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Will Gantz jettison or legitimize Netanyahu's fear mongering?

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz must decide whether to keep his promise not to enter a government with indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or capitulate to Netanyahu's campaign to delegitimize the Joint Lists duly elected representatives.

According to an old Jewish proverb, those who need the services of a thief must take him down from the noose. In the case before Israel, the thief is being accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but has nonetheless convinced the citizenry that his services are essential. In this regard, Israel’s interim prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has turned himself into a vital cure for a horrible epidemic. In addition, he is demanding that the political hangman, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, and his associates restore him to the status of permanent prime minister. On March 22, Netanyahu appealed once again to his rival Gantz to join a unity government to tackle the coronavirus crisis. With the help of this tiny virus, the larger-than-life accused has successfully placed responsibility at the door of his accuser and created conflict in the accuser's camp.

Blue and White, established in late 2018, rode the waves of voter disgust with Netanyahu to its current position at the head of a slim, 61-seat Knesset majority, and its leader has been tasked with forming the next government. Over 1.2 million Israelis who voted for Blue and White were fed up with Netanyahu’s indecent assault on Israeli democracy and his abuse of the state’s social fabric. In the run-up to the March 2 elections, Gantz tweeted, “Support Blue and White in the polling booth, or else you’ll get an Erdogan entrenched in the PM’s residence,” referring to Turkish strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He also announced categorically that his party would not join a government led by an indicted prime minister, the first article in Blue and White’s contract with its voters. Had this been a legal document, a decision by Gantz and his friends to join a Netanyahu-led government would have been the basis for a damage award on the grounds of a contract violation.

The problem is that the contract includes another commitment, the violation of which could be considered deceit if not outright vote theft. In March 2019 during Gantz's early days in politics, he announced that he would not conduct a dialogue with the political leadership of Israel’s Arab community because it “speaks out against the State of Israel.” Thus, the second article in Blue and White’s contract with its voters promises that any government the party forms will only include Zionist, or patriotic, parties. In light of the March 2 election results, which gave Blue and White 33 Knesset seats and the Arab Joint List 15, Gantz had no choice but to chip away at this pledge and invite the Arab political leadership for talks.

Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who has built a reputation for himself as the archenemy of the Arab lawmakers, swallowed the bitter pill of political cooperation with the Arabs in his quest to unseat Netanyahu. The head of the small Telem faction in Blue and White, Moshe Ya’alon, a former general considered a straight shooter, also decided that the first article in the contract with voters was so crucial that it justified violating the second. Ya’alon failed, however, to convince Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, his two fellow Telem colleagues, to follow in his footsteps. Hauser and Hendel, both of a distinctly right-wing persuasion, had had firsthand experience with Netanyahu’s deceptiveness — the former as his cabinet secretary and the latter as his spokesperson — and thus had set out to topple him. Now they are refusing to cooperate with the Joint List even at the cost of perpetuating Netanyahu’s grip on power. There are increasing signs in recent days that Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of the Blue and White leadership, is leaning toward joining the two rejectionists and accepting Netanyahu’s call to join a unity government under his leadership for the first 18 months of the term.

As always, “unity” relates only to parties for which most of their voters are Jewish. (Luckily, members of the arch-racist Otzma Yehudit, disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, failed to get elected.) Netanyahu, the person who enabled Hamas to receive Qatari cash aid, has in the public’s eyes turned the elected representatives of the state’s Arab minority, among them two medical doctors, into “terror supporters.” This campaign of incitement by Netanyahu and his allies against the state’s Arab citizens has infuriated many Israelis who devoted most of their lives to protecting the security of the state. Writing in Haaretz on March 23, Ephraim Halevy, former Mossad chief and former chair of the National Security Council, condemned the rejection of the Joint List as legitimate political partners: “Anyone who disqualifies the Arab MKs disqualifies their supporters, including the doctors who are currently saving the lives of Israelis — Jews, Arabs and Druze alike. This is a disgrace and, worse, a self-inflicted wound.”

Had Netanyahu’s performance in the critical fight against the coronavirus epidemic been flawless, and if he were indeed irreplaceable, as he claims, Gantz, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, would have been justified in thinking about subordinating himself under the great leader’s command, at least temporarily. Senior health system sources have claimed, however, that contrary to the story Netanyahu presents in public, he excludes top Health Ministry professionals and leading epidemiologists from the decision-making process on the epidemic. The results are apparent in the contradictory instructions issued to the public and the lack of coordination among authorities.

A March 23 report by the State Comptroller’s Office, the government watchdog, points to flaws in the preparedness of the Health Ministry, HMOs and hospitals in dealing with resurgent and new epidemics. The comptroller found that the national preparedness plan fails to set out the number of isolation rooms required and that the Health Ministry lacks a plan to rectify the shortage in hospital beds, medical teams and equipment in the event of a flu pandemic. The review also found that the inventory of medicine would suffice for only 16% of the population rather than the required 25%.

The transitional prime minister’s handling of the current crisis is reminiscent of another of his performances in the health care arena. Netanyahu bears responsibility for the prolonged abandonment of Israel’s elderly, the group most vulnerable in the current epidemic. In a 2017 report, the comptroller pointed to the many serious flaws in the quality of home care — “to the point of neglect” — provided to 165,000 elderly Israelis. In May 2019, the same comptroller warned that the Health Ministry had not prepared for the significant growth expected in the number of elderly, including the need for dedicated wards and units and additional dedicated beds and nursing support and rehabilitation.

Those in Blue and White's leadership who advocate joining a unity government argue that despite Netanyahu’s actions and failures, he still commands significant power. They warn of the irreversible political damage to the fragile alliance that could be caused by the fear being generated by the coronavirus and of the Arabs. A Channel 12 poll released March 12, however, indicates that the coronavirus and incitement against the Joint List have not undermined the position held by the center-left political bloc, which has maintained public support for its 61 Knesset seats.

The Supreme Court has ordered a vote to replace the current Knesset speaker, Likud's Yuli Edelstein, by March 25. With a new speaker and with new committees, Blue and White could advance legislation blocking Netanyahu from being tasked with forming the next government and in the process bringing him closer to the defendant’s box. Gantz and his friends must now decide which is wiser: legitimizing a citizen under indictment who is eroding the state’s democracy or approving that same citizen's delegitimization of 15 democratically elected, law-abiding Arab citizens.

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