Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s centrist Blue and White Party and the minister of defence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker coalition government, issued the understatement of the new year when he said, “Truth be told, the reality is difficult right now.”
With several key Blue and White Knesset members leaving the party and with the latest polls forecasting it may not win even a single parliamentary seat in the forthcoming election, Gantz should be worried. Very worried.
The unvarnished truth is stark. Blue and White is in a state of collapse and may be little more than a footnote after Israelis cast their ballots on March 23 for the fourth time in two years.
In 2020, 14 Blue and White members sat in Netanyahu’s coalition, which collapsed in December after seven months of fitful existence. But in the waning days of the old year, they began abandoning their posts, leaving Blue and White in a shambles.
The first to jump ship, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, joined Ron Huldai’s newly-formed centrist party, The Israelis, as his second-in-command. Gantz accused Nissenkorn of stabbing him in the back by joining Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv for the past 22 years. As Huldai explained, he formed The Israelis because he could not “stand idly by” as Netanyahu’s “crazy” government eroded Israel’s core values and threatened its democracy.
Nissenkorn was followed by Gabi Ashkenazi — the foreign minister, who said he was taking a break from politics to consider his options — and by a backbencher, Michael Cotler-Wunsh.
In the wake of their resignations, Gantz dismissed two parliamentarians, Asaf Zamir and Miki Haimovich, on the grounds that they defied his directive to endorse the state budget.
After Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay’s departure from the party, the exodus continued unabated as Ram Shefa, a backbencher, bolted as well.
On January 5, Social Equality Minister Merav Cohen became the latest Blue and White lawmaker to defect. She joined Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party.
These damaging defections occurred as the newspaper Maariv released a survey on party standings that cast doubt on Blue and White’s chances of survival after the next round of voting.
According to Maariv, the Likud will win 29 seats and Gideon Saar’s right-wing New Hope Party and Yesh Atid will capture 17 and 14 seats respectively. Yamina, the far right-wing party, and the Arab Joint List would win 13 and 14 seats respectively.
The Israelis and the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, would each garner eight seats. Avigdor Liberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beytenu Party would win seven seats, while the left-of-center Meretz Party would win five.
The Maariv poll indicated that Blue and White would fail to reach the 3.25 percent threshold a party requires to enter the Knesset.
If true, this would be a shocking fall from grace.
In the last general election 10 months ago, Blue and White captured 33 seats, enabling Gantz to form a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud Party. As a result of his maneuver, Blue and White splintered into three separate parties. Gantz retained control of Blue and White, while Yesh Atid and Telem, headed by former defence minister Moshe Yaalon, joined the opposition.
Under his agreement with Netanyahu, Gantz was scheduled to replace him as prime minister in November 2021. As widely expected, Netanyahu reneged on his promise, causing the government to fall and paving the way for fresh elections.
Despite his poor prospects, Gantz is determined to lead Blue and White in the next election, claiming he “saved the country” by having joined forces with Netanyahu last May.
Gantz justified his marriage of convenience with his rival on the grounds that Israel was in dire need of a unified leadership after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged Israel’s economy and killed more than 3,700 Israelis so far.
Yesterday, however, Gantz admitted he had been “deceived” by him and was wrong to have aligned himself with Netanyahu, whom he denounced as a “serial promise breaker.”
In retrospect, Gantz’s alliance with Netanyahu signalled the demise of Blue and White. Gantz, a former chief of staff of the armed forces, had vowed in three consecutive election campaigns not to ally himself with Netanyahu, the first sitting prime minister to be indicted on criminal charges of corruption, breach of trust and bribery. He now faces a trial that could end with his conviction and imprisonment.
Having broken his pledge to his supporters and disillusioned them, Gantz lost his credibility and Blue and White imploded, leaving him in the political wilderness.