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The Test for Gantz and Sa’ar: Staying Away From Netanyahu

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar at the Knesset in June.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar at the Knesset in June.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

On the currently reasonable assumption that neither side will manage to win the 61 Knesset seats needed to form a viable government in the next election, one possibility being proposed as a realistic solution to the problem by various people, first and foremost from the ultra-Orthodox parties, is a rotation government comprising Likud headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the joint ticket formed by Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar, and of course the ultra-Orthodox parties. But this time, Gantz would be the first to enter the Prime Minister’s Office (after all, one doesn’t fall into the same trap twice).

Before Netanyahu’s fans start yelling and screaming in protest over the notion that their leader, who also heads the largest party, would be wrongly giving up his primacy, they should realize what Netanyahu already knows: This government is his only chance to survive politically, unless a miracle happens and his bloc wins 61 seats. Despite enjoying strong support and an enthusiastic base, even Netanyahu is preoccupied with the question of how long his Likud party loyalists and his ultra-Orthodox allies will keep following him, when they are suffering from the searing heat of the opposition desert.

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Quite aside from this political calculation, Netanyahu actually prefers Gantz to Itamar Ben-Gvir – the Kahanist balloon that is gradually inflating alongside him, and for which he is to blame. Like many others whom Netanyahu has nurtured for his own ends, Ben-Gvir will sooner or later turn on Netanyahu and damage him.

A government like the one described above is also the only chance for the ultra-Orthodox parties. The last time they were dragged from election to election, they were at least inside the government and enjoying all its perks. But today, they have been cast aside on the opposition benches, angry and forlorn. Thus Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox both have a fairly clear interest in forming such a government.

But what about on the other side? Gantz and Sa’ar adamantly claim, in language that can’t be misunderstood, that they will not sit in a government together with Netanyahu in any way, shape or form. And there are reasonable grounds to believe them.

Gantz has an enormous personal grudge against Netanyahu, who hurt him and his family through the despicable campaigns he ran back when Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party was a large one. And it’s frightening even to think about the deep, boundless enmity between Netanyahu and Sa’ar.

But in Israeli politics, and especially over the last few disturbed, chaotic years, we’ve already learned that promises are often meant to be announced grandiosely before an election, only to prove after the election to have been an inflated performance that was “right at the time,” because “the good of the nation requires x or y.”

That’s exactly what Gantz and Naftali Bennett did last time. And it’s also what Netanyahu – who tried in the past to join forces with the Islamic Movement’s southern branch in order to break through his bloc’s glass ceiling – will do this time if the United Arab List is the party that will enable him to form a government.

For now, there’s no reason not to believe that Gantz and Sa’ar are both determined and prepared to wage extended, exhausting trench warfare whose goal would be to keep diluting Netanyahu’s support and thereby distance him from power, after which he would be spat out by the political system. Nevertheless, a post-election stalemate is a danger zone.

Gantz already decided once to form a government with Netanyahu to prevent even more rounds of elections amid the coronavirus crisis. That effort doesn’t deserve to be cursed and smeared; it should be respected, because it was a decision that hurt him personally but was nevertheless made for what he believed to be in Israel’s interests.

We also have to admit that this attempt failed utterly. Netanyahu humiliated the most comfortable partner he could have found on the political map. And he was punished for it, with considerable justice, by being exiled from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Sa’ar has taken a consistently forceful line against Netanyahu. But he too negotiated with the Likud chairman, even if he later denied it and claimed that he merely received periodic offers from Netanyahu when the latter was trying, with the last remnants of his power, to form an alternative government without risking new elections.

The Gantz-Sa’ar ticket is the most enigmatic axis in the political system, and it’s therefore worth keeping an eye on. But to avoid misunderstandings, the following should be stated plainly: Despite his desire to be prime minister, Gantz must not hook up with Netanyahu – not as first prime minister in a rotation government and not as the second one, not in the constellation described above and not in any other constellation. He must not legitimize Netanyahu, no matter what it costs him.

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