As has undoubtedly been obvious to many of my readers, even though Israel is in the throes of an election campaign (or the first stage of a campaign), I have studiously avoided writing about it.
There has been ample reason for this: The process has been so convoluted that reporting on it in a manner that would provide clarity for my readers has been next to impossible. Time and again, reports changed from day to day as to who was going to join which party, or which faction would be merging with which other faction. (As we shall see, there is still some of this going on.)
I recognized, my friends, that you would probably not welcome a run-down of this byzantine situation. And to be perfectly candid, I admit, as well, to experiencing a touch of (metaphorical) nausea when focusing too intently on what has been going on.
But here we are!
We have reached the point at which some solid parameters are discernable from within the fog. I am not yet able to say in all cases who will be running with which party, or which parties will be merging in one regard or another. Some of these matters will not all be finalized until later this month. Even so, there is much to consider.
I have already written about the new party, called Israel Resilience (Hosen L’Yisrael), which former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz recently initiated. Shortly after Gantz’s announcement, former Chief of Staff and former Minister of Defense Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon also started a new party: Telem (a Hebrew acronym for “National Statesmanlike Movement”).
Last week, it was announced that Gantz (to the right below) and Ya’alon were going to merge for the election. Gantz will head the list. Ya’alon seemed to accept the situation with grace and a certain sincere humility, even as he is the senior of the two with regard to both age and previous position (Ya’alon’s tenure as Defense Minister overlapped Gantz’s tenure as Chief of Staff).
Gantz had issued no statement of significance when he announced the formation of his party, or in the days following. In some quarters there were jokes heard about how it is easy to be popular when you are not saying anything.
But then, very shortly after the announcement of his merger with Ya’alon’s party, Gantz gave his debut speech. It offered an abundance of platitudes: He loves the State of Israel, and promises a new era of hope. He would never surrender the Golan. Who would? He wants the Jordan Valley to be the eastern security border of Israel. Also a given for almost everyone. A united Jerusalem? Equally a given, unless you are very far left.
With this all, there was a clear leftist tilt to his words:
“Under my leadership, the government will strive for peace and will not miss an opportunity to bring about regional change. This is what the Israeli patriot Menachem Begin did, who signed a peace agreement with Egypt. This is what the Israeli patriot Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, did in the peace agreement with Jordan…” (Emphasis added)
Gantz’s promises across the board were far too extensive to be taken seriously: he would improve the health system, lower prices, assure better education for Israel’s children, strengthen relationships with the Druze, Arabs and Ultra-Orthodox, smash the glass ceiling for women, etc. etc. These become campaign throw-away lines when ticked off this way.
He lacks political experience, and said nothing that indicated development of carefully-considered programs or a list of ordered priorities. I do not see him as a serious contender for the role of prime minister of Israel, even as he has now positioned himself as one and is apparently so seen by a fair number of people.
What resonated most strongly with the electorate was not a vision for new policies or programs. It was what he projected: A likeable persona and a calm tone that was less caustic than that of many of his fellow candidates.
He offered a gentle but self-assured delivery, a note of sincerity and integrity, and a promise of national unity. This spoke to an electorate weary with the mood in the country that has been engendered by this campaign.
“The Jewish people and the Zionist State are a great story. A story like no other. Larger than any individual. Bigger than any leader. We are one nation. We share one flag, one anthem and one army…
“The people are strong. The country is wonderful. But in the land a bad wind blows…”
I note here that Ya’alon, though politically to the right of Gantz, projects a similar integrity and personal calm (or though considerably less charisma).
Polls taken after Gantz’s speech showed a jump of some seven seats for his merged party. Suddenly, Israel Resilience-Telem was second behind Likud.
Yair Lapid, chair of the centrist Yesh Atid party (pictured), was understandably distressed because Gantz had knocked his party out of second place running behind Likud. Gantz’s party had drawn some Yesh Atid supporters.
At first there were reports of tensions between the two parties, but before long there was a shift: On Sunday the news broke that Gantz and Lapid were in negotiations for a merged list. (They would likely run on a unified list, but stand separately in the Knesset thereafter.)
It was said that a decision would be announced within two weeks. There are a great many factors for the parties to consider and this is not yet a done deal. Lapid, never one to sell himself short, believes that as the senior politician, and the only one with political experience, he should take the lead. This is interesting since he is running behind Gantz’s party in the polls. There is some talk of a rotation of the position of prime minister between the two, should they win the election.
And that is the big news: Polls indicate that these parties running together would garner five or six more seats than Likud, which is currently running at about 30 seats, give or take.
This suggests the potential for a political upset in the country.
But it is probably only at first glance. For Binyamin Netanyahu is an enormously savvy and seasoned politician.
It has been assumed throughout the course of this campaign, as far as it has thus far proceeded, that Likud would garner the largest number of mandates, and that Netanyahu would form the coalition and remain prime minister.
It is Netanyahu, as much as anyone else, who has made this assumption, for, until now, no faction challenged Likud in the polls. The big question has always been which factions Netanyahu would select to sit with Likud in the governing coalition and how the portfolios would be assigned. These are matters of considerable import.
Our prime minister has considerable strengths, and has done much that is good.
But a prime weakness of his ‒ recognized here in Israel, if not abroad ‒ is that he is not a team player. This does not affect his superb interactions with international leaders and perhaps has relatively minimal effect on how he makes security decisions (which involve the Security Cabinet).
But in terms of internal political dynamics, the ramifications are considerable. He does not tolerate well those who might present a political challenge to his position. A prime and very relevant example: Naftali Bennett once worked for Netanyahu, but today their relationship is a tense one.
At present, as well, there are Netanyahu’s considerable tensions with Gideon Sa’ar (pictured), who served in the Knesset as a member of Likud between 2003 and 2014. During that time he held a number of positions in the government, including Minister of Education. Solidly right wing, he is now making a political comeback and is seen as a possible successor to the prime minister.
Netanyahu never envisioned combining lists with another faction. There was never the need, and he certainly would not have been inclined to do so. But because he is savvy, and that “YIKES!” reverberated loudly for him, he is now thinking about doing this.
The first thing the prime minister did was order a couple of polls in order to determine what would best strengthen Likud. Indication was that a merger with the New Right of Bennett and Shaked would benefit both parties, while a merger with the centrist Kulanu of Moshe Kahlon would be detrimental to Likud. Thus, did reports surface about Netanyahu considering a list merger with the New Right, his tensions with Bennett notwithstanding.
And here is where the view gets foggy again – or, if you prefer, byzantine.
There were other reports surfacing that indicate the New Right leaders might not be interested. On Monday, Ayelet Shaked said a merger with Likud was not on the table.
And there was an explanation from Bennett (pictured) as to why merging with Likud would not serve the New Right to best advantage: The New Right is ideologically to the right of Likud, and seeks to be a faction that Netanyahu has to draw upon to form his coalition – this would provide the New Right with the greatest leverage. The places Netanyahu would provide for the New Right on the Likud list would provide much less leverage.
“Netanyahu is the next prime minister; the question is who sits next to him. If we are not big, Netanyahu will again give the Justice Ministry to Livni, Defense to Gantz. I am working to be big enough to force the prime minister to take us as the main partner after the next elections.”
To that end, there is talk of the New Right merging lists with one or more parties other than Likud. The ones mentioned are Yisrael Beytenu headed by Avigdor Lieberman – who has assumed a very caustic right-wing stance but expresses zero interest in the merger, or Kulanu, which seems an unlikely choice. In the end, I don’t see any of this happening.
And all of this assumes that Gantz starts to do less well in the polls, or does not merge with Lapid, so that there is no real electoral threat to Netanyahu after all.
And so, welcome to Israeli politics.
As I write, the Likud is holding its primary – an election by all members of the party to establish placement of candidates on the list. We can look at this the next time I write. A key issue will be how Likud members responded to Sa’ar.
Before closing, I do want to mention small right wing parties, which are definitely part of the bigger picture.
As I have already indicated, MK Betzalel Smotrich has been chosen as head of National Union.
Just days ago, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party selected its new head. Bennett had led this party until he walked away with Shaked. A committee, after considering many candidates, selected Rabbi Rafi Peretz (pictured).
Peretz, who holds the rank of Brigadier General, served as the chief rabbi of the IDF from 2010 to December 2016. He also previously served as the dean of the Otzem military prep academy in Yated.
Almost immediately after Peretz was selected, Smotrich reached out to him, to urge a merger of their parties – both religious Zionist. This would be a genuine merger. National Union was part of Habayit Hayehudi in the last Knesset, and it is almost certain that this will be the case again.
There is additional talk of other parties, politically far right, merging their lists with Habayit Hayehud for the election. The concern is that otherwise these parties might not make the cut-off for entering the Knesset and votes for them would be lost. Primary here would be the Otzma L’Yisrael (Power to Israel) party, led by Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir. And then, possibly, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut (Identity) party.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.