Benny Gantz Must Now Put Netanyahu to the Test by Accepting Unity

Kahol Lavan leaders Yair Lapid (L) and Benny Gantz (R) at an event in Ramat Gan, March 15, 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

More than 50 members of Benny Gantz’s bloc came to the Knesset last Wednesday. They agreed ahead of time that if Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein didn’t allow the Knesset to go into session, they would gather in the plenum on their own initiative to send the message that it was possible to hold debates. The Knesset speaker’s shameful behavior had imbued members of the world’s most heterogeneous bloc with energy.

But in the end, it all melted away. The discussions dragged on, the energy dissipated, and another attempt by Gantz and his party to send a powerful message was botched.

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No one should envy Gantz. It’s easy to demonstrate in front of his house and scream that he has capitulated. But the truth is that his options range from “very bad” to “atrocious.”

The option of a fourth election seems like a disaster – a catastrophe for the country, but also a very bad option for Gantz’s Kahol Lavan ticket. The rifts at the top of the joint ticket are clear, Gantz has been worn down by the brutal campaigns waged against him, and his negotiations with the Arab parties’ Joint List will likely erode Kahol Lavan’s strength.

And in any case, holding hold new elections will be impossible for the next several months because of the coronavirus pandemic. In this scenario, Benjamin Netanyahu would remain prime minister for at least a year. And if so, then from Gantz’s standpoint, it would be better for that year to be counted as part of Netanyahu’s turn at the helm of a unity government.

Unity, however, is also a bad option. To serve in a government under Netanyahu while he’s standing trial and to sit in the cabinet with Bezalel Smotrich, Rafi Peretz and Yaakov Litzman are blows that could destroy Gantz completely.

Even worse, if entering the government requires dismantling Kahol Lavan, Gantz will not only undermine the greatest achievement of his short political career – creating a governmental alternative to Netanyahu – but will also be forced to enter with just 15 of his “own” Knesset members, or perhaps 17, if Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser break away from Kahol Lavan’s Telem faction. Since there are 58 MKs from the rightist bloc, Gantz will become excess baggage. And that, of course, is Netanyahu’s dearest dream.

Gantz is furious at Yair Lapid, who heads Kahol Lavan’s Yesh Atid faction. Gantz even proposed bringing the decision to some kind of vote – among Kahol Lavan’s MKs, or among the ticket’s four-member leadership, with chairman Gantz getting a double vote. But Lapid has refused.

Gantz and Lapid didn’t keep their promise to turn Kahol Lavan into a democratic party. Now Gantz is eating the rotten fruit of that failure. Hendel and Hauser do as they please, and so does Lapid. If Kahol Lavan had a party convention to which the issue could be brought for a decision, perhaps it would be possible to avoid a schism.

Gantz’s third option is to play for time – to choose a new Knesset speaker, tighten his alliances with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and the Joint List, set up a special Knesset committee on the coronavirus, start showing signs of life. Perhaps initiating legislation against Netanyahu would weaken the prime minister’s bargaining position.

Saturday night, Netanyahu gave television interviews. Anchorwoman Dana Weiss asked him how many respirators Israel has. The captain steering our Titanic didn’t know how many lifeboats he had at his disposal. Our Churchill said there were about 1,000. The Health Ministry says there are 3,300.

In the same breath in which he depicted the crisis as the worst since the Middle Ages, he also said that if MK Meir Cohen (Kahol Lavan) is chosen as Knesset speaker, he (Netanyahu) won’t allow the establishment of an emergency unity government – and without an emergency government, it will be impossible to pass a new budget, and without a budget, the economy will collapse. Our fragile existence depends on the identity of the Knesset speaker. Let’s hope Cohen doesn’t collapse under the weight of the responsibility,

Yet despite all that, and despite the awful nausea it causes, Kahol Lavan should enter a rotation government with Netanyahu. Twice before in his political career, Lapid has said “no, no, no,” and then, all of a sudden, changed to “yes.” The first time was when he formed the joint ticket with Gantz; the second was when he waived his demand to serve as prime minister in a rotation government. This ought to be the third time.

It’s not fair, but this is the least bad solution: He should condition his entry into the government on being appointed justice minister, and thereby confront Netanyahu with a dilemma. Do you really want a unity government, or is it more important to you, even at a time of such grave crisis, to have a puppet like Amir Ohana in the Justice Ministry?