Netanyahu and Gantz - Two leaders, two visions

A balance must be found between the patient pugnacity of an experienced leader and the narcissistic intoxication of a political novice. Can that balance be found?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz sign a unity government agreement (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz sign a unity government agreement
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz have agreed to form a unity government. The new government will avert the prospect of a new election while the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. For Netanyahu this is a clear victory, and for Gantz it offers a moment for him to influence Israeli policy toward the region. 

The deal which was announced this week cements an improbable marriage between two politicians who spent three election campaigns denigrating each other. 

However, many Israelis have become increasingly wary of the political deadlock and deep divisions in the country. The current pandemic offers a chance to ameliorate that split and focus on regional priorities.

The new unity government will have to face the changes and transformations caused by the current world disorder that the pandemic has created. Many of the world's great powers, notably the USA, face both COVID-19 and a presidential election that may distract from geopolitical realities.
The new pandemic will shape the politics and economy of the Middle East as well as the world for decades to come.

Many countries in the region were on their knees long before the virus broke out. The status quo in the majority of countries in the Middle East - poor economic conditions, an influx of immigrants and refugees, violent civil wars and internal conflicts, weak and corrupt bureaucracies - cannot continue. The pandemic has accelerated the crisis in confidence to the point of creating new threats to regional stability and to Israel in particular.

Many questions also surround the fallout of the pandemic on the stability of Iran. The crisis will accelerate the effects of the economic recession on that country and its regional expansion, its nuclear aspirations and its secret war with the United States and Israel. 

Admittedly, severe budgetary constraints and public dissatisfaction make Iran less likely to engage in a frontal confrontation with the US and Israel, and even with Saudi Arabia at present. Iran also appears to have slowed Quds Force activity in Syria and Iraq for the time being. But Iran has not given up on its aspirations, as the continued fighting in Yemen suggests.

Iran still clings to the prospect of financial support from the European Union. The mullahs are also carrying out a public relations campaign in Washington in the hope that the United States will reduce sanctions that are paralyzing the regime.
THE PANDEMIC caught Lebanon during a domestic political, economic and social crisis. Hezbollah is about to take advantage of this opportunity to project Shi’ite rule in the country by creating a careful marketing campaign to show Hezbollah militants sharing medical supplies and deploying its ambulances. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, wants to be portrayed as a savior but has difficult choices to make.

Hezbollah's stronghold over Lebanon is terrible news for Jerusalem, and Nasrallah can't count on money from Iran.

This is especially true since much of the Iranian regimes advanced missiles, and weapons systems are being sent to Syria. Israel is watching the situation carefully, given the deployment of many of these weapons close to or along the Israeli border. As the pandemic distracts the international community, its vigilance over these developments has strengthened Syrian President Bashar Assad's Ba’athist regime.

On the Palestinian front, in the West Bank, elements of pre-existing security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian security forces are developing due to the crisis, which has opened new avenues for social, medical and humanitarian cooperation. 

The fear that Hamas will take advantage of the pandemic by escalating actions against Israel is not realistic. Gaza is at high risk without Israeli cooperation, and Hamas leaders are acting pragmatically at the moment and focusing more on the humanitarian situation than the political one.

For the next eight months, the Israeli government will not only have to manage the pandemic, it will also have to make foreign policy choices in response to circumstances in the region.

A balance must be found between the patient pugnacity of an experienced leader and the narcissistic intoxication of a political novice. Can that balance be found? There is certainly a chance for Gantz to bring to the new government a vision of foreign policy that is more realistic vis-à-vis its neighbors. In the aftermath of this global crisis, there will perhaps be more room for negotiation than confrontation.

To realize that vision, Gantz will need to assemble his coalition despite criticisms. The history of Israel thus far has been filled with individuals who boldly put the interests of the country over their narrow political risks. Now is Gantz's moment to rise to the occasion and reveal if he belongs in such a political Parthenon or just the minor leagues. 
The writer, a Moroccan publisher, is on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council and is an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.