Blue and White plagued by the coronavirus

Middle Israel: A hint of this nightmare was offered by MK Ahmad Tibi, when he demanded that in return for his party’s support, Gantz promise that the IDF would not launch airstrikes in Gaza.

BENNY GANTZ – he gambled, the gamble failed. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
BENNY GANTZ – he gambled, the gamble failed.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
The pandemic caught Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the middle of his assault on the Italian “boot.”
The peninsula would be conquered, as would stretches of North Africa and Spain, and the Roman Empire’s estranged East and West would thus be rejoined, but the ambitious ruler’s restoration project was marred by an enemy no atlas could map: plague.
Spread intercontinentally by rats aboard ships carrying grain, the pestilence harvested thousands daily in urban Constantinople while striking the entire Mediterranean basin, ultimately killing millions and shrinking the Byzantine Empire’s population by 20% at least.
Even so, the studious visionary who codified Roman law and built the Hagia Sophia basilica, which remains a global landmark to this day, chose denialism when it came to the plague, even after he was himself infected. Faced with plunging tax returns, he neither halted his expensive military campaigns nor cut taxes, and in fact had the plague’s survivors pay also their dead neighbors’ debts.
Scholars debate the Justinian Plague’s contribution to the decline of the empire, which he overstretched and nearly bankrupted. There is no debating that Justinian failed to understand the plague’s full strategic meaning, and how it might impact his grand design.
A similar tunnel vision, if even on an infinitely smaller scale, plagued this week Benny Gantz and the rest of the leaders of Blue and White.
THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic is no Justinian Plague. Not only is its virus less deadly than the bubonic bacteria that challenged Byzantium, there can be no comparison between sixth-century conditions and 21st-century medicine, logistics and government.
Then again, this week the medical challenge morphed into a major global crisis and national challenge, the kind that tests a politician’s ability to grasp and adjust to changing situations.
With airlines grounded, airports deserted, universities shuttered, conferences canceled, theaters emptied and entire industries cracking under the plague’s pressure, and with oil prices crashing on Monday alone by 24%, while share prices in New York, London and Tokyo lose within hardly 10 days 25% of their average values – leaders are supposed to reflexively shift to emergency mode.
In Israel’s case, this means an emergency government led jointly by the Likud and Blue and White.
Sadly, Blue and White fell for the narrow-government delusion, blinded by two developments it overestimated: first, the election’s final results, which were indeed better, from the party’s viewpoint, than what exit polls suggested; and second, Avigdor Liberman’s unexpected announcement that he would join a Gantz-led government.
The numbers surprised when it turned out that Benjamin Netanyahu, despite outnumbering Gantz personally, still garnered with his allies only 58 seats. Yet the narrow-government prospect was from the outset a political fantasy and social powder keg.
Politically, a narrow government must be cohesive, if it is to last more than several months. Such cohesion was feasible between Gantz, Liberman and the Labor-Meretz alliance’s Amir Peretz, but the three’s need to rely on the United List’s support was a recipe for blackmail, scandal and recklessness.
A hint of this nightmare was offered by MK Ahmad Tibi, when he demanded that in return for his party’s support, Gantz promise that the IDF would not launch airstrikes in Gaza. That’s as if Persian-speaking Israelis would demand that the Mossad not operate in Iran.
Socially, Blue and White’s dependence on anti-Zionist lawmakers would have disenfranchised a vast electorate whose respect an Israeli premier must win, even if they don’t vote for him.
This was the grand mistake Yitzhak Rabin made in 1992, when he created a 62-MK coalition which, after Shas bolted it, became an Arab-backed minority government. Had Rabin been more flexible, and made political space for Rafael Eitan’s eight-member faction, or for the six-MK National Religious Party, those tragic days’ social tension would have been assuaged.
Alas, like Labor in 1993, Blue and White is deaf to a vast electorate’s wrath.
Yair Lapid’s promise that the Arab lawmakers would just endorse Gantz’s government and then their role would end and be forgotten – is unfounded, and worse: it’s a display of frivolity, suggesting he doesn’t understand the gravity of the perfect storm we are in, and how his attitude would aggravate it.
IT WOULD have been daunting enough if Blue and White had set out to educate the Likud’s voters that the criminal defendant for whom they voted must be sidelined. But now it wants to feed the rival electorate not only this bitter pill, but also a pivotal role for the Arab lawmakers whom these voters abhor, and all this while that population feels electorally robbed.
This would all be playing with fire under any circumstances, but now, with a plague unsettling the entire world, abandoning the Jewish state to such a narrow government’s devices would be altogether mad. No wonder that three lawmakers from this theoretical coalition bolted it even before it was born.
Blue and White made a big mistake last fall when it ignored this column’s advice (“Lapid’s moment of truth,” 15 Nov 2019) and turned down President Reuven Rivlin’s suggestion, after the previous election, to create a coalition with the Likud and succeed Netanyahu once he is indicted.
Now, with Netanyahu already indicted, that path is no longer relevant. Worse, Blue and White has lost the electoral edge it had last year, when it had one Knesset seat more than the Likud. Now it has three less than the Likud. Gantz gambled, the gamble failed, and now the national interest demands that he assume responsibility for his mistake and join a broad government with no delay.
Justinian underplayed the plague and overstretched his realm, but his reign was one of history’s most durable, effective and memorable. Blue and White’s reign, unless it changes course, might never begin.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.