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Gantz's Inexperience Gives Netanyahu an Opening to Call a New Election

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. Credit: Menahem Kahana/AP
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Twenty-five days have passed since water and oil mixed to form Israel’s 35th government, and the natural process of separation remains ongoing. No matter how hard Likud and Kahol Lavan try to recombine it, no matter how many portfolios float upwards – the differences are apparent. So much so that senior Likud lawmakers are talking about another election as a fact.

The High Court’s decision Tuesday to strike down the law legalizing settlements partially built on privately owned Palestinian land rekindled the conflict over a topic beloved by the two parties: the Supreme Court.

LISTEN: Annexation vexation comes between Bibi and the settlers

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Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan sees an electoral opportunity to take back its voters who left for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party following the formation of the unity government, a chance to show them that it’s better to have influence on the inside rather than complain from the outside. Right after the verdict, as if a coordinated message came down from the sky, all the senior members of Gantz’s party tweeted that they would not allow the ruling to be circumvented. Even Foreign Affairs Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who has not given an interview or said anything significant since his swearing-in, broke his Twitter fast and wrote that “we will ensure that every High Court decision will be respected, and we will not allow any harm to come to the rule of law.”

As is always the case in Netanyahu’s party, Likud backbenchers began unleashing bombastic declarations while the prime minister sits on the fence to see which way the wind is blowing. Netanyahu is busy with pushing forward the annexation plan, which he says will address the concerns over the court’s decision. Netanyahu has no interest in initiating political conflicts in the coming month.

Netanyahu at a government meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

According to the coalition agreement, operational discussions on annexing Israeli settlements can begin on July 1. Ashkenazi is against it, while Gantz, as usual, has no opinion – he will probably align himself with whatever the top defense brass says. The question they both face is a political one, and much depends on the nature and scope of the annexation plan Netanyahu presents. Kahol Lavan understands that they cannot push back too hard after having given tacit agreement in the coalition deal. Against Netanyahu, Gantz’s party has decided to fight over the justice system. On diplomatic matters – despite public opposition to annexation – they feel the battle is lost.  

Aside from annexation, the High Court and ministers trading jabs, Netanyahu is trying to maintain a pleasant atmosphere in the government. On Tuesday, he called Gantz to congratulate him on his 61st birthday. The two parties are also trying to advance common initiatives such as cannabis reform. But both parties realize this government’s days are numbered.

Sources close to Netanyahu say the evidence phase of Netanyahu’s corruption trial is the one that will determine the election date. The prime minister’s lawyers are trying to buy as much time as possible – at least a year, if not more – to allow for political maneuverability.

During this stage of the trial, Netanyahu has two options – and none of them ideal: Showing up at the hearings will require he goes to the court three times a week for eight or nine hours each, for several months. If he decides not to attend the deliberations, Netanyahu will in fact leave his criminal fate at the hands of a young attorney. The prime minister is intimately involved in his legal defense in the case and reviews the material himself. It’s hard to fathom he would not want to look the state witnesses in the eye.

To cancel his trial, Netanyahu needs another election. The most important political statement of the past 25 days came from United Torah Judaism lawmaker Moshe Gafni. At the Knesset Finance Committee on Tuesday, Gafni said he thinks a one-year budget is needed to cope with the coronavirus crisis.

Knesset Finance Committee head Moshe Gafni, member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The one-year budget is Netanyahu’s exit point from the agreement with Gantz. The latter, in his touching inexperience, left a loophole in their agreement: If a two-year budget does not pass in March 2021, Netanyahu remains prime minister. He will not be able to fire Gantz, but he can subject him to the ultimate humiliation. Is Netanyahu aiming for this window? It’s hard to tell; Netanyahu always opens political possibilities and examines their feasibility while still in motion. He doesn’t have one target; he has ten targets with which he plays his hand according to a given situation.

As mentioned before, senior Likud lawmakers believe a new election is a fact. The only question is will it take place in the winter or in the spring. “Worst case scenario, we will push forward a law to disperse,” a Likud minister said. “Then Gantz will be prime minister for three months. Do you think that will win him votes, or lose them?”

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