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Gantz has played into Netanyahu's hands

The coalition agreement between the Likud and Blue and White was ready to be signed last week. All that remained was to put together a historic power-sharing government led by two prime ministers with equal rights and authority. However, after forcing Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to dismantle his party, one half of which balked at joining such a government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did an about-face with two additional demands. One was for veto power over the Judicial Appointments Committee in order to control the makeup of the Supreme Court. The other was for a mechanism to prevent the top court from ruling against him serving as prime minister under criminal indictment.

Gantz cannot give in to these demands. The defense of Israel’s legal and law enforcement systems against persistent efforts by Netanyahu and his allies to weaken them is his sole political achievement vis-à-vis Netanyahu. They are also his sole moral and historic justification for forging a deal with a politician charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Granting Netanyahu veto power over the appointment of judges means giving him control over the identity of the justices who might rule on his appeal if a lower court convicts him.

It was the latest twist in the unbelievable plot of Israeli politics over the past 18 months, the latest curve in the insane roller coaster ride that has left the state in an endless election cycle and without a functioning government.

Over the Passover holiday that began on April 8, Gantz became yet another statistic in the endless list of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political victims. Gantz had abandoned the friends from Yesh Atid with whom he had formed Blue and White in early 2019, leading to the disintegration of the first alternative to emerge in the past decade to challenge Netanyahu’s hold on power — only to discover that he had been led astray by the most devious magician in Israeli political history.

The writing was on the wall, but Gantz failed to read it. Netanyahu waited for the Blue and White breakup he had been trying to engineer for over a year and pounced. With Gantz lacking appropriate guarantees to safeguard his deal, the prime minister came out with two new demands.

Yisrael Beitenu chair Avigdor Liberman, who essentially engineered and orchestrated the lengthy operation to topple Netanyahu, could only look on and wring his hands in despair. “These generals in Blue and White,” he told Al-Monitor, referring to former army chiefs Gantz and his leadership colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, “think they are smart, but they don’t understand anything. They should have given me the keys and the running of this whole thing. They should have exerted more pressure on Netanyahu, rather than easing up. That is the only way to reach agreements with him that are worth the paper on which they are written.”

Netanyahu wanted to work with Gantz for a simple reason: to share responsibility with him for the handling of the coronavirus epidemic and its attendant economic collapse and to buy himself another year and a half in the office. Netanyahu believed he could spend the additional time hammering out a cushy plea bargain with the attorney general and annexing the West Bank with the backing of US President Donald Trump. He could then step down with dignity, leaving a historic legacy and avoiding jail time.

The scenario turned out even rosier than Netanyahu imagined. Contrary to various assessments that the epidemic would undermine his popularity, just the opposite occurred. He is successfully using the crisis to fortify his status as the sole prominent leader defending the people of Israel against the deadly virus. His almost nightly appearances on prime time television aggrandize his image even further. The relatively low number of Israeli fatalities from COVID-19 compared to other countries is a big help.

Unlike Netanyahu, Gantz appears lost and helpless. His previously strong Blue and White that almost defeated the Likud fell apart with a whimper. Recent polls show Netanyahu’s Likud with 40 Knesset seats or more, easily crossing the hitherto unattainable goal of 61 seats with his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies for control of a Knesset majority. These numbers tempt Netanyahu to go for broke. Rather than having to compromise with Gantz and handing over power in 18 months, he could have it all. He could engineer a fourth round of elections, achieve a 61-seat Knesset majority with his allies, change the rules and save himself from the ignominy of a criminal trial.

However, as is always the case in Israel, nothing is ever a done deal. After the euphoria of recent days and the first day of Passover, Netanyahu began a cautious retreat. Although Gantz has been largely disarmed, he still has significant leverage over the prime minister. Many petitions demanding that the Supreme Court ban an indicted politician from forming a government are awaiting the justices’ ruling. As an incumbent prime minister, the law has allowed Netanyahu to continue his term even under indictment and during a criminal trial. Now, however, his incumbency has ended. He is a rank-and-file Knesset member awaiting a nod from the president to form Israel’s next government. According to various legal interpretations, the Supreme Court could deliver a surprise verdict that an indicted Netanyahu cannot be tasked with forming a government.

At this point, Gantz is Netanyahu’s solution. He is not the one forming the government. President Reuven Rivlin had tasked Gantz with the job after the March 2 elections. Gantz’ deadline is looming. If his negotiations with Netanyahu culminate in a governing coalition, Gantz will be the one to inform Rivlin that he has succeeded in his task — even though the government he forms will be led initially by Netanyahu.

Netanyahu knows one other thing. The situation going into an election is a given, but the situation after the voting is an unknown. Right now, he is at an all-time peak in the polls, but former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was also at the height of his popularity on the eve of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. He emerged from the fighting a lame duck. With that and other historic lessons in mind, Netanyahu called Gantz on April 8 and told him the coalition negotiations would resume at once. Netanyahu continues to dither between his aggressive gut and his cautious, rational head that prefers 18 months in the hand to an eternity in the bush.

Gantz’ 28-day mandate to form Israel’s next government ends on April 13. Given the current state of affairs, Gantz might ask Rivlin for a 14-day extension. Netanyahu could endorse Gantz’ request for an extension to convince Rivlin of its prospects of success. It would make Gantz Netanyahu’s official savior, with Netanyahu crowning him as his successor 18 months from now. For that to happen, Gantz must pray that Netanyahu does not find a way to wriggle out of a legally binding coalition agreement anchored in special legislation to switch seats in October 2021. Gantz knows that Netanyahu, the greatest Houdini of Israeli political history, is able to get himself out of anything.

Found in: coronavirus, blue and white party, likud, coalition government, israeli politics, israeli elections, benjamin netanyahu, benny gantz


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