Blue and White finally see red over cynical Netanyahu
In years to come, political commentators and analysts will scratch their heads intensely while making what will most likely be a futile attempt to understand why Benny Gantz, currently the alternating Israeli prime minister, dragged his party into a coalition government that was stillborn — especially as it was a government that aimed to serve one thing and one thing only: Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to escape from his corruption trial.
We may never know the real reason behind Gantz’s decision to join the coalition, which was taken in cahoots with his chief partner in the party, another former commander of the Israeli army, Gabi Ashkenazi. Was it the lure of becoming prime minister midway through the term of this government? Was it from a sense of responsibility — a wish to not leave the country rudderless after three indecisive general elections? Did he see that the country was on the verge of collapse in the face of the coronavirus disease pandemic and believe that he and his party would be the saviors who would later be rewarded at the ballot box? Or was it a more Machiavellian move, made in the belief that Netanyahu would have to resign or suspend himself in the face of his trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and power would drop into his lap sooner than agreed?
There is probably a grain of truth in all of these possible reasons for Gantz leading his party into a tainted government — though it would be more accurate to say half of his party, since the other half opted to stick to its election promise not to join a government led by a defendant in a serious corruption trial and to remain in opposition. However, what Gantz and the less principled wing of the party did was nothing less than write their own political suicide note. If opinion polls are to be believed, that will be at the next election, although it may come sooner rather than later and probably before Gantz gets the chance to replace Netanyahu as prime minister as per the coalition agreement. Gantz will find himself leading a party of about a quarter of the 36 MKs it won at the last general election.
Hence, unsurprisingly, in recent weeks Blue and White has been flexing its muscles within government and the Knesset, especially in opposing Netanyahu’s unrelenting efforts to bend the democratic processes to serve his personal legal needs. Increasingly, Blue and White is serving as a mini-opposition within the government. It is quite astonishing that it has taken Gantz and those who followed him into this government four months to discover what every novice political observer in Israel has known all along: That Netanyahu the defendant has given up on running the country or caring for it and its people. All he cares about is thwarting his trial. But why would a rival party that only a few months ago saw itself as an alternative to Netanyahu let itself be turned into his shield against facing justice in the first place, and in the process compromise its integrity and its chances of ever replacing him?
Gradually, the realization that joining the government was a fatal mistake is filtering through to the leadership of Blue and White, and they are now seen by their own constituency as aiding and abetting an allegedly criminal prime minister; one who has also proved himself to be utterly incompetent and negligent in dealing with a deadly pandemic. Acting as an opposition within the government might feel satisfactory for Blue and White’s representatives, but it is not remotely sufficient to serve as a life raft for a party sinking so badly in the polls and, even more importantly, for a society and economy in such dire straits.
At this point, all the party can do is limit the damage caused to itself and the country in backing Netanyahu, and it is probably damned if it leaves the government and even more damned if it remains. Hence, Blue and White can either take the honorable route and leave the government, bring it down and form a different one without Netanyahu, or it can open the way to fresh elections that will see it shrink to near-insignificance while losing the prestigious defense and foreign ministries it currently holds.
What Gantz and Ashkenazi are gradually and painfully digesting is that, come what may, Netanyahu has no intention of honoring the agreement to rotate the premiership. Consequently, they have been left empty-handed, with no power and no influence, still tainted by their association with a corrupt prime minister, as well as being part of a government that was first in the world to impose a second lockdown due to Israel being third in the unenviable league table of coronavirus deaths per capita. The country is also seeing rising unemployment and has a prime minister who is cynically exploiting the pandemic crisis to prevent street protests and is blocking a new budget bill for selfish political considerations.
One Blue and White minister has already resigned from government and another has expressed his desire to do the same. Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir’s resignation letter cited distrust in Netanyahu — a sentiment shared by the entire Blue and White faction in the Knesset. It seems that, in supporting the legislation to outlaw mass demonstrations, the prime minister has made Blue and White see red. What was supposed to be an equal partnership has become a prolonged humiliation and marginalization.
Gradually, the realization that joining the government was a fatal mistake is filtering through to the party leadership.
The party’s first act of independence was announced by the justice minister, a Blue and White MK, who has formed a selection committee to appoint a permanent state prosecutor. This was in defiance of Netanyahu, who is desperate to be able to control the selection process, as the next state prosecutor will have the power to decide on indictments over further corruption allegations that are likely to be investigated by the police.
Blue and White may have done too little, too late to redeem itself in the eyes of Israeli voters, but it can still do the honorable and responsible thing and fall on its sword. This will offer hope that, after the next election, a government that is genuinely keen to address the rampaging, out-of-control pandemic will emerge, instead of a leader whose legal tribulations have stripped him of all good judgment, let alone integrity or a moral compass.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg