World

Coalition Out of Crisis: Why Gantz Threw in with Netanyahu

Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, looks on after voting at a polling station in Israel’s national election in Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel, March 2, 2020. (Nir Elias/Reuters)
The beginnings of a coalition government in Israel, born of a national emergency, spell the likely end of a formidable opposition party.

After more than a year of bitter political dispute and maneuvering, Israel is about to have a coalition government. It took three elections and an unprecedented public-health crisis to get the country to this point.

Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and the leader of the opposition Blue and White Party, was faced with a choice this week. He could join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or he could stick to the commitment he’d made to his supporters to bring Bibi down. As the country dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, Gantz’s continued refusal to join a coalition would likely have plunged it into the agony of a fourth election in less than two years. He chose to throw in with Netanyahu.

The price of that decision, which Gantz described as a patriotic duty at a time of national distress, was the destruction of the Blue and White. The year-old political alliance had presented the most potent challenge to Netanyahu’s grip on power in more than a decade, propelling Gantz to the brink of becoming his successor.

In the new coalition, Gantz will reportedly serve as foreign minister, with Netanyahu continuing as prime minister. The agreement calls for him to switch places with Netanyahu after 18 months, ending the latter’s run as the country’s longest-serving prime minister. But this will not be a broad unity coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud and its right-wing and religious-party allies; rather, Gantz will take only part of his faction into the new government.

Gantz took his decision in the midst of a tense and complicated squabble. The Knesset that was elected earlier this month struggled to organize itself in the absence of a governing majority for either Netanyahu or Gantz. Netanyahu and his bloc had 58 seats in the 120-seat parliament, leaving him three short of the votes he needed to continue in power. Gantz had the endorsement of 61 members, but that included the 15 seats held by the Arab Joint List, an alliance of four parties comprising Islamists, Palestinian nationalists, and Communists. A number of Knesset members from the Blue and White refused to serve in a government that depended on the votes of an alliance with the declared intent of ending Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Thus Gantz, too, lacked the votes to create a government.

A similar impasse after the two previous elections, held in April and September 2019, had led to the March 2 general election. On both sides of the political divide, there were some who were prepared to take their chances a fourth time in order to get a decisive result. But fate in the form of the coronavirus pandemic intervened.

Netanyahu, as the head of a caretaker government, embraced the crisis as only an experienced policymaker and wartime leader could. Some of his leftist critics decried the emergency measures he ordered to contain the coronavirus contagion, charging him with exploiting the crisis to bolster his political standing and to distract the country from the fact that he is still facing trial on three corruption charges. Indeed, some regarded his decision to close the courts, one result of which was to postpone the start of his trial, as an assault on democracy. But polls show that most Israelis believe he is once again demonstrating his competence in dealing with an emergency.

The incumbent prime minister knew that, though his opponent couldn’t form a government, Gantz did have the votes to effectively prevent Netanyahu from remaining in power. The critical factor was the position of Speaker of the Knesset, which has been held by a Netanyahu loyalist. A coalition of the Blue and White, smaller leftist parties, and the Joint List could have elected a new Speaker, and the Knesset could then have passed a law banning anyone under indictment from serving as prime minister. To members of the opposition, this was Gantz’s golden opportunity to take Netanyahu down. Indeed, the Blue and White — a diverse alliance including former members of the once-dominant Labor Party, a right-wing faction led by former general and Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, the left-leaning Yesh Atid Party, and Gantz’s own centrist faction — was united by only one common purpose: pushing Netanyahu out the door.

Though Gantz entered politics as a much-needed fresh face a year ago, after three bruising election campaigns he is now widely seen as lacking the energy and political skills that Netanyahu possesses. Moreover, Gantz had campaigned on a promise not to form a government that would be dependent on the anti-Zionists of the Joint List, and his flirtation with that alliance in the weeks since the last election had soured voters on the Blue and White. Going to a fourth election was therefore a big risk for the party, with polls suggesting not a big or even a narrow win but in fact a decisive defeat. The electorate leans right to begin with, on top of which it was most likely to want a familiar steady hand to lead the country through the pandemic crisis. Thus Gantz came to the conclusion that joining the prime minister was the only reasonable choice.

But if he thought he could bring all of his party with him into Netanyahu’s cabinet, he was dead wrong. Leaders of the factions within the opposition regarded Gantz’s decision as a betrayal, not only of them personally but of the million Israelis who voted for them. Much of Israel’s left-leaning mainstream media, especially columnists in Haaretz, the newspaper that dubs itself Israel’s version of the New York Times, echoed this sentiment, lambasting Gantz for his cowardice and for just being too exhausted to carry on the fight.

So what becomes of the Blue and White? Some factions will stay in the opposition, and since they will have more Knesset seats than Gantz’s own faction, they will likely retain the Blue and White label. But in effect, this split spells the end of the party that had presented the most formidable challenge that Netanyahu has faced since 2009. Moreover, given that the factions disagree on most policy questions, the ability of the party, or what’s left of it, to serve as an effective opposition is questionable.

The exact terms of Gantz’s deal with Netanyahu have yet to be formalized. Gantz signaled his deal with the prime minister by having himself elected Speaker of the Knesset with Likud support — presumably only until the final bargain is sealed. In doing so, he prevented the Blue and White from wielding any remaining leverage to block the coalition. The arrangement hinges on a rotation of the office of prime minister after 18 months and on allowing Gantz’s allies to lead the ministries of defense and justice. Having one of Gantz’s allies in the latter post will ensure that, once the national coronavirus lockdown has been lifted and the courts reopened, Netanyahu’s trial will go forward.

As things stand, it appears that Netanyahu’s rule will end either with a conviction or with the prime minister’s scheduled handing over of the office to Gantz — whichever comes first. Still, many in the Likud as well as Blue and White believe that if Netanyahu is acquitted, he will find a way to renege on his deal with Gantz. Indeed, it may be that Gantz suspects the same thing.

Gantz has gone from the savior of Israel’s left-wing opposition to its bête noire. But he understood that the political stalemate could not go on: It was preventing the country from passing a budget that was needed, most urgently, to provide relief to citizens in the face of the pandemic and to shore up the economy. Dragging out the stalemate was neither rational policy nor good politics. Deciding to end it may have cost Gantz a political future, since it’s unlikely he will be able to reassemble another formidable coalition. Whether or not he really does become prime minister in September 2021, Gantz decided that destroying his party was not too high a price to pay for saving his country from further chaos in the midst of a pandemic.

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