Following a weekend of frantic deliberations, Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz’s team found an elegant solution to what seemed a trap with no exit. It all began when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence declared to the cameras that Gantz’s invitation to Washington was offered at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While sitting smugly beside Pence, Netanyahu echoed the same humiliating message, in case it hadn’t been picked up clearly enough by the microphones the first time: “I suggested that Benny Gantz be invited as well.” This small humiliation rocked Kahol Lavan’s boat.
Despite having already accepted the American invitation in principle, this display, as if Gantz were flying to the United States by Netanyahu’s grace alone, entirely disrupted the plan. From that moment, even though Kahol Lavan continued preparations for the trip, including obtaining special guest visas and booking plane tickets, dramatic debates were taking place over whether the party should take part in the spectacle at all.
Some people in Kahol Lavan said Gantz could not under any circumstances turn down an invitation from the U.S. president. In those few hours, Netanyahu’s team had already published a statement conveying that Gantz’s refusal would prove that Kahol Lavan really doesn’t put Israel “before everything,” as its campaign slogan states. As the right-wing tweet storm put it, Gantz is willing to miss a historic opportunity like a diplomatic plan prioritizing Israel just because of his hatred for Netanyahu. Some of the tweeters continued with this message even after Gantz clarified that he would be going to Washington.
Others claimed it was a honey trap to avoid at all cost. They said Pence’s barb was just the first in a long series of humiliations courtesy of a Trump administration that works hand-in-hand with Netanyahu. They could already imagine tricks such as Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, sawing the legs off Gantz’s chair to force him sit lower down. As they insisted to Gantz, if you go, you’ll be the pathetic butt of Trump and Netanyahu’s jokes.
And there was also a political argument. Some in the party believed that Netanyahu was so interested in having Gantz join because this would reopen the “closed but not locked” door to a unity government. Netanyahu knows he won’t be getting 61 seats for a right-wing coalition even after the third Knesset election in March.
Senior Likud officials believed this might be the explanation as well. A joint trip and a tripartite meeting with Trump could be the scene of a softening on the way to another attempt at unity. Under these circumstances, the Kahol Lavan members who were more adamant about not sitting with Netanyahu sought to avoid a picture that would even hint that this was a possibility.
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Gantz’s base, which mainly supports his platform of “anyone but Netanyahu,” wouldn’t put up with any cooperation like this. So the decision became not just a matter of participating in Trump’s “deal of the century,” but also over an Israeli unity government.
Ultimately, the White House solved the problem. After concerted efforts during which Gantz’s inclination wasn’t to attend at all, the White House agreed that Trump would meet with Gantz and Netanyahu separately.
This isn’t a favor to Gantz, it’s because Washington needs him. He’s the Americans’ proof that this isn’t an attempt to influence a foreign election. Such an allegation would anger and upset Washington more than anything after the Trump administration remained silent during the two previous Israeli elections and amid allegations that other countries have interfered with U.S. elections. Separate meetings with Gantz and Netanyahu will ruin the effect of a festive summit, but Gantz’s backing will let Trump reveal his plan without being accused of election interference.
Gantz of course benefits more than anyone. He isn’t forced to turn down the president’s invitation, he won’t be accused of undermining Israeli interests, and he won’t be photographed in that metaphorical lower seat alongside Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, the person losing in the White House’s gesture to Gantz, said he would be meeting with Trump on Monday and again on Tuesday. It’s fair to presume that this isn’t the end of a new reality show: “The Race to the White House.”