A year ago, former Israeli Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff Benny Gantz was the fresh face that Israeli voters longed for. Or at least, that was true of that portion of its electorate who either despised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or had grown tired of him after a decade in office.
Today, many, if not most, of those who hailed Gantz as the country’s savior are roasting him for what they consider a betrayal. His erstwhile allies in the Blue and White Party that he helped found a year ago and led to impressive showings in three straight elections can’t think of enough bad things to say about him. The same is true of pundits in Israel’s left-leaning media. Gantz’s decision to go into a coalition with Netanyahu and end the long political stalemate as the coronavirus pandemic spreads is being described by them as not only a craven surrender, but also proof of his lack of character, perseverance and intelligence.
Even worse, many on the left are openly predicting that Netanyahu will make a fool of Gantz by reneging on the reported terms of the deal that has yet to be finalized. They seem sure that Netanyahu, whose relentless desire to hold onto power is matched only by his competence in wielding it, will never give up the post of prime minister in 18 months, as he is promising to do. Many on the Israeli right are thinking the same thing as they chortle about a move that they believe once again demonstrates Netanyahu’s political genius.
But even if all of Gantz’s critics are right about that, the former general still deserves credit for doing the right thing.
At a moment of crisis for the State of Israel, while everyone else around him was thinking only about short-term political gains and grudges, Gantz chose to save the country from further turmoil—and a possible fourth election—at a time when it was staggered by the high cost of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The government he forms with Netanyahu will enable the country to pass a budget and begin the work of recovering from an unprecedented economic disaster.
The verdict of history on Gantz’s career has yet to be written and will obviously be influenced by what happens in the coming years. But it is possible that if he is remembered at all, it will be for his willingness to risk his political future by ending Israel’s long political stalemate.
When Gantz entered politics prior to the April 2019 election, he founded his own Israel Resilience Party with Gabi Ashkenazi, another former IDF chief of staff. He then was able to unite it with the far larger secular-liberal Yesh Atid Party led by Yair Lapid and the smaller right-leaning (but anti-Netanyahu) Telem Party led by Moshe Ya’alon—yet another former IDF chief of staff, as well as a former Likud defense minister—in order to form the Blue and White Party.
Though Gantz agreed to rotate the role of prime minister with Lapid if Blue and White won, he quickly emerged as its real leader. While his support came mostly from the political left, he gained credibility by running hard to the right on security issues in all three campaigns, vowing to annex the Jordan Valley and then endorsing President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
Blue and White almost instantly became one of Israel’s two major parties—winning more than a quarter of the votes cast each time—and nearly matched the Likud in two of the elections and actually finished first last September. But the contrast with the far more energetic Netanyahu was telling. Gantz lacked his opponent’s political skills, in addition to the will to win, coupled with the willingness to say and do anything to succeed, which propels Netanyahu.
But Gantz’s bigger problem was that the only way he could hope to get a majority in the Knesset was to make a deal with the anti-Zionists of the Joint Arab List, something he specifically promised not to do. When he appeared to break that promise after the third election, it was clear that Blue and White would be punished for that the next time Israelis went to the polls.
Nevertheless, Gantz still had it within his power to cripple Netanyahu’s hopes of forming another government by using the votes of the 61 Knesset members who wanted to oust the prime minister to pass a law that would prevent someone currently under indictment (like Netanyahu) from forming a government.
That would have doomed Netanyahu, but it also would have plunged Israel into political chaos at a time when the country is under a near total shutdown as its overburdened medical staff and emergency workers fight the spreading contagion and rising toll of victims.
Though Gantz had been tempted to try to form a government with the Joint List, the former soldier also understood that this was a moment to transcend political grudges. That wasn’t true of Lapid and Ya’alon, who clearly regard their desire to get even with Netanyahu for past offenses as more important than serving the country during a national crisis. They and many on the left, who have been praying for a chance to finally beat Netanyahu, are enraged that Gantz snatched it away.
The coming year may demonstrate that Gantz is no more of a match for Netanyahu inside his cabinet than he was outside of it. And it’s hard to believe that the left or his former colleagues will ever forgive him for throwing away this chance to beat their bête noire. Aside from the dubious possibility that the Likud will stand aside in 18 months and let him accede to the top spot, he may have no path at all to being prime minister.
Still, by joining with Netanyahu during this public health calamity and blowing up a political coalition that was his creation, Gantz showed courage, not cowardice. That may not give him a political future, but it ought to guarantee him a favorable mention in his country’s history as a patriot who placed the interests of his country above that of his party.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.