Israel Election 2019: Feiglin Is Messianic but Still a Possible Partner, Gantz Tells Haaretz

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, casts his vote with his wife Revital Gantz in Rosh Haayin, Israel, April 9, 2019.
Kahol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz, casts his vote with his wife Revital Gantz in Rosh Haayin, Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

On the day before Israel's election, Benny Gantz was making a major effort to move left-wing voters over to his Kahol Lavan party in order to ensure that it wins more support than Likud. He spent most of the day at campaign headquarters making video clips and preparing for the big day. By evening, in a telephone interview with Haaretz, he sounded as if he wished it were already over.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 21

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I’ve been following your declarations that Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay must act responsibly. It’s a bit ridiculous; he has his own party and wants to get as many votes as possible for it. Moreover, you’re not promising to make him finance minister regardless of whether he wins six seats or 10.

Gabbay is making a mistake. His most marginal MK is meaningless if we don’t win. I understand why he’s doing this as a party leader who was a candidate for prime minister, but today is head of a "niche" party. We’re saying, in so many words, that Avi Gabbay is a senior partner, regardless of how many seats he wins. But we aren’t handing out portfolios, either inside the party or outside it.

He’s doing his own thing; I assume he’s very afraid of how the Labor Party will finish the process that began two years ago. But the issue is strategic. Either we remove Benjamin Netanyahu or we don’t.

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Gabbay says you were supposed to bring in votes from the right, and if you had brought votes from the right…

We are bringing in votes from the right. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having an impact. Three, four or five seats’ worth. Tomorrow we’ll see the results. Time will tell. We’re saying it’s an extraneous MK versus the ability to replace Netanyahu. But Gabbay is head of the party; he’ll do as he sees fit.

You aren’t saying Meretz is a partner. It’s true you’ve said that anyone who agrees with your guidelines is a partner, but you always talk about Labor and Likud. In your view, is Meretz a principal partner or a second-stringer that can join if it wants or not join if it doesn’t?

We’re naturally addressing those who are ostensibly to our left and ostensibly to our right. We aren’t ruling out anyone else who loves Israel.

It doesn’t sound as if you see Meretz as part of your plan for governance.

Meretz definitely has not been ruled out; it represents healthy Israeli values. Their political naivete is something I argue with, but I’m not ruling them out.

You’re always saying that MK Bezalel Smotrich is an extremist, and you’re correct. But I’m looking at Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin. What’s the big difference between them? In my view, Feiglin is more extreme than Smotrich.

Feiglin is a messianic liberal. On one hand, he’s messianic, on the other, he’s liberal. Smotrich is racist to the point where he says his wife shouldn’t lie next to an Arab woman in the hospital delivery room. What have we come to? I don’t agree with Feiglin’s diplomatic and religious worldviews, but he’s a liberal, so there’s something to start with. Smotrich would be harder.

You are totally invalidating the Arab parties. It seems like you’re afraid of saying something the right will consider pro-Arab, but that your heart’s not in it.

I want to say this very clearly. Israeli Arab citizens are equal citizens in every way. Educational infrastructure, domestic violence, public security – there’s a huge number of things that we need to advance with them. What’s happening with their leadership? Instead of advancing Israeli issues as a Palestinian niche, they're making the Palestinian flag their priority. When someone speaks out against the state from the left, or when someone speaks with extremism like Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir from the right – those are limits I won’t go near.

Benny Gantz mingles with people during an electoral campaign tour, in the city of Rishon Letzion, south of the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on February 1, 2019.Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP

You talk about the Arab public and leadership. This public votes for that leadership time and time again. I’m not saying to accept everything that they do, but conduct a dialogue with them.

This public unfortunately has not encountered enough regular Israeli parties that show concern for their interests. We plan to show them that something has changed. They will simply see that change has begun.

You keep saying that Ben-Gvir won’t be on the Judicial Appointments Committee. So who will be? Where are you in the dispute between judicial activists and conservatives?

We’ve sat with organizations that have researched the issue. I think the Supreme Court should have a significant majority to strike down certain laws ... The court rarely overturns laws. It also has to act conservatively. I will protect the court. It’s the only thing that isn’t aggressive here. We don’t have to strangle the legal system. We will win, we’ll sit down and find the right balance between the court and the legislature, and the legislature and the court.

Do you favor retaining the current system for appointing judges?

There must be a balance. The principle that guides me is balance, worthy judges and total independence – otherwise there is no justice.

Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin at an election campaign in Tel Aviv, April 2, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

Annexation [of the territories]. Netanyahu is now making this a flagship issue.

Oh please, I’m not worried. It’s just a balloon. For 13 years he didn’t do it. It’s just a slogan.

But now he’s got the support of the Trump administration.

It’s an election campaign slogan. Am I supposed to take it seriously? He doesn’t even take it seriously. I also believe that Ma’aleh Adumin, Gush Etzion and Elkana will remain [part of Israel], but between that and annexation … It won’t happen that way. There has to be an arrangement with the international community.

On the contrary, if you think Ma’aleh Adumin should remain, then you annex it.

I don’t want to do anything unilaterally, but rather by agreement and with global backing for an arrangement. Otherwise, what have we done? We’ve inflated the problem instead of reducing it. I want to minimize the problem. Unilateral annexation is great for the voter but not good for real life. Netanyahu hasn’t done it till now. Why not – is someone standing in the way?

The housing crisis. In your platform you say that you will streamline things and create more apartments. Moshe Kahlon, a very skilled politician, tried and didn’t really succeed. Why would Benny Gantz – who isn’t familiar with the system, with the Finance Ministry, with the Interior Ministry or with the Israel Lands Administration – do better than Moshe Kahlon?

I’m not belittling Moshe Kahlon. The problem is basically the cost of land and the way the ILA conducts itself. The problem is the profit on the land. We will build rental housing, we will create a supply in a different way, which will lower prices. Instead of the state making hundreds of millions of shekels on the land, we’ll do it differently.

The state wants to fill its coffers, and so do you because you have economic plans.

The cost of land is higher than it should be. This must be dealt with. We have to lower the cost of living and that will also help with housing. For example, if we support early childhood education and reduce [families’] expenses by 2,000 shekels [a month], they will be able to deal better with housing [costs]. If we make changes in transportation so that people can live in Kfar Ahim [in southern Israel], then travel will be easier and the price will go down. The goal is to synchronize between the different agencies and to push prices down.

But your plan requires money. You were Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. In 2014 there were huge arguments over the budget. It’s always easier for the prime minister to buy a squadron than to build a hospital. You, the chief of staff, with security concerns, can honestly say that you’d prefer a hospital to a squadron?

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz gives thumb up to his supporters after casting vote during Israel's general elections in Rosh Haayin, Israel, April 9, 2019Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

When I was chief of staff I spoke about education and infrastructures being priorities. I also said that there is nothing to be done – we live in the Middle East and there’s a premium that has to be paid for defense here. We can’t take chances. The defense establishment needs very significant budgets that must be stable over the course of many years, and then we can plan our moves to improve the [other] budgets. I will not exempt the IDF from streamlining. The second thing is that it’s possible to inject into the economy loans and external financing that will go to growth engines. When I take money from the outside for growth engines and I make the whole cake bigger, that’s good business. Even though Netanyahu says that I don’t understand anything about this, I have studied international resources management, which he hasn't.

Mendelblit. You worked many years together. Is he easily swayed? Where do you stand on the issue of whether he’s easily pressured or not.

I have very high regard for him. He understands the needs of the system and the law. I think he’s acting in accordance with the law. I really hope that he will investigate all the aspects of Netanyahu’s shares [in the Seadrift Coke company]. Approving the submarines [a reference to Case 3000] is not a legal issue; it’s within the system. But the shares I assume will be checked.

You will accept any decision Mendelblit makes in Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, even if he decides to close them?

Yes. You can’t have it both ways. But I think he knows what the decisions will be. With such a quantity of cases, with state’s witnesses that were involved for years – come on, there’s no smoke without fire.