Even Gantz batters Netanyahu on settler flip-flop, as PM slides in polls

Written by on September 8, 2020

Wasn’t it just months ago, when the tall silver haired Blue and White party leader was Netanyahu’s electoral battering ram as the dreaded “left-wing” leader, who would destroy the settlements?

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (photo credit: TAL SHAHAR/POOL)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020.

(photo credit: TAL SHAHAR/POOL)

It has to give one pause that even Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz appeared to do a better job this week at championing the settlements than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi might speak of how annexation has replaced normalization. But when it comes to the litmus test of whether West Bank sovereignty was suspended or eliminated, Gantz has come down in support of suspension, not through his words, but with his actions.

Wasn’t it just months ago, when the tall silver haired Blue and White party leader was Netanyahu’s electoral battering ram as the dreaded “left-wing” leader, who would destroy the settlements?

In his pursuit of retaining both his prime ministerial seat and a right-wing government, Netanyahu during the last electoral round repeatedly warned that Gantz would evacuate settlements. Whereas he —the true leader of the Right — would save them and ensure that not a single setter was uprooted.

Now, in a strange turn of events it is Gantz who has appealed to Netanyahu not to freeze planning for new settlement construction, by urging him to convene the Higher Planing Council for Judea and Samaria, which last met in February.

It’s a call that from Gantz has more meaning than from any other politician, because as defense minister he has direct oversight of the council which authorizes construction in Area C of the West Bank, superseded only by the prime minister.

In the past defense ministers have often had the thankless task of playing the stooge to Netanyahu’s policies, thereby funneling the anger of the Right in their direction rather than leveling it at the Prime Ministers.

It’s not Netanyahu’s fault, just that of his terrible defense minister.

The only person to have escape this trap, was former defense minister, Yamina party head Naftali Bennett who held the post during elections, when Netanyahu couldn’t afford to be seen as holding back on settlement building.

When Bennett was in office, the council met twice in 2020, once in January and again in February to advance plans, including the controversial E1 project.

But since the elections, authorizations and advancements of projects with respect to the settlements has come to a halt. Annexation was suspended, the council has not met and east Jerusalem’s Givat Hamatos project has been delayed.  

At issue for settlers and the Right is the question of whether annexation’s suspension is a technical detail to allow Israel’s burgeoning peace deal with the United Arab Emirates to move forward or was it a policy reversal that permanently halted the process.

The best litmus test is the normalization of Jewish building in the West Bank and the advancement of sensitive east Jerusalem projects such as Givat HaMatos.

The theory is that if these projects move forward, then effectively there is annexation de-facto, and the Right can rest secure that sovereignty will eventually follow.

As long as the council fails to approve and advance setter building projects and Givat HaMatos is not underway, then the stronger the appearance that the option of annexation has been erased.

Gantz’s decision to send Netanyahu a letter asking him to allow the Council to convene to advance settler building, makes a silent statement that he would authorize these projects if he could and that the responsibility for the silent freeze lies with Netanyahu. In short, he has no intention of being Netanyahu’s stooge here.

It also completes a political picture of Netanyahu isolated from the right and even the centrist right, when it comes to the settlements. The Yamina party has opposed the absence of settlement building. Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman held a press conference in Har Bracha on the matter, flanked by settler leaders from the Likud.

In the aftermath of the letter Peace Now has urged Gantz to return to the left-wing fold. It is no accident that Gantz took this move, just as the a Channel 13 polls showed that if elections were held this week, the Yamina party would secure 21 Knesset seats, compared to the six the party received in the April election. The Likud went down from 36 to 31, and Blue and White in that same poll dropped from 15 to 11. Overall, the Right-wing block of Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism, rose by 8 seats, up from 58, in the last April election.  

Effectively if Gantz wants to go hunting for votes, then turning to the centrist Right is a logical move.

But at issue here is more than just votes, but a sudden elimination of a major policy stance that divided Gantz and Netanyahu.

Gantz ability to be someone of a diplomatic chameleon in issues that relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was considered the leader of the left-wing bloc in the last election, a impression that strengthened by Netanyahu’s branding of him as such.

But he had a platform that was similar to Netanyahu’s when it came to the West Bank, with one difference. He wanted to place the settlements under Israeli sovereignty within the context of a peace process, but made no mention of a Palestinian state.

True he spoke specifically of strengthening the settlement blocs, a term which Netanyahu had claimed was irrelevant. But Gantz also referenced normalizing life where Israelis were located.

Netanyahu told his voters that he would apply sovereignty unilaterally and with US backing.

During the election Gantz visited the settlements, including the Jordan Valley. He spoke of their importance of placing them under Israeli sovereignty, but again within a peace process.

What placed him in the left-wing camp was his desire to do all this though negotiations and agreement, including with Arab nations and the international community, a philosophy which at the time seemed like a mission impossible.

But a Trump led peace process, that freeze unilateral sovereignty, in other words annexation, in favor of agreed upon sovereignty though negotiation with the Palestinians and the agreement of the Arab world, is fairly close to the Trump plan.

There is, in fact, right now little that divides Netanyahu on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, except for Gantz willingness to advance settlement building and Netanyahu’s refusal to do so.

MK Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina) noted the switch at a meeting Monday of the Knesset Land of Israel Caucus, when he thanked Gantz for doing all he could to approve and advance settler building projects, adding, “I hope the Prime Minister won’t allow Gantz to remain on his political Right.”

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