Behind the Scenes: Who Pulled the Strings in Last-minute Decision to Invite Gantz to White House

Sources close to Netanyahu's rival Gantz say Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer had a key role in the original invitation that could have ended in humiliation

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Washington
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Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz
Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz at a news conference where he announced that he would meet separately in Washington with President Trump from Prime Minister Netanyahu on Jan. 27, 2020.Credit: Corinna Kern/Reuters
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Washington

WASHINGTON – Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, was not involved in organizing Monday’s meeting between President Donald Trump and Kahol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz, Haaretz has learned from sources involved in Gantz's visit.

Dermer has a very close relationship with the Trump administration and is also a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but will not attend the Trump-Gantz meeting, despite the fact that Gantz will be coming to the White House as the leader of the largest party in the Israeli Knesset just weeks before Knesset elections on March 2. The two prior rounds, in April and September, ended without Netanyahu or Gantz able to form a government coalition.

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Sources close to Gantz say he doesn't trust Dermer and views him as completely loyal to Netanyahu. Dermer played a key role in producing the original White House invitation to Netanyahu and Gantz to come to Washington, under terms that were seen as humiliating and embarrassing to Gantz.

Initially Gantz – whose party won more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud in the most recent round of Knesset elections – had been due to attend as a member of the audience at an event at which Trump and Netanyahu would speak from the podium.  In practice, this was seen as setting a “trap” for Gantz.

If he came to Washington, he would become Netanyahu’s sideshow. If he rejected the invitation, the Netanyahu campaign would accuse him of insulting President Trump, who is very popular in Israel. Gantz originally accepted the invitation, despite the proposed arrangements, but he changed his mind after seeing Vice President Mike Pence, who was in Israel last week telling Israelis on live television that Gantz was only invited because Netanyahu had asked for it.

Pence's comments led Gantz and other senior figures in Kahol Lavan to believe that Dermer, along with some members of the Trump team, were trying to hurt him five weeks before the crucial March 2 Knesset elections. That convinced Gantz to reconsider going to the White House.

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Over the weekend, Gantz convened his closest advisers to discuss whether or not he should go. At the same time, he spoke with the American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and updated him about his deliberations.

Dermer was not brought into the discussion at any point, according to sources involved in Gantz's visit. Although the general practice in setting up a meeting between a senior Israeli politician and a foreign head of state would involve the Israeli embassy in the relevant country, that did not happen in this case.

Gantz explained to Friedman that he wanted to meet President Trump and that his party would very likely announce its support for Trump’s “deal of the century," as the American Middle East peace plan is called, but would not go to Washington to be a bystander at a Netanyahu campaign event.

In addition, Gantz explained that the day chosen for the Trump-Netanyahu meeting, Tuesday, was the same day the Israeli Knesset was due to hold an important vote on Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases against the prime minister.

A separate meeting

Gantz asked the Americans for a meeting with Trump separate from Netanyahu's. The Kahol Lavan leader realized there was no way the U.S. administration would provide him with the same lavish treatment that Netanyahu would receive, but said that a separate meeting was a bare minimum demand that he could not compromise on. At the same time, he alerted the Israeli media in advance to a statement that he would deliver on Saturday evening regarding his Washington trip.

As the Saturday evening announcement approached, political reporters and pundits in Israel all made the assessment that Gantz would decline the invitation. This was also what Netanyahu believed would happen. But because his own ambassador was left out of the conversations between Gantz and the U.S. administration, Netanyahu had no idea that Gantz was closing in on a deal with the White House that would provide the Kahol Lavan leader with a separate meeting with Trump on Monday.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, gave the green light for the Gantz-Trump meeting shortly before Gantz took the stage and surprised the country by saying he would meet separately with Trump on Monday and then return to Israel on Tuesday for the Knesset vote on Netanyahu’s immunity.

Kushner met Gantz once before, on an October visit to Israel. That meeting was described as a success by both sides.

In the moments after Gantz ended his televised statement on Saturday about his Washington visit, several popular right-wing pundits in Israel who are known for their close ties to Netanyahu took to Twitter to attack Gantz for purportedly turning down Trump’s invitation. That was an indication that those close to Netanyahu had expected Gantz to remain in Israel and were caught off-guard by his decision.

Gantz will be accompanied to the White House by three key advisers:  Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, the former commander of the Israeli Air Force; Yoram Turbowicz, a lawyer who also represented Kahol Lavan in coalition negotiations after the September election, and who was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief of staff; and Ma’ayan Israeli, a close adviser who has worked with Gantz ever since he was Israeli army chief of staff, a post from which Gantz retired in 2015.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.Credit: Perry Bindelglass

According to media reports in Israel, Israeli saved Gantz from the trap that Netanyahu and Dermer had purportedly laid for him in Washington.  It was her idea to contact the Americans directly and insist on a separate meeting.

Some of Gantz’s advisers are still concerned that Netanyahu and Dermer will try to complicate his meeting with Trump. After Gantz announced his own trip to Washington, Netanyahu quickly announced that he would fly to the U.S. capital earlier than originally expected. Gantz is prepared to have Netanyahu produce political “spin” and distractions that could harm his own meeting with Trump.

For the team led by Kushner that is working on the “deal of the century,” the next 24 hours will be an opportunity to convince many skeptics in the United States, Israel and the Arab world that their latest moves are more than just an election trick designed to help Netanyahu.

The Trump administration has strongly denied that its decision to unveil the plan this week was motivated by politics, but the timing of the original Netanyahu-Gantz invitation – on the same day as an important Knesset vote on Netanyahu’s immunity – and the dismissive way in which Pence spoke about Gantz helped buttress the argument that this was more about politics than policy.

Gantz is hoping that the administration will treat him fairly and respectfully rather than succumbing to any possible requests from Netanyahu to downgrade the Kahol Lavan leader's visit. If he is treated fairly, it could also help the Kushner team push back against criticism. 

The Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment for this article.

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