OpinionIsrael at War

Bibi vs. Gantz: Constructive ambiguity

Both are talking tough for the moment, but leaving themselves sufficient wiggle room for future deal-making.

Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in April 2021, flanked by Benny Gantz and Israel Katz. Photo: Oren Ben Hakoon.
Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in April 2021, flanked by Benny Gantz and Israel Katz. Photo: Oren Ben Hakoon.
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur is the U.S. politics editor for the Jewish Journal.

The late Henry Kissinger is widely credited with coining the phrase “constructive ambiguity” to describe deliberately imprecise language used to provide flexibility for negotiators. Israel’s two most prominent leaders are about to put Kissinger’s strategy to a challenging test.

National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz moved closer to a complete breakup with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last weekend, when he outlined a series of conditions that Netanyahu would have to accept if Gantz were to remain in the War Cabinet that has held Israel together since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks. Not surprisingly, most of Gantz’s demands were focused on the administration of the Gaza war, and he also echoed Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s call for Netanyahu to develop a plan for post-war oversight of Gaza.

But Gantz also emphasized the need to normalize Israel’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is widely seen as a necessary step toward regional peace but would also require movement toward a Palestinian state.

Gantz recognizes the widespread hostility among Israeli voters to such a dramatic act, so he made sure in his remarks to state his opposition to a potentially dangerous Palestinian state. He left little room for doubt, saying: “We will not allow any outside power, friendly or hostile, to impose a Palestinian state on us.” 

But if you read Gantz’s statement more closely, it’s clear that all he actually promised was that no “outside power” would impose a Palestinian state on Israel. Gantz clearly cannot verbally support a two-state solution, which would be a death sentence to his ambitions to replace Netanyahu as prime minister, at this time. But that nuance could be just enough to open a door for negotiations with the Saudis, letting both Riyadh and Washington know that as long as the first steps toward Palestinian statehood were sufficiently gradual and not as a result of explicit external coercion, negotiations could move forward under his leadership.

Just as impressive an act of constructive ambiguity as Gantz’s is one that Netanyahu himself seems to be assembling. The pressure on him to develop a plan for post-war Gaza other than a permanent Israeli military occupation has been growing, both domestically from Gallant and Gantz, and from the Biden administration. Netanyahu has made it clear that neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority can be trusted with such responsibility, despite claims from many international stakeholders that a refurbished version of the P.A. could be up to the job.

But while Netanyahu has been adamant that he will not allow Gaza to become what he calls “Fatahstan” and instead talks about a governing body made up of leaders from neither organization, the current prime minister might be relying on similar ambiguity to navigate a difficult set of obstacles.

Shortly after Israeli troops recently took control of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Netanyahu’s senior advisers told U.S. and Egyptian officials that they would be open to P.A. representatives being part of an oversight force—as long as they are not acting in an “official capacity” on behalf of the P.A.

This is the first time since Oct. 7 that Israel has suggested a willingness to accept any P.A. involvement in Gaza under any circumstances. It seems to open the door to a larger role for P.A. representatives in a multinational administrative entity, not too different from the Arab, European and United Nations collaboration that Gantz and others have proposed.

The constructive ambiguity that was Kissinger’s hallmark is designed to buy time and keep as many options open as possible. Both Gantz and Netanyahu understand that the Israeli people will not accept their respective goals anytime soon. So both are talking tough for the moment, but leaving themselves sufficient wiggle room for future deal-making.

Both men know that they will face off against each other in the near future, and both know that the one who can more effectively maintain his precarious political balancing act will be the victor. That day of reckoning is fast approaching: The winner will define Israel’s future.

Originally published by The Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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