Benny Gantz actually had a historic opportunity to unseat Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister. All he had to do was wait. Instead, Gantz is poised to throw it all away.
Later today he’s scheduled to go ahead with his agreement with Bibi and allow a new government to be sworn in.
Yes, he’s undercutting his only clear rationale for running for office – unseating Netanyahu because he’s allegedly unfit to serve. Yes, Bibi may manage to trigger new elections before Gantz’s turn to become prime minister in two years.
But Gantz’s true mistake today is his failure to recognize the opportunity he’s about to pass up. All because he’s been blinded by a misinterpretation of his polls, which has produced his foolish lack of patience.
That may sound odd, because time seemed to be working against Gantz. If he hadn’t caved and formed a government with Bibi, there would’ve been another election. And polls showed that Bibi was getting stronger every day, while Gantz was falling.
But recognize what the polls were really reflecting – not rising support for Bibi, but a temporary rallying around the government because of the Corona crisis.
By the way, Gantz wasn’t the only one fooled about what the polls meant. Veteran journalist Amit Segal speculated that voters were abandoning Gantz because of his willingness to form a government with the Arabs.
But no. Over the next few months, maybe even weeks, Bibi’s popularity will crash back down.
How do I know that? Because the same pattern is happening in many other countries. COVID-19 is making governments more popular regardless of how well they handle it. For instance, approval ratings of both Austria’s chancellor and Italy’s prime minister have jumped between a quarter and a third, despite the fact that Italy’s healthcare system collapsed and Austria’s coped just fine. That’s because when nations face outside threats, the government’s approval rating just reflects the feeling that we’ve got to set aside politics and stand together (but of course, not too close). Even in the United States, where politics is particularly divisive, Donald Trump’s popularity bounced after the outbreak. One poll showed his approval at a record 49%.
But once the crisis fades, politics returns to normal. During the first Gulf war in 1991, George H.W. Bush enjoyed a record 89% approval rating, but lost the 1992 election.
The “rally-’round-the-flag effect” is a well-known phenomenon in political science. Gantz ought to have recognized it. But then, he’s a novice politician. Bibi, on the other hand, is a veteran prime minister, and he may well have seen what was happening, and perhaps that’s why he was willing to make a deal with Gantz instead of holding out for new elections.
In fact, the Bibi bounce may almost be over. Across Europe, the rally-’round-the-flag effect is already fading. For example, approval of French President Macron has started to drop. And in the UK, approval of the government has sagged 10% in two weeks.
Here, over the next few months, there’s a good chance that Bibi’s approval won’t just decline. It may well crash, to much lower than it was before the Corona.
That’s because many of the more than million Israelis who lost their livelihood during the shutdown will blame the government. Many self-employed workers and small businesses are already mad at the government for not providing a big enough relief package.
And their anger will only grow – since many of the people who lost their jobs won’t get them back. The Bank of Israel estimates that the economy will return to pre-crisis levels only next year. And that’s based on the optimistic assumption that the pandemic will be over next month, with no second wave.
As time goes on, more and more people may criticize Bibi for leading us into lockdown, arguing that the quarantine only slows the spread of the virus temporarily, which prevents hospitals from being overwhelmed – but, they’ll say, our hospitals were never in danger.
Had Gantz stood firm against Bibi, he could’ve capitalized on that anger. Now that he’s part of Bibi’s government, he’ll be on the receiving end of it. Ironically, Gantz’s opportunism in trying to capitalize on his fading popularity made him miss the opportunity of his lifetime.
In Hebrew, there’s a particularly Israeli word to describe a dimwit who’s lost out or made a bad deal, and it’s an ultimate insult – friar (pronounced FRY-er). Everyone wants to be smart. Nobody wants to feel like a friar.
Imagine what Benny Ganz will say to himself when he looks in the mirror after Bibi’s popularity crashes.