Few things could have wounded a man like Benny Gantz more than the public letter that was released on Monday, signed by 130 former senior military officers and members of the defense establishment, calling on him to drop out of the Knesset election and effectively disband the Kahol Lavan party.
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These are all men he knows well; some fought by his side over the years, others commanded him or served under his command. For a man who spent most of his life in uniform, reaching the post of Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff, these are his tribe, his family, his people.
The letter was couched in respectful terms, paying tribute to his decades of service and his good intentions since entering politics. But it was still deeply insulting, from the headline “Benny, stop here!” to the send-off: “It’s time to make a last leadership decision and drop out of this dangerous race, which will end below the electoral threshold and leave another party outside. Don’t lend your hand to a waste of votes for the camp of change, for the chance of change. Israel is wounded, Israel is sinking. Israel will salute you. Truly, put Israel before everything.”
It had the air of a group of responsible grown-ups telling off a wayward, petulant child.
Nothing could have better epitomized Gantz’s fall, in the space of 11 months, from the man who had the most endorsements to serve as Israel’s next prime minister, the champion of the right-thinking camp who was finally about to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign, to a political embarrassment. And Gantz’s response was commensurate to the insult.
“Instead of helping me and giving me covering fire, you’re shooting me in the back,” he said at a conference organized by the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Unlike his unfaithful comrades, he said, “I’m continuing to fight for the objective.” As if they were still in boot camp.
By this point, the explanations for Gantz’s insistence on remaining in the race at the head of a small band of Kahol Lavan loyalists, clinging to their ministerial posts and the decreasing chances they will remain lawmakers after the election, are more psychological than political.
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In two out of the five media polls published in the last week, Kahol Lavan failed to cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of votes. In two others, it received the bare minimum of four seats.
The trajectory is downward, and not only is it looking increasingly likely that the party will disappear in the March 23 election, but the loss of the votes it will receive could tilt the balance in favor of a Netanyahu-majority governing coalition. Hence the public letter and other forms of pressure on Gantz to drop out.
But Gantz clings on. His social media accounts trumpet every poll that still shows Kahol Lavan crossing the threshold. He is still defense minister, nominally the second most powerful job in Israel, though Netanyahu consistently ignores him. And he still holds the title of “alternate prime minister.”
That is his argument for staying in the race: the coalition agreement between Kahol Lavan and Likud is still in effect, meaning that he can officially veto any government decision, and he and his party members still control their ministries. “I am guarding this government from within,” he explained. Without him, Israel would be “a de-facto dictatorship of one man.”
If Kahol Lavan doesn’t run in the election, or fails to cross the threshold, Gantz is now arguing, Netanyahu will claim after the election that the coalition agreement no longer applies, and will fire him and his colleague and take over the Justice Ministry.
As Jonathan Lis writes, jurists are currently split over whether Gantz’s argument is valid and if he and his ministers could be ousted if Kahol Lavan withdraws from the election or fails to pass the threshold. That decision will ultimately rest with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, but it’s a gray area. The hastily written Basic Law on the Government amendment that allowed for the alternate prime ministership never factored in the possibility that Gantz’s party might not last more than one Knesset
Gantz and Kahol Lavan’s increasingly forlorn campaign may look pathetic, but he can’t accept the fact that it’s almost certainly over. To end the campaign would be an act of self-abasement beyond the capability of a man who was so close to the prime minister’s office.
Netanyahu has a clear interest in Gantz staying in the race until the end, splitting the opposition and wasting votes. Pro-Netanyahu “journalists” have been reporting the bizarre possibility that if Gantz somehow remains in the Knesset until November without a new government being formed, he could still become prime minister under the original coalition agreement’s rotation clause, even though they know such an outcome is outlandish. But it seems to appeal to Gantz’s delusions.
It won’t happen, but Gantz still has a small chance of gaining the upper hand. If he does pass the threshold, though it seems less and less likely, he and his handful of lawmakers could be the kingmakers. He would hold not just Netanyahu’s fate in their hands, but have the power to decide which of the prime minister’s challengers gets a crack at forming a government of their own. This includes Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, and especially Yair Lapid, his former co-leader of Kahol Lavan, with whom he hasn’t spoken for 10 months since Gantz decided to join a Netanyahu government.
Gantz will never be Israel’s prime minister. The best he can hope for is to be the leader of a tiny party in the next Knesset. But the slim prospect of once again having that bit of power over his rivals is what keeps him going.