Is Israel's Gantz crafting his political demise or a new beginning?

Is Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, a potential Prime Minister?

There is so much going on in the Middle East at the moment- the scourge of COVID-19 across the region; the war in Yemen; tensions between Iran and the US; the war in Syria; the troubled politics in Turkey, the oil-price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and the inability of the political parties in Israel to form a government -even after a third election. Is a fourth one likely?

Israel has nearly 12,000 cases of COVID-19, or coronavirus, and has suffered 117 deaths so far. In the midst of this pandemic, it's still in a power vacuum. The country has been without a government for months. Benjamin Netanyahu has been in an "acting" role as Prime Minister. This article in Al Monitor explains the situation.

Mazal Mualem  April 13, 2020

Article Summary

Even if Blue and White's Benny Gantz fails in his attempt to form the next Israeli government, he could emerge from the effort looking like the adult in the room and the person who put the interest of the state above his own.

Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is seen during his election campaign, Ramat Gan, Israel, Feb. 25, 2020.

"Benny, it is clear that your genuine willingness to join an emergency government faces the cynical deceitfulness of a defendant trying to avoid a trial. If you agree to his terms for the consolidation of his rule, placing him above the law, you will betray the principles that united us. It is not too late to compensate for losing your direction." Moshe Ya'alon, former military chief of staff and defense minister, tweeted this personal appeal to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz on April 13 in light of renewed negotiations between Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on forming a power-sharing emergency government. It was Ya'alon's way of telling Gantz that he can still change his mind about fracturing Blue and White and abandoning the anti-Netanyahu alliance.

Gantz is unlikely to do an about-face and attempt to reunite the alliance, which fell apart in one stormy moment on March 29 when he decided to join a Netanyahu-led government. For now, Ya'alon and Yair Lapid, Gantz's former leadership colleagues in Blue and White, appear to have been right. They broke from Gantz, taking with them 16 Knesset members, about half of Blue and White's original 33 seats, warning him that he would fall victim to Netanyahu's manipulations and become yet another statistic on the prime minister's political hit list. Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman warned Gantz that a coalition with Netanyahu would signal the end of his political career, calling the former army chief a political rookie.

Gantz did not listen. Instead, he did what he believed to be right, making the courageous decision to see through all efforts to form a unity government with Netanyahu's Likud in order to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and its fallout. The proposed deal would have had him replacing Netanyahu as prime minister in October 2021, but coalition talks blew up on April 8, on the eve of Passover, after Netanyahu pulled the emergency brake, leaving Gantz with only half of his party, without a coalition agreement and knowing that he would have to return his mandate to President Reuven Rivlin on April 13 and concede defeat in his effort to form a new government. Gantz's 28 days to form a government end April 13 with the stroke of midnight.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu's poll numbers continue to climb under the auspices of the coronavirus crisis, breaking his own popularity records. Polls show his Likud winning more than 40 Knesset seats if elections were held today, providing him with a favorable launch pad for a fourth round of elections after three inconclusive rounds since April 2019.

Nonetheless, one of Gantz's top aides told Al-Monitor that he is at peace with his decision and does not regret it for a moment. "Benny Gantz felt that Lapid together with Liberman were managing him, not allowing him to make decisions," the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He did not like the direction in which they were leading and preferred to take the risk that a unity government might eventually fall through. If that happens, he will face the public with a clear conscience. Netanyahu will be blamed for a fourth round of elections, and the voters will judge."

That is also why Gantz associates are ridiculing Ya'alon's impassioned appeal. The attempt to portray Gantz as a political novice who naïvely fell prey to a devious swindler has only strengthened his belief that his former party colleagues never accepted his leadership and thought they were better than he was. They ignored that he was their strongest brand and voter magnet. Of note, polls conducted after Blue and White disintegrated show most party voters backing Gantz's decision and not giving Lapid points for refusing to go along and join a unity government.

Gantz has been at a political nadir in recent days, the target of venomous criticism from the center-left political camp and accused of single-handedly dismantling the only viable alternative to emerge to Netanyahu's rule in the past decade. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to view these latest developments as Gantz's political demise. The exact opposite may, in fact, be the case.

On Passover eve, Netanyahu reneged on the understandings he had reached with Gantz and pressed his demand for a greater say in the decisions of the Judicial Appointments Committee. Gantz rejected his condition but nonetheless maintained a dignified stance and did not burn his bridges. He has avoided attacking Netanyahu publicly and being dragged into a blame game, which Netanyahu would have liked. Down the line, he may well be given credit for the calm fashion in which he dealt with Netanyahu's machinations.

Meanwhile, April 12 marked an important development for Gantz when President Rivlin informed him that although he would not grant an extension of his 28-day mandate, which he received based on the endorsement of 61 of 120 Knesset members, he would also not hand the mandate to Netanyahu, who does not have the required Knesset majority to form a government.

That means that unless Blue and White and the Likud somehow put together a governing coalition by the close of April 13, Rivlin will hand the mandate to the Knesset. Gantz is the Knesset speaker, and he could push ahead with proposed legislation to ban an indicted politician, such as Netanyahu, from heading a government. Rivlin's move has pushed Netanyahu into a corner, forcing him to make a quick decision: veer back on course toward a unity government with Gantz or plunge Israel into new elections in August.

Netanyahu has in recent days probed the possibility of putting together a 61-seat Knesset majority without Gantz, but so far without any luck. If Netanyahu walks away from the negotiations, both he and Gantz will have three weeks to try and cobble together Knesset majorities. If they both fail, elections will follow as the default.

Slamming the door in the face of a possible partnership with Gantz carries numerous risks for Netanyahu. His own internal polling indicates that a majority of voters, including those on the moderate right, would like to see a unity government to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. Netanyahu also knows full well the fickleness of polls and the risks of the harsh economic forecast for the country. This is a lethal combination that could bury him politically in the next few months, after more than a million unemployed voters realize their circumstances will not be improving anytime soon and point the finger of blame at Netanyahu.

Although Netanyahu currently enjoys strong public approval for his handling of the health and economic crises, public sentiment could shift to his detriment. If Israel is dragged into an expensive and wasteful fourth consecutive election, he will bear most of the blame, and many voters, including in the Likud, could turn their back on him. Gantz, on the other hand, would look like the responsible adult, as the man who placed the interests of the state above his own.

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Tuesday, 02 June 2020