Was This the Mistake of Netanyahu's Life?

Carolina Landsmann
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Arye Dery at a Knesset meeting last year.
Carolina Landsmann

Arye Dery, the so-called guarantor of the rotation agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, said on the radio Thursday that Netanyahu made “a big mistake when he broke apart the last government.” Nor did Dery absolve himself and Gantz of responsibility.

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“It was also my mistake that I didn’t fight for this,” said Dery, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. “This was a wonderful government. And though Gantz acted fairly, he also bears some blame in that he didn’t act like a leader against Nissenkorn and his irregularities,” Dery added, referring to former Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, then also a legislator in Gantz’s party.

When I heard Dery beating his breast, I recalled a quote from Paulo Coelho’s novel “Veronika Decides to Die” – “We’re allowed to make a lot of mistakes in our lives, except the mistake that destroys us.” I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future, when biographers survey Netanyahu’s political life and all the mistakes he made, they'll say the mistake that destroyed his political life was his preventing the state budget from passing in order to block the premiership from rotating to Gantz.

The coronavirus erupted in Israel at the height of a political impasse. The first confirmed patient was diagnosed on February 27, 2020, and Israel’s third election of the past year took place a week later, on March 2. A few weeks earlier, in late January, the attorney general had indicted Netanyahu.

A merciless pandemic and Gantz, an overly merciful ex-army chief, gave Netanyahu a gift from heaven. He could remain in power for another year and a half at a difficult time that spurred solidarity across the political spectrum. He could save Israel from the pandemic, quietly conduct his defense in his corruption trial and hand power over to Gantz in an orderly fashion, leaving the Prime Minister’s Office in a dignified way and without harming his political partners. Truly, deceiving Gantz and breaking up the government was the mistake of his life.

But could Netanyahu have acted otherwise? What constitutes a mistake in a person’s life is a very deep question. To assume that Netanyahu erred is to accept that there really existed another possibility. But did it actually exist?

Believing that things could have turned out differently ignores not only Netanyahu’s nature but also the Black Flag movement, which arose to protest Gantz’s decision to form a government with Netanyahu because it considered this an act of betrayal and fraud. In fact, at times the protest was against Gantz no less than against Netanyahu.

Why is this important? Because if the center-left wasn’t willing to rise above its feeling of betrayal, accept Gantz’s leadership, follow him and respect the step he took, it’s impossible to pin everything on Netanyahu.

If Gantz never stopped hinting to his betrayed voters – in part through Nissenkorn – that he and his colleagues were Trojan horses in Netanyahu’s government and very soon they would oust him, thereby keeping the core promise made by their Kahol Lavan party, what were Netanyahu and his bloc going to think? That this was unity? That there was any honorable exit here?

Dery’s remarks are interesting when you view them in a broader context than the mistake that cost him and his colleagues power. Dery mourns a more dramatic option that was missed, one related to the unique nature of the governing coalition that he calls “a wonderful government.”

Indeed, judging by the historic outcome, it’s impossible to ignore that not only did Netanyahu sabotage the last government, so did the center-left bloc. This center-left ultimately preferred joining forces with people who, until the other day, were the faces of the growing fascism and apartheid it warned about – Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Avigdor Lieberman. The center-left preferred to join up with them rather than serve in a government of centrists and ultra-Orthodox headed by Gantz, whose members would have been Likud, Labor, Gantz’s Kahol Lavan and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Admittedly, this cabinet wouldn’t have had an Arab party or left-wing Meretz. But the entire radical right would also have been left outside. Was the outcome necessary and was it all solely Netanyahu’s fault?

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