Benny Gantz tried and failed to oust Benjamin Netanyahu and become prime minister as head of an alliance with Yair Lapid in three elections in 2019-2020.
Next, Gantz broke away from Lapid, and thought he had negotiated a deal with Netanyahu that would ultimately grant him the premiership, only for the wily Likud leader to unsurprisingly slip out of it.
Then, last year, when Netanyahu was finally defeated after yet a fourth round of elections, it was a Naftali Bennett-Lapid coalition that mustered the majority. So, first Bennett became prime minister; now, it’s Lapid… and Gantz is still waiting.
On Sunday night, Gantz announced his latest tilt at the top job, this time in a partnership with Gideon Sa’ar. “We’re laying the cornerstone for the next government,” he proclaimed confidently, admirably unshaken by past performance. It would be a government that says “yes to unity for all parts of the country and all types of citizens,” he went on, carefully namechecking potential post-election allies: “ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, secular; Muslims, Christians, Druse and Jews. ”
The alliance of Defense Minister Gantz’s Blue and White and Justice Minister’s Sa’ar’s New Hope appears to make at least limited sense for them both. Together, they expect to capture support from both the political center and what Gantz defined as “the statesmanlike right” – a term that would seem to refer to right-wingers who don’t support Netanyahu.
And they reasonably assume this support will be bolstered on November 1 by their declared refusal to partner with unspecified “extremists” – a presumed reference to the Religious Zionism party on the far-right, and the Joint List of mainly Arab parties at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Announcing their union, Gantz and Sa’ar took no reporters’ questions, and thus gave no specifics regarding the “wide common ground” that Sa’ar said they have latterly found that they share. Judging by their positions to date, their alliance will oppose Palestinian statehood but not the kind of dialogue with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Gantz has maintained. They may back reforms to “repair, not destroy” the judicial system, to quote Sa’ar from January 2021. And, presumably too, they will not partner with Netanyahu, whom Gantz accused Sunday of eroding national cohesion and undermining Israeli democracy.
Ultimately, indeed, what Gantz and Sa’ar unveiled was a pragmatic political alliance between two leaders who are serving as ministers in the outgoing anti-Netanyahu coalition, and who hope their partnership will raise their standing inside that bloc.
At the very least, while conceding the No.1 spot on their list to Gantz, Sa’ar has likely staved off the threat of political oblivion for his New Hope.
But Gantz still nurtures that bigger dream. And he will have brought himself closer to the elusive prime ministerial goal if the “statesmanlike right,” the anti-Netanyahu right, proves to have swollen considerably since the electorate was last dragged to the polling booths barely a year ago.
But if that seems unlikely, Gantz will nonetheless be hoping his merged party will be strong enough to play a more dominant role in coalition negotiations than it could when Lapid was maneuvering to establish the government last year. Maybe, just maybe, the post-November 1 Knesset arithmetic will produce a path to the premiership for the head of a center-right alliance, hostile to Netanyahu, but not anathema to the ultra-Orthodox parties. Maybe, just maybe, if Netanyahu again fails to muster a majority, he, rather than Lapid, will be best placed to take the reins.
After all, Gantz’s Blue and White and Sa’ar’s New Hope already have 14 seats between them in the outgoing Knesset, and will be hoping their alliance proves still greater than the sum of its current parts. And Naftali Bennett, as Gantz well recalls, found his improbable way to the Prime Minister’s Office at the head of a party of just seven.