The prevailing wisdom among many Israelis, politicians and pundits has it that Defense Minister Benny Gantz, chair of the Blue and White Party, is politically finished. Barely seven weeks after he was accorded the title of alternate prime minister, Gantz’ center-left camp is shopping for an alternative to the alternate.
A poll conducted this week gives Gantz’ party nine Knesset seats — compared with the 33 or more that voters gave it in three consecutive elections in 2019 and 2020. True, Gantz ran in them at the head of a much bigger party that included the Yesh Atid and Telem factions before they split from him when he joined the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in late April. Nevertheless, nine seats are still only half the number his party currently controls in the legislature. People in his camp are asking not whether Gantz is finished, but how much longer he can last in his position. Another bet is on how long it will be before his party sinks into oblivion as did the centrist Kadima Party of Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz or even the center-left Labor party, which took its final breath this past winter.
The strangest ingredient in this political stew is the fact that under his power-sharing deal with Netanyahu, Gantz is scheduled to take over as prime minister in November 2021. The former army chief is the first contender in decades who could potentially remove Netanyahu from office. He is the first and only politician to successfully position himself as an alternative to Netanyahu, and did so within 18 months of entering politics. There is even a target date anchored in Knesset legislation for him to assume the premiership, making it hard for Netanyahu to avoid the rotation, although not impossible. Gantz’ camp, however, is ignoring those gains.
Gantz’ bitter political fate highlights the difference between Israel’s right-wing voters and supporters of the political center and left, or more precisely between the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu camps. While Netanyahu’s supporters will circle the wagons around their leader no matter what, his opponents will rush to stab their candidate in the back at the earliest opportunity. Refusing to accept political exigencies, they do not care that Gantz had no option but to join Netanyahu after running against him three times and they ignore that the route Gantz took will allow him to move Netanyahu aside within less than 18 months. They view his decision to go with Netanyahu as a stamp of approval for a politician under criminal indictment. Netanyahu’s supporters, on the other hand, are willing to continue marching to his tune even after his indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Gantz finds himself in a Catch-22. He has already been sworn in as Israel’s next premier, positioned alongside Netanyahu in the government leadership. If he wants to step into Netanyahu’s shoes, he cannot give him any excuse to renege on their rotation deal. However, the policies he has adopted to appease Netanyahu have been a polling disaster. He has to distinguish himself from Netanyahu, challenge his policies and record achievements. He has avoided doing so to ensure the November 2021 handover. When he drops down to five seats in the 120-member Knesset, Netanyahu will tell his Likud supporters and the Israeli public at large that it makes no sense to hand the premiership over to a man who enjoys such paltry public support. Gantz could end up not only humiliated by Netanyahu and losing his credibility and voters, but could also find himself dumped.