Analysis |

Coronavirus Won’t Kill the anti-Netanyahu Bloc

There's still a long way to go before Gantz can form a government; but Netanyahu himself, and his ability to make enemies, has given the centrist leader a fighting chance

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman meet in Ramat Gan, March 2, 2020.
Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman meet in Ramat Gan, March 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The last two weeks in Israeli politics have all been about how “Benny Gantz can’t.”

Immediately after the election, it was “Benny Gantz can’t come back after Kahol Lavan was overtaken by Likud in the election.” Then it was “Benny Gantz won’t be able to keep Kahol Lavan together” and “Benny Gantz will never get both Yisrael Beitenu and the Joint List to support him.” Next it was “Orly Levy-Abekasis’ defection from the opposition means Benny Gantz can’t form a minority government” and, most recently, “Benny Gantz can’t withstand the pressure to enter an emergency national-unity under Benjamin Netanyahu due to the coronavirus crisis.”

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But two weeks from Election Day, Gantz arrived on Monday at President Reuven Rivlin’s residence and received the mandate to form a government, after 61 Knesset members, including all the members of Yisrael Beitenu and the Joint List, had endorsed him the previous day. Kahol Lavan was still intact and the other three members of his “cockpit” had publicly rejected Netanyahu’s “unity” proposals.

His speech at the president’s residence was the best he has given in his short political career and broadcast that he wasn’t backing down. He doubled down on his new alliance with the Joint List, paying tribute to the medical teams fighting the virus – “doctors, nurses, Jews and Arabs – stand together, united as one,” – and promised that his government “will protect the interests of the people of Judea and Samaria, along with the interests of Israel’s Arab citizens.” When speaking off “the common fate all Israelis share,” added, “and I stress - all Israelis.”

Likud campaign poster showing Joint List co-leader Ahmed Tibi carrying Benny Gantz, Jerusalem, February 18, 2020. 'Without Ahmed Tibi, Gantz doesn't have a government.' Gantz: 'We must move forward.'
Likud campaign poster showing Joint List co-leader Ahmed Tibi carrying Benny Gantz, Jerusalem, February 18, 2020. 'Without Ahmed Tibi, Gantz doesn't have a government.' Gantz: 'We must move forward.'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

He also lambasted Netanyahu’s disregard for the Arab voters saying that, “along the way there were overtly racist statements, threats, and the voicing of opinions that point to cause for profound concern that Israeli democracy is in jeopardy,” adding that “there were further illegitimate attempts by the current prime minister to try to evade just trial, while turning on Israel’s national institutions. Leaders who try to inflict harm on the Jewish and democratic regime in Israel will invariably bring upon the end of their political and public life, and history will not be forgiving toward them.”

On the coronavirus he sounded a contrasting tone to Netanyahu, saying that it wasn’t the biggest challenge Israel has faced, mocking his “bombastic press conferences,” and saying ironically that “I am truly hopeful that the reports of unprotected medical teams, and of shortages of examination kits are just a rumor and not the result of organizational management failure.”

This wasn’t a speech of a candidate who is about to go in to coalition under Netanyahu. Neither is the legislation being moved by all the opposition parties, now that the Knesset has been inaugurated, the kind of laws proposed by an opposition that has given up on the fight against Netanyahu: Term limits and laws to prevent a prime minister facing criminal indictments from holding office.

How has Gantz done it? After all, the skepticism towards him was warranted. Despite his promises, he hasn’t got a government – not even a minority one. At least not yet. Serving in a minority government dependent on Joint List votes is still a step too far for Yisrael Beitenu and some Kahol Lavan members. And he’s still a political neophyte up against the grand-master Netanyahu. Surely he has more cards up his sleeve; another dirty trick so shameful that only he could conceive of.

The answer is that it isn’t Gantz; it’s Netanyahu. Whether it’s the Arab politicians, and particularly their voters who have been driven over the brink with Netanyahu’s barefaced incitement against them. Even the Nasserists of Balad, a party which no-one would ever have imagined endorsing any Zionist candidate, added their votes. Or Gantz’s cockpit partners who have seen up close, enough times, that they can’t trust a proposal from Netanyahu to mean what it says, let alone be worth the paper it’s written on. And then there’s the pathological hatred Lieberman harbors for his old boss and ally.

The leadership of the Kahol Lavan centrist alliance on the night of the election, Tel Aviv, March 2, 2020.
The leadership of the Kahol Lavan centrist alliance on the night of the election, Tel Aviv, March 2, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Actually, Netanyahu’s two alternative national-unity proposals, the short-term “emergency” one to just face coronavirus and the longer term one, which includes a rotating premiership, both make sense. If they hadn’t come from Netanyahu, Kahol Lavan would have likely accepted them. But the anti-Netanyahu coalition simply doesn’t believe he will follow through with his own proposals. They have seen how Netanyahu invites Gantz to meet him and talk unity while his proxies and his own social media accounts continue inciting against him. Netanyahu is the one keeping the anti-Netanyahu coalition together and even coronavirus cannot kill it off.

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