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Decision on unity government in Gantz’s hands

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz is himself holding talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he will be the one to decide whether to strike a deal with the Likud.
Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White, delivers a statement before his party faction meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel September 19, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen - RC1D073452E0

Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz is new to Israeli politics. He has been at it for less than a year, and yet in this short time, he’s already been through two election campaigns. As head of the Blue and White party, he has also managed to position himself as that party’s natural candidate for prime minister.

This is no mean feat. On his way to achieving this objective, he not only had to come out unscathed from an ugly campaign of personal attacks by the Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also had to overcome the skepticism voiced behind his back by his fellow members of the Blue and White leadership. The climax came in the April election campaign when the No. 4 person on the party’s list, former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, said in an interview with Channel 12 that he will have “a hand on the steering wheel.” In other words, he will be supervising Gantz. It was obvious what he was insinuating. Gantz wasn’t happy to hear it, and that’s putting it lightly. Ashkenazi is eying the prime minister’s office for himself, just as is the No. 2 person on the list, Yair Lapid. These voices of skepticism died down after Blue and White’s achievement in the April election when it won 35 seats. They died down even more after the September election when Blue and White became the biggest party in the Knesset.

Gantz is now the most powerful brand in the Blue and White party. Neither Ashkenazi nor Lapid can challenge that position. Nor can anyone else in the party. His character, restrained style and the experience that he is starting to accumulate in the political arena have all turned him into a powerful player. Right now, he holds the mandate to form a government. He is the one who attends negotiations with Netanyahu — just him, one on one, without his No. 2, Yair Lapid, and without Ashkenazi’s “hand on the steering wheel.” In this sense, he is very different from Labor-Gesher party Chairman Amir Peretz, for example. Peretz shows up to negotiations with Gantz with his No. 2, Orly Levy-Abekasis, right beside him.

Senior members of Blue and White have no way of knowing what is really being said in those meetings between Gantz and Netanyahu. They know nothing about the dynamics, nor do they know about the nuances of the discussions. True, Gantz updates them. But he focuses on giving them a picture at a certain resolution, while other resolutions of the same picture remain in the room. That is why when Gantz spoke with the press after his meeting with Netanyahu at the Ministry of Defense on the evening of Oct. 27, even the most senior members of Blue and White listened very attentively. It sounded like Gantz was breathing new life into the coalition talks. “I’ll continue with all efforts to form a unity government and to prevent third elections for the State of Israel,” said Gantz. He described the meeting as “businesslike” and added that there will be further meetings in the future.

Political pundits have pointed to signs of potential progress in the talks. They noted that, unlike previous meetings, there was a relaxed mood after the meetings with neither side attempting to denigrate the other. It was later learned that in the room, Gantz asked very practical questions about the rotation agreement between him and Netanyahu. For example, he asked at what stage during the legal proceedings will Netanyahu claim incapacity so that he (Gantz) is appointed to replace him as prime minister.

But then, less than one day later, Gantz played a different tune at a meeting of the Blue and White Knesset faction. It seemed as if Gantz had just taken a big step backward. “One of the major problems in the current negotiations is the Likud’s insistence on coming to the coalition with a bloc that will ensure that Netanyahu gets immunity. The ruling party does not want to hold a practical discussion about policy guidelines, which most of the people want,” said Gantz. Reading between the lines, it could be understood that even the scenario of a minority government backed by the Joint List — a unified slate of predominantly Arab parties — is on the table.

Gantz’s rhetoric, as well as the rhetoric of his three co-leaders of the Blue and White party, was firm about Netanyahu. “A government could be formed in 48 hours. All that Benjamin Netanyahu needs to do is agree to be second in the rotation. The State of Israel doesn’t need another election,” said Yair Lapid, revealing that the Blue and White party does not operate solely on the basis of common principles uniting the different factions. Rotation is important to Blue and White too. Lapid himself said so.

Lapid knows that Netanyahu would not agree to that since it means that he would be putting his own head on a silver platter and deciding that this would be the end of his political career. For Netanyahu, it is essential to keep his position of prime minister at a time when the attorney general must decide whether or not to indict him. While it is possible that he (Lapid) believes that the Likud will “get rid of Netanyahu” soon enough, for the most part, that is wishful thinking. It does not correspond with the current reality in the Likud.

What makes Lapid’s statement important is that it provides a little insight into the internal discussions taking place in the Blue and White leadership. When it comes to Netanyahu, Lapid is the most militant member of that leadership. He is not even willing to begin discussing any outline that involves immunity (for Netanyahu). This is, of course, a position based on values, and one that Blue and White ran with in the election. It is an “election promise.” The problem is that it clashes with a complex political situation.

Beyond that, Lapid has said explicitly that he is not afraid of a third round of elections and, if that happens, the Likud will suffer a serious beating and drop to just 25 seats. Is that what he really wants? If it does happen and the Blue and White party has a decisive win at the polls, he will receive his position in the party’s internal rotation system and serve as prime minister for half of the new government’s tenure — this was the original agreement reached between Gantz and Lapid when they first joined forces.

From within the room, Gantz can hear Lapid, Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon all bolstering his public position. But he can also hear some of his most senior advisers who think he should make progress toward forming a unity government with the Likud, based on the outline proposed by President Reuven Rivlin or, in other words, with Netanyahu serving as prime minister first. This way, they argue, Gantz is assured that he will eventually become prime minister, even if it takes another year. And at the same time, it also avoids a third round of elections.

Another person who rejects Netanyahu completely is Labor-Gesher Chairman Peretz. At a meeting with Gantz on Oct. 28, Peretz reiterated his commitment from before the election that he would not sit in a Netanyahu government. This position limits Gantz’s maneuverability and makes it much harder for him to follow the president’s proposed outline.

And then there is Chairman of Yisrael Beitenu Avigdor Liberman. The big unknown with him is how coordinated he is with the Blue and White party and in particular with Yair Lapid. What sort of game is Liberman playing? How far will he go with his demand for a unity government made up of the Likud, Blue and White, and his own Yisrael Beitenu faction.

Meanwhile, Gantz has been listening to everyone and refusing to break ranks in his own party. If he had to decide between an in-depth discussion of the outline proposed by Rivlin and maintaining the unity of his Blue and White party, Benny Gantz prefers unity — at least at this stage.

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