Opinion

Benny Gantz's Tactical Waiting Game Is Too Clever by Half

The Kahol Lavan leader's preference for Netanyahu getting first crack at forming a government could backfire – and lose the whole ballgame

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid during a press conference, September 19, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The leaders of Kahol Lavan have apparently embraced the teachings of Niccolo Machiavelli, the godfather of political manipulation, as well as the biblical injunction to “wage war with trickery.” Kahol Lavan’s schemers surmise that their prospects will improve if President Reuven Rivlin gives Benjamin Netanyahu the first crack at forming a new government while Benny Gantz patiently awaits his turn – and his inevitable victory.

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The decision, of course, is not theirs but Rivlin’s to make. Which is why Gantz and Co. were distraught when it seemed that the 13-member Joint List’s dramatic endorsement would give Gantz a 57-55 advantage over Netanyahu and, coupled with Kahol Lavin’s bigger size, turn Gantz into Rivlin’s default option.

For the same reason Kahol Lavan strategists breathed a collective sigh of relief when the three representatives of the ultra-nationalist Balad contingent dissociated themselves from the Joint List’s recommendation and gave the numerical advantage back to Netanyahu, if only by a hair’s breadth of 55-54. Theoretically, Kahol Lavan’s waiting game does grant them important tactical benefits. Whoever is second in line to form a government will have a clear psychological edge over the first: The Sword of Damocles of yet another election campaign, the third this year, will inevitably shake the confidence and possibly dismantle their rival’s political bloc.

>> Read more: Why the Arab alliance's endorsement of Gantz is a big deal | Analysis ■ Joint List reps cross the Rubicon to endorse Gantz – who blanches in return | Analysis

Netanyahu’s widely-expected failure to form a government could very well spark an internal revolution in Likud that would precipitate his downfall, whether he goes willingly or by force, and thus pave the way for the broad-based government that Gantz aspires to head.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin at a ceremony in Jerusalem in August.
Emil Salman

Nonetheless, Kahol Lavan tacticians are being too clever by half, or ober-chuchems if you prefer Yiddish. The tactical advantages they seek are dwarfed by the risk of overall strategic failure. Netanyahu will get 28 days – 42, if Rivlin extends his mandate – to offer half his kingdom to potential renegades from Kahol Lavan in particular, and the center-left bloc in general. He will have 42 days to deposit the keys to the kingdom itself in the hands of Avigdor Lieberman, in exchange for immunity and continued war against the media and the rule of law.

Despite the fact that over the past few months Netanyahu has repeatedly shown that his lust for power knows no bounds and that he flouts all rules and ignores all convention in its pursuit, the navigators of Kahol Lavan apparently believe that he will now turn into a well-mannered Goody Two- Shoes. On the contrary: Netanyahu will try to consolidate his hold on power by any means possible. If he was ready to risk a war in Gaza to improve his situation before the election, hell will be the new limit in its aftermath: Netanyahu is more than capable of fomenting a “national emergency,” real or feigned, which will leave Kahol Lavan no other choice but to flout the First Commandment that underpinned their electoral success: “Anyone but Bibi.”

Netanyahu getting a first nod from the president would land a harsh blow on the center-left’s morale, which could facilitate Netanyahu’s plan to divide the party from within. The nightmarish vision of Netanyahu settling back in the driver’s seat and recklessly pushing the gas pedal to reach his target would make a mockery of his clear-cut defeat in last Tuesday’s election. While Gantz and his colleagues rejoice over sucker Netanyahu supposedly falling into their well-laid trap, their supporters will see them as naive novices who could soon add insult to injury by reneging on their main pledge not to participate in his coalition.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that setting up a government after Tuesday’s inconclusive results is a formidable challenge, perhaps even mission impossible. Nonetheless, one would expect the three former army chiefs of staff who lead Kahol Lavan to put their lives on the line, look at the whites of their rival’s eyes and storm the ramparts until a breakthrough is achieved. Instead, Kahol Lavan’s leaders now resemble your garden-variety political manipulators: Instead of “Anyone but Bibi,” their voters could wind up with “Anyone like Bibi.”