If I had not joined a national unity government eleven months ago, last fall Israel would have annexed a big chunk of Judaea and Samaria. That is a fact. The results would have been disastrous.
Netanyahu, seeking to seize the rare opportunity of American presidential backing, was working to engineer a fast deal, throwing diplomatic and military caution to the wind. It was clear to me that making such a unilateral and half-baked move would lead Israel down a dangerous course, particularly amid a pandemic that was already stretching Israel’s fractured society to its limits.
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Although it was ultimately the path not taken, it is worth considering what it might have looked like had Netanyahu’s annexation plans played out in practice.
Most likely, we would now be pariahs in Washington. Violence would likely have erupted in the West Bank. Arab countries with whom we’ve lately normalized relations would have severed ties. It would have damaged, possibly beyond repair, our strategic relations with Jordan and Egypt, which remain a corner stone of our defense and strategic policy.
Not only was annexation likely to spark a violent response, it would sabotage any hope of a future negotiated resolution of the conflict.
When I entered politics two years ago, while others shied away from even uttering the word itself, I made clear statements about what I believe is a responsible position regarding peace: In a historically unfriendly neighborhood, I asserted, our country needs to maintain its military advantage.
At the same time, I pledged to pursue any prospect of effective negotiations with moderate forces in the Arab world. It remains my conviction that Israel needs leadership that can seize opportunities to change the reality and break the deadlock which saps future generations of any hope for peace, while offering a voice of moderation and reason against the pull of extremism in a naturally volatile and divisive context.
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Other political parties on the center-left have espoused similar positions. The difference between them and Kachol Lavan is that over the past year, we have translated our words into actions. While other politicians were strong on rhetoric – I was working, quietly but persistently, to bring about real change.
In fact, it was Kachol Lavan that averted what would have been a geopolitical debacle, by using its power-sharing position in government to explain to our colleagues in the U.S. government that annexation was a no-go, internally.
It was this position that offered Netanyahu the ‘quid-pro-quid’ pretense – enabling him to drop annexation ambitions in exchange for the Abraham Accords – and gave Israel an opportunity to take the wise course of peace with the Arab world, rather than the self-destructive course of annexation.
In this sense, it was Kachol Lavan that harnessed U.S. goodwill into the breakthrough accords, the first time that our Arab neighbors have recognized in writing our historical connection to the Land of Israel.
And it was Kachol Lavan that was able to quietly leverage my years building professional relationships and understandings with the American defense establishment, so that the terms of the accords brokered didn’t ultimately include Israel foregoing its critical military edge in the region.
While Netanyahu had left this hugely significant piece of the puzzle unanswered for – initially denying the F-35 deal between the US and the UAE – it was Kachol Lavan, with the defense and foreign relations portfolios in hand, who picked up the pieces to keep Israel’s security protected, reaching a historic deal with the Defense Department to guarantee Israel’s QME for years into the future.
As Minister of Defense, I also instituted policies in the West Bank that brought back an atmosphere of relative calm and mutual respect with the Palestinian Authority. Cooperation with the Palestinian security services, so critical to protecting Israeli lives, was restored. We also supported the transfer of vaccines to the PA medical front line workers and day laborers and acted in a spirit of goodwill when and where possible.
At no point did we embrace irresponsible ideological convictions that threaten our future. Nor did we promote self-serving agendas for personal gains. With little public recognition and working with a coalition partner that sought to subvert us at every turn we worked hard and brought results, on behalf of this country’s future. That’s what matters.
As Israeli voters are being asked, once again, to cast their votes and determine the course this country will take, it would be wise to reflect on how the past year has played out in Israel’s government.
It is an interesting thought experiment to consider what would have happened had Kachol Lavan not offered a voice of moderation and integrity at some of the most critical moments in Israel’s recent history. And even more crucial to consider what may yet happen still if it is no longer sitting around the cabinet table come April.
Benny Gantz is Israel's Defense Minister, the Israel Defense Force's 20th Chief of Staff, and Chair of the Kachol Lavan Party. Twitter: @gantzbe