Over the last two election campaigns and throughout the coalition building periods that followed, including while he himself held the mandate to form a government for the last 28 days, political neophyte Benny Gantz has often failed at setting the political agenda, allowing his rival Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take the lead while he was left to respond.
On Wednesday night, announcing that he had failed to form a government, and paving the way to a likely third round of elections in under a year, Gantz made his most forceful attempt at forging the public discourse and framing the ongoing political deadlock on his own terms.
With a fiery, fast-paced speech in Tel Aviv at odds with his much-noted normal calm demeanor, the Blue and White head laid into Netanyahu with perhaps the most ferocity we have ever seen from the stoic former army chief.
At the heart of his address was the assertion that Netanyahu, in refusing Blue and White’s terms for a unity coalition, had defied the will of the people. This, he apparently based on the fact that his party outscored Netanyahu’s Likud by a single seat in the September 17 elections, rather than the fact that the prime minister had a larger bloc of recommenders — 55 to Gantz’s 54 — and that Blue and White had indicated it was not prepared to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu while he is facing grave criminal allegations.
As expected, the Blue and White chair blamed the failure to form a unity government on Netanyahu, saying that while he, Gantz, had “turned over every stone” to do so, the prime minister had blocked his way at every step on the graveled path.
“I asked of the prime minister, who lost in the election, to hold direct negotiations. And in response I received insults, slander and childish videos,” said Gantz with a salvo setting the theme for a narrative in which he asserted that Netanyahu had lacked the legitimacy to stand in his way.
In the carefully crafted text, which he read from two teleprompters, Gantz described Netanyahu’s obstruction to Blue and White’s unity terms not just as a political act of defiance by the prime minister but as a morally deficient move to subvert the will of the voters and try to steal the elections, carried out not for the good of the electorate but in order to save himself from prosecution.
“Faced with the stones that I have overturned to achieve unity and reconciliation, a ‘bloc’ was created that insisted on placing the personal good of one person before the good of the patients lying in the corridors. Faced with the grains of sand that I have sifted, a ‘wall of losers’ has insisted on preventing the citizens of Israel from forming a government led by those who won and move forward into an era of sanity and political stability,” Gantz said, referring to Netanyahu’s 55-strong bloc of right-wing and religious lawmakers who chose to stand solidly with the prime minister and negotiate as a single unit.
“This is a dangerous move, the first of its kind in the history of the country, to prevent Israeli citizens for more than a year from establishing the government that voted for it by a clear and absolute vote, and to barricade itself in a transitional government for over a year,” he charged.
Despite his Blue and White party having barely edged out Likud by a single seat — 33 to 32 — in September, Gantz insisted that “the people chose me and my colleagues in Blue and White to lead Israel. No one has the right to prevent the people from their choice.”
Then, delivering the gut-punch, Gantz, in what looked like a well-rehearsed move, stared directly into the cameras lining the back of the small hall of Tel Aviv’s convention center, and addressed the prime minister himself.
“Netanyahu! The state is not yours,” he insisted. “The country is not mine either. The state belongs to its citizens. Release the state from its strangulation, and enter into direct negotiations now. You are leading us to a dangerous collision that will end up with a heavy price, and for which you and only you will be responsible.”
He repeatedly contrasted his own earnest outlook with descriptions of a corrupted and decaying sense of public service epitomized by Netanyahu, attempting to paint a picture of two different Israels and of two different leaders.
“The people of Israel need leadership with a vision and not leadership with immunity. Leadership that paves roads for the benefit of the people, and not a detour bypassing investigations for itself. Leadership with a social vision to work for the people. Leadership that is not immersed in its own legal mud, but immersed entirely in the interests of the people,” he said.
With Gantz’s failure to muster a majority, the political focus now shifts to the Knesset, which has 21 days to nominate one of its 120 lawmakers, including Netanyahu or Gantz, to be given the mandate to try and build a coalition with the backing of 61 MKs. Should that fail as well, as is widely expected, the Knesset will dissolve and a new round of elections will be called, likely for early March.
Gantz promised to “remain available for direct, substantive and fast negotiations” in the coming three weeks, and he had earlier told President Reuven Rivlin that he would continue trying to form a unity government. But his words made clear that he has no real hope for reconciliation with Netanyahu.
Indeed, for all Gantz’s earnestness, the speech sounded less like one last bid for unity and more like the start of an election campaign, something the political rookie is already well versed in.