With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisting on a one-year budget, Defense Minister Benny Gantz is left with two unappealing choices and perhaps the end of his political career.
By Mazal Mualem
Of all the decisions he has made in his brief political career, Blue and White Party chair Benny Gantz is facing the most difficult yet. Midnight on Aug. 24, less than three weeks from now, is the deadline for Israel to pass its state budget. According to long-established law, if a budget is not passed by then, the Knesset will be dissolved and new elections will be called.
The polls show Gantz winning less than 10 seats, down from the Blue and White's current 15. The general assumption is that in the case of yet another early election, he will retire from politics and vacate his seat for the number-two Knesset member on his party’s list, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
If such a thing happens, it would be the greatest crash in the history of Israeli politics. Never before has anyone reached such a senior position just months after entering politics, and he was so close to taking the prime minister’s office. When he founded his party in December 2018, he had absolutely no political experience. And yet his career soared. He posed the greatest threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past decade and almost brought about Netanyahu’s downfall. He did so in three consecutive elections in which he was the only real alternative to Netanyahu and the great hope of over two million citizens eager for a change of government.
In the April unity deal signed between the Likud and Blue and White, the partners agreed on a two-year budget. This point is crucial, because Israeli law considers approval of the budget as a vote of confidence in the government. But Netanyahu decided a few weeks ago to push for a one-year budget. Now Gantz faces two unappealing choices. By opposing Netanyahu and holding firm on the two-year budget, he will be responsible for a new round of elections in November and the immediate end of his political career.
On the other hand, Gantz could also save himself in the short term by succumbing to Netanyahu’s demands and agreeing to pass a one-year budget that would actually last just a few months, until the end of the year. Netanyahu claims that his reasons are purely economic, given the uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, leading economists in the Finance Ministry reject this notion.
The truth is that what is really motivating Netanyahu is politics. A one-year budget would afford him a way to escape the rotation agreement that would bring Gantz to the prime minister’s office. That reason is also why Gantz is insisting on a two-year budget. He argues, correctly, that Netanyahu made a commitment to a two-year budget in the coalition agreement. Gantz also knows that if he gives in to Netanyahu’s demands, he will definitely lose his chance to enter the prime minister’s office in November 2021.
Anyone who has spoken to Gantz over the last few days has been left with the impression that he has no plans to give in to Netanyahu. They say that he would prefer to suffer the ignominy of political death because he has nothing to lose.
In an interview with Ynet Aug. 4, Gantz said, “I’m not naïve. I know that there must be other considerations for someone who chooses a political move that makes no sense economically and no sense in terms of political stability. But I will leave it to the pundits to identify the reasons and decide whether Netanyahu really wants political stability in the State of Israel. He should do what he agreed to do.”
But Netanyahu will not flinch and is acting as though he is already deep in an election campaign. He's gone on lots of well-publicized visits away from his office and after a long hiatus has released a new episode of his vlog. Netanyahu skips from one press conference to the next and appears more frequently on social media. In contrast, Gantz looks exhausted, even desperate.
In Channel 12's July 25 profile of Gantz, he spoke openly about the difficulties he has experienced and said with a touch of self-deprecating humor, “Every day I tell my wife that I don’t want to go to school. Revital always answers me, “But you are part of the administration.”
The profile was likely intended to jumpstart Gantz’ sinking political career, highlighting his activities as defense minister on the front lines in the war against the coronavirus. What will be remembered from it, however, is that miserable statement that revealed what many people had already noticed. Gantz has lost his eagerness to act and his enthusiasm for the fight. If people remember anything from the interview, it will be Gantz’ comment that he really doesn’t want to go to work. On the other hand, Gantz’ political rivals are not jumping on this chance to ridicule him, perhaps suggesting that Gantz is no longer relevant. This may be the cruelest moment in a politician’s career, especially for someone who was until so recently a star.
Just a few days after this interview, another former chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, began dropping hints that he was eying an entry into politics. He immediately became the hottest new commodity, both in the media and to the center-left parties. Gantz watched as the center-left, which saw him as a savior until just a few months ago, found itself a new hero and abandoned him.
On another front, Ashkenazi, the number-two person in his party, still makes a point of backing Gantz, but it is an open secret that there is a longstanding tension between the two men and that Ashkenazi is now waiting for his chance to inherit Gantz’ mantle. Also, Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid, who was previously Gantz’ number-two in the Blue and White, is now ahead of him in the polls by a significant margin.
Nevertheless, Gantz surely has no regrets about his decision to enter political life. He made quite a few achievements in a very short period. He was appointed defense minister and could still become prime minister a year and a half from now. Gantz obtained major ministerial portfolios for other members of his party and full partnership in the decision-making process for himself. Blue and White blocked annexation of West Bank territories and stopped efforts to interfere with the legal system. Still, the government has ground to a halt, and it has a lot to do with the inexperience of Gantz and his ministers, who he is unable to rein in. Blue and White is acting like an opposition party within the coalition, its Knesset members breaking coalition discipline on more than one occasion.
Amid growing tensions with Hezbollah in the north, Gantz and Netanyahu gave a joint press conference July 27 at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv. It was the first time they appeared together since forming their coalition three months ago. They seemed well coordinated and left the impression that not all was lost.
But now that Netanyahu is in survival mode, he has no plans to cede his positions regarding the state budget. If Gantz refuses to blink, Israel could find itself at the start of a fourth election round by the end of the month.