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Gantz Held His Own With Netanyahu, Securing a Tactical – and Temporary – Win

Prime minister is surveying the Knesset to lock in his next coalition; this may explain why he backed down from calling an election, hours before the 23rd Knesset turned into a pumpkin

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

It’s a political axiom that Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t call elections until he has at least tentatively locked in his next governing coalition. But somehow, it always falls through.

In 2019, he thought Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman would sit in the Defense Ministry like a good boy, but instead, he forced a second election. In 2015, Lieberman again slipped through his fingers at the last moment, despite Shas chairman Arye Dery’s “trust me” promise. In 2013, it also didn’t work; Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett forged an alliance and forced Netanyahu to separate from his ultra-Orthodox brothers.

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But in principle, this is his modus operandi: He who toils before the election will be asked by the president to form a government afterward and eventually get the government he wanted.
This may be one reason why he backed down from calling new elections this week, just hours before the clock struck midnight and the 23rd Knesset turned into a pumpkin. Members of Likud say that before the deadline, Netanyahu sent envoys to Bennett to find out whether he could rely on Bennett’s current party, Yamina (which is polling at 18 or 19 seats), to recommend the right prime ministerial candidate to the president.  

The answer (in loose translation) was, “Don’t count on us.” Yamina declined to comment for this report.

Bennett’s feelings on the issue were evident on Wednesday. After MK Ayelet Shaked of Yamina gave an interview to Army Radio that sounded as if the party would again walk down the aisle with Netanyahu, Bennett gave her a talking-to. 

He is sticking to his position: He won’t commit to recommending Netanyahu. (He and Shaked aren’t always on the same page.) And soon afterward, Yamina MK Matan Kahana tweeted, “We’ll recommend ourselves.”

Haredi fear of elections

Another reason why Netanyahu folded was the position of the three ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas, Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael (the latter two comprise the United Torah Judaism joint ticket). A few hours before the decisive Knesset vote on the so-called “Hauser compromise” (which isn’t a compromise, but merely harmful procrastination), the parties’ leaders – Dery, Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman – said they would vote for it, along with Netanyahu’s other governing partner, Kahol Lavan. 

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu attend a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020.
Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu attend a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. Credit: Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS

That wasn’t due to any new political agenda. They were merely protesting the threat of elections, which, if realized, would leave the “Torah world” with no government funding, and therefore no Torah.
The third reason, hard though it is to believe, was Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz’s decision earlier that day to sever contact with Netanyahu. Netanyahu wanted the cabinet to meet before the Knesset vote and decide how senior civil service appointments would be made. 

The details are exhausting, but here’s the short version: The criminal defendant (contrary to his dizzying lies this week) demanded a veto over the choice of the police commissioner, the state prosecutor and, eventually, the attorney general. Likud sent a draft resolution on the subject. Kahol Lavan amended it. Likud sent it again, Kahol Lavan amended it again. And again, and again.

At some point, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn advised Gantz to stop sending revisions and cut off contact with Likud. You want elections? Nissenkorn said. We’ll have elections. There’s a limit.
Gantz and his partner in Kahol Lavan’s leadership, Gabi Ashkenazi, agreed. And then, Netanyahu caved.

For Kahol Lavan, this was merely a tactical victory, but one that put a little color in its members’ pale cheeks. They didn’t capitulate on the rule of law, their main cause. 

Election windows

But there are still two dates at which Netanyahu could call elections on terms convenient to him – December 23, 2020 and March 31, 2021. In any case, his promise to rotate the Prime Minister’s Office to Gantz won’t be kept.

Nissenkorn, as noted, played a key role. But nothing in his public career prepared him for the concentrated barrage of mud hurled at him over a nonexistent “closed criminal case” against him. 
He experienced what former senior police officers, past and present senior prosecutors and the attorney general for a long time: “Journalists” and “analysts” (“wretches,” he called them) knowingly publish false reports. Politicians and advisers, whom that term also fits, echo the lie. And then, once the ground is prepared and the poison had been absorbed, the big boss, Netanyahu himself, gives the libel an official stamp of approval. 

Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judiasm and Arye Dery of Shas.
Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judiasm and Arye Dery of Shas.Credit: Effi Sharir

It’s a well-known cycle. Sick, but effective. Decent politicians and our superficial media have trouble creating an effective response. The latter report the allegation and the other side’s response, but the impression that remains is one of guilt.

Like his colleagues in Kahol Lavan, Nissenkorn expects nothing from Netanyahu. But who did disappoint him? You’ll be amazed: Transportation Minister Miri Regev and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. Nissenkorn has an excellent working relationship with both. Or more accurately, he had. 

He and Regev have known each other for years. She often consulted him and sought his help even back when he led the Histadrut labor federation. And he developed a good working relationship with Ohana, whose ministerial responsibilities intersect with his own. 

When Netanyahu ordered them to ram into Nissenkorn at 200 kilometers per hour, few senior Likud members obeyed. Even they have limits, it turns out. But Regev and Ohana don’t. They raced to jump on the dung cart and spray it at their colleague.
Nissenkorn’s possession of the Justice Ministry is Kahol Lavan’s raison d’etre. It knew what abysses would be revealed as defendant No. 1’s trial progressed. It also understood that it had to serve as the system’s flak jacket.

Normally, there’s a limit to how many bullets a flak jacket can absorb. But anyone who asks Nissenkorn comes away with the opposite impression.

The soul of a dictator

Only a prolonged stay among people like the Likud leader and his party’s ministers could cause an even-tempered man who always shuns conflict to speak as Gantz did in the Knesset Monday night. “The days of containment and restraint are over,” he said furiously. It’s no accident that he used the phrase Israeli governments generally use for Hamas and Islamic Jihad right before launching a military operation in the Gaza Strip.

These 100 days of partnership, which Gantz rightly described as a time when he suffered insults, mockery, blood libels, exclusion and humiliation, were (to borrow Bennett’s description of his relationship with Sara Netanyahu) a private course in terrorism. Like any normal person, he has trouble understanding how his genuine desire for partnership could be met with such naked cynicism. Welcome to the club, veteran Likud members say. 

“Bibi has completely lost any ability to work with others, cooperate, share information,” one said. “He had that during the first third of his current tenure, when Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Moshe Ya’alon were beside him. Then, he behaved in an exemplary manner.

“But it gradually eroded. Today, he suffers from paranoia and bottomless suspicion and trusts very few people – Ambassador Ron Dermer, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and National Security Director Meir Ben-Shabbat. All are officials he appointed.”

I thought about that. I recalled Netanyahu’s shining eyes during his speeches dismantling the caretaker government he headed for more than a year. 

He described how he dealt with the coronavirus – with no opposition, no other opinions, no Knesset, no checks and balances, no cabinet full of frightened ministerial puppets, no annoying MK Yifat Shasha-Biton chairing the Knesset’s coronavirus committee and having the nerve to demand that decisions be based on data. What a paradise it was when he, former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Ben-Shabbat managed the crisis alone.

The unhappy conclusion is that he has the soul of a dictator. In the best case, a democra-tator, as Lapid called him. His hero, Russian President Vladimir Putin, poisons political rivals and fearless journalists. Netanyahu – the angel of political sabotage, as former Likud chairman Yitzhak Shamir called him – merely poisons the atmosphere relentlessly and pollutes every governmental system he can.

Gantz learned this the hard way. There will be no peace with his flawed, damaging partner. There won’t even be normalization.

Diving into the details

Before the budget vote Monday night, Gantz finished his speech, which began with a declaration of war and ended with an all-clear siren, then went into the hallway, answered reporters’ questions, and proceeded to his office in the Knesset. On its television, he watched Netanyahu, who had also rushed to put himself in front of the cameras.

“I can’t remember ever talking about Gantz in such terms since the government was formed,” he said with feigned innocence. Kahol Lavan, he added, “never stops attacking me and Likud from within the government.” The only thing missing was for him to call himself a “battered husband” and ask for help from the relevant nonprofits. 
Someone who was in the room with Gantz at the time heard him chuckle sadly in response. “He forgot that a week ago, he painted me and Gabi as people who would leak to Iran,” Gantz said.

During these 100 days, Gantz and his colleagues have passed several particularly painful milestones that showed them who the man they stood with under the political bridal canopy really was. But nothing hurt and infuriated them like that statement by Netanyahu, during the press conference where he announced the agreement with the United Arab Emirates

Gantz and Ashkenazi are both former military chiefs of staff, with a combined 80 years of military service. They have kept Israel’s most classified secrets and commanded secret operations whose history will never see the light of day. But with one inane statement by a man devoid of even minimal values who is himself a serial and irresponsible leaker, they became potential traitors.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 2020.
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Ashkenazi took it especially hard. “I give Netanyahu a failing grade for excluding his defense and foreign ministers; this is irresponsible behavior,” he tweeted Saturday night, adding that the prime minister had “returned to patterns of behavior” like those he exhibited in the botched attempt to assassinate former Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in 1997, the opening of the Western Wall Tunnels in 1996 and the recent corruption in the purchase of naval vessels.

By mentioning those three items, Ashkenazi stuck a finger in the most festering security wounds of Netanyahu’s combined 14 years in office, his most searing failures. In the first, Mossad agents were arrested and a master terrorist was freed. In the second, soldiers were killed because of an unnecessary nationalist act. And the third involved a dubious, stinking defense deal, only part of which, unfortunately, seems likely to be clarified in court.

People who spoke with Ashkenazi this week heard him say the following of Netanyahu: The Golani Brigade isn’t afraid of liars.
Let’s focus for a minute on the submarines and missile boats. On Wednesday, Ashkenazi flew to Berlin as the guest of his German counterpart, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Before that trip, his first since entering office, he dove into the details of this case. 
Informed sources say there’s nobody who knew anything about the matter, whether civilian or military, with whom Ashkenazi didn’t speak. “He has a doctorate in the subject,” one said.

The subs that Germany sold Egypt with Netanyahu’s consent, without the defense establishment being consulted, created tension between Germany and Israel. Both have investigated and are still investigating the issue. 

Ashkenazi didn’t just study the matter. He’s the second state official to travel to Germany who isn’t one of Netanyahu’s terrified loyalists. The first was President Reuven Rivlin. And it was during his last meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel that he learned about Netanyahu’s approval of the submarine sale to Egypt. 

It would be interesting to know what, if anything, Ashkenazi learns during his visit. It would be even more interesting to know whether the disgraceful attacks on him by Netanyahu and his family were preemptive strikes against any display of interest in this abominable case of defense corruption – interest that for some reason always moves Netanyahu’s panic meter to maximum.

Naftali and the leaders

Like American politicians do, Bennett has turned his memories of a certain brief episode into a book (published this week by Sella Meir publishers). “How to Beat the Pandemic” sums up the last half year of his career. Over the course of 144 pages, he describes, in highest resolution, his actions during the coronavirus crisis – first as defense minister, then as a self-appointed coronavirus czar without authority, but with public approval, which has sent Yamina soaring in the polls.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi
Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv KochaviCredit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

A quick read didn’t uncover any mentions of Netanyahu, or at least not as a meaningful player in any of the issues to which Bennett attaches great weight in  fighting the coronavirus, like the failure to set up a testing and contact tracing system. In this book, the prime minister is nothing. The implication is that in Bennett’s view, Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus was like his handling of Hamas’ cross-border tunnels during the 2014 war in Gaza – passive in the face of the bureaucrats, mired in inaction. 

Bennett chose instead to voice admiration for another prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. Shamir grabbed a historic opportunity that landed in his lap – the fall of the Berlin Wall – and used it to bring a million immigrants to Israel.

This reminded me of a story. Several years ago, Likud MKs held a festive meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. One of the speakers crowned Begin Israel’s best prime minister. Those present saw Netanyahu’s face turn livid. At the end of the meeting, he went up to the speaker and demanded, “How could you do this to me?”

Since then, he has been through several more years in office and too many election campaigns. His megalomania has grown exponentially. This was evident in an advertisement he posted on the web a week ago. A section about the peace agreement with Egypt, signed by Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, was colored black and dark red, under the slogan “Land for Peace.” 
Never mind his scorn and contempt for prime ministers from the rival political bloc – Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak. Now, as his delusions of grandeur have grown, the last barrier has been broken. In his view, even Begin is no longer worthy of respect.

The mayor is working

Had the election campaign begun Monday night, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai would already have been deep in the swamp. In recent months, he has been touring the political world, meeting with party leaders – mainly from his own bloc, the center-left – and testing the waters. 

MK Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 17, 2020
MK Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 17, 2020Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

On Tuesday, he had lunch with Avigdor Lieberman at a restaurant in Neveh Ilan. He’s been meeting with Yair Lapid every few months, and also with other MKs and ministers, including some from Kahol Lavan – the only party he has voted for except Labor, which was his party for years until he finally got fed up. The meeting with Lieberman took place at Huldai’s request.

Strangely, the two have quite a lot in common. Both are veteran politicians, both champion secular rights and both instinctively refuse to spare any rival the edge of their tongues. Nevertheless, Lieberman is still untouchable, or at best suspect, among most of the liberals who view Huldai as their guru.

Recently, when Tel Aviv’s City Hall was illuminated in the colors of the Lebanese flag following the explosion in Beirut’s port and the right went crazy, Lieberman was the person who came out in Huldai’s defense. 

“When the prime minister orders the national security adviser to offer immediate aid, including sending patients for treatment in Israel, it’s a welcome humanitarian step,” he tweeted with his well-known sarcasm. “When the mayor of Tel Aviv decides to illuminate City Hall in the colors of the Lebanese flag as a sign of solidarity, that’s a traitorous move.”

Lieberman would undoubtedly give a lot to see Huldai on his ticket. The most popular man in Tel Aviv could legitimize him in the eyes of at least a few seats’ worth of voters who currently keep their distance from him, thereby boosting Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset representation into double digits. 

But Huldai doesn’t plan to be anyone’s number two, not even Lapid’s. He is currently drafting a completely different plan – his own party. And he has dreams about his own number two – former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. 

When asked whether he and Eisenkot had met recently, Huldai’s office declined to answer.

Israeli mayor Ron Huldai in 2019.
Israeli mayor Ron Huldai in 2019.Credit: \ Ilan Assayag

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