Analysis |

Gantz’s Comments on Palestinians Shatter Left-wing Hopes He Will Halt Annexation

With a week to go before deadline to begin the process in earnest, the alternate prime minister is having trouble shaking his subservience to the prime minister

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz attends a cabinet meeting of the new government in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz attends a cabinet meeting of the new government in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.Credit: Abir Sultan/REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz won’t put a halt to the West Bank annexation plan. If anyone on the left still harbored any illusions on that score, they were disabused of them on Tuesday. Gantz doesn’t intend to sacrifice his own skin to stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the contrary. Speaking to defense reporters on Tuesday, Gantz sounded like he was just going with the flow for Netanyahu, even looking to justify the prime minister’s policies.

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Through three Knesset election campaigns, which all ended indecisively, Gantz, the leader of the Kahol Lavan party, took relatively hawkish positions on the Palestinian issue. Some people attributed this to his efforts to court right-wing voters. But it apparently went much deeper.

In the course of this week’s press briefing, he expressed full support for U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan, which provides for Israeli annexation of up to 30 percent of the West Bank, as well as a Palestinian state. Gantz did make a non-binding statement about the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, but he accused them of attempting to drag Israel into “deep shit,” a term Netanyahu would have been unlikely to utter, as he is more concerned with the “deep state.”

A week before the July 1 target date in the coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Kahol Lavan for the beginning of deliberations on annexation, the deputy prime minister, who is also defense minister, doesn’t really know what the annexation maps will look like. For that matter, senior Israeli military officers have yet to see a single binding map, and Netanyahu has not yet consulted with professionals in the defense establishment.

The objections and concerns of senior defense officials have not been discussed in detail by the cabinet or the security cabinet. The concerns include a possible violent escalation in the West Bank; a confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where according to comments on Tuesday by army chief Aviv Kochavi, an outbreak of fighting is possible; a rift with Jordan; and worsening ties with the Gulf states.

On Tuesday evening, Channel 12 News reported serious differences between Netanyahu and Gantz over annexation. But Gantz’s tone and his actual comments confirm the assumption that there will be no life-and-death battle here. Gantz knows that the final decision is not up to him, but rather up to Netanyahu.

An activist holds a sign at the anti-annexation protest in Rabin Square, June 23, 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The outcome will be determined in accordance with Netanyahu’s understandings with Trump, as well as with the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, actually. Kushner more than Trump knows about what’s on the agenda, and apparently he is more attuned to what is happening in Israel.

The question is whether Kushner will choose to draw a red line (for example, by demanding that Israel make do with a symbolic annexation in Ma’aleh Adumim area outside Jerusalem, and whether he will insist that Likud and Kahol Lavan develop a joint position, as the Americans had initially requested.

Despite the efforts by Gantz’s associates to firm up his image and public standing as deputy prime minister, on a par with Netanyahu, whom Gantz is to supposed to replace, Gantz himself does not convey a sense that he believes it. The test is not in the size of one’s security detail, which is set for Gantz by the Shin Bet security service, but in the balance of power between the two leaders. And on that score, Gantz appears to be acting like he’s still an Israeli army chief of staff who reports to the prime minister. He’s having trouble letting go of that.

There’s simply no match here. The prime minister is treating Kahol Lavan like a cat who is playing with its prey and is trying to decide when to put an end to it all. Gantz, for his part, boasts at every opportunity of his initiative to convene a national reconciliation cabinet, which he wants to set up with a prime minister who directed smear campaigns against him in the last three elections – of a kind that were unprecedented by Israeli terms.

People take part in a protest against Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank and Trump's Mideast initiative, in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The highly effective machine working on Netanyahu behalf – on social media, through journalists doing his bidding and through the collection of useful sensitive information to be put in safe keeping for the right time – will again spring into action whenever it appears necessary. Gantz’s prospects of winning such a battle appear to be next to none. And the likelihood that in November 2021, he will actually be ensconced in the real Prime Minister’s Office look even slimmer.

Accumulated anger

While Gantz was sitting with the reporters at the Defense Ministry’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, the Knesset Finance Committee was meeting to discuss the exceptional tax breaks that Netanyahu and his family want for themselves. Government coalition chairman Miki Zohar (Likud) declared, in support of the tax breaks, that “the prime minster shouldn’t have to try to find a way to make it through the month” financially. Committee members from Kahol Lavan were instructed to absent themselves from the vote, while Likud members remained to fight for the rights of their party leader, that pauper from Caesarea.

On Monday at the coronavirus cabinet meeting at which steps to be taken in light of the upsurge of cases were debated, it was decided to step up enforcement of Health Ministry regulations. The fine for not wearing a mask was increased to 500 shekels ($145). It turns out we got off cheaply: One of the ministers had proposed raising the fine to 2,000 shekels.

As at the Finance Committee, this suggestion also illustrates the disparities that exist between an Israeli public worried about how to make ends meet in the wake of the pandemic and its elected officials.

Most Israelis are not concerning themselves with questions about annexation, which still looks like a theoretical step whose significance is unclear. But the disconnect that Netanyahu, Gantz and senior members of their parties have been showing from their voters is another matter entirely, and something that everyone understands. Anger over this has been building slowly but surely, and it will eventually burst out in the open against the government – to the extent that the economic and health crises coincide with a security crisis.