Gantz's Party Is Falling Apart Before His Eyes

Stalling and postponing, Gantz is struggling to make political decisions. But Netanyahu's party already has a plan for him

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Israeli Defense Minister, Alternate Prime Minister and Kahol Lavan party head Benny Gantz, Oct. 11, 2020
Defense Minister and Kahol Lavan party head Benny Gantz. His party is split into three separate factions, which barely have any ideological connection with each other.Credit: Oren Ben Hakun
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

For a moment, the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the purchase of submarines and warships has managed to distract the attention of Defense Minister Benny Gantz from the troubles he has at home in Kahol Lavan. Exactly half a year after the formation of the current government, the alternate prime minister and person at the helm of a party with 33 Knesset seats now heads one that is disintegrating.

Only a handful of believers there still think Gantz knows where he is heading and has a chance to survive the next election.

In practice, Gantz's Kahol Lavan today is split into three separate factions in the Knesset, which barely have any ideological connection with each other. The first group is an opposition faction consisting of former Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir, MKs Ram Shefa and Miki Haimovich – and to a certain degree also Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn. They think that any possibility of working in a normal way with Likud is dead and gone, and that it would be better to dissolve the Knesset and call for a new election than to continue to bang their heads against the wall.

The second camp includes the rest of Kahol Lavan's cabinet ministers – for example, Michael Biton (who serves in the Defense Ministry) and Agriculture Minister Alon Schuster. While trying to extend a hand to Likud, they believe at the same time that they can advance independent initiatives that could win over some potential voters, such as establishment of the panel that will investigate the submarine affair.

Israeli Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn. Is furious at Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz for caving in to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman

The third group is composed of those still faithful to Gantz – to the extent that the party leader even knows himself what he is still loyal to. They include Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper, Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich and Hod Betzer, one of Gantz’s closest confidants. They are trying to come up with compromises, to negotiate and promote ideas – and believe that with just a few more agreements Gantz will be able, against all odds, to march into the Prime Minister’s Office in November 2021.

On Sunday, the cabinet approved a compromise between Kahol Lavan and Likud, whereby a new accountant general was appointed in the Finance Ministry in return for appointment of a director general for the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office. Nissenkorn, who did not know about the agreement, boycotted the cabinet meeting. He was furious that Gantz gave in – in his opinion – to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and protested the fact that a permanent director general for his own Justice Ministry was not appointed.

The newly appointed accountant general is Yaheli Rotenberg, Finance Minister Yisrael Katz’s candidate. The term of the person serving in that role is five years, and removing him from it is considered to be especially difficult. The accountant general’s areas of responsibility have grown even broader in a period without an approved state budget, and he has the authority to make budgetary transfers from one ministry to another.

Betzer was appointed director general of the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office. As opposed to the accountant general, his is a position that has no authority and is subservient to the will of the minister. Betzer is also the person who clinched the agreement on the appointments between Kahol Lavan and Likud.

The confrontation that erupted in the party between Gantz and Nissenkorn over Betzer’s appointment is just one example of the internal disintegration plaguing Kahol Lavan. This is only a tactical disagreement, but it reflects the fact that the party has lost its way.

Betzer had wanted the job for a long time and reached the conclusion that Nissenkorn’s insistence on conditioning the appointment of an accountant general on that of a director general for the Justice Ministry would leave him, Betzer, in the political wilderness for 40 years. He spoke to Gantz and closed the deal with him – without telling anyone else. Ram Shefa took the trouble to send an offended message to the Kahol Lavan WhatsApp group, but no one responded.

The big question now is what Gantz wants. As usual, he is finding it difficult to make political decisions, and is putting things off, looking for a compromise and dragging things out. The threat of dissolution of the Knesset at the end of October has passed and left no impression on anyone. The new target date for such an ultimatum is in December, but here too it is not clear what the threat is.

No alternative coalition exists, and Gantz knows it. He has even stopped warning that he will form a different one. It is also unclear what the point is of threatening to dismantle the parliament and calling for a new election – if in any case the Knesset will dissolve automatically on December 23 if a state budget is not approved by then. People close to Gantz swore on Sunday that this time he is serious: He will continue taking steps against Netanyahu – for example, by creating the panel of inquiry – and will advance legislation to prevent Netanyahu from continuing to serve as prime minister if he does not cave in over approving the budget.

In Likud, meanwhile, they are dreaming that Gantz will get his act together, realize that he will never be prime minister and agree to the following deal: Gantz himself will retire to the President’s Residence; Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi will step into Gantz’s shoes for the next four years as defense minister; Nissenkorn will move from the Justice Ministry to the Foreign Ministry, where for the next four years he will sign treaties and star in photo-ops; and the Justice Ministry will be handed over to an agreed-upon candidate form Likud.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, in October. Likud is dreaming that he will replace Benny Gantz as defense minister.Credit: Petros Giannakouris/AP

On paper, this really does sound like a fantasy, but when the smell of an election hits toward the end of this year, who knows what Gantz might do. In the meantime, Betzer will continue to toil away on the budget, as if the ship has not already split into two from hitting an iceberg. Maybe he believes that at the last minute a compromise will be found once again.

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