Gantz’s Shock Defection Has Crippled Israel’s Political Center

In a spectacular twist, Benny Gantz has abandoned his center-left Blue and White alliance and joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as Knesset speaker, despite regular assurances during his political career that he would refuse to work with him.

Gantz: ‘These are Unusual Times and They Call for Unusual Decisions’

“These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions,” Gantz told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. “That’s why I intend to explore the formation of a national emergency government.”

Gantz was the Israeli army chief before entering politics. He has spent the last few years challenging Netanyahu and serving as leader of the Blue and White alliance, a center-left coalition of three parties: Gantz’s Hosen L’Israel, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem.

During the course of three election cycles, he has consistently tied with Netanyahu. However, in this last cycle, he appeared to have the upper-hand with a potential coalition large enough to hold the Knesset and support from the President.

Gantz Abandons Leading Position and Teams Up With Netanyahu

Despite this apparent lead, Gantz has abandoned his coalition and has agreed to Netanyahu’s request to sit in a Netanyahu-led emergency unity government, contrary to his many campaign promises to not do precisely that.

Netanyahu has proposed a three-year government. In such a scenario, office of Prime Minister would be rotated between Netanyahu and Gantz. Netanyahu would stay on as prime minister for the first 18 months and Gantz would take over for the remaining 18.

Meanwhile, the three parties that made up Blue and White — Hosen L’Israel, Yesh Atid and Telem — will split up. Hosen L’Israel will join the Netanyahu government, while Lapid will remain as a part of the opposition.

Gantz’s Shocking About-Face

This move by Gantz has shocked political commentators who first of all expected to see Gantz attempt to pull together a coalition.

It was never going to be easy. The parties supporting Gantz ran the gamut from far-right to far-left, and included the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and the mostly Arab Joint List parties. Various heads of each faction said they would not form a coalition without the other. It may be this tension that ultimately motivated Gantz to partner with Netanyahu.

While Gantz’s move — by his own admission — was driven by the need for a strong response to the coronavirus epidemic, it does not erase Gantz’s record as Netanyahu’s loudest critic for the last two years.

During this period he swore many times that he would never serve in a government with him, citing the prime minister’s upcoming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and had even begun working towards legislation that would have prevented Netanyahu from serving in government while indicted.

Political Suicide?

Joining the Netanyahu government has been described by many as political suicide for Gantz. It makes a future as a credible alternative to Netanyahu after the end of the emergency government unlikely. In a particularly damning testimony during the plenum, Labor MK Merav Michaeli asked Gantz and Ashkenazi why they “put the entire country through this entire mess when they could have been ministers for Netanyahu all along.”

“You wanted to be Yitzhak Rabin but you ended up like another former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, a nice man but a caricature of a politician who gave into Netanyahu and whose career ended shortly afterward,” she said.

Losses on Israel’s Left

There are of course greater implications for Israel than Benny Gantz’s political career. With the end of the Blue and White Alliance, Israel stands to lose its robust centrist coalition. This is especially notable as the beginning of this month saw the shrinking of the country’s progressive political wing: candidate Ilan Gilon lost out on joining the Knesset at the beginning of this month, bringing Israel’s progressive wing down to just seven seats.

Altogether, Israel’s left is losing influence. This trend is only slightly bucked by the Joint List, a coalition of Arab factions, which saw a marginal increase in the Knesset — up to 15 out of 120 in total.

This has clear implications for the ongoing conflict with Palestine to the east and Lebanon to the north. Netanyahu has historically taken an aggressive position. He has declared his intention to hold on to the territories in Golan Heights, which were annexed during the Six-Day War in 1967 — only US President Donald Trump and the US recognize the territory as legally Israel’s. Netanyahu has also said that Israel will annex of settlements in the east — although such action would only presumably be taken following the Covid-19 crisis.

What Happens Next?

Following the three-year emergency government, the country will see another set of elections. With Gantz scorned by the political establishment, the center-left bloc will need to scramble to find someone who can oppose the intractable Netanyahu.

The end of this electoral deadlock should be celebrated. Despite the ongoing uncertainty in Israeli politics, it means the creation of a new budget, and much-needed mobility in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which in Israel is up to 3,035 cases with 10 dead. Now that Netanyahu is in control, it’s likely the country will put into lockdown within the next few days to prevent new infections.

Still, how Israel’s left will bounce back from this losses is uncertain. Without a credible candidate, the future influence of the country’s left political wing — which only last week seemed to be on its way to power — is looking very diminished.