The photo illuminated a social change that remained underreported until this pandemic: For years, members of Israel’s Arab minority have been pouring into the health professions. The medical system has become the model of integration and partnership, of healing the ethnic fracture in Israeli society.
For just a moment, as that photo spread on social media, it also seemed like a possible model for saving Israel's perilously ill democracy.
The country’s third election in a year gave the parties opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a very narrow majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. It also gave the Joint List, representing the Arab minority, its strongest showing ever — after Arab turnout swelled on the hope of sharing power.
Benny Gantz, leader of the largest opposition party, Blue and White, received the official mandate to form a new government. Netanyahu, meanwhile, seized on the coronavirus epidemic to use ever more blatantly anti-democratic means to hold onto power. He escalated his incitement against the Joint List. His government imposed a near-shutdown on the courts to postpone his trial on major corruption charges. His party attempted to block the election of a new Knesset speaker, a gambit foiled only by the Supreme Court intervention.
Gantz had one path to restoring democratic norms. He needed to follow the example of the health system and create a Jewish-Arab coalition to battle the country's ills.
Doing so would have required Gantz, a former general, to exhibit political courage, savvy and ruthlessness. On the public stage, he needed to counter Netanyahu’s rhetoric and explain to the country why such a coalition was a step forward in fulfilling the country’s ideals. As party leader, Gantz needed to knock into line the handful of Blue and White lawmakers who rejected cooperation with the Joint List. He had a powerful means of pressure: making clear to them that if they stood in the way of forming a government with the support of the Joint List, the result would be yet another round of elections, this one in the midst of an epidemic — and that he would ensure they publicly bore the blame.
Most of all, Gantz had to remember why centrist voters abandoned historic parties and voted for him after he leaped into politics barely more than a year ago. It wasn’t just that he was the former military chief of staff. He ran on one promise: to end Netanyahu’s reign, to restore the rule of law, to heal democracy.
Gantz forgot that and failed the political test. At the end of last week, in one of the most bizarre reversals in Israel's political history, Gantz cut a deal to join a government with Netanyahu.
The move split his own party in two. Gantz said he was entering a “national emergency government,” the equivalent of a wartime unity coalition of all major parties. Yet the rump Blue and White will have less than a third of the Knesset members as Netanyahu’s Likud and its satellite parties. The coalition deal, not yet final, will reportedly allow Netanyahu to remain prime minister for another year and a half, with Gantz as his deputy. After that they’ll switch — if Netanyahu keeps the deal.
On the surface, there are three reasons for Gantz’s surrender: the holdouts in his party who opposed working with the Joint List; his own fear that Netanyahu would successfully blame him for another election; and the pandemic. “I won’t be the one who unconditionally refuses to help carry the stretcher,” he wrote on Facebook, using a military metaphor for sharing the burden in battle.
But those are insufficient explanations. Gantz is a classic example of a candidate who ran as an unstained non-politician. Yet a military past proved no substitute for political experience when facing a seasoned political strategist such as Netanyahu. In the test of brinkmanship, Gantz lost his will first. And while Gantz’s supporters hoped he’d be a soldier-statesman in the model of Yitzhak Rabin, Gantz lacked the political courage that Rabin showed in ruling with the support of the Arab minority, ignoring the right’s fury.
Barring another plot twist, Netanyahu will soon get a vote of confidence in his new government. The facade of parliamentary democracy will be restored. In reality, the system remains in critical condition. A criminal defendant will stay prime minister. Netanyahu has been rewarded, not punished, for his misuse of power in recent days. The exclusion of the Arab minority continues. And more than a million Israelis who voted for Blue and White have received a brutal lesson in political cynicism.
In all of this, Gantz is now Netanyahu’s partner.