Benny Gantz - breakthrough, at last

The deal Gantz and Netanyahu are hammering has yet to be finalized, but its essential outlines are clear.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then IDF chief Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon attend a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on August 27, 2014 (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then IDF chief Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon attend a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on August 27, 2014
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
 Yair Lapid didn’t know what hit him.

The TV celebrity, second-generation politician and former finance minister thought it would be him calling the shots, while Benny Gantz – his partner in creating Blue and White – would make do with fronting as their joint political venture’s handsome, but nominal, leader. 
It worked this way for a year, and even more so following the March 2 election, as Lapid’s hardline inspired Blue and White’s refusal to serve under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no matter what the circumstances. 
On March 26, Gantz brought this arrangement to its swift end and while at it delivered a paralyzed political system the breakthrough it had begged for more than a year. 
Gantz disputed Lapid’s judgment of the unfolding political situation. 
Though he fully agreed that an indicted defendant should not be prime minister, Gantz was not pleased with the prospect of a narrow government backed by the anti-Zionists of the 15-member Joint List faction. 

Even so, Gantz was prepared to tactically team up with the Arab MKs in order to pull the Likud into a broad coalition. Among Lapid’s followers, however, some saw in the vision of a narrow government not a tactic, but a strategy. That was dispute number one. And then came the plague. With schools, malls, airport and synagogues shuttered and thousands losing jobs daily while isolated inside their homes, Gantz thought his party would follow him into a broad government that would be initially headed by Netanyahu. 

To his astonishment, and to the dismay of the mainstream electorate including – according to polls – most of Blue and White’s voters, Lapid and the hardliners around him remained unperturbed even as the plague’s spread accelerated. 
At that point Gantz decided to make his move. 

Losing his political virginity, the retired general and political novice outmaneuvered everyone about him: his No. 2 Lapid, his No. 3, and former commander, Moshe Ya’alon, and also Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, whose decision to back a Gantz-led coalition seemed to turn the tables on Netanyahu. Gantz therefore negotiated secretly with Netanyahu, and after realizing he would not manage to harness his colleagues, decided to proceed without them. 

GANTZ’S CHOICE became known haphazardly, under unplanned, dramatic circumstances, when the Knesset assembled to elect a successor for speaker Yuli Edelstein. 

At that point, the commotion surrounded Blue and White’s plan to use its narrow majority and replace Edelstein with former welfare minister Meir Cohen. A late-night High Court of Justice ruling that the session be held, despite Edelstein’s attempt to delay it, added juridical flavor to the political showdown. 

The plenary seemed set to elect Cohen, who was backed by the 61 MKs to which Blue and White, Lieberman, Labor-Meretz and the United List add up. However, Likud then warned that if Blue and White proceeds with Cohen’s election it will sever all coalition negotiating with Blue and White. 

That prospect would have put to naught Gantz’s hope to use a narrow government as a springboard to a broad coalition. Unprepared to pay this price, he suggested to his colleagues that they wait with fielding Cohen until talks between the two big parties mature. For the time being, suggested the former IDF he Chief of General staff, he would himself serve as the speaker. 

Gantz’s colleagues refused. 

Eager to corner Netanyahu and show him – and the public – that he lost the Knesset and, by extension, the election, they refused to endorse their own party leader’s candidacy an interim speaker of the Knesset. 

It was the natural continuation of the hardline Lapid and Ya’alon pursued following the previous election, when they led Blue and White to reject President Reuven Rivlin’s proposal that they join a broad government in which Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for half-a-year, and then hand over to Gantz. 

Blue and White’s stance was that Netanyahu cannot serve as prime minister while he is a suspect. The recent election only intensified this attitude, since Netanyahu now ran not as a suspect, but as a defendant. 

That is why when faced with the possibility of wresting the Knesset’s speakership, Gantz’s colleagues stormed it with relish. Gantz, however, was by then in an entirely different psychological mindset and political mode. 

Psychologically, his supreme concern had become not Netanyahu but the plague. And politically, Gantz was already shoulder deep in talks with Netanyahu, realizing not all of his soldiers might follow him to the destination he resolved to storm. 

Gantz’s remaining following is still sizable. The Israel Resilience Party – its name from before its merger with Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Ya’alon’s Telem – includes 15 of Blue and White’s 33 lawmakers. 

The faction may end up including another two MKs, Yoaz Hendel and Tzvi Hauser, who belong to Ya’alon’s ticket but opposed the idea of joining a narrow coalition with the Joint List. 

The pair, who like many of Netanyahu’s personal rivals were once his aides, may back the new coalition without formally joining it, as might Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abecassis, who seceded from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alignment, having opposed the narrow-government plan her former colleagues backed. Her opposition is what torpedoed that effort. 

In addition to Levy-Abecassis, two others in the alliance, Labor’s Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, may also join the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition. 

Finally, one Yesh Atid lawmaker, Ethiopian-born lawyer Pnina Tamano-Shata, said she agreed with Gantz’s move and wants to join his faction, while Israel Resilience’s Radir Gadeer Marih, a Druze TV journalist, said she disagrees with Gantz’s move and wants to join Lapid. 

Whatever happens with these legislative migrants, the new coalition is expected to comprise 73 lawmakers at least, and thus end the vicious circle in which Israeli politics has been trapped for more than a year underscored by three inconclusive elections. 

THE DEAL Gantz and Netanyahu are hammering has yet to be finalized, but its essential outlines are clear. 

Netanyahu and Gantz will rotate the premiership, with each serving as the other’s deputy. Israel Resilience will get the Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries. Likud will get the Finance Ministry, and Israel Resilience will get the Justice Ministry. 

The Defense Ministry is expected to go to 66-year-old Lt-Gen. (res) Gabi Ashkenazi, who was IDF chief of staff when Gantz was his deputy. Ashkenazi played a central role in Gantz’s talks with Netanyahu. 

Gantz, whose military career includes two years as military attaché in Washington, is expected to be foreign minister. 

The Finance Ministry, which has become extremely challenging in the wake of the economic crisis spawned by the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to go to Foreign Minister Israel Katz.  

The Justice Ministry will be pivotal in this coalition due to Netanyahu’s legal entanglements, and because of what Likud’s rivals have been portraying as the ruling party’s organized attack on the legal system. 

Gantz insisted on obtaining the ministry, and Netanyahu agreed, provided the nominee is agreeable to him. Gantz’s candidate for the position is MK Chili Troper, a 42-year-old educator and social activist. 

Whoever ends up manning the post is expected to reverse the legacy of Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who used the position to attack the High Court and the prosecution, most notably by rejecting Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s candidates for state-attorney. 

Ohana’s installment in that position of an acting state attorney of his choice will likely be canceled, and Mandelblit’s candidate, probably Shlomo Lemberger, will likely man the position that was vacated last fall with the retirement of Shai Nitzan.

Even more importantly, the new coalition agreement will prevent legislation that might affect Netanyahu’s legal process. 

At the same time, the new law that will define and schedule the rotation agreement, will say that the substitute prime minister, as Netanyahu will become after the rotation, can serve even while indicted, like a prime minister, and unlike the rest of the ministers. 

Until he becomes prime minister, Gantz will earn much needed governmental experience as deputy prime minister during supremely trying times. 

Whether or not he emerges from this experience as the national leader he purports to be remains to be seen. Throughout his first year as a politician Gantz has been ineloquent, unoriginal and uninspiring. Chances of him offsetting this image before he rotates with Netanyahu as prime minister are even at best. 

Then again, faced with the ominous combination of medical crisis, political paralysis, and economic depression – he stunned veteran pundits and outflanked savvy politicians, by stepping forward and cutting the system’s Gordian knot.

That alone is an accomplishment that thousands who spent entire lifetimes in Israeli politics never achieved.