Why Netanyahu and Gantz want us to believe in unity

Israel is not a sport, and running the country is not a game. There are major challenges that need to be confronted, and opportunities that sadly are being missed.

Netanyahu, Rivlin and Gantz holding hands  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Netanyahu, Rivlin and Gantz holding hands
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Here is something people seem to have forgotten: Israel’s election wasn’t supposed to have taken place yet. If the original schedule set after the 2015 election had been adhered to, Israelis would only be going to the polls on November 5, about six weeks from now.
Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided in December to disperse the government so he could hopefully get reelected in April, before Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit made his recommendation to indict him (which he did in February) and then to pass an immunity law that would protect him.
But then came April, and Netanyahu failed to form a coalition. Instead of returning the mandate to the president he again dispersed the Knesset, and took Israel to another election 10 days ago. Now, after getting tapped by President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday night, Netanyahu will again try to form a coalition, although Likud sources are already saying that there is a good chance he will fail quickly, and return the mandate to Rivlin sometime in the coming week.
See a pattern?
This is not to say that Netanyahu is the sole problem with the current system. While there are those who have called for him to step down – like Isi Leibler, his longtime supporter and friend, wrote in these pages on Thursday – that alone is not enough to fix what is broken.
It might open the door for Likud and Blue and White to come together and form a coalition, but for the time being Likud doesn’t look like it is ready to cut off its head.
Just this week, two of the top contenders to replace Netanyahu were gallivanting across the globe while Israel’s political future remained unclear: Foreign Minister Israel Katz was in New York for the UN General Assembly, and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan was in Brussels appearing before the European Union.
Look like the beginning of a rebellion in the Likud ranks? Far from it. Instead, it seems that the Likudniks are stuck in a daze. They know that if they oust Netanyahu, they pave the way to a government and prevent a third election; but they are also too afraid to do so since no one can yet decide who will take his place.
Erdan doesn’t want to help Katz, who doesn’t want to help Yuli Edelstein, who doesn’t want to help Gideon Sa’ar, and vice versa. It’s MAD all over again – mutually assured destruction between the Soviets and the Americans in the 1960s.
It’s as if this is all some kind of game, with the Likud leadership sitting on the sidelines and letting Netanyahu do what he wants. On the other hand, you have to hand it to him – Netanyahu’s ability to transform his personality in just the span of a day is quite remarkable.
Last Tuesday, for example, the prime minister spent Election Day on Facebook Live, making movies from his office, his home and from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. Every movie warned of the rise of the Left, of the high turnout among the Arabs, and how the Arab world was praying for Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to win.
During the long weeks of the campaign, he repeatedly accused Gantz of being soft on terror, of having the support of the Iranians and Hamas, of striking a deal with the Arabs, and of pretty much every other insult that he and his strategists could come up with.
On Thursday though, just two days after the election, he was suddenly Mr. Unity. There he was smiling and shaking Gantz’s hand at a memorial for Shimon Peres; there he was in a video message calling on Blue and White to join a unity government with Likud; and there he was stepping out of the way so Rivlin could stand in the middle of the tripartite picture they all took together.
Dirty personal attacks? Who remembers any of that? Now it’s all about unity.
Is he serious? Are we supposed to just forget what happened here? Are we supposed to simply press “delete,” and erase from our personal and collective memories the two most dirty election campaigns in modern Israeli history? Are we – the people – being played for fools? Does Netanyahu think that one day he can be the most divisive politician in Israel and the next day go all Gandhi on us?
And then there is Gantz. He actually seemed to win the election, getting more votes, seats and recommendations than Netanyahu. But then he too started to play games. After cajoling the Joint List to make a historic move and recommend him – the head of Blue and White – to the president, the party asked the Arabs to withdraw the three members of Balad so Gantz could have one less recommendation than Netanyahu.
Why, you ask? So he can be second and not first at trying to form a coalition, under the assumption that whomever goes second has a greater chance of succeeding.
Seriously? You win the election, and you have more recommendations than the man you have vowed to do everything possible to unseat, and then at the last second you simply walk away from getting the opportunity to form a government?
It is true that Gantz’s chances are slim, but so are Netanyahu’s. Additionally, there is something about setting the victory narrative and being the one the public talks about who won. While his strategy might ultimately pay off, it once again seems like he is playing a game.
The problem is that Israel is not a sport, and running the country is not a game. There are major challenges that need to be confronted, and opportunities that sadly are being missed.
All of this, though, gets pushed to the back seat to make room for the shenanigans of our politicians, whose cynicism seems to know no bounds, and who have no problem attacking each other one day and then falling into each other’s arms the next.
Even Rivlin, who has now decided to take a more active role in the coalition-building process, had been relatively quiet until this week. Yes, he spoke out a few times against the dangerous rhetoric that we were hearing from the different parties – against haredim and Arabs – but he wasn’t as forceful as he could have been. I get that the president’s role is meant to be mostly ceremonial, and that he wants to be seen as a statesman accepted by all, but a stronger stand might have helped prevent us from getting to where we are now.
What is Netanyahu’s ultimate strategy? That is a good question. For Israel’s savviest politician, it is impossible that he does not have a plan and is not thinking 10 steps ahead.
One possibility is that he believes he will succeed in convincing Mandelblit to remove the bribery charge in the final indictment, which could come down as early as the end of October. If that happens, he could tell the public that just like he got rid of bribery, he will succeed in getting rid of everything.
The timing on this could be perfect. If both he and Gantz fail to form a coalition, the end of October might be when a new election is called. And Netanyahu – if he receives a softer indictment – will play up the victim card, talk about a police-prosecution-media witch hunt, and likely succeed in gaining back many of the votes he just lost.
Another possibility is that he knows the indictment will be harsh, but just believes that being prime minister, even if an interim one, helps his case. The longer he can stay in office, the better.
Either way, this Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to recalibrate as a nation and to re-prioritize our values. And most importantly for our politicians, to realize that the citizens of this country are not pawns in some cynical game of political chess. There is a country to run. Get serious.
Around 20 years ago, toward the end of my service in the IDF, I started coaching Little League baseball. My younger brothers were on a team, they needed a coach, I had the time, and I loved the game. It was a perfect and fun opportunity.
Little did I know that Little League baseball would lead to a career in journalism. A father of one the kids on my team was a journalist. A couple of years later when I was looking for a side job during law school, he gave my first boss a warm recommendation and helped me land my first job as a news writer.
I mention this because on Sunday, Team Israel made history. After an amazing run – defeating Holland, Spain, Italy and South Africa – it qualified for a spot in the 2020 Olympics.
Anyone who follows sports knows that there are games and there are games. Some you win easily; others you have to bleed for. Some destroy you; others make your career.
Team Israel is a lesson in sportsmanship and camaraderie. Baseball is a game that requires a team. One single player – as good as he might be – is rarely enough to win. You need a group that works together in unison with the same objective in mind: winning and moving up the ranks.
Team Israel played this week to advance their country, not to win a blame game. They were playing to bring pride and to lift spirits, not to divide or degrade.
Our politicians should take a lesson from these players. If they can’t, they are welcome to take a walk.