Less than a week ago, Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to falter on the brink of political destruction.
After three inconclusive elections and his indictment on charges of corruption, the Israeli prime minister was faced with not being set up by a steel-eyed general who called himself the antidote of stormy and extreme identity politics right of Netanyahu.
But on Thursday, the fortunes of the political master known as “Bibi” and his archival rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Alliance, were dramatically reversed.
Gantz, who until then had allegedly been absorbed by talks on the formation of his minority government, made a surprise announcement: he was nominating himself president of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
The news sent shockwaves through the Israeli political establishment; it was the first time in history that a politician with the mandate to become the next prime minister had instead lost sight of the humble role of Knesset speaker.
What had gone wrong?
When the dust began to settle, an answer became clear: Gantz, in the words of a senior Israeli correspondent, had “bottled” it.
Behind closed doors, according to Israeli media, an agreement had been reached that would allow Netanyahu to remain in power at the head of a unity government.
In return, Gantz would have served as president and foreign minister before taking the lead after 18 months.
After months of turmoil and extreme rhetoric, including an extravagant claim by Netanyahu’s allies that the supreme court was plotting against him, “Bibi” appears to have emerged as the winner of Israel’s most dramatic political crisis in history.
“Gantz’s resignation over the need to sit under [Netanyahu’s] the government – even with temporary control of the Knesset – is nothing but a sensational victory for the prime minister, “Jason Pearlman, political commentator and former adviser to Reuven Rivlin, president of Israel, told the Sunday Telegraph.
“Netanyahu has once again demonstrated its political indestructibility. Faced with accusations and even with a minority in the Knesset, he was able to face his political opponents. “
Now, Gantz’s party and its supporters, many of whom voted Blue and White exclusively to take Netanyahu out of power, are spitting furiously and have even accused their leader of treason.
“It makes me feel terrible. That’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen, to see Gantz actually team up with Netanyahu,” said Tami Golan, 46, who voted for Gantz in all three elections.
“I understand that coronavirus creates a special situation, but I can’t help feeling disappointed – we may not have finished with Netanyahu,” he added.
“The only reason that led them to vote for this party in the middle was the desire to see Netanyahu outside Balfour Street,” wrote Nahum Barnea, an Israeli political commentator in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
Netanyahu’s victory is twofold: not only is he likely to remain in power, but Gantz’s move has destroyed his opposition, Blue and White, with two key factions leaving the alliance furious this week.
Yair Lapid, the leader of one of those factions, accused Gantz of stealing anti-Netanyahu votes and giving them to the country’s hard-fought prime minister on a plate.
“We promised not to sit under a prime minister on three criminal charges. We promised not to sit in a coalition of extremists and extortionists. We said that we would not allow anyone to undermine Israel’s democracy, “he said.
“And in this week of all weeks, when the attacks on the justice system were at worst, a prize was given to those who disobey the law. A crime award. You cannot enter into such a government and tell us that you did it for the good of the country. “
For his part, Gantz’s allies insist that he put the country ahead of the party, choosing to serve in a relatively stable government under his bitter enemy, rather than pushing for a deeply unpopular fourth election or risking a volatile, coalition of minority.
Gantz also believes that a role under Netanyahu, as speaker or foreign minister, should be an opportunity to mitigate some of the prime minister’s excesses.
“Put simply, he plans to prevent and stop what he considers the worst impulses from the prime minister and his right-wing allies,” wrote Haviv Rettig Gur, senior analyst for The Times of Israel. “He plans to push the prime minister, whom he still considers a criminal, as far away from his moral dangers as possible.”