Shahar Azani
JBS Senior Vice President & Former Israeli Diplomat . A Jew.

Gabi Ashkenzai – The Man Behind The Unity Curtain

In 2010 something extraordinary took place. Not entirely out of this world, but definitely out of the ordinary. Or Yehuda, a small city in the heart of Israel, named a square after Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. What’s so unusual about this, you might ask, well – this honor was bestowed upon Ashkenazi WHILE he was still Israel’s Chief of Staff. Furthermore, Ashkenazi did not approve of the decision and even suggested to name it IDF Square, but to no avail. Ashkenazi Square it was.

The anecdote above captures the quintessential Ashkenazi phenomenon in Israeli politics and his essence as Vox Populi. A longtime soldier (he joined the IDF in 1972 and is a proud veteran of the Golani Brigade), he assumed the position in Feb 2007 as Israel’s Chief of Staff after the perceived failure of the 2nd Lebanon War, whose Herculean task was to rehabilitate the army. And that he did. Ashkenazi is credited to have been able to bring the IDF back on its feet, restocked its Emergency Supplies Centres, launched a series of drills meant to prepare the IDF to war, and engaged proactively in defense of Israel. One such outstanding achievement took place in September 2007, when Israel attacked and eliminated the Syrian nuclear reactor. The attack happened only a few years before Syria sunk into a chaotic civil war, which saw the cruel Assad regime using all of its deadly arsenal – including chemical weapons it had in its possession – against its people.

Ashkenazi was an undoubted success story, and his popularity among the general public became evident, as his image was that of “a man of the people.” However, popularity could be a dangerous gift, especially in the perilous Israeli political ocean. Quickly enough, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, threatened by Ashkenazi’s popularity, started taking measures to “contain” the well-liked Chief of Staff, which caused inevitable friction between the two and led to much political unrest over the past decade with accusations and counter-accusations. And here is another critical element of the story. Israel has a “cooling off” law, which states that retired high-level security establishment officials must wait before they are allowed to run for office or partake in any political activity. In 2007 Israeli law was changed so that these high ranking officers can enter the political arena only three years after their retirement, instead of just six months as it used to be. In 2011, a few members of Knesset attempted to legislate a change to this law and reduce the “cooling off” period in what was nicknamed the “Ashkenazi amendment.” It failed to pass. Clearly, Ashkenazi’s popularity was a real threat to some. It’s worth noting a similar amendment was presented in 2015, purportedly to allow for the then retiring IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, to run for office, but – again – to no avail.

And here we are today, as this duo – Gantz, and Ashkenazi – are making their steps into the upper halls of Israeli politics, as senior members of Israel’s much desired and long waited government of national unity, following three rounds of excruciating and unprecedented elections in Israel. The move focused in a matter of course on the party’s head and prime ministerial candidate, Gantz, however, Ashkenazi had much to do with it. It is no secret his position, for a long time now, has been that it is in Israel’s best interest to establish a broad government that has the support of the majority of the Israeli public. Indeed, his desire – as well as that of his fellow “cockpit” members – was to bring about a change and replace Netanyahu at the helm. However, Ashkenazi was wise enough to read the political map already after the second round of elections. The Israeli public was split in the middle. Under such circumstances, a partisan government could be devastating not only to the Israeli political system but also to the very fabric of Israeli society. Just like a right-wing coalition was perceived to be a real threat to those who wanted Netanyahu out, a similar non-Netanyahu coalition was seen as such to the other half of the people. Ashkenazi, with his sharp instincts and his deep understanding of those on the other side of the political map, understood that need. It is reasonable to assume that had it been up to him, Gantz would have negotiated President Rivlin’s offer already in October 2019 into acceptance. Under such a scenario, Israel would have averted expensive and unnecessary third elections round, and Netanyahu’s last six months in office would have counted as part of his term in the rotation between him and Gantz. However, that was not to be. The cockpit hard-liners anti-Bibi leaders, Lapid and Yaalon, vehemently refused to move forward with a national unity government, and Gantz and Ashkenazi went along. 

Nonetheless, last week enough was declared enough. Ashkenazi and Gantz decided to part ways with their hard-liner partners and chose to split the Blue and White coalition, in a highly controversial move. Their immediate past partners, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Telem’s Moshe ‘Bogie” Yaalon, a former IDF Chief of Staff himself, were furious. They berated them for “caving in” to Netanyahu and breaking their promises to the electorate, allegedly “stealing” votes from Blue and White voters who wanted to oust Netanyahu. Supposedly, handing Netanyahu a great “victory” and an out of his legal and political conundrums. 

But did they? Let’s examine the situation with some realism. Blue and White, again led by the hard-liners anti-Bibi forces, strived right out of the third elections round to create a government supported by Avigdor Liberman and the Joint Arab List to remove Netanyahu from office. During their elections campaign, those same leaders promised Israeli voters that under no circumstances will they create a “narrow coalition” dependent on the Joint Arab List. This List includes some members who are far from Israel’s mainstream and do not accept Israel being a Jewish state.

Moreover, one such member was even disqualified by Israel’s Central Elections Committee from running in the elections, only to be allowed to run only after a Supreme Court’s ruling. Therefore, their hasty and ill-planned move to break that promise and create such a government fell flat on its face, exposing their animosity to Netanyahu and their willingness to do everything if only to remove him from office. Eventually, members of their own Blue and White coalition foiled the move with their objection and thus made it impossible to execute. 

So what else could they do? A fourth-round of elections is impossible at the moment due to the global pandemic Coronavirus crisis. Thus, the only option was to stay out of the Netanyahu government, while continuing to play political games as the public watches impatiently. This was the straw that seemed to have broken the camel’s back. After dragging Israel to a third election round, and breaking their promise to the Israeli electorate on a narrow minority government, Gantz and Ashkenazi saw a bleak future for Blue and White. They realized the Israeli public was tired of the political games and knew that a broad coalition that has a strong basis of support with the people is what the people wanted, and is what Israel needed. They rightfully feared the electorate would punish Blue and White severely as a result, and finally chose to cut the cord and make a brave, yet hazardous, step forward. 

Did they hand Netanyahu a victory? Was this only thanks to his political genius? I dare say no. Taking nothing away from his evident command of Israeli politics, and his famed “magic” over the Israeli electorate, I firmly believe it was the hardliners within Blue and White who were leading the party to its doom. Their desire to oust Netanyahu at all cost – partly born out of legitimate concerns and somewhat of inevitable matters of ego – prevented them from clearly seeing the path they were marching on. 

Here is the bottom line: as part of the deal between Gantz and Netanyahu, the latter committed to Gantz publicly in a TV interview he gave a few days before the split, to leave office as per the agreement between the two. For the first time, the shiny package called “Netanyahu” comes with a “Best Before” date, which will be Sep 2021. Gantz and Ashkenazi concluded justly from the elections result that for the sake of Israel’s politics and society, it is better to thank Netanyahu for his service and accompany him out of Balfour in an agreed settlement rather than try – futilely – to kick him out of the Prime Minister’s residence. 

Last, but by no means least, Gantz and Ashkenazi did not run for office for the sake of endlessly running for office, while never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. They joined Israeli politics to make a difference. Enact a much-needed change in governance and language. And hopefully, this is what they will do. Along with their colleagues in the Knesset, they will chart a path forward for Israeli society beyond the Coronavirus, and beyond Netanyahu. In doing so, they remain true to their election slogan – Israel, above all. 

Thank you for your service. 

About the Author
Speaker, Author, JBS Senior Vice President. Formerly Israel's Consul for Media Affairs in NY and diplomat at Israel's Foreign Ministry. Thankful for every day. Hopeful for the future.
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