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‘I believe we must not drag Israel to a fourth election’

Benny Gantz’s volte-face on Thursday was met with bitter excoriation from his former allies.

“Benny Gantz decided today to break apart Blue and White and crawl into Netanyahu’s government,” declared Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who has spent the past year as Gantz’s no. 2 in Blue and White. “We ran together because Benny Gantz looked me in the eye and said we would never sit in this bad government. I believed him.”

And what did Gantz have to show for the breakup, Lapid seemed to wonder. “What’s being formed today isn’t a unity government and not an emergency government. It’s another Netanyahu government. Benny Gantz surrendered without a fight and crawled into Netanyahu’s government, joined the haredi-extremist bloc,” he said.

In an important sense, he’s certainly right. Gantz appears to be the most obvious loser from his decision to join Netanyahu.

He surrendered his most valuable cards just as the fight was reaching its climax, with Blue and White finally in control of the Knesset and a new speaker set to be voted in, and just as Netanyahu, fearful of a Knesset set against him, was for the first time begging for serious unity talks.

As Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah put it bitterly on Thursday, “at the moment of truth, Gantz crumpled.”

Worse, Blue and White fell apart on Thursday afternoon before Gantz had anything more than a few vague promises from Netanyahu. Negotiations over the details of the new government are still underway.

And Gantz has sealed off any foreseeable future bid to challenge Netanyahu at the ballot box. The political vehicle he dismantled was made up of his Israel Resilience party and, crucially, of the tight-knit organization and massive ground operation of Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

He surrendered his only decisive leverage over Netanyahu going forward: Netanyahu’s abject fear of the laws Blue and White had planned to advance that would forbid an indicted MK like Netanyahu from becoming prime minister.

And he broke his defining campaign promise: to remove Netanyahu from power.

True, Netanyahu now promises to vacate the prime minister’s chair in 18 months, in September 2021, and yes, Aryeh Deri reportedly promised to be a guarantor that Netanyahu follows through on his word. But no one — least of all Gantz — believes him.

That Gantz knows he has given up everything, and probably even that he is exceedingly unlikely to reach the prime minister’s chair, is evident in his demand to be appointed speaker of the Knesset while the new coalition negotiations are underway.

He’s holding onto the post as a last lever over Netanyahu, a position that would allow him (as Likud’s Yuli Edelstein demonstrated over the past two weeks) to disrupt Netanyahu’s legislative plans if he reneges, including advancing the anti-Netanyahu bills.

That is, Gantz isn’t entirely convinced Netanyahu won’t stab him in the back in the next day, for example by taking advantage of Blue and White’s dissolution to now try to pull someone else into his coalition and leave Gantz stranded. Never mind September 2021.

What drove Gantz to such a startling capitulation? And why now, when Netanyahu appeared at his most desperate, and was for the first time in a year seeking serious unity talks following Edelstein’s resignation from the Knesset a day earlier?

The answer starts with Yair Lapid, his conduct and priorities, during the coronavirus crisis.

Nothing fundamental has changed in Gantz’s worldview. He remains convinced that Netanyahu is a corrupt and corrupting influence on Israeli public life, a man who may care in a general sense for the public welfare, but who will ultimately choose his own interests over the public’s when the chips are down.

But in the last month, Gantz appears to have grown convinced that his main political partner Yair Lapid is a lot like Netanyahu.

As the coronavirus pandemic exploded around them, Gantz, the lifelong soldier, watched as Lapid and Netanyahu continued to machinate and maneuver. Gantz expressed horror and indignation at Yuli Edelstein’s unprecedented shuttering of the Knesset’s work in the midst of a global pandemic to slow Blue and White’s takeover of the parliament.

But Gantz also had a front-row seat to the machinations from his own side, to Lapid’s push to appoint a Yesh Atid lawmaker, MK Meir Cohen, as speaker of the Knesset and to monopolize coalition chairmanships in order to legislate Netanyahu out of power.

Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff and in his short term as a politician already a scarred veteran of three bruising election cycles, is no stranger to ferocious politics. But the coronavirus pandemic appears nevertheless to have rattled him. As those around him explained on Thursday and his maiden speech as Knesset speaker made clear, he appears genuinely startled at the fact that the vicious politicking of the past year has continued unabated despite the dire public emergency.

When a politician makes an unexpected move, it’s usually useful to examine how he sees the options available to him. In Gantz’s case that’s a fairly straightforward exercise.

Gantz has been repeatedly underestimated for the entirety of his short political career. Both right and left mocked his Israel Resilience party when it was founded in late 2018. Both sides were startled by the founding of Blue and White four months later, but found a new target for their mockery in the rotation promise to Lapid that cemented the alliance.

The right was certain the Blue and White bubble would burst at the ballot box in April, and certain again in September. It was not so certain anymore by the March 2 race.

And at least since March 2, it was Lapid who has underestimated Gantz. The Yesh Atid leader assumed Gantz had come to play the kind of predatory, stubborn, winner-take-all politics that Netanyahu practiced and that Lapid himself had imbibed at Netanyahu’s side over the years. Lapid believed, too, that Gantz’s quiet demeanor meant he would sit idly by while Yesh Atid led an unrelenting and in fact unprecedented legislative fight to remove Netanyahu from power once and for all.

There is some truth, of course, to the accusations from Lapid, Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz and others on Thursday that Gantz was taking a million “anti-Netanyahu votes” and dragging them into a Netanyahu government.

For Gantz, however, there is a greater and simpler truth: He believes he faces two Netanyahus, two politicians whose priorities, at the end of the day, he doesn’t share. One of them, Lapid, could not give him a stable coalition in the midst of a national crisis. The other, Netanyahu, could.

It is clear now that Gantz also believed Blue and White’s window of opportunity was closing quickly. Channel 12 reported on Thursday that Blue and White had conducted polls showing it would decisively lose a fourth election. Gantz himself has already said he found the prospect of yet another election in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic galling.

Gantz also had a poll that suggested that as many as 61 percent of Blue and White’s March voters preferred an emergency unity government, even without Lapid, to Blue and White supporting a minority Likud government from the opposition — Lapid’s proposal in recent days that would have become all but inevitable had Meir Cohen been elected speaker on Thursday.

Meanwhile, in the words of one Gantz-allied Blue and White official on Thursday, “Yair [Lapid] was vetoing everything. He thought he was running Blue and White, and for his personal reasons” — i.e., that he would be a junior partner in a unity government — “he decided to break up Blue and White” rather than follow Gantz into the Netanyahu-led government.

Gantz’s former allies accuse him of betrayal. But for Gantz, his move toward Netanyahu is a kind of rebellion against the deadlocked and increasingly rancorous politics of both Netanyahu and Lapid.

As he put it in a tweet around midnight Thursday, responding to Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon’s earlier denunciations in typically restrained fashion: “Yair [Lapid], Bogi [Ya’alon], thank you for walking this path with me over the past year. In my eyes you will always be patriots who love their country and fight for it wherever you may be. At the end of the day, I believe we must not drag Israel to a fourth election at such a challenging period, when the country is dealing with the coronavirus crisis and its fallout. We disagree on that point.”

Gantz’s rebellion against the Lapid-Netanyahu brand of politics — as he sees it, at least — appears to be driving his plans for the immediate future. Reports coming out of the coalition talks reveal a great deal about how Gantz envisions the coming months of “unity” with Netanyahu. Put simply, he plans to impede and disrupt what he views as the worst impulses of the prime minister and of his right-wing allies.

He plans to push the prime minister, whom he still views as a criminal, as far as possible from his moral hazards, demanding for Israel Resilience both the Communications Ministry — where Netanyahu allegedly worked to favor the business interests of tycoons who offered him positive coverage in their media outlets — and the Justice Ministry, now staffed by Netanyahu loyalist Amir Ohana, which has administrative oversight of the state prosecutors in the PM’s corruption cases.

Early reports say Israel Resilience’s Avi Nissenkorn, the party’s most senior member after Gantz, is slated to be justice minister. Gantz also wants to replace Likud firebrand Miri Regev in the Culture Ministry.

In short, a great deal of the right’s most strident agenda will be in deep freeze or find itself actively reversed as long as the Netanyahu-Gantz partnership lasts.

No wonder Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked, a former justice minister, tweeted furiously on Thursday morning, when news of Gantz’s demands began to leak out of the talks, that “the right-wing camp’s handing of the justice portfolio to the left-wing camp amounts to surrender.”

The right is now celebrating Netanyahu’s emergence from a year-long three-election marathon as the winner. But as with the right’s premature celebrations on March 3, it may come to regret the new alliance Gantz plans to impose on their leader. The serially underestimated Gantz now seems to have made it his mission to wipe those smiles away.

Original: Haviv Rettig, The Times of Israel’s senior analyst.