Benny Gantz Lost His Nerve; Nothing Changed in Israel

Anyone who has followed Israel’s election saga over the last year cannot be surprised by the events that transpired last week. After three trips to the voting booth, in early March Israelis gave Benny Gantz, a former army general, a narrow majority to form a ruling coalition. Such a coalition would have been the political end of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under criminal indictment. But there is a wrinkle to the story. The last election also gave the Palestinian-led Joint List party its strongest showing ever, thanks to a massive turnout by Palestinians.

If Gantz could have formed a union with the Palestinians, a parliamentary coalition representing all of Israel’s citizens would have taken power for the first time in the country’s history. For the small number of remaining Israeli liberals and international observers, the prospect of a government of true unity was exceptionally exciting and much was written over the past weeks heralding a new era in the country’s democracy. But it was never going to happen and those who thought otherwise were deluding themselves.

Only in the wildest of liberal dreams would a mainstream politician like Gantz have formed a partnership with the Palestinians. To be sure, Netanyahu did his best to foil any attempt by Gantz to form such a coalition with the Joint List. His government used the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to muzzle Israel’s democratic institutions, while his Likud party ramped up incitements against the Joint List and even tried to block the election of a new speaker of parliament.

Yet, despite such pressure from Netanyahu, all Gantz had to do was to find some courage to forge a partnership with the Joint List. That would have required dismissing some of his Blue and White party members who strongly opposed such a partnership. But that would have been nothing compared to the looming prospect of yet another election — this time in the middle of a pandemic.

It would have been straightforward except for one thing: Gantz was never interested in working with the Palestinians. As a lifelong military man of the political center-right/right, the notion of partnership with Palestinians runs counter to his entire political being. That a mainstream party in Israel would be interested in a genuine power-sharing agreement with Palestinians is a pipedream espoused by liberals who cling to the fairytale of Israel as a democracy.

Instead of seizing an historic opportunity to reshape the country radically into an honest democracy, Gantz struck a deal with Netanyahu last week to form a ruling coalition. It was a breathtaking reversal of his party’s campaign promises to remove the sitting prime minister, to restore the rule of law and to repair Israel’s democratic deficit.

Using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse, Gantz agreed to enter a national emergency government in which Netanyahu will stay on as prime minister, with Gantz as his deputy, for the next year and a half. After that, both will switch places. But anything can happen in that time, especially since Netanyahu has proved himself to be less than trustworthy in similar situations. In fact, it has begun already; after winning a third of the seats in parliament and the hearts of so many Israelis, Gantz’s Blue and White party promptly split in two after the coalition announcement, effectively ceding more control to Netanyahu’s Likud and its allies.

Liberal commentators contend that the capitulation by Gantz stems from the fact that key members of the Blue and White party were vehemently opposed to the Joint List. The internal disagreement threatened to rip apart the party with the prospect of another election during this pandemic, which Netanyahu – given his willingness to flout democratic convention – would probably have won easily.

While Israel’s election saga is about to come to an end, the process belies the health of democracy in the country. When it comes to practicing inclusive democracy, Israel has mastered the art of deception. By paying lip service to the need to “heal” the country’s democracy, Gantz now joins a long line of Israeli politicians who claim they want to transform Israel into a state that embraces all its citizens.

However, the harsh reality is that Palestinians are still firmly outside the mainstream. The status quo reigns supreme.

It is all very well to rail against Netanyahu’s corruption or celebrate the rise of the Joint List, but at the end of the day power in Israel remains firmly in the hands of Jewish citizens as the occupation that governs daily life goes on.

Gantz was never going to disturb this grand status quo that he helped create. He is merely a functionary in a much larger political project designed to ensure the absolute power of one group over another, behind an elaborate facade of democracy. He served that role perfectly.

When the coronavirus crisis subsides, Israel will find that three elections in one year did absolutely nothing to change the shape of the country’s politics.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.