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Fear of Abandonment  

Gantz leads in polls, but he still needs Bibi


All elements of the emergency government could agree on one thing this week: The sense of security has returned. Not for residents of the north and south, who have been living as refugees in their own country for over 130 days, but for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The term “old Bibi,” which entered the Israeli lexicon in the early 2000s, captured the difference between Netanyahu before his 1999 loss to Ehud Barak and after. While the old Bibi’s persona reflected the polarization that followed the Rabin assassination, the “new Bibi” rebranded himself as a moderate, responsible statesman who spoke to the entire nation and never uttered a word that could be construed as incitement.

Netanyahu’s new persona lasted about halfway into his 2009–2013 unity government with Labor under Ehud Barak. Ever since his fallout with Barak, Netanyahu has reverted to his original political strategy of allying with the chareidim and the settlers whenever possible. He may have flirted with the left once or twice since then, but in the current term, we saw only one version of Bibi, until October 7. In December 2022, Netanyahu formed the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history, and led a judicial reform that was effectively “old Bibi” on steroids.

Over the course of 120 days of war, the prime minister returned to the “new Netanyahu” model. He invited Gadi Eisenkot and Benny Gantz to an emergency government, as well as opposition leader Yair Lapid, who turned him down. He left Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich out of the war cabinet, signaling that he was aiming for broad national consensus. In the face of repeated sniping from Blue and White, Netanyahu responded with uncharacteristic restraint and did everything possible to hold the emergency government together.

But all that has changed in the past two weeks. Supporters and rivals alike agree that Netanyahu has returned to the “old Bibi” operating system.


Politicians interested in prolonging the emergency government who’ve spoken with Benny Gantz in recent days have concluded that he perceives Netanyahu as wanting to bring an end to their partnership. Gantz conveyed his exasperation with Netanyahu’s dismissive attitude, a fixture of the relations between the two ever since their 2020 unity government.

Gantz has seen Netanyahu excluding him from key decisions time and again, most glaringly in Netanyahu’s unilateral decision not to send an Israeli delegation for hostage talks in Cairo. This was noticed on the American side by Secretary of State Tony Blinken, whose sixth visit since the outbreak of the war was also the first in which Netanyahu didn’t allow him an unmediated sit-down with the war cabinet.

Though perhaps not word for word, Gantz has recently been echoing President Biden’s remarks about Netanyahu behind closed doors. Biden’s reported remark that he can’t stand Netanyahu gave voice to Gantz’s feelings as well.

“I entered the emergency government without preconditions and with no timer for exiting the government,” Gantz is explaining to his confidants, “but Bibi has to decide whether to rise to the occasion or be dragged after Ben Gvir and Smotrich in order to satisfy his political base. It increasingly seems that he’s decided to put party over country.”

In Netanyahu’s circle, the feeling is no different. “Gantz was the first to bring in politics when he stood at a press conference about the war and incited against the special funding for chareidi teachers,” a source close to Netanyahu reminded me. “And now that Gantz has maxed out the political potential of the unity government, all he’s looking for is a way to cash in on his polling lead before Bibi secures a victory picture and the tide starts turning. Netanyahu understands that Gantz and Eisenkot are looking for a pretext to dissolve the government, so it’s perfectly natural for him to try to maintain the right-wing base, in case they leave.”


The bad blood between the two will surely continue to resurface, but just as the American president has to contain his frustration and maintain good relations with the Israeli prime minister in an election year, Benny Gantz, who’s looking to maintain his massive polling advantage, needs the unity government a lot more than Netanyahu does.

Opinion polls currently give Gantz around 40 seats, more than twice Netanyahu’s Likud. But there’s a catch: Most poll respondents who say they’ll vote for Gantz want him to stay in the government. He is thus in a no-win situation. If he remains in the government unconditionally, subject to Netanyahu’s continual petty humiliations, he’ll be unable to cash in on his lead for the foreseeable future and will be portrayed as a weak politician who was fooled by Netanyahu not once but twice. On the other hand, if he were to quit the government now, his position would be even worse. Gantz would be portrayed as having abandoned the government mid-war– and would be abandoned by his voters in return.

This double fear of abandonment is holding the government together for now, but it’s hard to see how long this situation can last.

What’s really going through Netanyahu’s mind? Here’s an explanation I heard from one member of the government.

“Netanyahu sees the trend of voters shifting right on the issues, yet flocking to Gantz in droves,” he explained. “Bibi’s analysis is that many right-wing voters support Gantz precisely because of his presence in the war cabinet and his center-right positioning. He sees Eisenkot as the weak link who will quit the government at an opportune moment, dragging Gantz after him, so he’d rather seize the initiative than be forced to react.

“Bibi believes,” the senior coalition official continues, “that if he distinguishes himself from Gantz on the critical issues of opposition to a Palestinian state, pushing for total victory over Hamas, opposing the release of terrorists even in the face of a campaign by the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum, and stubbornly standing up to the American administration, right-wing voters will come home despite their post–October 7 disillusionment with Bibi.”

Given the stark picture emerging from the polls, it’s hard to see much merit in Netanyahu’s analysis. But for anyone wondering whether the government has a plan, the answer is that it has two — at least on the political plane. Two plans for two candidates, one for Netanyahu and one for Gantz.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1000)

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