While disappointment at Netanyahu remaining Prime Minister is understandable, the vitriolic criticism of Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi is misguided, unjustified and excessive. It also ignores Israel’s emerging reality and the intractable facts compelling the conclusion that Kachol Lavan made the only responsible choice by agreeing to a unity government.
Although Kachol Lavan gained impressive and unprecedented voter support in three elections, it could not form a government. In the most recent election, the Likud gained a few mandates despite Kachol Lavan receiving 30,000 additional votes. A minority government could not be formed due to insufficient support in the Knesset. The High Court deferred deciding whether the indictments against Netanyahu disqualified him from forming a government. Unfortunately, even if Netanyahu is disqualified, polls predict that a fourth election will produce roughly the same inconclusive result as the three prior elections or, perhaps, some gains by Likud. Notably, the right-wing bloc did not suffer defections during the three elections – even after Netanyahu was indicted – ending any realistic hope of a unity government without Netanyahu. Even if Netanyahu is removed and there is yet another election, it seems unlikely that the long-standing stalemate will be eliminated.
Before the third election the economy (bereft of a budget) was already deteriorating causing many to suffer financial hardship. Netanyahu’s attempts to avoid or delay justice, constant governmental attacks on the police and prosecutors and interference with judicial independence has eroded public trust and confidence in the administration of justice and vital democratic institutions. Sadly, the long-standing status quo has also polarized, divided and fragmented the country along political, ideological, religious, ethnic, socio-economic and other lines.
As if conditions were not bad enough, the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly became the proverbial 800-pound gorilla forcing Israel, like most countries, to shut down its economy thereby impairing or even destroying livelihoods in order to save lives. The extent of the pandemic’s ultimate impact is presently unknown, but it will be devastating to many. This confluence of deteriorating economic, social and political conditions compounded exponentially by a catastrophic pandemic made another election not only unacceptable, but also unconscionable. The direct cost of a fourth election will exceed NIS 600 million, but the indirect cost would be incalculably more, including a paralyzed government without a mandate to act decisively; a devastated economy producing an escalating deficit, millions of unemployed, thousands of failed businesses and bankruptcies and a likely reduced credit rating (currently maintained by the hope of a unity government). Another election would sow more dissension instead of solidarity which is much needed to combat this pandemic.
No one suffered the lies and personal and familial attacks and abuse by the Likud campaign more than Benny Gantz. No one had a stronger motive to reject any deal with Netanyahu. And no one would pay a greater personal and political price for entering into a unity government with Netanyahu. Yet his patriotism, statesmanship and courage impelled Gantz to subordinate his own personal, political and party interests solely to benefit his country and people.
During these unprecedented and dangerous times, Israel sorely needs leadership focused on national and not personal interests. Israel cannot afford leadership with “tunnel vision” focused on the single narrow objective of removing Netanyahu. Israel also needs leadership that adapts to the dramatically changing conditions. One may wonder if Israel would have achieved independence in 1948 if Ben Gurion had not adapted to changed conditions by accepting a much smaller state proposed under the 1947 Partition Plan. Ignoring changed conditions is like planning to drive to a destination, but encountering a chasm in the road and then choosing to drive into the chasm rather than taking an alternate route. Fixation on a narrow perspective and refusal to adapt can have devastating consequences. Israel paid a terrible price in the Yom Kippur war because some leaders refused to deviate from a tunnel visioned strategic “concept” and dismissed credible intelligence warnings of dramatically changed conditions requiring a different strategy. Our gravely changing conditions are plainly seen and felt requiring Israel to wage a very difficult “Corona War” against an invisible viral enemy as deadly and debilitating as many physical enemies. Confronted with these dramatically changed conditions, Benny Gantz realized that the national interest requires Kachol Lavan to defer its goal of removing Netanyahu and to focus all resources on the immediate need to fight the Corona War that threatens Israel. Making and accepting the responsibility for tough and often unpopular choices requires the real leadership demonstrated by Gantz and not that of a cheerleader trying to please an audience.
In stark contrast, Lapid and Yaalon refused to adapt to the grave changed conditions and remained narrowly and solely focused on removing Netanyahu, although this is not attainable in the short term and will inevitably lead to the ravages of a fourth election. However, Lapid’s claim of wanting Netanyahu removed was discredited by his recent promise to act in concert with Netanyahu to prevent the Prime Minister’s office rotating from Netanyahu to Gantz. By breaking ranks and abandoning Kachol Lavan in the face of the Corona enemy, Lapid and Yaalon substantially diminished Kachol Lavan’s negotiating leverage. Instead they launched a savage, sustained, personal and often false and misleading attack on their former comrades. Notably, they never proposed a viable option to avoid the catastrophic effects of subjecting Israelis to a fourth election while waging the Corona War.
Despite diminished negotiating leverage, Kachol Lavan, under Gantz’s leadership has been able to negotiate a favorable unity government. If the coalition is completed, its accomplishments will include control of some of the most important ministries, including Defense, Foreign Affairs and Justice. In addition, Kachol Lavan will also control or influence important Knesset committees and wield veto rights arming them to protect and preserve judicial independence, to restore public trust and confidence in the administration of justice and democratic institutions and to avoid or mitigate previously prevalent governmental abuses. History teaches that effective change can often only occur from within a government and not from ineffectual and fragmented opposition benches. There will also be a reasonable prospect of removing Netanyahu from office in 18 months; something unlikely to occur by election in the near future. Most importantly, if formed, this unity government will, for the first time in many years, be fairly representative of the interests of a broad spectrum and overwhelming majority of Israelis; precisely the stability and solidarity needed when waging war (against a viral or physical enemy) and giving voters that which they repeatedly signaled they desired.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we are not at the beginning of the end of the Corona War, but with the stability of a unity government, we may be at the end of the beginning and on the road to recovery. The harsh and growing consequences of the Corona War compel the conclusion that a fourth election is unacceptable and a unity government is plainly the only responsible and feasible option. As in prior wars, it is crucial that Israelis close ranks behind a unity government that is representative of most Israelis. Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi’s lifetime of exemplary leadership and devoted public service, their heroic records and demonstrated honesty and integrity deserve deference and the benefit of the doubt and their courageous choices deserve the public trust and support.