It was supposed to be a celebratory event: after almost two years without a functioning government, a new cabinet convened on May 24 in the Knesset’s two-story Chagall State Hall known for the beautiful tapestries that line its walls.
The country watched with a sense of hope. Finally we had a functioning government in Jerusalem, one that could steer Israel to safety and stability in the midst of this new pandemic spreading across the country.
After opening remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, the 36 socially distanced ministers voted on some of the first items on the cabinet’s agenda: the appointment of deputy ministers, the establishment of the security cabinet, and Gantz’s new office – the office of the alternate prime minister.
Also on the agenda that day was one obscure item that called for the drafting of the new government’s guidelines – called a takanon in Hebrew – that is basically the rulebook by which any new government functions.
Two ministers were tasked with drafting the rulebook, Ze’ev Elkin from Likud and Avi Nissenkorn from Blue and White. A summary of the cabinet meeting that day stipulated that the ministers would present the document within two weeks for final approval.
It never happened. Two weeks turned to three, and then four and then five. Like many other problems that the 35th government encountered, a new takanon was never passed.
“He needed to put his foot down already back then,” one member of the Blue and White party recalled recently.
But Gantz didn’t. He decided to let things slide. Yes, the government did not have new guidelines and was working under the ones passed by the last elected government in 2015 – which did not include an alternate prime minister – but Gantz figured that he could nevertheless yield some control under the coalition agreement, and that nothing could be brought to a cabinet vote anyhow without his and Netanyahu’s consent. The problem was that both of them rarely agreed on anything.
WHILE THE takanon episode seems obscure, it is what some members of Blue and White think back on, when trying to figure out where Benny Gantz went wrong in how he dealt with Netanyahu. The takanon, they explain, was just a symptom of a chronic problem that led not only to the dissolution of the government, but also to the current polls that show Blue and White teetering on the electoral threshold – and on the brink of extinction.
It was just the beginning. Under Israeli law, a new government is obligated to pass a state budget within 100 days of its establishment. If it fails to do so, the government automatically falls and a snap election is called.
Under the 35th government’s coalition agreement, Netanyahu and Gantz were supposed to pass a two-year budget for 2020 and 2021. Both men had signed an agreement to do so. It was Gantz’s way of ensuring that Netanyahu would not bring down the government at a later date, as well as safeguarding what many economists claimed Israel needed to successfully weather one of the worst economic crises the country had ever known.
But three weeks in, Netanyahu started to put on the brakes, telling Gantz that he had changed his mind and now wanted to pass a one-year budget. Such a move would require the two to reopen their coalition pact, and would also provide Netanyahu what he truly wanted: an exit point down the road from where he could topple the next government and deny Gantz his rotation as prime minister.
Gantz put up a fight and tried to stand his ground. He argued with Netanyahu, and publicly called on him to uphold the original coalition agreement the two had signed just a few weeks earlier. He explained to the public that Netanyahu was playing politics, putting his own personal interest before the people he had been elected to serve.
Refusing to go all the way with an ultimatum, Gantz in the end folded again, accepting a compromise put forth by Yoaz Hendel from his party’s Derech Eretz faction to pass a new law that would postpone the budget deadline by another 120 days.
“This was the second time Netanyahu learned that he could do whatever he wanted,” a Blue and White member explained.
Some members of the party tried to push back against this trend of letting Netanyahu do what he wanted. Gabi Ashkenazi, Asaf Zamir and Miki Haimovich tried persuading their party leader to stop caving to the prime minister, convinced that if Gantz stood his ground, Netanyahu would have conceded first and passed a budget.
ALL THIS is important to keep in mind amid the pressure Gantz finds himself under ahead of the March 23 election. On Tuesday, a public letter signed by 130 former IDF officers and defense officials called on him to drop out of the race, warning that if he stays until the end and fails to cross the threshold, he will essentially be crowning Netanyahu.
The defense officials are not completely wrong. If votes go to waste by a party that does not make it into the Knesset, then that usually benefits the largest party – almost assuredly to be Likud – whose percentage of the vote will then be greater and worth more seats. With Gantz on the brink, he is certainly set up right now to be the party that helps Netanyahu cross the finish line to a 61-MK majority.
Gantz has tried to push back against this. One tactic is to claim that if Blue and White does not cross the threshold, Netanyahu will be able to fire him and the party’s other ministers and then pass an immunity law.
This claim, meant to scare members of the anti-Netanyahu camp, is not certain. Other legal opinions have claimed that due to the legislation that was passed when establishing the parity government, Netanyahu cannot simply fire Blue and White ministers, and they will remain in office – even if they don’t make it into the Knesset – until a new government is sworn in, whenever that will be.
Time will tell which version is true, but what remains unanswered is the bigger question: what happened to Gantz, and how did he go from being the darling of the center-left with 35 seats and a potential future prime minister, to someone who now has to plead with voters to vote for him?
What went wrong?
There are a lot of answers. There is Netanyahu, who plays politics above the rim at a different level than his adversaries; there is the rightward trend in Israel; and there is the cannibalization that always ends up killing the Left.
There is also the IDF factor. Moshe Ya’alon, Shaul Mofaz, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak all came before Gantz and tried to take on Netanyahu, only to fail and leave the stage. They were accomplished men, respected for their decades of service and sacrifice on behalf of the State of Israel. All were looked at as future leaders, and spoken of as the bright new hope for the anti-Netanyahu camp.
But they all failed, reinforcing the idea that military officers are just not cut out for the style of politics being played today in Israel.
I’ve covered Gantz since his days as an IDF officer through his tenure as chief of staff. I can’t say I know him really well, but from what I have seen he is a man of integrity and principles. He, for example, joined the government in May because he genuinely believed it was the right thing for the country. He was willing to pay a price – jump on a grenade as he claims– to help preserve Israel’s democratic character.
That is why, when the coalition deal was signed in April, many people who were against allowing someone under indictment and on trial to serve as prime minister changed their mind and supported Gantz’s 180-degree shift. COVID-19 had upended our lives, and as we know, drastic times call for drastic measures.
But from the moment Gantz came into office he seemed to fall apart. The takanon episode, the budget, and other issues like government appointments came to reveal that he wasn’t cut out for the role. It seemed at times like he was so focused on the benefits of carrying the title of “alternate prime minister” and the so-called parity government that he lost sight of what was really important: bringing accomplishments to the country.
Being defense minister, for example, has often served as a role to propel politicians. But can anyone even think of something he has accomplished as defense minister over the last nine months? Is there some clear achievement to his credit that stands out?
All you have to do is listen to him speak to understand the challenge he faces.
Netanyahu talks of how he “brought millions of vaccines to Israel,” a clear accomplishment regardless of it not being accurate (Netanyahu didn’t personally bring vaccines to Israel; Israeli taxpayer money did, the Health Ministry did, and the health funds’ longstanding relationship with Pfizer played a big part as well).
What does Gantz talk about? He points out how he was a shield against corruption, how he stopped Netanyahu from taking over the Justice Ministry, stopped Netanyahu from passing an immunity law, and stopped Netanyahu from doing whatever he wanted in the coronavirus cabinet.
All that stopping is nice, but it makes it seem like Gantz is a set of brakes and Netanyahu is the gas pedal – and who would you prefer? The guy who seems to stop things or the guy who looks like he gets things done?
Gantz needs to face up to his dilemma. He is not to be envied.