It took Benny Gantz less than a week to renege on one of his central campaign promises. Before Election Day, Gantz and his Kahol Lavan colleagues consistently and collectively rebuffed Likud allegations that they would collaborate in any way, shape or form with the largely Arab Joint List. Five days later, that is exactly what Gantz and Kahol Lavan are advocating.
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Gantz’s 180-degree flip-flop is part and parcel of the similarly astonishing reversal in the public and political perception and that of the pundits when it comes to last Monday’s election. For the first 48 hours, the overwhelming consensus was that Netanyahu had scored a smashing victory: Likud had strengthened to become the largest party in the Knesset. Kahol Lavan was diminished and seemed headed either for the opposition or for a junior partnership in a Netanyahu government.
Once the final results were published, however, the lights went out at Likud celebrations and broke through the darkness that had enveloped their rivals at Kahol Lavan. Notwithstanding Netanyahu’s undeniable personal achievement in bolstering Likud despite his three criminal indictments, his right-wing bloc fell short of the majority needed to form a new government. It was a classic case of “close, but no cigar.”
Netanyahu and his Likud colleagues were initially undeterred: They would cultivate “deserters” from Kahol Lavan or entice the 3-member Labor Party faction within Labor-Gesher-Meretz to give Netanyahu the extra votes he needed for a majority. Those hopes were quickly dashed, however, and Netanyahu’s mood changed just as rapidly from elated and triumphant to dark and ugly.
Under normal circumstances, Netanyahu’s predicament would not have alleviated Gantz’s plight. The 62-seat Knesset majority garnered by parties opposed to Netanyahu might preclude him from setting up a right-wing government, but couldn’t provide Gantz with his own coalition. The very thought of cobbling together a government that would be supported by both the Joint List and Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu seemed too absurd to even contemplate.
A whole new ball game
It still seems like pie in the sky today, but dramatically less so. The mutual hostility between Lieberman, a fierce and arguably racist foe of Israel’s Arab minority, and the mainly Arab Joint List may still prove an impassable obstacle to actually forming a government. Nonetheless, a fateful confluence of political circumstances and personal interests is forging an ad-hoc alliance between the components of the anti-Netanyahu front – Lieberman, the Joint List, Kahol Lavan and Labor – that could suffice to eject the prime minister from the seat that he has been occupying for over a decade. That would start a whole new ball game.
This was the backdrop to Gantz’s extraordinary press conference on Saturday night in which he railed against Netanyahu’s incitement against any collaboration with the Joint List and warned of its potential to provoke physical violence. In doing so, however, Gantz spoke for the first time as a representative of all Israeli citizens who had voted against Netanyahu, including Israeli Arabs. And contrary to his explicit promises on the campaign trail, Gantz alluded to the possibility of a hitherto unthinkable pact with the Joint List.
Four factors contributed to Gantz’s sharp shift:
• The bottomless pit of Lieberman’s enmity towards Netanyahu and his unquenchable thirst to see him ousted from office. Lieberman may be motivated by Machiavellian considerations, past political clashes with Netanyahu or, as Channel 12 reported on Saturday night, by a lingering suspicion that his former mentor had masterminded a spate of police complaints against his former protégé, but he has now made clear that he will do whatever it takes to depose Netanyahu, including a deal with the devil, which is more or less how Lieberman has traditionally described Israel’s Arab minority.
• The Joint List garnered a record 15 seats in the elections, reflecting the Arab minority’s growing alarm over Netanyahu’s vitriol and its newfound wish for faster integration into Israeli society and greater influence on government policies. Like Lieberman, the Joint List has yet to cross the Rubicon of openly supporting a government headed by a former army chief of staff who in 2014 commanded Israel’s bloody Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, but it has certainly departed the river’s edge and is weathering the ice-cold water.
• Netanyahu’s agitation against Israeli Arabs has also fostered growing support in the Jewish Zionist left for collaboration with the Joint List, which manifested itself in the unprecedented number of Jewish votes directly garnered by the party as well as Labor Party leader Amir Peretz’s unabashed support, before the elections, for direct cooperation. Among Kahol Lavan’s more hawkish voters, the realization that such collaboration is now the only feasible way of getting rid of Netanyahu has quickly softened their previous opposition to the Joint List.
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• The shared fear and loathing on the part of the entire gamut of anti-Netanyahu forces, which is based on apprehension that his continued rule would precipitate irreversible changes in Israeli democracy and foreboding of a vindictive purge against opponents and critics. The intensity of their apathy and apprehension, coupled with the sense that they had been handed an unexpected opportunity to win the election despite having lost it combined to create a dramatic change in attitudes. Theoretically that could grow into a total paradigm shift in the relations between Israel’s Zionist center-left and Israel’s largely non-Zionist, if not anti-Zionist, Arab minority.
Gantz’s game plan
At this stage, Gantz’s game plan, concocted in collaboration with Lieberman, is more tactics than strategy. His ploy sees both Lieberman and the Joint List recommending Gantz to President Reuven Rivlin, thereby securing first crack at forming a new government. That status would enable Gantz to seize control of the fledgling Knesset and possibly replace its current speaker, Yuli Edelstein, allowing Kahol Lavan to advance its proposed law that would bar an indicted defendant from forming a new government.
At this point, Gantz and Lieberman part ways: Lieberman is convinced that the very act of deposing Edelstein and advancing a law that would bar Bibi from serving as prime minister would suffice to undermine Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and pry loose potential partners for Gantz.
But Gantz seems ready to set up an actual minority government comprised of only Kahol Lavan and Labor-Gesher-Meretz, which jointly hold only 40 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but would be supported from the outside by Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and 12 of the Joint List’s 15 members, excluding its hyper-nationalist and anti-Zionist Balad faction.
Unlike Lieberman, Gantz assumes that nothing less than the actual swearing-in of such a minority government, which would entail the immediate removal of Netanyahu from office, could precipitate the political reset that Lieberman is contemplating. Gantz’s ever-increasing animosity towards Netanyahu and growing conviction that his removal is of critical importance for the future of Israel have spurred him to renege on his campaign promises, no matter what the cost.
In fact, this could be Gantz’s own last stand. If Netanyahu had been able to form a new coalition, it is unlikely Gantz would survive calls for his removal after three failed efforts to win elections outright. The same would be true if Gantz had decided to join forces with Netanyahu as junior partner.
Whatever the reasons for his reversal or its outcome, Gantz’s newfound willingness to include the Joint List in his political camp has changed the Israeli political landscape and, in many ways, has broken down or at least chipped away at the wall that has separated Jews and Arabs in Israel for time immemorial. That, in a nutshell, is this week’s legacy for Israeli history.