The expression was most recently popularized by Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff to former President Barack Obama. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” he said. The original quote included this explanation: “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” Such as health care reform.
Emanuel was not the first to say such thing. The late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used it in a slightly different way: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” And what I learned this week (from “Freakonomics”) is that a 1976 article in the journal Medical Economics also carried a similar title: “Don’t Waste a Crisis — Your Patient’s or Your Own.”
Politicians are the masters of crisis and opportunity. Niccolo Machiavelli made the following statement about leaders: “Without an opportunity, their abilities would have been wasted, and without their abilities, the opportunity would have arisen in vain.”
Churchill was surely a reader of Machiavelli, and so is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu seemed like a winner in Israel’s election, the third in less than a year. Then his luck changed somewhat. The numbers weren’t as good as initially believed. He has a strong bloc of 58 supporters, and an opposition of 62.
Then opportunity knocked. Not health care reform but a crisis in the field of public health: The coronavirus forced Israel to take extreme measures to safeguard public safety. It also forced two politicians to consider an unexpected opportunity.
For Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, crisis means that his very bold and controversial move — teaming up with radical Arab members of Knesset to form an anti-Netanyahu majority — didn’t grab the headlines as it would under normal circumstances. Sure, it angered many Israelis and delighted others. But most people’s attention was elsewhere.
For Netanyahu, the crisis offers an opportunity to look like a leader of a country rather than a hack running to save his own skin. It gives him a good way to fashion an argument for keeping things as they are rather than changing horses in midstream. That is, for him to remain prime minister for now, in a unity government.
For Netanyahu, the crisis offers an opportunity to look like a leader of a country rather than a hack running to save his own skin.
Critics of Netanyahu who cry foul when they see him cynically utilizing a real crisis for his own political benefit don’t understand politics. This is what politics is all about. Critics of Gantz who cry foul when they see him cynically allying with anti-Zionists to elect a new Knesset speaker don’t understand politics. This is what politics is all about. When opportunity knocks, politicians must rush to open the door.
Netanyahu risks relatively little but Gantz risks a lot. If either leader fails to form a coalition, Netanyahu stays. If they form a unity government, Netanyahu stays. Only if Gantz forms an unstable coalition in which right-wingers and Arabs sit together, Netanyahu goes. And even in such a case, he might stay the course to see the coalition crumble and lead his party in another round of elections.
If new election is coming, Gantz will no longer be able to play innocent when Likud hurls at him the fact that he was willing to play nice with Balad party supporters of terrorists. Having failed to become the prime minister in three consecutive elections, he also might face a demand from within his own party to give someone else a chance.
What Gantz currently is doing is simple: He is collecting bargaining chips to be in a better position to negotiate with Netanyahu. First, he got the mandate to form a coalition from President Reuven Rivlin. Second, he aims to replace the Likud’s speaker of the House with a Blue and White speaker. Third, he moves forward with a possible plan to form a minority government based on Arab support from the outside.
Is a narrow government really his plan? It could well be his plan B, with plan A being a unity government under terms he can tolerate. Yes, this means he will have to flipflop once more: He flipflopped on Arab support — and now will need to flipflop on sitting with Netanyahu, which he vowed never to do. But hey, this is what crises are for.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit the Jewish Journal.