When reporters in the Knesset asked Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz Dec. 2 what he thought about Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s plan to build a new Jewish neighborhood in Hebron, he answered, “We need to hear the opinions of all the professional bodies dealing with this issue. Once we hear the professional opinions of the various defense organizations and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, we can present a genuine position.”
It is quite possible that Gantz realized that this is a ridiculous and dangerous plan, which must never be implemented, but why say so? Instead, Gantz opted for the army formula. He knows that Likud supporters in his Knesset faction and among his voters might actually support the Hebron settlement idea. He understands that he would be much better off if the Israel Defense Forces (and Gantz knows what they think about issues like this) end up being the “bad guys” that take the idea down. At the same time, it is also possible that he does not fully realize how problematic this idea is. Maybe he does not remember the decision made in 1968 to establish the settlement of Kiryat Arba outside of Hebron to prevent friction between Jewish and Muslim extremists in the City of the Patriarchs. In any event, he may not have acted like a real leader, but that is how they act in the “cockpit,” the term used to describe the four heads of the Blue and White party: Don’t say anything so as not to cause any damage to the very fragile common denominator uniting the party — no matter how low the bar is.
The die has yet to be cast. It is not yet clear whether Israel will be holding its third election in a year, or whether Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman will return to his old haunts and rejoin the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox coalition. The option of a center-left government seems to be off the table, while the option of a unity government is running into more and more difficulties. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Blue and White may have been the surprise of the elections for the 21st and 22nd Knesset. It may even have won the same number of seats as the Likud and more. Yet it is still a hollow party with internal divisions that leave it paralyzed.
This consequence was inevitable. This artificial merger of people who are clearly on the left with people who are clearly on the right could only result in a very low common denominator, i.e., removing Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. That's why even surprising proposals — such as a government headed by Netanyahu for half a year, to be replaced by a unity government headed by Benny Gantz — were rejected by the party’s leaders. They did not reach their decision because they could not come to terms with the idea of Netanyahu remaining in office, even if it only would be for a few more months. (After all, even if there is a new election, he would remain prime minister for many more months, until the next government is formed.) They made their decision because any agreement to keep Netanyahu in office, no matter for how long, is devastating to the one principle agreed on by all factions in the party.
Logically, if it was for half a year or less, the Blue and White party could have waited outside the government and even served in the opposition, provided that Netanyahu agrees not to cross certain red lines — mainly moves such as the annexation of certain parts of the West Bank. As it turns out, however, the fragility of their common denominator prevented them from agreeing even to this.
When US President Donald Trump announced that he recognizes Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, the Blue and White party was quick to congratulate him. It is fairly safe to assume that at least a few of the new party’s leaders remember President Gerald Ford’s 1975 letter, promising that the United States would give considerable weight to Israel’s position concerning a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. They most certainly remember that in 1993, the prime minister who received this promise, Yitzhak Rabin, gave US Secretary of State Warren Christopher a “guarantee” that if Syria meets Israel’s security demands, Israel would agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Netanyahu followed his lead and tried to reach a peace agreement with Syria in exchange for the Golan Heights, only to be blocked by late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Ford’s letter became meaningless.
The leaders of the Blue and White party are well aware that there will be no peace in the Middle East if Israel and Syria continue to maintain the state of war between them. They also know that if Israel is satisfied from a security perspective, it would return the land to Syria, and that no one would prevent that because of some promise by Trump.
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States does not consider Israel’s West Bank settlements to be in violation of international law, the Blue and White party responded appreciatively. Once again, it would be easy to think that Israel was negotiating a peace agreement with the United States. The “cockpit” is well aware that even if the entire international community agreed to this questionable legal opinion, the real problem facing Israel is its future as a Jewish and democratic state — not if it can continue building new settlements. What was there about this statement to get them to compete with the Likud or even to follow its lead, by expressing gratitude for Pompeo’s statement, as if it was some diplomatic coup that Israel could use to the advantage of its citizens?
When Netanyahu announced that he planned to annex the Jordan Valley, he spoke as if he represented a broad consensus among Israelis. The Blue and White party’s response seemed to indicate support for the idea. It was only on the party’s fringes that a single member of Knesset — Avi Nissenkorn — suggested that it would be best to annex the territory after the Palestinians agree to it. Long live the little differences. The Jordan Valley makes up one-third of the entire territory of the West Bank. There is no doubt that annexation would put the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt at risk, since it is a violation of the 1995 autonomy agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, it would likely put an end to security coordination with the Palestinian Authority. Is that the Blue and White party’s plan? Can’t the party speak out against this insane idea, which serves no security purpose whatsoever, but which could put Israel’s security and diplomatic standing at risk?
A prime minister facing three indictments for fraud, violation of trust and bribery should not remain in office, even if the law allows it. On the other hand, his removal cannot be the be-all and end-all of a party’s platform, nor can it justify the silence of the “cockpit.” People in the center and on the left, who have parked themselves in the Blue and White party for now, will have a hard time forgetting the party’s behavior on the diplomatic front over the course of the last year.
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