory, the problem of Gantz being overpowered was going to be solved by having a “parity government,” in which each political side had an equal number of cabinet ministers. In practice, the two Blue and White rebels making up the Derech Eretz Party, plus MK Orly Levy-Abecassis, meant there were 61 right-wing MKs in the burgeoning coalition that could overwhelm Gantz’s centrists in any Knesset vote, even if there was a tie in the cabinet.
As coalition talks went on, they became mired by disagreements over the application of Israeli law in Judea and Samaria, and the judiciary. Gantz and Netanyahu seem to have reached an agreement on postponing settlement annexation, but there was a lot of back-and-forth on the legal system.
Gantz threatened to pass laws in the Knesset that would hurt Netanyahu – instituting term limits and prohibiting a prime minister to remain in office if indicted – if negotiations didn’t go in Blue and White’s direction on judicial matters. But while there was a majority for such moves weeks ago, the parties to Gantz’s left no longer have any trust in him, and could pull the old parliamentary excuse of “our almost-identical draft bill is better” and not support him. The threat seemed to work on Netanyahu, but Gantz’s leverage here is wearing thin.
Netanyahu agreed that Gantz could appoint the justice minister, but wanted veto power – and did not like Gantz’s top candidate, MK Avi Nissenkorn. Gantz sought to block changes to the way judges are selected, and Netanyahu leaned toward a yes, but outrage from within Likud stopped him from agreeing to it.
Over a week ago, the sides said a coalition agreement was ready and it just needed to be signed. But it has not been signed, with some on Gantz’s side accusing Netanyahu of using delay tactics. Now, Gantz’s time as the prime ministerial nominee is about to run out.
Was this all a bait-and-switch maneuver by Netanyahu so he can remain prime minister without a rotation with Gantz in a year and a half? It’s unclear.
When the prime minister called for an emergency unity government, he did not seem to have any way to remain in office other than working with Gantz. But now that Blue and White is a fraction of its former size and there is a majority for right-wing moves in the Knesset, Netanyahu may believe that new options have opened up.
This does not mean that the door is closed on a unity government, and in fact Likud and Blue and White released a joint statement on Sunday night – one of the surest signs that negotiations are truly taking place.
But if talks continue past Monday night, Netanyahu will have even greater advantages over Gantz than before. Netanyahu has political experience and almost unmatched savvy, along with far more MKs behind him. But, hey, Gantz will still be Knesset speaker.