By Ramzy Baroud
It was intended to be a Machiavellian move, but the decision by Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s Blue and White coalition, to join a Benjamin Netanyahu-led government is likely to destabilize the political fabric of Israeli society for years to come.
In a surprising move, Gantz last month entered into a precarious political compromise, whereby he would become speaker of the Knesset as a prelude to the formation of a national unity government that would include both the ruling Likud party and the Blue and White. The move, however, proved disastrous. As soon as Gantz declared his intention to join hands with Netanyahu, thus throwing the discredited prime minister a lifeline, his alliance quickly disintegrated.
Blue and White had stood on shaky ground since it was formed to contest the April 2019 general election. The leaders of the coalition — Gantz (Israel Resilience Party), Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Moshe Ya’alon (Telem) — seemed largely unified not by a common ideological foundation but by their sheer hatred of Netanyahu and burning desire to oust him.
Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, with his terms in office linked to an era of nepotism and corruption. With his constant readiness to concede to his extreme right-wing government coalition partners to ensure his own political survival, Netanyahu offered his country little by way of a viable political vision.
For many years, his enemies did little to counterbalance the prime minister’s excesses. While Netanyahu succeeded in wooing Israel’s right-wing constituency, the so-called left dwindled to represent, at times, little more than a margin of error in Israeli election results and opinion polls. A telling example was the poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 12 this month. According to the results, if Israelis were to vote in a general election on the day of the survey, the country’s historic Labor Party would not win a single seat in the Knesset.
In retrospect, Gantz and his allies had no other option but to brand themselves as “centrists.” On forming their coalition a year ago, they aimed to appeal to various groups of disgruntled Israelis: Right-wing voters disenchanted with the political deadlock and economic inequality; leftists who had lost faith in the traditional left’s ability to resurrect itself as a strong oppositional force; and independent and centrist voters.
Gantz and his allies’ calculations proved to have merit, as Israeli voters came out in three elections in less than a year to breathe life into what at one time seemed like an impossible mission: Ousting Netanyahu. In the recent March election, Blue and White won 33 seats in the Knesset — not enough to form a government on its own, but enough to build a relatively stable coalition that would seize control of the Knesset and, ultimately, form a government. For the first time in years, it seemed as if Netanyahu’s political career was over and that the prime minister, who is facing serious corruption charges, would see his day in court, if not prison.
But Gantz faced a dilemma, which eventually resulted in his seemingly erratic decision to form a national unity government with Netanyahu. To form a government that excluded Likud, Blue and White would have had to include the third-largest political force in the Knesset — the Arab parties, which are united under the umbrella of the Joint List. Despite the Joint List’s willingness to join Gantz’s precarious coalition (which would have included some of the most notorious anti-Arab political figures in Israel, like Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman), the Blue and White leader did everything in his power to avoid that possibility.
Racism in Israel is at its worst and any political concessions made to Arab parties would have been considered by many Israelis as a betrayal of the “Jewish identity of the state,” as enshrined in the chauvinistic “nation-state law” of July 2018.
With his change of heart masquerading as a concession compelled by the coronavirus pandemic, Gantz agreed to form an emergency government with Netanyahu, excluding the Arab Joint List. On March 26, Gantz nominated himself for the position of speaker, replacing the abruptly resigned Yuli Edelstein and setting the stage for negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud regarding the structure of the new government.
Whether Gantz had anticipated the fallout of his decision or not is irrelevant because, consciously, he opted to make a deal with the devil rather than become the Israeli Jewish politician who paved the road for Israel’s Arab community to become part of the country’s decision-making process.
Everything Gantz has worked for — three consecutive elections and a desperate attempt at carving up a centrist political narrative in a country leaning more to the right — has come crashing down. His Blue and White coalition partners Yesh Atid and Telem officially filed for, and were granted, permission from the Knesset Arrangement Committee to break away from Gantz’s faction.
Unsurprisingly, if elections were to be held in Israel now, Gantz’s party would win a measly 19 seats, compared with the resurgent Likud’s 40. With the balance of power finally shifting in his favor, Netanyahu has toughened his political stance, insisting on playing a role in the appointment of judges (thus protecting himself from future prosecution) and on his right to block any decision disqualifying him from serving as PM.
After Gantz and Netanyahu failed to reach an agreement, the task of forming a government has now been transferred to the Knesset. A failure to do so within 21 days would take the country to a fourth election — one that Likud and its allies are sure to win, and decisively so.
It is ironic that the person who resurrected Israel’s political “center” also eventually destroyed it. By doing so, Gantz has granted Netanyahu a new lease of life and, consequently, strengthened the Israeli right’s grip on power.