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Annexation? Israeli Apartheid? Hounding Journalists? Gantz Didn't Come to Fight

The Kahol Lavan leader seems to have forgotten that his party was supposed to represent an alternative to Netanyahu’s aggressive ways

Yossi Verter
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U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz in the run-up to Israel's possible annexation in the West Bank.
U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz in the run-up to Israel's possible annexation in the West Bank.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter

Benny Gantz went into a meeting with the West Bank settler leaders this week bracing against an offensive over the annexation. He knows most of them from when he was army chief, and before that, deputy chief. Some of them he knows from his brief stint 20 years ago as head of the army's West Bank division.

But he was in for a surprise. Not a word was said about the planned annexation. The settlers focused almost entirely on security demands; they spoke about funding for fences. Historical decisions, not so much. For them, it turned out, Gantz is merely defense minister, much less “the alternate prime minister” and the man who will decide things alongside Benjamin Netanyahu in the unity government.

For a year and a half, during three election campaigns, no slander was too low and no trick too slimy for the Likudniks and the settlers to besmirch Gantz with. Now they see him as a partner, a friend. They've observed his behavior over the past four weeks as he and his colleagues adjust to the delights and difficulties of power. The settlers concluded that they can sound the all clear.

From the moment Gantz chose to enter Netanyahu’s fifth government with half of his Kahol Lavan party, he has no longer been seen as an enemy, or even a rival, by the right. This could have been considered an achievement if he had preserved the support of his base.

But the bleeding is massive. According to a Channel 12 News poll, since the government was sworn in on May 17, Kahol Lavan has lost about seven Knesset seats, down to 12. Some voters have defected to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem alliance that broke off from Gantz’s party; most are sitting on the fence. Betrayed, disappointed, frustrated by the system and its results, they’re waiting for developments or Godot, whichever comes first.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a cabinet meeting, June 2020.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a cabinet meeting, June 2020.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

The meeting between Gantz and the settler leaders was a paragon of political and media amateurism. His, not theirs. As the event wound to a close, one settler leaked a statement by the minister, who referred to a member of the forerunner of the Labor Party: “A Mapainik once taught me: If you’re given something, take it. Fight for the rest later.”

This was interpreted as meaning extending Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank, an issue that has created two camps among the settler chiefs. Gantz is seen as advising them to accept any annexation that’s agreed on – a Ben-Gurion-style approach held by many settlers leaders over the decades, the occupation’s version of the early Zionists’ “one more dunam, one more goat” strategy.

This isn’t the position Gantz’s voters would have expected of him, whether those who deserted him, those who haven’t or those who haven’t yet. What is he, the settlers’ consigliere? The election is behind us, there’s no need to disguise himself as a right-winger.

According to another version, his remark didn’t refer to the annexation at all; Gantz was talking about funding. He cited a certain sum, they demanded more, he said take what I offered. That sounds highly implausible, if only because we know who we’re dealing with. Nobody is as good as the settlers in grabbing whatever they’re given and then complaining of being robbed, cheated and deserving more. That’s how the “settlement project” was built.

A sign advertising a settlers' conference against Donald Trump's Mideast plan, June 10, 2020.
A sign advertising a settlers' conference against Donald Trump's Mideast plan, June 10, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Gantz’s second faux pas was the press statement his office released afterward – a jumble of slogans about “unity,” “agreements” and “the United States is our best friend.” Then there was something about the importance of the peace agreements with Jordan and his responsibility “to cultivate and assist places where people live legally.”

To his credit, or detriment, he fervently refrains from talking about the two-state solution. But what about a word on the peace process? About the danger of one state and the loss of the Jewish majority? About annexing a population denied basic rights? Where does he stand on the insanity of the isolated settlements and outposts?

It’s as if he forgot that he’s not only the defense minister, but also the leader of a party that defined itself as a centrist outfit aspiring to form a government and championing a separation from the Palestinians. Where has that disappeared to?

No situation is better for airing a political agenda than such a meeting with the settlers – instigate a confrontation and quickly send the media a transcript. There’s no need to shout or bang the table. Gantz can say penetrating things calmly. That’s how Yitzhak Rabin used to do it. So did Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, each in his own way. Gantz boasts a courageous record as a soldier. But as a civilian, he flees every confrontation.

I asked a confidant of Gantz’s what the idea was. “We didn’t want to ram into them at 200 kilometers per hour,” he said. Okay, not 125 miles an hour, but what about going into first gear? Or at least release the handbrake?

Maps and legends

Every day until July 1 – the date for the start of a possible annexation – only reveals the political, economic, security and diplomatic folly of this unilateral move that would make the apartheid in the occupied territories official. The warnings by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas should have resonated everywhere. People know that somehow, somewhere, lots of shouting is going on, but they don’t really want to listen to it.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in Jerusalem, June 10, 2020.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in Jerusalem, June 10, 2020.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

When the settlers asked Gantz if he had seen the annexation map, he said no. That too sounds weird. Is it possible that the “alternate prime minister” and defense minister hasn’t been shown the maps?

According to the official position of both the defense minister and the prime minister, Gantz hasn’t seen them because there’s nothing to see. There aren’t any maps because there weren’t any maps.

That is, there are many maps: 15, 20, 25 maps that are optional drafts, each addressing a different annexation version in the West Bank, from the 30 percent in Donald Trump’s original plan (including the Jordan Valley minus an unclear number of isolated settlements) to more modest formulas. There are maps, but there is no final official map.

“There’s a conceptual map that President Trump presented, on a scale of one to 1 million,” someone in Kahol Lavan said. “And it must be interpreted into what the Americans call a technical map. That will be done in work between teams. We’ll have to ratify it. In Washington, they now understand more deeply the meaning of Israel’s unity government. We have ways of talking to the Americans.”

I asked if Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi’s hands wouldn’t tremble if they signed an annexation plan that violated international law and could lead to sanctions on Israel. “There will be a price to pay,” he admitted. “Some countries will consider sanctions, some will recognize the Palestinian state.”

I asked about Kahol Lavan’s role.

“We’re influencing,” he said. “It’s no coincidence, for example, that in the coronavirus laws the Shin Bet isn’t tracking people anymore. And anyone who comes to the Justice Ministry building today sees the change. Our people are there, and the staff isn’t being sent to the vaults to scour for incriminating material on Shai Nitzan,” the previous state prosecutor.

Next week Gantz and Ashkenazi, the foreign minister, are expected to start discussing with Netanyahu the ingredients for the final casserole. These will be important meetings. The participants probably better not hold their breath, whether or not they’re wearing masks. American and Israeli annexation teams will also hold meetings.

U.S. Ambassador David Friedman is expected to take part in all the meetings. Friedman is the most radical part of both sides of the equation – Israeli and American. As a veteran donor to the settlement of Beit El and a man of the messianic right, he’s pushing for maximum annexation. Israeli officials describe him as even more extreme than Netanyahu.

In contrast, and in a significantly more influential position, is Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser. While Friedman has links to, feeds and is fed by Yaakov Katz and his buddies at Beit El, Kushner has a broader outlook on the world and the Middle East. His vision, to which he usually manages to harness the president, is global, not local. He maintains close ties with leaders of Arab states and is attentive to their problems.

So the assumption in Israel is that the last word on the annexation’s scope and timing will jibe with Jared’s wishes. And his main wish is an internal Israeli consensus, in the absence of a world consensus.

Netanyahu, his ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, the settlers and naturally Friedman are outflanking Kushner and the few remaining people with any sense and responsibility in the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. And to do this outflanking, they're relying on the U.S. evangelicals; this consists of many millions who would like nothing more than the annexation of the patriarchs’ land. These are the voters Trump considers most important in the November election.

Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and Yariv Levin view a map of the West Bank, February 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and Yariv Levin view a map of the West Bank, February 2020. Credit: David Azagury / U.S. Embassy

Friedman’s role in the meetings with the three senior officials will be to forge a compromise between the two stances; on the one side, that of Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, on the other, that of Gantz and Ashkenazi.

So the current belief in Israel is that the implementation of sovereignty will be limited compared with the territories referred to in the beginning. For example, maybe it will be restricted to three settlement blocs.

Netanyahu will be able to tell his base that this is the beginning of the Redemption. To Netanyahu’s most ardent followers it won’t really matter, they’ll applaud any annexation. It’s doubtful, however, that the settlers will believe him. Gantz and Ashkenazi will tell their dwindling base: We reined them in, we moderated, we blocked.

“We have a lot of work to do,” someone in Kahol Lavan told me Thursday. “We won’t make a decision before hearing the full picture and all the political strategic and security aspects. I don’t know what will happen; maybe in the end nothing.”

“How’s that possible?” I asked. Netanayhu is stoking enormous expectations on the right. Something will have to be implemented.

“I don’t know,” my interlocutor said. “We remember his declarations about Iran” – the threats of war in 2010 and 2011 – “and what actually happened.”

Shadow time

Meanwhile, Netanyahu doesn’t have too many foot soldiers on the right in the annexation battle. Perversely and incomprehensibly, there are many more members in his Likud party focusing on the “injustice” done to the criminal defendant than mobilizing for the annexation campaign.

In the opposition, the two right-wing parties – Yisrael Beiteinu and Yamina – are challenging him effectively over the issue. And while Netanyahu has been pretty quiet about the High Court ruling overturning a perverse law to legalize settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land, his own ministers and legislators are pressuring him from the right, even though he knows there’s nothing he can do given the legislative constraints in his coalition agreement with Kahol Lavan.

The current Knesset has 68 MKs who define themselves as unequivocally right-wing (including the defectors Zvi Hauser, Yoaz Hendel and Orli Levi-Abekasis). But some are in the opposition, while others, despite being in the governing coalition, feel little commitment to Netanyahu’s agenda.

This is true on the diplomatic issue, where MK Michal Shir, who is close to Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa’ar, decided on her own to submit a new version of the legalization law to the Knesset this week. And it’s true on other issues.

This can be seen in the actions of another top Likudnik who was left out of the division of the spoils, Nir Barkat. Just as Naftali Bennett has made himself a kind of alternative health minister in his own shadow government and trolls Netanyahu, Barkat is doing on economic issues.

After the boss cheated him of his promised appointment as finance minister, Barkat is making himself a nuisance by shadowing the guy who won the jackpot, Yisrael Katz. He proposes alternative plans, gives interviews assailing the government’s policy and is getting on Katz’s nerves – and of course, the finance minister isn’t receiving any backing from the prime minister.

Barkat doesn’t know anything about the term “100-day grace period.” He hasn’t even granted Katz 100 minutes.

The budgetary corral leading over the coronavirus cliff will go down in the finance minister’s name. The critics, like Barkat, and the people disappointed by whatever budget is ultimately passed will aim their arrows at him.

Netanyahu at a government meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020
Netanyahu at a government meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu has run policy over the heads of previous finance ministers while letting them take all the fire along the way; see Yuval Steinitz. But Katz is one of the people aspiring to succeed Netanyahu someday.

His already tiny chances will become even tinier with every day he spends at this ministry. Barkat, of course, is overjoyed by this, and Netanyahu won’t shed any tears over it either. Not even crocodile tears.

Cuckoo cocoon

News editors are very familiar with the system. Reporters or analysts produce credible, fact-checked information on the stinking pile of criminal charges against Netanyahu. The Netanyahus gird themselves for battle and, via their personal spokesman, Ofer Golan, submit an aggressive, disparaging, ad hominem response against the reporter. Media outlets, at least the self-respecting ones, report the pertinent sections (however full of stunning lies) but not the attacks on the journalist.

Former army chief Gadi Eisenkot coined the term “the war between the wars” to describe the effort to forge a northern front with minimum Iranian and maximum Israeli capabilities in the run-up to the war that might one day come, God forbid. Netanyahu’s war on the media could be termed “the war within the war.”

He’s riding roughshod over every part of the law enforcement system while inciting his fans via blatant lies. And within this, there’s the battle against the media, which played a decisive role in exposing his alleged crimes.

This week, it was once again Raviv Drucker’s turn – thanks to his excellent, jaw-dropping, well-edited investigative report on the television program “Hamakor.” Drucker became the latest to have a jumbo target painted on his back, or maybe his forehead. The Netanyahus didn’t even wait for their response to be aired; they had already put together a shocking, Hamas-style video titled “Raviv Drucker to jail.”

They quickly bought the media spots “targeting” – as they call it in digital marketing jargon – Bibi fans, but also anyone who follows “Hamakor” or Channel 13 News online. Then they sent it out. They purchased millions of exposures at their own expense; that is, on Likud’s tab, at the behest of the Netanyahu family, with funding from the taxpayer. They wildly incited – once again – against a journalist for doing his job.

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel muttered something meaningless about how “it’s journalists’ job to criticize.” Gantz – the guy who once warned that Netanyahu increasingly resembled Recep Tayyip Erdogan – said nothing. Only half a day later did he copy-paste Hendel’s statement to satisfy his obligation.

Again, Gantz doesn’t really like altercations. Weakness seizes him. (The one person who did dare go one step further was Ashkenazi. “The statement that a journalist ought to sit in jail for his reporting is outrageous and unacceptable in a democratic country,” he tweeted.)

Meanwhile, there’s one thing about which neither Gantz nor Hendel (who knows the issue I’m about to discuss from up close) nor anyone else in the parties that are “moderating” the venomous Netanyahu government has said a word. They haven’t even considered doing so.

The issue in question is another series of revelations about what goes on in the cuckoo’s nest known as the prime minister’s residence. The disparaging responses in this case, typed by the same manic hands as their predecessors, target poor women who barely make a living, who have gone through hell in this residence and decided not to keep quiet, despite all the threats and pressure.

And forget about the abuse of such workers. Every day, more layers are revealed about how the yes-men surrounding Netanyahu and his wife, both at the residence and at the Prime Minister’s Office, do whatever they feel like to game the system, lie about and cover up suspected crimes. And in between, they silence the cries from this house of horrors by any means possible.

Along the way, of course, they say yes to anything the royal family wants. When they see the attorney general, a merciful man and the son of a merciful man, close six of the seven cases into the financial shenanigans at the prime minister’s residences, and when they see that no political force challenges this issue with even a smidgen of criticism, what’s there to be afraid of?

The caravan goes by, abuses and humiliates. But not a single dog barks.

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