Benny Gantz: Israel's would-be prime minister

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: If the previous government was still in power, Benny Gantz would become prime minister this Wednesday. How bitter is he?

THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in the Knesset earlier this year. (photo credit: ALEX KOLOMOISKY/REUTERS)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in the Knesset earlier this year.

Veteran British political commentator Andrew Rawnsley could have been writing about Benny Gantz and Naftali Bennett now, when he wrote in 1998 about the wall that divides the official residences of the prime minister and the chancellor of the Exchequer at London’s 10 and 11 Downing Street, after Tony Blair got the top job and not Gordon Brown.

“Wander along Downing Street in the early hours of the morning, and you will hear loud thuds and low groans coming from the chancellor of the Exchequer’s quarters,” Rawnsley wrote in The Guardian. “It is the sound of Gordon Brown banging his head against the wall of No. 10 and moaning: ‘It should have been me. It should have been me.’”

The offices of the prime minister and the defense minister are next to each other on the second floor of the Knesset. Will Bennett be able to hear any thuds and groans through the wall from Gantz’s office next Wednesday?

Like Brown back then, Gantz has plenty of reasons to hit his head against the wall.

He signed a coalition agreement in good faith with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after three hotly contested elections did not result in a clear verdict. He swallowed his pride and agreed to the new title of alternate prime minister, on condition that there would be a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office on November 17, 2021.

 Israeli minister of Defense Benny Gantz attend a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on October 19, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Israeli minister of Defense Benny Gantz attend a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on October 19, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

That date seemed far away at the time, but Netanyahu told the cameras at the Knesset that he would honor the rotation “without tricks and shticks.”

Both the tricks and the shticks started later that day, when Netanyahu tried to prevent Gantz from speaking at their first cabinet meeting, and Gantz never came closer to moving to the office right next door. Netanyahu initiated an election by preventing the state budget from passing, and after the race, it was former defense minister Bennett, not Gantz, who received the promotion, even though Gantz had won more votes.

To make matters even worse, his former No. 2, Yair Lapid, who mocked Gantz incessantly for taking the alternate prime minister title, then took it for himself. By voting last week to pass the budget sitting next to Lapid for 30 hours in the Knesset plenum, Gantz brought his partner turned nemesis one step closer to the premiership he worked so hard to win for himself.

SO HOW bitter is Gantz that he won’t become prime minister on Wednesday as planned?

Sources close to him tried to downplay the cursed date ahead.

Gantz’s spokesman Amir Koren tried unpersuasively to pretend he did not know the significance of the day.

“It is not a date that has any relevance for us,” insisted Blue and White spokeswoman Tzafi Ofir. “I understand why it does for you, but for us, Netanyahu made his mistake, and the date has no significance.”

MKs in Blue and White were more open about their feelings as the rotation date approached. MK Alon Tal, who has been close to Gantz for decades, even wasn’t afraid to use the b-word.

“Yes, I’m sure that we are all bitter,” he said. “Bibi brazenly broke his promise to Benny Gantz and to the Israeli people, depriving the country of the best candidate, the man who should be prime minister. But to dwell on this bitterness is not a very constructive response. So [are we] resentful of Bibi? Absolutely. But this only motivates Benny to make the present coalition succeed.”

Another source who witnessed up close what Gantz endured said Gantz was more upset for the country than himself that Netanyahu initiated an election that prevented the rotation.

“Of course it was a blow,” she said. “But he was disappointed from day one. As things went on, the disingenuous nature of the partnership became clearer. Still, no one thought Bibi would do that with the state budget, which is so essential for the functioning of the country. The shock factor wasn’t about him being tricked. It was that someone stooped so low and rolled the dice on something so crucial, just for his own personal benefit.”

The source said Gantz never complained or expressed bitterness, even in private conversations with people he trusts.

“Of course there was some bitterness,” she said. “But he’s trying to make a difficult situation work.”

Meanwhile, she insisted that Gantz is satisfied with being defense minister.

“He is happy to be doing something invaluable in a realm he has vast familiarity with,” she said. “It’s a job with meaning, in which he could serve the public.”

Tal said the public should give Gantz the credit for the sacrifices he has made to ensure Israel currently has a stable government.

“Any objective analysis of Israel’s recent history confirms that the present government and all it represents in terms of national unity and the potential for constructive change would not have happened had Gantz not made a selfless, courageous decision to join a Netanyahu government,” he said. “There is also little doubt that no Israeli leader has the ability to unify the country and bring together the disparate segments of this divided society like Gantz.

“In my mind he remains by far the most qualified and appropriate person to serve as prime minister. And I believe that, as time goes on, more and more Israelis will come back to the notion that Gantz represents the best of Israeli values and vision.”

Tal added that Gantz has turned down many offers from Netanyahu to overthrow the current government, form a coalition with the Likud and become prime minister for four years.

“Had he so desired, Gantz could today be serving as prime minister,” Tal said. “Even today this option beckons. And still he continues to serve the country indefatigably as defense minister and as the ‘responsible adult’ of this government. I call that integrity.”

LIKUD OFFICIALS confirmed what Tal said. Asked about regrets in the Likud about reneging on the deal with Gantz, one former minister said “it’s still not too late.”

But another Likud official said it was important to note that the previous government was undermined by people in Blue and White for their own personal reasons, starting with then-justice minister Avi Nissenkorn.

“I don’t know if we have regrets, but I can say the blame is not only on the Likud,” the Likud official said. “Blue and White, under Nissenkorn, broke the coalition agreement time after time. And there are plenty of people in Blue and White who aren’t sorry Gantz never became prime minister, because they have realized it’s beyond him.”

That may be true of some in Blue and White. But others, who know Gantz very well, say it’s not too late to hope he will still become prime minister one day, as Gordon Brown eventually did when Blair left the premiership.

“It’s been intense,” said a source close to the defense minister. “The highs were high and the lows were low. The fact that he’s still fighting shows he’s not the quitter people thought he was. Others would have vanished for very understandable reasons. He’s in it for the long run.”