Dear President Herzog,
It may seem that this election made your coalition-facilitating job easy, as Benjamin Netanyahu has natural partners from the Right. This time, there’s no need to hunt around for a Knesset majority. But as you as president of the country represent the High Priest of Israeli democracy – I beg you: absolve Benny Gantz of his pledge not to join a Netanyahu government and encourage Netanyahu to bring Gantz and his National Unity Party into the coalition.
Benjamin Netanyahu always campaigns ferociously. He does whatever it takes to win, then moderates the Day After. In 2015, he demonized Israeli-Arabs to mobilize Likudniks – then opened the financial spigot to mollify Israeli-Arabs after he won. During this campaign, he stirred some of the deepest Israeli demons – then proclaimed: “The elections are over, and as the dust of discord between both political camps settles, we must come out of the trenches and work together.”
This is what working together could look like.
The deal should be that Gantz would continue as Defense Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir would not become Public Security Minister, and Netanyahu would vow not to cripple the judiciary or legislate his own case away. In return, Netanyahu would solidify his coalition, get more room to maneuver and be free to make the reforms he claims are needed in the police force and the justice ministry, without touching the courts.
Despite the exaggerations of the far right and the far left abroad about “Israel” shifting right in concert, every honest observer sees how divided Israel is. In a country of nine million, the pro-Bibi forces only won 4,000 votes more than the anti-Bibi forces. Meretz fell short by about 4,000 votes. And had the Republic of Tel Aviv bothered to vote in the same percentages seen in Religious Zionist enclaves, Yair Lapid would be doing Bibi’s victory dance instead.
Israel is not America. Israel’s system of proportional representation and fragmented parties has accustomed voters to push-me-pull-you coalitions – with a broad cross-section of voters well-represented in power. Americans are more used to the winner-take-all megaphone effect this election produced, with razor-thin popular differences granting the winners disproportionately broad powers. Last Tuesday – all those eulogizing “the Israel I knew” take note – a less than 1% margin in popular votes created Bibi’s 64-vote Knesset majority.
I am not naïve. Voters just showed Naftali Bennett how much they dislike politicians who roam too far from their base or break their promises too brazenly. And I applauded Gantz’s solemn vow this time not to fall for Bibi’s charms again – Netanyahu not only double-crossed him but demonized him despicably in this campaign.
Netanyahu governs best when the Right and Left entangle him
BUT THAT was the Day Before. The Day After – facing a no-brakes, far-Right government of Goonatics, let’s think out-of-the-box. Everyone knows that Netanyahu governs best when the Right and Left entangle him in tugs of war. And everyone suspects that Netanyahu too, having unleashed the Ben-Gvir-Smotrich dybbuks to win politically, hopes to rein them in to govern more effectively.
Netanyahu’s coalition will need stability and credibility. Gantz and whomever he can lure from his party will boost Bibi with ballast. If Gantz and his allies can define the few red lines democracy-defenders really don’t want this coalition to cross, the people of Israel’s voice will gain from being better represented, and our precious Jewish State will be insulated – somewhat – from political flame-throwers.
This win-win domestically would be a big win for Israel abroad. Securing the rule of law, limiting Ben-Gvir’s impact, and leveraging Gantz’s reputation for honesty and maturity could lessen tensions with Joe Biden’s Democratic administration – which still has two years ahead to govern, at least. We must keep the focus on Iran, our biggest enemy, at this critical moment when the United States and the West should be doing everything possible to bolster the noble Iranian women protesters and undermine that evil regime.
Undoubtedly, Gantz would suffer daily in the coalition – but his suffering would alleviate Israel’s. Gantz has spent his career serving the nation. He knows – as do many of us – that for all of Bibi’s bluster, Netanyahu has always been extremely responsible regarding Israel’s national security. As Defense Minister, Gantz would meet Netanyahu at his best – then make Bibi better and more effective.
Moreover, as someone who grew up in the Religious Zionist world, Gantz could help save Religious Zionism – the movement – from Religious Zionism, the party. People like Gantz – and like you, Mr. President – who know our traditions, and are comfortable donning kippot and tefillin, must help save Religious Zionism from itself. This demagogic party appeals to traditional Judaism’s most doctrinaire, judgmental, conspiratorial, xenophobic strains, obscuring the generous, humane, sweet, thoughtful, and yes, democratic but nevertheless resilient impulses in the traditional Judaism so many of us know, love, and defend and observe.
Ultimately, Benny Gantz should be challenged to fulfill his party’s name. It’s “National Unity” in English; in Hebrew, the name “Hamachaneh Hamamlachti,” is more accurately translated as the National Sovereignty Camp. It evokes Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion and his commitment to “Mamlachtiyut,” the special modern word rooted in the Hebrew words for king and kingdom emphasizing our need to sacrifice our individual selves sometimes for the greater good – and to think – as Ben-Gurion did – about the nation, the nation and the nation.
In short, BG should act like BG to stop BG – Benny Gantz should act like Ben-Gurion to stop Ben-Gvirism. And, you, Mr. President, can be the catalyst and match-maker, while continuing to be the role model yourself.
The writer is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).