It's time for Israel's Gantz to assert leadership

Yair Lapid and other Blue and White seniors should realize by now that Benny Gantz has become their strongest card and the brand of the party.

al-monitor Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, delivers a statement during the party faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Nov. 25, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

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benjamin netanyahu, israeli politics, israeli elections, yair lapid, blue and white, benny gantz

Dec 6, 2019

Two trends emerged in polls conducted by the two major parties — the Likud and Blue and White — the day after the indictment against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was submitted to the speaker of the Knesset. The first was that Netanyahu being charged with bribery did not make the Likud fall apart. If anything, it got a little stronger. The Blue and White Party under Benny Gantz grew as well. The second point was that the balance of power remained steady. Though there was some movement within the camps, no one seemed to be changing sides.

Gantz knew this when he went to meet with Netanyahu on the evening of Dec. 3. The specter of elections hung in the air and would not dissipate, even when Yisrael Beitenu's chairman Avigdor Liberman threatened to join a narrow right-wing government. Both Blue and White and the Likud believed that he was simply applying leverage to force a unity government. As far as the Blue and White Party was concerned, it was the last chance to prevent a third election. But if the public will not abandon Netanyahu or give Blue and White a clear victory, what good could another election do? There was a very concrete proposal to allow Netanyahu to serve for half a year more, after which Gantz would become prime minister. As Blue and White's Gabi Ashkenazi said in internal party discussions, it was the kind of deal that merits serious consideration.

But Gantz was wary when he showed up for the meeting. He was determined to stick to his decision not to allow Netanyahu to serve first in any rotation agreement, even if only for half a year. When Netanyahu raised the idea, Gantz rejected it immediately, claiming that there was nothing new about the proposal. So after just 40 minutes, Gantz was already in his car on his way home. Once Gantz left the meeting, Netanyahu posted a tweet lashing out at Gantz: “Once again, Gantz proved today that instead of putting Israel above all else, he puts [senior Blue and White member] Yair Lapid above all else instead.”

People close to Gantz say that he was furious. The disparaging statement, which read like it had been prepared in advance, depicted him yet again as Lapid's puppet who cannot make decisions for himself. And it immediately erased whatever little trust Gantz may have had in Netanyahu.

No one who knows Gantz and watched his meteoric rise in politics can ignore the consensus surrounding his leadership of Blue and White. While he may have adopted the hard line of his number-two Lapid — not to sit in a government with Netanyahu as prime minister under any circumstances — that strategic decision was not made under pressure from Lapid and should not be disparaged as such. Weeks ago, Gantz decided that he would not break up the Blue and White alliance under any circumstances, even if it meant holding a third election. While some interpret this as Gantz submitting to Lapid, Gantz should be admired for his decision, which involved considerable political risk to him. He preferred to preserve his party even though he could have dismantled of the Blue and White alliance and entered a unity government with legislation ensuring that he would be prime minister, not to mention assurances of various ministerial posts and budgets. Gantz proved that even though he may appear reluctant, he is not afraid to make tough decisions.

Given the current stalemate in the Israeli political system, a third election seems inevitable. If it does happen on March 17, 2020, the Blue and White Party will face off against the Likud, led by the most sophisticated politician in Israel and the most desperate for victory. Like a wounded lion, Netanyahu will be at his most dangerous as Gantz tries to end his long rule.

There has been nothing like the Gantz phenomenon in all of Israel’s political history. Just one year after forming his party, he is now the unchallenged leader of Israel’s center-left camp. He may have had Lapid and Ashkenazi breathing down his neck when he first started out, but all the recent polls show him getting stronger, especially when measured in terms of his suitability to serve as prime minister. (Some polls show him equaling Netanyahu.) Even the Blue and White leadership has apparently realized that Gantz is the party’s strongest brand.

Now, as he prepared to launch his third election campaign against Netanyahu, Gantz must take absolute control of Blue and White. His rotation agreement with Yair Lapid, reached at the very beginning of their partnership, must be ended. If necessary, Gantz must demand Lapid call off this rotation agreement himself. It was their party’s Achilles’ heel, justifiably played up by the Likud in the last two elections. A two-headed leadership only weakens the party’s brand.

More importantly, Gantz must present himself to the public as a leader. The faster this whole process is, the better starting point he will have to launch his third campaign for prime minister. It may be difficult to see any shifts in public opinion now, but it is still possible that with the right campaign, Gantz could succeed in getting soft-right voters to support Blue and White, especially with all the news about the indictments reaching the public. But there are no signs of that happening, at least not yet.

“I don’t understand Gantz. He could be prime minister half a year from now, while he knows that we’ll be in the exact same situation after the third election,” a senior Likud minister predicted Thursday on condition of anonymity.

Has Gantz lost the chance of a lifetime to be prime minister, or will his decision make him a full-term prime minister and send Netanyahu and the Likud to the opposition?

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