For National Unity Party head Benny Gantz, March 27, 2023, is a day to remember.
Why? Because this was the first day since the November 1 election – an election in which his party won a paltry 12 seats – when the polls indicated a transition from the teens to the twenties in terms of Knesset representation. Equally significant, that day’s poll showed that his party would surpass Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party, Gantz’s main rival for this country’s political center.
The Channel 12 poll on March 27 had Gantz soaring to 23 seats, one night after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announced intent to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant because Gallant – citing security concerns – called for political negotiations and a halt to the judicial overhaul plan.
This was only two seats less than the Likud and one more than Yesh Atid. And that trend in the polls – neck and neck with the Likud, ahead of Yesh Atid – has repeated itself consistently ever since. A Channel 13 survey on Monday had Gantz’s National Unity Party outpolling the Likud, 26 seats to 25, as well as Yesh Atid, which the survey predicted would garner 20 seats.
A 117% increase in the polls from 12 seats to 26 can only be termed meteoric. It also demands an explanation. What has Gantz and his party done in the last few months to merit such a rise in popularity, at least in the polls?
The answer is simple: he has come across as the one A-league political leader willing to sit down and compromise over judicial reform. The polls consistently show that the nation wants to see a compromise, and Gantz and his party – which includes Chili Tropper and Matan Kahana, who are interviewed often in the media and come across as moderates desirous of compromise, not endless protests – has benefited enormously as being the man and the party exemplifying that ideal.
While Netanyahu was barrelling forward with the judicial reform and Lapid used extremely strident rhetoric to oppose it, Gantz spoke of compromise and gave off the impression that he was the proverbial adult in the room who would do what was necessary for the good of the state.
And he was rewarded handsomely, at least in the polls.
Why won't Benny Gantz save Benjamin Netanyahu amid a political crisis?
This all leads to the question, if a willingness to compromise thrust Gantz into the political stratosphere, why on Monday night did he give a fiery speech reiterating that he does not trust Netanyahu and essentially throwing cold water on the compromise plan that came to light this week? This plan called for a softening of the law limiting the use of the reasonableness statute, a freeze of any more judicial reform action for the next 18 months, and keeping the judicial appointments committee makeup as it is today.
The reason jumps out from the address Gantz delivered on Monday, an address that sounded less like a direct answer to the compromise proposal and more like a campaign speech. Indeed, Gantz said twice during the speech he views himself and his party as alternatives to the current government.
“We are not only the opposition, we are also an alternative,” he said at one point. “It is our duty,” he said at another, “to provide an alternative.”
If indeed that is how Gantz views himself, then why assist Netanyahu? Netanyahu wants a compromise – or at least the perception that he wants one. (He likely does, though two of the five parties in his coalition and a good number of the MKs in his own party most definitely do not want one.) One of the reasons the prime minister wants discussion about a compromise is to clear the atmosphere before his upcoming meeting this month with US President Joe Biden.
But why should Gantz help him?
Gantz is smelling political weakness and a weak government that may soon fall if the country keeps going in the direction it is headed. So why throw it a life vest?
As to the question of whether Gantz’s appeal may diminish if he is viewed as being similar to Lapid, Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, or Labor head Merav Michaeli, who are adamantly opposed to compromise with Netanyahu, Gantz is considering another factor as well: what will happen to his electoral popularity if he bails out the current government?
And on this matter, he has more than just polls to guide him.
In April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, with the country having just come out of a third non-conclusive election, Gantz decided to turn his back on campaign promises not to sit in a Netanyahu government and did just that, with the commitment that he would become prime minister in 18 months.
Gantz was burned, the government fell, and he never became prime minister. Gantz’s stock dropped perceptibly in the next election, and his Blue and White Party went from 33 seats to eight.
That is a political trauma not easily forgotten and a scenario that must be playing repeatedly in his head: Joining forces with Netanyahu, getting jilted, and then facing angry voters who will punish him.
On Tuesday, in rejecting Netanyahu’s calls for direct talks and burying the latest compromise proposal, Gantz made clear that this is not a risk he wants to take again. Especially since he sees himself as an alternative to Netanyahu and especially since he thinks this government can be brought down.