Analysis |

Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz Is Backing Down. There's a 99% Certainty Israel Is Going to Election

Between Netanyahu and Gantz, and among the members of Kahol Lavan's leadership – discord is rife, unity is passé, and promises are unraveling

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Gif: Netanyahu drives himself, Gantz and Lieberman off a cliff, in the spirit of Thelma & Louise.
IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The most frustrating week for the heads of Kahol Lavan – the four in the comfort of the so-called cockpit, and also the rest, stuck in the passenger section – followed the attorney general’s decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three corruption cases. They’d expected drama, inflamed passions, an earthquake. But instead of the masses beating a path to their door and bearing them on their shoulders to the government compound as victors entering the gates of the city, they encountered a chilling reality.

For example, after MK Gideon Sa’ar urged that a primary be held for Likud leader, Kahol Lavan was deluged with pleas: sign with him, help him, Sa’ar will be able to form a government in two days. And after it was reported that fellow Likudnik Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset Speaker, was contemplating the possibility of recruiting 61 MKs to support him as prime minister, the wave surged again: Go with Yuli, he’s all right, too.

It was then that the Kahol Lavan leaders came to the dispiriting realization that for many of their supporters, they are only the “messiah’s donkey,” those who will do the dirty work for others – by providing the most effective means, indeed the only means, to be rid of Netanyahu – but not necessary to supplant him. They play offense but are not necessarily the ones who score the goal. Kahol Lavan’s voters, some of them at least, are not willing to lay down their lives to see party leader Benny Gantz take the oath as prime minister. As far as they’re concerned, it’s perfectly fine for Gantz to be foreign minister or defense minister in a Likud-led government – so long as Netanyahu goes.

But the hopes, or the apprehensions – depending on the person – were all dashed forever Thursday. MK Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu), founder of the higher academy of trolling, practitioner of sleight of hand, buried the narrow-government option (in an interview with the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth). It never really was in the cards, but Lieberman, in his charming way, had threatened to deal such a hand during the past week. Suddenly we heard about members of his Knesset faction “demanding” that he renege on his promise and enter a rightist-ultra-Orthodox, delusional-messianic government.

This was the first time we had heard about independent positions being taken by members of Yisrael Beiteinu that didn’t end with expulsion from the party. Afterward, it was “learned” that deputy heads of local authorities from Yisrael Beiteinu had approached their party leader with an identical “demand.” These transparent tricks were marketed to the public in all seriousness, as though an insurgency was about to occur in a party whose insularity is second only to the ruling party of North Korea or to Yesh Atid. To inject a little credibility into this play, Lieberman himself wondered “which is worse, an election or a narrow government?”

So we’re headed for an election. It’s a 99-percent certainty. Unity is passé. Gantz will not back down. Netanyahu will not back down. The regime in the Balfour Street residence has been pushing for an election for a long time. They believe in playing for time. A third election could even spawn a fourth election. Throughout this whole period, the prime minister has been the prime minister of a transition government. He’s blocked, but is also blocking. He will not be budged.

In April-May we thought that a second election was madness, simply ungraspable – but it was grasped. In September-October we said, and also wrote, that there’s no possible scenario, no way there will be a third election. Well, the lights in the hall have gone down, the trailers are whizzing by on the screen, the cellphones are muted and eyes are wide shut. Wait for it.

Benny Gantz near Sde Boker, December 2019.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Fast track

The meeting on Tuesday afternoon between Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu lasted less than 45 minutes. It was arranged hastily by the Prime Minister’s Office, almost on the spot. Tell them I’ll go anywhere and will get there as soon as I can, Gantz instructed his aides. He cleared his schedule and hurried to the Kirya, the government compound in Tel Aviv.

Minutes before Gantz set out for the offices he’s so familiar with – the Kirya is also defense establishment headquarters, and he’s a former chief of staff – the prime minister’s spokesman issued a statement to the press detailing the issues Netanyahu wanted to raise in the meeting: annexation of the Jordan Valley and a defense pact with the United States. They weren’t on the agenda, but never mind. The twisting of the knife came later in the statement. “These are two issues Kahol Lavan is opposed to… They’re against a defense pact because they claim it will limit Israel’s freedom of action, and they support annexation only if relations with Jordan are not harmed. What a strange way to strike a deal.”

Gantz realized the meeting was a set-up, but he’d already been corralled. If he canceled, he’d be accused of undermining the last chance for unity. Once he arrived, he had a distressing sense of deja-vu: It was the same old tune, the same “legislative proposals” that would anchor in law the terms of a rotation of the premiership (with Netanyahu serving first for five months) that had already been hashed and rehashed by the negotiating teams. Netanyahu had pulled a fast one on him, had roped him in, and was using him as little more than an extra in a play written by a sworn cynic. Welcome to the club.

On the way back to his car, Gantz dictated a laconic announcement to his spokesman about a meeting held “in a positive and respectful atmosphere,” which was supposed to be passed on to the spokesman’s counterpart in the Prime Minister’s Office. But even before that could happen, they were floored by the release of a Likud statement accusing Kahol Lavan of refusing to form a unity government “because of Yair Lapid’s veto.”

The game was up and Gantz was perturbed. Someone asked him whether, after all his meetings with Netanyahu over the past 70 days, he now believed the prime minister more or less than he did at the start.

To my regret, he replied, I believe him less today.

When Gantz asked Netanyahu whether he planned to request that the Knesset grant him immunity from prosecution, the prime minister said that he didn’t know. Gantz’s impression was that he was concealing something. He wants immunity? Let him say so. In any event, the date on which he steps down and declares himself incapacitated will be set irrespective of parliamentary proceedings.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa as they meet at Sao Bento Palace in Lisbon Portugal, December 5, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

The repeated evasiveness is reinforcing in Gantz and his associates the feeling that Netanyahu is planning something “unknown” that will unravel coalition agreements. He has no idea why Netanyahu insists on being first in the rotation, for half a year. (A five-month period, he says, was never mentioned.) It’s a mystery, he says. The official reasons are the proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley and mutual defense pact with the United States. Gantz doesn’t buy that.

Generally, if two people want to enter into a partnership, the process is the opposite: It starts with uncertainty, with mutual suspicion, and slowly develops into a more solid relationship. In their years of working together, as prime minister and chief of staff, almost complete harmony prevailed, other than a few light scratches on the back fender. All in all, the foundations were firm. But politics has unraveled everything. Instead of confidence-building steps, Gantz is encountering, time after time, a pile of nasty confidence-eroding shticks.

What took Moshe Ya’alon and Yair Lapid and Gideon Sa’ar and Moshe Kahlon and Dan Meridor and dozens of other politicians months or years, happened to Gantz in a nanosecond. Like in the movies where a whole day contracts into one minute. A breathtaking phenomenon, to be sure, but also a disturbing one.

Poisoned apple

In private conversations, Gantz confirms that two camps have formed in the Kahol Lavan leadership. He and MK Gabi Ashkenazi are leaning more toward compromise on a unity government with Bibi serving first (although publicly Gantz still insists on being first in the rotation). Ashkenazi is even more eager than Gantz. Since being appointed chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee a month and a half ago, Ashkenazi has been in continuous contact with Netanyahu. They meet from time to time; one such encounter even took place a few days ago. Apparently Netanyahu’s powers of persuasion are having an effect. Ashkenazi is willing to take a risk. In his view, the alternatives are worse, and in the end we they leave us with a country that’s stuck and paralyzed.

The other camp consists of Lapid and Ya’alon, former senior cabinet ministers in Netanyahu governments. One resigned, the other was forced to resign – they are scarred, their honor has been trampled – and they are warning Ashkenazi not to bite into the poisoned apple.

Avigdor Lieberman. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The tension in the cockpit quartet reached a peak at the beginning of this week. Lapid thought Gantz was about to announce his readiness to accept Likud’s latest proposal. The successful political enterprise that have birth to Kahol Lavan was on the verge of exploding, but that didn’t happen, ultimately.

No matter what, I don’t intend to split the party, Gantz asserted this week. But what will you do if you get an improved offer in the next couple of days, he was asked. I will raise it for discussion and try to persuade the others, he said. And what has happened up until now – you weren’t able to do that? Until now I haven’t reached that junction, he replied. If the problem can be solved in the days that remain until the deadline at midnight next Wednesday, he added, I will solve it. If not, we’ll have to go to an election. Our situation isn’t so bad.

The riddle of Netanyahu’s generosity in terms of the time he wants to serve in a rotation deal is occupying the Kahol Lavan leaders. Likud’s opening gambit was to designate the two first years for Netanyahu as prime minister, then a leave of absence. The latest offer mentions six months and tough, hermetically sealed legislation that would ensure the implementation of the rotation between him and Gantz. That’s quite a difference.

For weeks the Kahol Lavan foursome has been wracking their brains: What will those six months give him? Why does he have such an obsession about this? He’ll be tried by a panel of three judges in the Jerusalem District Court one way or the other. He won’t be able to start a war with an evently split cabinet and the defense portfolio in the hands of Kahol Lavan. Dissolution of the government and another election? That would be tough as well: For one, the legislation is meant to obviate that possibility, and secondly, Netanyahu’s partners in the right-wing bloc don’t work for him, and won’t commit suicide for him. Half a year of joint work with Gantz and Ashkenazi will have its effect. A healthy relationship will be formed. They’ll have it harder with Lapid, but as foreign minister, he’ll be on constant jaunts abroad and won’t mess with them. Finally, there’s no certainty even that Likud would go along with Netanyahu on such an adventure. In fact, it’s certain they would not. There has to be a limit even to the kowtowing and sycophancy of that bunch.

The truth is that it’s very difficult to envision a situation in which Netanyahu violates the agreement, especially we we assume that all the rotation-related legislation is in fact enacted. Two prime ministers would be sworn in at the Knesset; a precise date and time would be set down for the passing over of the the baton; the government would be bound together and fortified by virtue of being supported by a majority of 80 MKs (rather than 61); and there would be public declarations – both from Netanyahu of his intention to step down on the agreed date, and from the leaders of the right wing-Haredi bloc, to remain in a Gantz government.

Gantz’s interlocutors have formed the impression that deep down, he shares that view. He wants to move forward, but it’s not happening. It’s also shared by Ashkenazi. The two of them are on the same page. But Lapid and Ya’alon are insisting otherwise. They are rejectionists, they are bedeviled, they are behaving arrogantly, an MK from their party said.

As someone in Likud said to me, “Other than allowing the folks from Kahol Lavan to attach an explosive belt to the prime minister that will go off automatically if he violates the rotation agreement – we’ve offered everything, we’ve done everything.”

Gantz and Lapid at the Knesset.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Tricky Bibi

The profoundly deep lack of trust for Netanyahu reflects the deep rot, the debasement of the norms and the loss of values that the outgoing prime minister is leaving behind him. Recall, if you will, the 1984 rotation agreement between Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. It wasn’t beefed up with legal “guarantees” and “sureties.” Shimon promised, Shimon kept his promise.

Recall, also, Netanyahu’s predecessors in the past two decades: Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert. None of them was a choir boy, pure as the driven snow. They all dragged behind them a trail of nasty political tricks with a bad smell. But with them, in a similar situation, no draconian safeguards were needed, or any precautions and legislative and declarative commitments that had never before appeared in a political agreement. That’s his legacy, that’s how he’ll be remembered. Tricky Bibi.

I put the following scenario to someone in Kahol Lavan who is inclined to accept Likud’s proposal: Say that a week or two after the establishment of the unity government, Likud organizes a demonstration like the recent one in Tel Aviv. On the dais, the regular right-wing grotesques verbally vomit on the state prosecution, the attorney general, the police, the media. In the plaza, the people incited by Netanyahu, blood in their eyes, go on the rampage, beating up journalists, spitting and cursing. At the conclusion of the lovely evening, Netanyahu tweets: Heartfelt thanks to the wonderful crowd. Love ya.

The next day, the scenario continues, Democratic Union and Labor-Gesher submit motions of no-confidence in the government over the prime minister’s support for incitement against state’s judicial and enforcement authorities. The Kahol Lavan ministers are committed to voting against the motions and in favor of the prime minister.

Do you see yourselves raising a hand in favor of that abomination, I asked?

We never thought of that, my interlocutor said honestly.