Israeli Politics in the Time of the Coronavirus: A Moment of Moral Clarity or Cynical Politics

It took a global pandemic for Gantz to break Israel’s biggest political taboo – but will Netanyahu’s trap work?

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Gantz during a tour of Israel's border with Syria, March 8, 2020
Gantz during a tour of Israel's border with Syria, March 8, 2020Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Benny Gantz’s statement on Thursday night that he would support the establishment of a national emergency government to confront the outbreak of coronavirus in Israel “that would include representation of all parts of the house (Knesset)” is a significant moment in Israeli history. For the first time, the leader of a major mainstream Israeli party is calling for the inclusion in government of the Arab-dominated parties of the Joint List which has never been part of a coalition.

This may turn out to be a fleeting moment which will be quickly lost in the rapidly escalating crisis. Netanyahu has already let it be known that he told Gantz in their late-night phone conversation that “there is no place for supporters of terror, in routine times and during emergency.” Gantz may yet back down under public pressure for a “unity.” It could have been just a momentary virtue gesture. And Netanyahu’s offer of an emergency government may well have been a political ruse to begin with.

It took a global pandemic for Israel’s leading centrist politician to obliquely admit that the political representatives of the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arab should at least have a place in an emergency government. But in one short statement, Gantz has challenged the country’s oldest political taboo.

Just over a year since he started his career in politics, Gantz’s true beliefs are still inscrutable. Nearly everything he has said in public over this time has been dictated by campaign strategists and then agonized over by Kahol Lavan’s “cockpit,” the quadrumvirite of Gantz: Yair Lapid, Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi. It’s impossible to say whether Gantz’s statement was down to his true convictions or a calculated move, quite possibly both.

Netanyahu’s offer earlier in the evening, while he monopolized airtime with his banal advice to the public on how to blow their noses, was obviously a trap. The “national emergency government” was not an offer to recognize the fact that only last week, over half of the Israeli electorate voted for parties opposed to Netanyahu, and that he has now failed in three consecutive elections to win a majority. Netanyahu, who refuses to accept the basic fact that he is merely a caretaker prime minister and has been since December 2018, was simply offering Gantz to join his cabinet as an adornment. Not to appoint senior members of the opposition to key ministerial roles in place of his toady allies.

But Gantz was aware that even among his own voters, and some of his MKs, there is a desire for a stable government at this time, even if it is lead by Netanyahu. Refusing to engage with the prime minister’s offer because it didn’t include meaningful appointments for him and his colleagues, and the other opposition parties, would have seemed at a time like this as “small politics.” Making the “all parts of the house” condition was his best way of putting the ball back in Netanyahu’s court while portraying himself both as open to “unity” and a responsible grown-up.

We will soon see whether Gantz was serious or just cynically using the Arab-Israeli lawmakers, with whom he has yet to meet openly.

Gantz’s election campaign was hardly honorable. The only thing it had going for it was that placed next to Netanyahu’s orgy of smear and incitement, it was pretty clean. But as far as his repeated protestations that he would not be forming a government with the help of the Joint List go, when it was clear that without the MKs of the Arab parties, he simply wouldn’t have a coalition, it was practically bare-faced lying coupled with implied racism. Sure, it was nothing next to Netanyahu’s brazen dog-whistling, but it still was dishonest and immoral. Nevertheless, it didn’t work and the hoped-for “soft right” voters, upon realizing that Gantz wasn’t really offering anything new, went back to the original and voted Likud.

Are we now seeing the real Benny Gantz, liberated from the shackles of his political advisors? Insisting on all parties of the Knesset, especially the third-largest one which is now the sole representative of Arab-Israelis, being members of a national-emergency government is the right thing to do, both for moral, and political reasons.

Netanyahu’s proxies are already trying to frame it as yet another example of Gantz’s left-wing barminess they’ve been warning about for so long. Whether or not the move works is also dependent on Gantz explaining to the public that there’s no point in him joining the government just for show. It won’t help the nation fight coronavirus. He needs to highlight the fact that it’s not Netanyahu’s daily briefings which are keeping Israelis safe, but the medical teams, among which the Arab-Israeli voters of the Joint List are heavily represented.

It also remains to be seen whether the Joint List MKs can overcome their own taboo of serving in a “Zionist” government, especially under Netanyahu. Netanyahu is almost certainly not about to give them the chance, but a clear statement from them that if did, they would be willing, would be even more significant than Gantz’s statement.

Ultimately, if the more apocalyptic epidemiological predictions are borne out, the makeup of the cabinet will probably be the least of our worries and Netanyahu will be judged by much harsher standards than whether he dealt honestly with Gantz. His rush to take ownership of this crisis may prove his undoing, but that will only come after many have died and then he’ll be blamed for other things than his racism.

But whether this moment proves to be pivotal for Israeli society, or ends up in just a footnote to the Netanyahu era, the history of the Jewish people will record that when a plague threatened all the inhabitants of the land, the man who claimed to be the leader of the Jews refused to include the non-Jews in his national emergency government

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