Gantz should have known better than to trust Netanyahu - opinion

When a chief of staff convenes his fellow generals, they don’t fight with him like the way MKs fight in the Knesset.

If he only knew then. Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu sign their coalition agreement on April 20 in Jerusalem. (photo credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
If he only knew then. Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu sign their coalition agreement on April 20 in Jerusalem.
On March 26, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz called Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid into his office in the Knesset. It was a day of political upheaval, as Yuli Edelstein had resigned as speaker of the Knesset after refusing a High Court order to hold a vote for his successor. The nation was waiting to see what would happen.
Under an initial agreement between Gantz and Lapid, Blue and White was going to elect veteran Yesh Atid MK Meir Cohen as the interim speaker. The plan was to take charge of the Knesset’s agenda and initiate voting on a number of anti-corruption bills, including one that would ban someone under indictment from serving as prime minister.
But when Lapid stepped into Gantz’s office, his partner of the three previous elections dropped a bombshell. “I’ve decided to elect myself as speaker of the Knesset, because I want to negotiate with Netanyahu,” Gantz said.
Lapid understood what was happening. “You are making a mistake,” he told Gantz. “You are breaking up Blue and White.”
Gantz said he knew, and that was it. Lapid left the room. In the hallway he bumped into Avi Nissenkorn, soon to become Israel’s justice minister. “Benny just broke up Blue and White,” Lapid told the former Histadrut union leader. Nissenkorn didn’t have to say much. Based on his reaction, Lapid understood that the move had been in the works for some time.
When he returned to his office Lapid called his sister, Merav, a well-known psychoanalyst. Explain to me what just happened, he asked her, even though deep down he already knew: Gantz had fallen into the same trap that so many others had before him. He had trusted Netanyahu.
LOOKING BACK at the last 11 consecutive years of Netanyahu governments, one sees a pattern: almost anyone who trusted him, who joined his party or his government, ended up leaving – and slamming the door behind. Remember Shaul Mofaz, the former IDF chief of staff, who took his Kadima Party into an emergency unity government with Netanyahu in the middle of the night in May 2012? Two months later he was already out.
Take a look at Netanyahu’s current political rivals. They are almost all people who used to work with him, who were close with him, or were even members of his party. Naftali Bennett was his chief of staff; Avigdor Liberman was his director-general in his first term as prime minister in the 1990s; Yoaz Hendel was his spokesman; Moshe Ya’alon was his defense minister; Benny Gantz was his appointment as IDF chief of staff. In the past there was Moshe Kahlon, one of the ministers closest to him, who left Likud and established Kulanu to run against him.
Each and every one of these people worked with him, trusted him – and then was betrayed by him. A similar situation is playing out now in his different court cases. Three of his most trusted previous advisers – Ari Harow, Nir Hefetz and Shlomo Filber – have all turned state’s witness against him. They too worked for him, trusted him, and then felt betrayed by him.
Gantz is now experiencing the same. That day in March when he split from Lapid, and over the following weeks, Gantz was warned time and again that Netanyahu could not be trusted. He was told that the budget was the weak link that Netanyahu would use to bring down the government and avoid rotating out of the Prime Minister’s Office. The writing was very much on the wall.
In recent weeks Gantz has privately admitted his mistake: he too had trusted Netanyahu. His explanation is that he thought that in the midst of an unprecedented health and economic crisis devastating the country, Netanyahu would rise to the occasion and put aside political differences for the sake of Israel’s citizens.
On April 20, the two men gathered on the outdoor patio at the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem for a festive signing of their government contract entitled: “Coalition Agreement for the Establishment of an Emergency and National Unity Government.” Israeli citizens exhaled: after months of mudslinging, bickering, and plain old political infighting, Israel was finally going to move on.
Across 17 pages, Likud and Blue and White detailed how the government they were establishing would work: a breakdown of the ministries each party would receive, the establishment of a reconciliation cabinet that would reunite the nation, and most important for Blue and White, Clause 30, the state budget.
Under the agreement, the two parties would pass a state budget within 90 days, and not just a one-year budget but for two years, 2020 and 2021. The idea was to provide Israel with economic stability, and also lock Netanyahu into a government that he would not be able to otherwise bring down.
Both men signed the agreement that night. They didn’t just declare their support for it; they signed it, committing themselves and their parties to upholding all its clauses. Think what it’s like to take out a mortgage loan from a bank. We don’t walk in and declare our support for the mortgage. We sign for it, committing ourselves to a payment plan that returns the loan.
I don’t know many people who take out a mortgage, receive the money, buy their home, and then tell the bank that what they had just signed six months ago is no longer acceptable. Nobody reneges on a loan, tells the bank that they intend to keep the money and the home purchased with it and then get away with it.
That is pretty much what Netanyahu is trying to do. He maneuvered Gantz to enter his government, but then did everything he could from the moment of that festive signing to undermine the newly formed coalition. A reconciliation cabinet? Never even established. A budget for a desperate nation? Never passed. Meanwhile the Israel Police remains without a chief for almost three years, and the state prosecutor’s office remains empty for over a year. Nothing that was supposed to happen happened. And what does Netanyahu say? He claims to want unity. But where was he for the last six months? Now he wants unity? There is a simple solution that is not willing to do: pass a budget.
Put aside the previous three elections. This government – the first formed in the age of COVID – was supposed to be different, and it could have been if Netanyahu was not currently on trial and putting his own political survival before the needs of the nation. That detail, small as it might seem, comes before everything else.
THE CONSEQUENCES of this are far greater than whether Gantz should have listened to Lapid, or learned the lessons some of his predecessors experienced when they joined with Netanyahu.
The original failure of Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi to foresee what Netanyahu would do, and even now to continue to be outmaneuvered by him, undermines the faith Israelis will put in another chief of staff running in another party in another election. And with another one – Gadi Eisenkot - considering throwing his hat in the ring, it is a lesson worth learning.
If once upon a time a former chief of staff was viewed as the only candidate capable of leading Israel or unseating Netanyahu, today the drop in Gantz’s popularity and the rise of politicians like Naftali Bennett show that security is not what is on the minds of Israelis. They are focused on the coronavirus, their jobs, their children’s education, and so much more in our forever changed world.
A lot will be said in the coming months about the failures of ex-IDF chiefs in politics, but for now here is one explanation: while in uniform army brass never experience any challenge to their authority, until they enter politics. And then they don’t know what to do.
When a chief of staff convenes his fellow generals, they don’t fight with him like the way MKs fight in the Knesset. Military officers, even if they don’t like what they are being told, salute and follow orders. Politicians do the exact opposite.
The media is not that different. Chiefs of staff in uniform have an aura of heroism and secrecy around them, and rarely is there an in-depth takedown of a sitting chief of staff or one of his generals. Doing so is almost sacrilegious on the Israeli media landscape. Even if that were attempted, a chief of staff has the massive IDF Spokesperson’s Unit to protect and defend him on a daily basis.
All that goes away when they enter politics. Ashkenazi has a single spokesman today as foreign minister; Gantz has two. As chiefs of staff, they had hundreds. They used to be celebrated as heroes. Now they are insulted and called names by the media and their fellow MKs. This is a tough fall for anyone, especially a former chief of staff.
I don’t question their bravery – Gantz, Ashkenazi and others have proven courage on the battlefield beyond a shadow of doubt – but those adversaries they once fought against are not people they have to sit next to in a cabinet meeting or work with on a piece of legislation. In the military their adversaries didn’t yell at them on live TV or embarrass them in public speeches.
Israeli politics are nothing like the military. Gantz should have known that.