Netanyahu, Gantz argue their way into an election neither side wants

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Between now and then, there will be endless speculation about how the coalition could still be saved.

ALTERNATE PRIME MINISTER Benny Gantz keeps his distance from his nemesis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during Wednesday’s Knesset debate on ending the government’s tenure and calling a fourth general election in the space of a year and a half. (photo credit: DANI SHEM TOV/KNESSET SPOKESPERSONS OFFICE)
ALTERNATE PRIME MINISTER Benny Gantz keeps his distance from his nemesis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during Wednesday’s Knesset debate on ending the government’s tenure and calling a fourth general election in the space of a year and a half.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked down from the Knesset rostrum at his political rival, a former IDF chief of staff, and made one last call for a unity government before the Knesset would be dissolved and early elections initiated.
That is not the lead to a story in the newspaper next week or the week after.
It happened in December 1998, when the Knesset was about to vote to disperse itself.
“I want to know if you are accepting my offer to consider the possibility of uniting the nation,” Netanyahu said.
Opposition leader Ehud Barak responded that “it is clear to everyone that the government’s days are over,” and it is “too late” for a unity government.
Usually, when the Knesset disperses itself, it happens quickly. The outgoing government passes the dispersal bill six times in the plenum and the Knesset House Committee over a day or two, as it did in December 2018.
Anyone who thought that would happen this week, too, was mistaken. When this government breaks up, it will apparently be as painful as possible, just like when it was born.
Between now and then, there will be endless speculation about how the coalition could still be saved. There will be plenty of trial balloons and reports of “secret talks” between associates of Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz.
That is only natural, considering that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz actually wants to initiate elections right now.
Netanyahu did not want the Knesset dispersed until the first vaccines arrived in Israel. He sees the vaccines as not only a cure for the coronavirus but also a remedy for his chief of staff turned nemesis Naftali Bennett.
Gantz wanted to remain defense minister and alternate prime minister for as long as possible, thinking that maybe the rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office would still happen unexpectedly.
When the Likud hit a nadir in the polls two months ago, Gantz received advice to start threatening Netanyahu that the coalition would come apart if the 2021 state budget that would guarantee the rotation was not passed.
The former general might have thought Netanyahu would surrender as his threats escalated. When he proved he could pull the trigger on the preliminary reading of the Knesset dispersal bill, Gantz might have thought he would bring Netanyahu to the negotiating table, at least in private talks.
But Gantz apparently miscalculated. Sources close to Netanyahu said he never once pondered the possibility of passing the budget and surrendering on the rotation.
“Gantz committed suicide while smiling,” a source close to Netanyahu said. “He wasted two months pushing for something the prime minister never even considered. He wasted gas in the parking lot. He built up [opposition leader] Yair Lapid, enabling him to disperse the Knesset with no reward for himself in the polls whatsoever.”
A Blue and White MK admitted to being saddened over the lost potential of an authentic unity government that never functioned, despite the tremendous responsibility during the crisis over the coronavirus.
But sources close to Gantz said there was no point in remaining in the coalition if Netanyahu never intended to keep the government going beyond the March deadline for passing the budget and preventing the rotation.
“We are not making a mistake now,” a source close to Gantz said. “Whatever support we have left in our voter base would be diminished even more if we remained in the government after not receiving what we joined the government to obtain. We tried getting what we could, but as time progressed, we saw no coordination. We saw we didn’t have a partner. Three more months would only further erode our support.”
BLUE AND WHITE’S strategy will be to present Gantz as the only alternative to Netanyahu who could possibly build a government after the election. The Likud will counter by saying that Blue and White was never really part of the government, acting as a “coasition” – a term coined by Netanyahu’s strategists to describe acting like an opposition and undermining the coalition from within.
As Netanyahu already started doing in his address carried live on the prime-time news broadcasts Wednesday night, the Likud will campaign against Bennett and Lapid together, painting them as allies who dragged Gantz into the election but are unable to build a coalition.
As much as President Reuven Rivlin loathes Netanyahu, he has consistently given the right to form a government to the candidate with the most recommendations.
Who will recommend Bennett to form a government other than most of the MKs in Yamina? the Likud questioned mockingly, in a reference to MK Bezalel Smotrich, who has ruled out partnerships with Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz that Bennett would need to form a government, at least in a rotation with Lapid.
The only way to end Netanyahu’s career is to have Yamina, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White win 61 seats. If they win a couple less mandates, Meretz could be persuaded to support the government from outside the coalition.
Netanyahu will also try to win 61 seats for his camp. The divides in the Arab sector could mean more mandates to go around for either side.
As Bennett started doing in his speech to the Knesset on Wednesday, in Yamina’s campaign he will portray Netanyahu and Lapid as two sides of the same coin, obsessed with politics, and himself as the only true professional who remains above the fray.
Yesh Atid’s campaign will ride Lapid’s victory in overthrowing Netanyahu in the Knesset, which helped build up his credentials as the top alternative to Netanyahu. He led a divided opposition in battles in the trenches of the parliament against Netanyahu and Gantz, until he got one of his enemies to rise up against the other.
As much as they loath Lapid, the other leaders in the center-left camp are talking increasingly about letting him lead the camp in a race that does not look winnable, in order to get him out of the way for more important races later on in the post-Netanyahu era.
But Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who wants to enter national politics for the sole purpose of defeating Netanyahu, is unconvinced that Lapid can deliver the goods.
Lapid’s critics say his main liability that he needs to fix immediately is that he does not have the support of religious Zionists, who could help him be seen as a leader for all sectors but the extremes. Those who backed him in the past have left him, including Shai Piron, Pnina Tamano-Shata, Aliza Lavie, Dov Lipman and Tehila Friedman – most of whom left on bad terms.
Yesh Atid might seek to draft a respected religious Zionist who wants to help defeat Netanyahu. If he will be competing for votes with the Likud and Yamina, Lapid may need to follow the lead of Netanyahu, who recruited Bennett’s former strategist Moshe Klughaft, and find a former Bennett ally who knows his strengths and weaknesses well.
Unlike past elections, there are not a lot of celebrities on the sidelines for parties to woo this time around. There is former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and Huldai on the Center-Left, MK Yifat Shasha-Biton on the Right, and not much else.
Bennett has been talking to professionals from a variety of backgrounds, as well as MKs in multiple parties, whose names will soon be revealed.
“Everyone is talking to everyone,” an MK said Thursday when asked if she is being recruited.
But no one is going public yet, because there is still that outside chance that the elections won’t end up happening yet.
The race can still be postponed by anything from an unexpected compromise, to a rapid deterioration in security, to developments in Netanyahu’s criminal cases.
For instance, the Supreme Court could rule that Netanyahu could serve as alternative prime minister, despite his indictments, and make him think twice about risking losing an election and coming to trial as an ordinary citizen with no leverage.
Netanyahu has a hearing this month, where his motions to dismiss the cases against him are expected to be dismissed.
Another possibility is to do what Netanyahu has done before and draft defectors. Sixty-one MKs are needed to disperse the Knesset in the bill’s final reading, and that is all the opposition drafted on Wednesday. Tamano-Shata was on the way from Ethiopia, so that’s 62.
All Netanyahu needs to do is find two MKs who do not want to lose their jobs and promise them rewards, as he has done so many times. If he can then draft a majority for passing the 2020 state budget, elections will not be initiated until March, when Israel will likely have vaccines.
“We are not dealing with that,” Coalition Chairman Miki Zohar said.
But unlike in the past, when Knesset dispersal bills were expedited, there is still plenty of time for political maneuvers.
Perhaps an impassioned plea from Netanyahu to Gantz will resonate with him more than it did 22 years ago with Barak, who, unlike Gantz, was untarnished and en route to the premiership.•