Will coronavirus bring Netanyahu and Gantz together?

There is nothing like a national emergency to bring political adversaries together

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with representatives from his 58-member right-wing bloc at the Knesset on Wednesday. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with representatives from his 58-member right-wing bloc at the Knesset on Wednesday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
The shift seemed to happen at the end of January, and in retrospect, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was right to suspect then that he was being set up.
US Vice President Mike Pence, who was in Israel for the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, met with interim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and invited him to Washington for the official unveiling of the Trump peace plan the following week. During the meeting, he revealed that per Netanyahu’s request, Gantz had also been invited and would attend.
This wasn’t exactly right. US Ambassador David Friedman and new Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz had met with Gantz a couple of weeks earlier to update him on the plan, and said that they would like him to also attend the White House ceremony. Gantz agreed, but after Pence said that it was Netanyahu’s idea, his staff voiced concern that he was just going to be an extra in a show dominated by Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump.
“Netanyahu will be on the stage and I will be sitting in the crowd,” Gantz said at one point, threatening not to come.
That was how his private meeting with Trump was born, but it also illustrated the problem Blue and White had throughout the campaign as a party trying to defeat Likud: it never presented an alternative to Netanyahu, neither an ideological alternative nor a policy one.
The party was about one thing and one thing only: how to remove Netanyahu and replace him as prime minister, and that could not have been clearer than at the peace plan unveiling. An ideological opponent would either not have come to Washington to meet Trump, or would have traveled there to voice concerns about the plan. Gantz went to DC, met with the president, and then announced that he supports the plan and intends to bring it in its entirety to the Knesset for approval.
Not only was Gantz not against the plan that Netanyahu had worked hard on getting from the Americans, he actually liked it.
And as we learned on Monday, that just wasn’t enough to defeat Netanyahu. While the Likud leader is still far from forming a coalition – and based on the emergency meeting he convened with the right-wing bloc on Wednesday, he is nervous he won’t – the public saw that when it came to policy, Gantz and Netanyahu were pretty much the same. If that’s the case, many people asked themselves, why vote for Gantz when you can get the original at the same price?
The overwhelming vote for Netanyahu – even if short of a clear victory – shows that the Israeli electorate (at least the 1.35 million people who voted for Likud) are not bothered by having a prime minister charged with bribery. They either don’t believe that the charges are real, or they don’t mind that a sitting prime minister will also have to stand trial at the same time.
They also don’t seem to care whether Netanyahu succeeds in forming a coalition and passing legislation that would retroactively grant him immunity. What they might not realize though, is that the High Court of Justice will most likely annul such legislation, which means the Knesset would then need to pass a law to bypass the High Court.
Besides the ethical problem of having an indicted person on trial leading legislation to cancel his trial, such moves could also spell the end of separation of powers in Israel as well as the independence of the judicial system. This would severely undermine and weaken the country’s democratic character.
The people who voted for Netanyahu do not seem perturbed by all of this. Instead, they voted for someone who makes them feel safe, who might even have been set up by the police and the prosecution and for whom they could not find a viable alternative.
In Monday’s election, Likud succeeded in garnering around 250,000 new voters. This is mostly to Netanyahu’s credit for running an effective “get the vote out” campaign that knew how to use big data and target individual voters. He also made two substantial changes to his campaign in comparison with the September or April elections: The first is that he attended dozens of public rallies, traveling city-to-city to meet with people and show them who he really is, often going to three a day.
The second change was in style. This time he did not launch a “gevalt” campaign like he had often done in the past, when in the final week before the vote he would warn that he was going to lose. This time he barely spoke about losing, but instead showed his voters a path to victory. If you vote, he explained, Likud will win. All it will take, he repeated over and over, is one or two more mandates. That appeared to be effective in giving people hope, as evidenced by the highest percentage of voter turnout – 71.8% – since 1999. It seems that Likud voters prefer voting for someone who they can imagine winning, as opposed to someone who kvetches that he is going to lose.
On the other side, Blue and White did not put up an effective counter-campaign. It built its entire strategy around Netanyahu’s immunity request, and planned to hammer away at the point throughout the entire election campaign. But when Netanyahu withdrew the request at the end of January, it failed to adapt accordingly, and did not present the public with a clear reason why people should vote Blue and White.
Benny Gantz also failed to excite the public. Many of his voters came to the party not because they wanted him to be prime minister, but because they didn’t want Netanyahu. That was enough to get 33 seats, but not enough to form a majority coalition. Voters need to feel something to vote for somebody. If Netanyahu is allegedly corrupt but makes people feel safe, his opponent needs to be more than just someone who isn’t allegedly corrupt. He or she needs to connect with people on an emotional and visceral level, something Gantz had a hard time doing.
What happens next will be fascinating. With only 58 seats on the Right, Netanyahu does not have a coalition, and while he will try to recruit defectors from Blue and White, Labor and Yisrael Beytenu, it will be difficult to find three viable candidates. One might be possible. Three? A big lift even for a political master like Netanyahu.
The problem is that even though the election is over, the bickering is far from finished. An example was when Netanyahu gathered members of his 58 bloc in the Knesset on Wednesday and gave them a basic arithmetic lesson on a stand-up board upon which he wrote: “Zionist-Right: 58, Zionist-Left: 47” as if there are only 105 seats in the Knesset.
What about the 577,355 people who voted for the Joint List, giving the Arab party 15 seats in the Knesset? Why weren’t they mentioned on the board? They don’t exist?
The same can be said about his attempt to delegitimize a bill initiated by Labor and Blue and White that would ban someone charged with bribery from serving as prime minister. That, Netanyahu explained, is illegitimate for an interim Knesset to pass; but the same Knesset apparently has no problem appointing and approving new ministers and voting on a prime minister’s immunity. The cynicism knows no bounds.
Israel needs a functioning coalition, and the best one would be a unity government that brings Likud and Blue and White together. Is that even possible after all the mudslinging these past 15 months? Probably not.
Nevertheless, there is nothing like a national emergency to bring political adversaries together. So far, the coronavirus has managed to put close to 100,000 Israelis in quarantine. All it needs to do now is get two men to sit together. Can it?