Exactly one year after founding Kahol Lavan, which has become the country’s largest party, Benny Gantz has once again demonstrated admirable political and personal ability. The deal he reached with the Likud party branch at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, also known as the White House – under which he will meet Donald Trump separately from Benjamin Netanyahu – is an extremely impressive achievement, given the well-known relationship between the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister.
Netanyahu had planned to lay a trap for his rival. Gantz was supposed to find himself playing the role of an extra in a Washington drama of which the Israeli prime minister would be the protagonist, virtually the ruler of all he surveyed. And he’d be a non-entity there, to boot. The ruse was transparent, the danger great. It seemed like an unsolvable political and diplomatic dilemma. If he said yes, he’d risk humiliation. If he said no, he’d look like a coward and also rouse the anger of the U.S. administration, which Israelis love. Just 48 hours before his announcement Saturday night, it seemed as if Gantz could only lose and Netanyahu could only win.
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But Gantz and his people made good use of the time they were given. And Saturday night, it turned out that Gantz was no sucker, and certainly no fool. He obtained a separate meeting with the president rather than coming as Netanyahu’s sidekick. This is a status no previous Israeli candidate for prime minister has ever achieved. And as he said, he’ll return to Israel the next day to closely monitor the Knesset hearings regarding defendant Netanyahu’s request to be granted immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases against him.
Let’s think back to Yair Lapid for a minute. When was trying, year after year, to build up his image as a prime ministerial candidate, he chased after European members of parliament and deputy ministers like Speedy Gonzalez. But Gantz, after just one year, has managed to get a U.S. president who’s more Netanyahu than Netanyahu to grant him a personal meeting – the most prestigious option possible – just over a month before the election.
This doesn’t just say something about Gantz’s stature and his ability to position himself. It also says the White House thinks he counts. And that also means that those in Washington may be a bit– and maybe more than a bit – disappointed with the White House's crown jewel, who has failed repeatedly to win the election and form a government despite the lavish gifts the president has bestowed upon him.
There’s no doubt Netanyahu will receive a far more glittering welcome in the American capital than his rival will. But Trump has given Gantz a gesture the likes of which none of Netanyahu’s other rivals ever received from any American president – even the ones who couldn’t stand him, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
It was heartening to watch Netanyahu’s propagandists Saturday night as they sat in television studios (in their role as journalists) prior to Gantz’s announcement. They ripped him to shreds, mocked his hesitancy, ridiculed him for either accepting or declining Trump's invitation to the White House. And then suddenly, their jaws dropped and they fell silent. Their eyes darted desperately to their smartphone screens, hoping that maybe salvation would come from there in the form of some political stunt concocted at the prime minister’s residence.
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Gantz has thus far emerged from this trial by fire unscathed. But the next battle awaits him on two fronts – Netanyahu’s immunity request, which will almost certainly be rejected before the election, and public discussion of the “deal of the century,” which isn’t a deal and isn’t centennial and certainly isn’t a peace plan, but rather a unilateral move and a plan for the creeping annexation of most of the West Bank.
Reading between the lines, Gantz said on Saturday that Trump’s proposal was a basis for internal Israeli discussions, not an operative plan. And certainly not a basis for unilateral moves. Essentially, he told Trump: Thanks for your friendship and your commitment to Israel, but we’ll take it from here (to quote Kahol Lavan’s former campaign slogan).
The bad news for Kahol Lavan is that the election campaign will apparently revolve more around diplomatic issues than legal ones. And that’s something the party can’t change. Gantz’s mission in the next 35 days will therefore be to try to persuade voters that he, not Netanyahu on the eve of his trial, is the right leader to continue what the American president has now begun.