Gantz’s war coalition exit removes ‘moderating influence’ on Netanyahu

Gantz’s war coalition exit removes ‘moderating influence’ on Netanyahu

For the eight months he has served in Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency government, Benny Gantz has largely held his tongue about his frustrations with Israel’s veteran prime minister.

But as he announced his long-expected resignation on Sunday, the centrist former general, who joined the government after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, finally had his say. Netanyahu, he charged, was avoiding “fateful” decisions about the war due to his own narrow political calculations, and so preventing Israel from achieving “true victory”.

By the full-contact standards of Israeli politics, it was a tame departure. But it washed away the last traces of unity that descended on Israeli politics in the wake of October 7. And it leaves Netanyahu even more beholden to the far-right politicians who dominate his coalition at a time when he is under intense international pressure over his handling of the war in Gaza.

“Gantz was seen as a moderating influence,” said one diplomat. “Without him . . . in the coalition, Netanyahu will have less room to manoeuvre.”

Netanyahu’s coalition with far-right and ultrareligious parties holds 64 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, so even without Gantz’s National Unity party, his departure will not automatically trigger early elections.

But it will bring the rivalry between Gantz and Netanyahu into sharper focus. For the past year, polls have suggested that National Unity would win new elections. In recent months, however, the gap has narrowed, and Gantz leaves the emergency government with his party’s lead at its smallest for months, with support for Netanyahu inching back from its nadir.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Gantz made his name in the military where he joined an elite paratrooper unit. He eventually became chief of staff — a week after retiring — when the frontrunners for the job were felled by scandal.

On entering politics in 2018, he positioned himself as a centrist, capable of building ties across Israeli society, from Tel Aviv liberals to the deeply religious ultraorthodox community. He was also more open to the Palestinians than some of his counterparts, hosting President Mahmoud Abbas at his home in 2021. Colleagues and diplomats portrayed Gantz as a serious, focused man who turned to politics out of a desire to serve.

“I asked him in one of our first meetings: ‘What do you want to be?’ And I was surprised by his answer. He said: ‘minister of education’,” recalled Ronen Tzur, an adviser to Gantz at the start of his political career. “I said ‘Why? It’s not an important ministry’. And he said: ‘It’s very important to me that all the children in Israel learn the right values.’”

Allies say this sense of responsibility lay behind the two biggest decisions of Gantz’s political career: entering a grand coalition with Netanyahu after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, despite vowing repeatedly never to do so; and joining Netanyahu’s post-October 7 emergency wartime coalition.

But to critics, the first decision in particular was a sign of what they see as Gantz’s main weakness: political naivety. Under their deal, Netanyahu was to be prime minister for the first half of their term and Ganz for the second. Before Gantz could take over, Netanyahu engineered the coalition’s demise by failing to pass a budget. In the elections that followed, Gantz’s vote slumped after what many supporters saw as the ultimate betrayal: joining Netanyahu.

“He’s more patriotic than he is political,” a second diplomat said of Gantz.

Gantz’s allies reject suggestions that the Covid coalition was an error. “The decision to go in was not a mistake. It was a good decision for the State of Israel. It was a good decision for Benny politically,” said one, arguing that Gantz’s presence in the government had reined in Netanyahu. “The mistake was how [in coalition] we managed the political aspect.”

The big question is whether Gantz’s second rupture with Netanyahu will work out better. Gantz’s allies say his presence in the war cabinet played a crucial role in the course of the fighting, both by preventing Israel from opening a second front against the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah in the early days of the war, and by making the release of the hostages one of its main objectives.

But even at the height of National Unity’s lead in the polls, many analysts argued that some of the support was merely “parked” with Gantz, and could shift elsewhere, particularly if new alliances emerged. Those suspicions have only deepened as that lead has melted.

“Usually in Israel it’s better to be on the right or the left and gradually reach for the centre,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a political analyst who previously advised Netanyahu. “Gantz is in the centre. He’s managed where many others failed. But the question is how long you can be in a position like that, especially in a country that has a lot of black-and-white challenges.”

Last month, three opposition groups — Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party — agreed to co-ordinate to oust Netanyahu. There is also speculation that former prime minister Naftali Bennett and ex-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen could enter the fray.

One recent poll suggested a party uniting Liebermann, Bennett, Cohen and Saar could become Israel’s third biggest — and that Gantz would be the biggest loser from its creation.

“Everything is going to look very different by the next elections,” said the second diplomat. “More players will come in and most will take votes from Gantz.”

Gantz will also have to contend with renewed attacks from Netanyahu. The prime minister and his proxies — dubbed the “poison machine” by Bennett — directed withering fusillades at him when he emerged as Netanyahu’s main rival in 2019. In the wake of Gantz’s ultimatum last month, Netanyahu was quick to accuse him of playing into the hands of Hamas.

People who have worked with Gantz say the attacks he endured in 2019 were an eye-opener that hardened his approach to politics, and left him better placed to withstand the next barrage. “He had a very thin skin, and now his skin is very tough,” said Tzur.

But to defeat Netanyahu, Tzur added, Gantz would need to go on the attack as well. “Netanyahu doesn’t have any red lines when he decides to win an election . . . Gantz is not like that,” he said. “Netanyahu will not have any mercy, and Gantz will have to be very tough if he wants to defeat him.”