For weeks I was reticent about the intricacies of Israeli politics as the first stage of the campaign began to heat up. It was all too complex – with new parties forming, and would-be members of the Knesset switching allegiance from one group to another or simply resigning.
It was all much more than my valued readers needed to know: enough that my head was swimming.
But now we are into the thick of it, and it is important to focus on what’s going on. Although I have added a (badly needed) note of levity with the cartoon above, the hard reality is that what will transpire with the election will have enormous import for Israel.
When former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz announced formation of his Resilience (Hosen l’Yisrael) party, there were early indications that, relying on nothing but his tall stature and pleasant face, he might give Binyamin Netanyahu a run for his money; he had not even said anything yet and he was being embraced.
His first speech, although it was short of real content with regard to policy, was well received. He hit all of the right notes with his platitudes and talk of hope, and his numbers were really up there. What was starting to become apparent, however, was that he was tilting left.
At the end of January, former chief of staff and former defense minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, who had announced formation of the Telem party, joined with Gantz. To the right of Gantz, he has been fairly quiet during the campaigning thus far. Once Gantz’s senior, he is now playing a junior role.
For the next couple of weeks, Gantz’s poll numbers began to drop, and there was talk of his joining with Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid.
Negotiations kept faltering however (until Thursday, and I will get to that) because these are two men with huge egos and they did not do well with the power sharing that is required for a merger. It looked as if it was not going to happen, which was a huge relief to the right wing parties, because polls indicated that a Gantz-Lapid merger might be a real threat to Netanyahu.
This past Tuesday, Gantz took off his gloves and attempted to deliver a punch intended for Netanyahu; instead, he actually exposed his own nature. I truly hope that the Israeli electorate takes the measure of Gantz’s character.
Me? I wouldn’t vote for him as dog catcher.
What Gantz did was to deliver a scathing personal attack on Netanyahu, addressing him directly. It was ugly and grossly unbalanced (and I have a hunch he may have invented some of this):
“When I lay in the muddy trenches with my soldiers on frozen winter nights, you left Israel to learn English and practice it at fancy cocktail parties.
“In the days when I commanded the [elite commando] Shaldag unit on dangerous operations in enemy countries, you, Benjamin Netanyahu, bravely and determinedly made your way through the make-up rooms of television studios.
“At a time when I trained generations of commanders and fighters, you were taking acting lessons in a New York studio.
“In another month and a half we will all go and choose between a ruler who has English from Boston, heavy makeup and expensive suits, and a real, caring Israeli leader, who is not fake…”
This is vile, and I repeated it here so that I might refute it directly.
Let it be understood that Binyamin Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949. When he was 14, he moved to the US with his family because his father, Benzion, an historian and Zionist activist, received an academic post at Dropsie College in Philadelphia.
By the time he was 18, he had returned to Israel for military service – leaving before his high school graduation. He volunteered for service in the elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal.
In 1968, his unit took part in a mission that saw them airlifted to Beirut’s international airport, where they removed passengers from 14 Arab-owned civilian airplanes and blew up the planes – in response to PLO attacks on El Al planes. He was wounded during this operation.
After completion of his army service, he went to the States to take degrees at MIT. When the Yom Kippur war broke out in 1973, he returned to fight and took part in operations along the Suez Canal. At least once during his service, he came close to losing his life.
He returned to the US, and completed his studies, coming back to Israel briefly after his brother Yoni was killed at Entebbe. He served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC from 1982-84, and then assumed the position of Israel’s Ambassador to the UN until 1988.
Did his work as ambassador require him to occasionally attend cocktail parties? I am certain it did.
As to the years Binyamin Netanyahu spent in the US, and his pitch perfect American English, I can only say that what he learned has served Israel very well: the way he conducts himself internationally has been greatly enhanced by his demeanor and style. Gantz could not do what he has done.
This is certainly not to say that only this skill is required of a prime minister, but that it behooves Gantz not to turn it into a negative.
While Gantz and company were advancing their campaign these past weeks, Netanyahu was developing his own plans.
The greatest concern on the right has been the splintering of parties, with the risk that some of the small parties might not pass the threshold for getting into the Knesset. The right at this point does not have that luxury.
It is not only a question of which faction receives the most mandates (seats). It is a question of which leader would be best able to put together a coalition (absolute minimum of 61 mandates). I will explain further as we proceed in the campaign.
At present on the right:
We see Likud, first, with respectable and seasoned right-wing politicians – Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan, and Gideon Sa’ar – below Netanyahu at the top.
This party – essentially secular Zionist (although it certainly has religious members and supporters) – achieves the biggest numbers on the right by far, and has been averaging 30 or more mandates in polls.
And there is the New Right headed by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, which is attempting to appeal to religious and secular Zionists.
These parties stand as is, going into the election.
But then there were a number of smaller parties. Netanyahu pushed urgently for them all to run as a bloc so that no mandates would be lost. (For those who prefer this, there is a way to run as a technical bloc and then separate after elections.)
On February 14, a merger was announced between Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), headed by Rabbi Rafi Peretz (pictured), titular head of the bloc, and National Union, headed by Bezalel Smotrich.
These merged parties are religious Zionist in orientation.
What Netanyahu urged beyond this was a technical merger of Bayit Yehudi-National Union with Otzma Yehudit (Jewish power), which is further to the right – religious and Zionist, certainly – and is referred to as “extremist.” (I will come back to this subject in another posting, as the situation deserves a closer look.) Otzma would run with Bayit Yehudi-National Union but break away after the election.
There was originally some resistance to including this faction. But in the end, on Wednesday, an agreement was struck that would give Otzma the fifth and eighth slots on the Bayit Yehudi-National Union list. The Bayit Yehudi Central Committee overwhelmingly approved this.
My understanding is that Dr. Michael Ben Ari, who was formerly an MK with National Union, will take the fifth slot and almost certainly enter the Knesset.
Attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir will take the eighth slot. He would be likely to make it into the Knesset as well: Bayit Yehudi is polling at eight mandates after the merger.
Netanyahu provided “encouragement” for this deal by promising the Bayit Yehudi-National Union bloc two significant ministries if it included Otzma in its joint list. In addition, he agreed to place a member that bloc in the 28th slot of the Likud list. Reportedly, this will go to Eli Ben Dahan, who had served as deputy defense minister as a member of National Union. (The rules required him to step down when Lieberman resigned as defense minister.)
The deadline for parties to submit their lists was 10 PM on Thursday.
Standing alone on the right remain the Zehut party of Moshe Feiglin, who had no interest in a merger as he expresses confidence that he can pass the threshold (we’ll see), and the Yahad party of Eli Yishai. There had been talk of an agreement with Yishai but it never materialized. His chance of passing the threshold is dubious.
There is then Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, with questions about the success of this party. And there was some talk about Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, which is centrist.
Shifting the dynamics, at the very last moment on Wednesday, was an announcement that Gantz and Lapid had agreed to a merger. Should they win, Gantz would be prime minister for two-and-a half years and then Lapid would take over. What is more, former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi agreed to join the lineup.
Below, Ya’alon, Gantz, Lapid and Ashkenazi:
They are calling their party Blue and White. Isn’t that lovely? They wish to be perceived as the party that represents what Israel stands for.
This is not good news for anyone who is a right-wing or centrist Zionist — or, more broadly, anyone who cares about Israel’s security and development.
They are intent on mounting a serious challenge to Binyamin Netanyahu and the right wing bloc, and they are doing it in large part by representing themselves as the party that is stronger on security. After all, they have three former chiefs of staff in their ranks:
“This new governing party will present a new team of security and social leaders that will ensure the security of the nation and reunite the fractured elements of Israeli society.”
As to security, these former military men are center-leftist and provide no guarantees of security for Israel whatsoever.
One need look no further than Ehud Barak, a highly decorated soldier who served as IDF chief of staff and then defense minister before being elected as prime minister in 1999.
Barak, in a 1998 TV interview, said that if he were a Palestinian he would probably have joined one of the terror organizations.
After becoming prime minster in 1999, he precipitously withdrew from southern Lebanon, and then met with the PLO’s Yasser Arafat in Camp David and extended to him a very “generous” (read “horrific”) offer that met most of the Palestinian Arab demands, including over 80% of Judea and Samaria, a capital in parts of eastern Jerusalem, and sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City.
We were saved because Arafat said no.
Jared Kushner keeps telling us that his team is very serious about unveiling their “peace plan,” which will demand “concessions” from both parties. Now is the time when we need a right-wing government that will stand strong for Israel.
As to “reuniting the fractured elements of Israeli society,” Gantz has already demonstrated how he would do this with his ugly attack on Netanyahu.
Lastly, it must be pointed out that these are men without political experience. It takes a good deal of chutzpa for Gantz to represent himself as equipped to start his career by becoming prime minister.
Netanyahu has already pointed out that they are also without economic expertise, while this is one of his strong points.
A poll taken right after this announcement indicated that this new party would command more mandates than Likud, but that the right wing bloc was still stronger than the left wing bloc (even counting the Arab parties).
I believe this will change before long, as the Likud again shows greater strength in the polls. It is much the norm for there to be a temporary boost in public approval after a major PR event, such as the announcement of the merger. Enthusiasm will diminish over time.
We should note that there is no transparency yet: Blue and White has advanced no platform.
We see hints of what will be coming down the road in what happened with MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, who had anticipated that her new Gesher party would be merging with Gantz’s party.
When negotiations fell apart, she put out a statement:
“To our amazement, since [reaching] these agreements… a bizarre scampering around started in Israel Resilience, accompanied by the spreading of disinformation and biased briefings to the media, a sort of game of hide-and-seek as if there hadn’t been discussions between us.”
She charged that Gantz himself had failed the “credibility” test and that his behavior was “weird and hallucinatory.”
And this is from someone who originally wanted to run with Gantz, not from an opponent.
Not for a moment, however, can we afford to be complacent.
Please share this very broadly.
Shabbat is coming. Peace upon all of us.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.