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As His Popularity Falls, Gantz Is Confronting Netanyahu to Justify His Political Existence

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz attends a cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, June 28, 2020
Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz attends a cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, June 28, 2020Credit: Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

1. On Tuesday, Kahol Lavan Chairman and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz reported for an interview in the Ynet studio after rarely having spoken since the formation of the unity government. After the split from Yesh Atid, those who sided with Gantz said: “Look at the polls. Two thirds of Kahol Lavan voters said they would vote for us, and a third for Yesh Atid.” Since then, the trend has been reversed. In a Channel 13 News poll published this week, Gantz’s faction received nine seats, compared to 16 for Yesh Atid.

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These figures are very disturbing for Gantz. After a round of discussions with his advisers, he came to several insights. He has to initiate ideological confrontations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in order to convince his public that the Kahol Lavan’s participation in the government is bringing about significant results.

Last week Gantz hired Brit Peretz ‒ who has worked with MKs Naftali Bennett, and Shay Piron, as well as the Migdal company in the past ‒ to be Kahol Lavan’s media adviser. Her job is to try to explain why it’s important for Gantz to be in the government.

In light of that, Gantz told Ynet on Tuesday: “We’re involved every day in an event with the potential to disband the government, which will continue with us.” This is how we can understand what he said regarding the July 1 target date for beginning annexation in the West Bank as not being “sacred.”

The chairman of Kahol Lavan has also reached the conclusion that the fact that he is seen by the public as someone who will do everything possible to reach November 2021 and become prime minister is harmful to him. That’s why he will soon begin to say that the premiership isn’t everything, and that the main thing is principles.

2. Gantz’s biggest and most significant challenge is how he acts vis-a-vis annexation ‒ to be seen by the public as someone who was relevant to the process, while not overblowing his relationship with Netanyahu and not disappointing his left-wing supporters. The core of Gantz’s problem regarding annexation is that he doesn’t really have an opinion on the subject. Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid gave a good description in a Facebook post of how Gantz changed his opinion on the matter due to the pressure on the eve of Netanyahu’s trip to the United States. Gantz’s opinion is in fact that of the defense organizations. He is an ambassador to the government of the Shin Bet security service, and the Israel Defense Forces.

Netanyahu wants Gantz’s support, but not because he needs it politically. Netanyahu believes that Kahol Lavan’s support for the annexation will help to soften the reactions of the European Union and Democratic Party in the United States, which will see that even a center-left party approves of the plan. However, discussions between the two sides didn’t go well. Netanyahu launched various threats at Gantz. Among them, he threatened the alternative prime minister with an ultimatum via the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom: “Election or Annexation.” Netanyahu’s new spin on the threat is a statement that he himself leaked from a Likud meeting on Tuesday: I’ll go ahead even without Gantz.

In his distress, Gantz found a new excuse: The coronavirus. The polls indicate that satisfaction with the economic situation and the handling of the pandemic is gradually declining. Israel is now facing a second virus wave with very limited tools with which to deal with it. Now, Gantz is seizing on the coronavirus as an excuse to avoid annexation. His assessment ‒ which is shared by Netanyahu ‒ is that there is a window of opportunity now. The approaching U.S. election increases the possibility of a harsh counter-reaction from U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, if and when he is elected president, and the level of risk is changing.

3. Gantz met on Tuesday with the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties who tried, as envoys of Netanyahu, to persuade him to agree to a one-year budget. It was interesting to hear how Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni, who passed the 2019 budget in March 2018, explained why it will be impossible to pass the 2021 budget in September 2020. Gantz realized that this is a maneuver by Netanyahu, which would enable him to remain prime minister even if the budget doesn’t pass until March 2021 and there is an election. Gantz is determined to fight to the finish. His reason: It’s not a two-year budget but a budget for five quarters. The Haredi parties assured him that it was not a maneuver and that Netanyahu would keep his promises, but so far they have been unsuccessful in convincing the alternate prime minister.

And yet, despite the blatant mutual disgust, the election is far off. Netanyahu and Gantz are tied together until the end of the coronavirus crisis. Netanyahu is pleased by his devaluation of Gantz, and he attributes no importance to Yair Lapid. He is very concerned about the possibility of a new independent party, which would be an economic-populist party that would promise not to be preoccupied with right or left, with annexation or with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, but only with life itself. Likud is afraid that such a party would gain 20 seats.

Netanyahu is surveying the Israeli public and seeking a candidate to lead such a party, in order to begin to tarnish Gantz now, but he has yet to find such a person. Bennett also identifies movement in the polls in the direction of an economic right, and is trying to build a division of independents within his party Yamina into a kind of an anti-Histadrut economic right, which would break the glass ceiling of the religious Zionist politicos.

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