Weary of Netanyahu, Benny Gantz delivers last ultimatum

Having lost all trust in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz has now delivered an ultimatum on the 2021 state budget.

al-monitor Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz takes off his mask as he gives a statement outside Bnei Brak's City Hall regarding a lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on Sept. 6, 2020. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 9, 2020

Less than two years after diving into Israel’s political waters, Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz is facing a decisive moment. The general who served as the 20th chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tried to ignore his impending decision, to circumvent it — to no avail. In recent days, he finally realized what many had warned him — that he had entered into a unity-coalition agreement with a man who never had any intention of seeing it through, just as the man had never made good on a single political agreement throughout his career.

Gantz, who has been demeaning and prostrating himself before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since their absurd “unity” power-sharing government was installed in mid-May, realized it was time to move on. If he still has an iota of political desire left in his body, he must end the suffering, get off the merry-go-round and prepare for the worst. What Gantz did Oct. 8 has the makings of political suicide. In a harsh, detailed letter sent after much hesitation, Gantz essentially told Netanyahu that unless he keeps his word immediately and moves ahead with preparation and approval of the 2021 state budget, Israel was heading for elections — the fourth round in less than two years.

Gantz donned a political suicide vest. However, his intention is not to eliminate himself politically just for the sake of ridding the country of those he deems his enemies, Gantz’s vest is loaded but not yet primed to explode. All Netanyahu has to do is keep the promise he made in writing just months ago. If he refuses, Gantz is supposed to press the virtual button and send them both sky high, out of the political sphere.

Gantz, whose Blue and White Party was neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s Likud throughout three elections with the equivalent support of over 30 Knesset seats, is now polling at a meager seven to nine seats. Elections would end in defeat for Gantz and bury his political career. Netanyahu, who has also been dropping sharply in the polls (this week’s polls gave his Likud 26 to 27 seats compared with 41 just weeks ago) knows that he, too, could be wiped out if he stands for reelection at this time.

Gantz is hoping that this balance of “mutually assured destruction” will make Netanyahu blink first. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is hoping that as the deadline for a decision nears, Gantz will get off his high horse and revert to his familiar, featherweight naive self. The final decision is not due for a while. The deadline for passage of the 2021 budget is March 23. An entire nation held hostage by both sides is in for more nerve-wracking months.

Netanyahu and Gantz are scheduled to trade places automatically in November 2021 in accordance with the unprecedented format of a two-headed government (led by one incumbent premier and one alternate). However, nothing good has happened in the 35th government since it was sworn in May 17. The two sides have been battling each other from day one. Netanyahu’s people admit he has no intention of switching with Gantz when the time comes, while Gantz’s people repeatedly fold in the face of the Likud steamroller. Blue and White is having to make do with its control of the Justice Ministry and achievements, for now, in blocking further attempts by Netanyahu and his allies to dismantle the rule of law and crush the state’s law enforcement authorities.

Gantz’s decision to go with Netanyahu after vowing through three election campaigns to defeat and replace him was an electoral disaster, alienating half his voters. Amazingly, however, his disaffected voters did not drift to the centrist opposition Yesh Atid party led by Knesset members Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, with whom Gantz ran in the three previous elections before he joined the government. Instead, they are flowing in the other direction toward the biggest winner of this political stalemate, an ideologically motivated, religious right-winger, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett.

From the six Knesset seats it garnered in the March 2 elections this year, Bennett’s Yamina party is now polling in the 20s. Instead of Gantz or Lapid threatening the prime minister’s eroding standing, the person doing so is positioned to his political right. This has never happened before in Israeli politics. Netanyahu himself has been the unchallenged leader of Israel’s political right for over a decade. He always made sure to have a smaller political party on his right, in order to appeal to center-leaning voters, but he never planned for that party to threaten his hold on power. The latest Channel 12 News poll aired Oct. 7 gave his Likud 26 seats — and placed Bennett’s Yamina almost within touching distance with 23.

Benny Gantz was the most gentlemanly commander the IDF has ever had, an easygoing man with a pleasant demeanor who sometimes seems to have stumbled into this political mess by mistake. He was not the first choice for the chief of 1staff’s post but rather a default choice due to the 2010 Harpaz affair, a scandal involving the top military and defense brass. Gantz does not knife people in the back, does not violate agreements and does not undermine rivals. In other words, a person perhaps least suited to storm the bastions of Israeli politics in general, and those around Netanyahu in particular, did just that.

Gantz got off to a promising start. Blue and White successfully withheld from Netanyahu the majority he needed to form a government. This has never happened to Netanyahu before and he was determined to try again, and again. However, after the third time, the March 2 elections, Gantz gave in, deciding he would be better off with a bird in hand (the promised job-switch with Netanyahu down the line) than two on the tree. He now realizes his colossal error in judgment, and is trying to fix it.

Does Gantz have what it takes to go head-to-head with Netanyahu? To employ Netanyahu’s tactics against Netanyahu? Probably not. On the other hand, Gantz has no choice. He has become the village idiot of Israeli politics, a sad joke. Use of force is the only tool he has left to try to rehabilitate his standing. People can make fun of him as much as they want, but the fact is that in accordance with the deal with Netanyahu, the Knesset has already sworn him in as Israel’s next prime minister beginning in November 2021, a year from now. All he has to do for that to happen is to educate and tame Netanyahu. Not an easy undertaking, but given the prime minister’s predicament as he faces trial on three charges of corruption, a raging pandemic and a tanking economy, this might be feasible.