Montage: Head of Blue and White, Benny Gantz, left; and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Photos: Flash90)
Noam Revkin Fenton, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90, showing Blue and White head Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right
Op-ed: Elections 2019Just telling public you're what they need isn't enough

A failure to inspire: How lackluster rivals let Netanyahu dominate the campaign

The PM’s opponents have struggled to set out a compelling alternative vision, opted not to unify, and failed to challenge him effectively in his key areas of weakness

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image by Noam Revkin Fenton, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90, showing Blue and White head Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right

News operations like The Times of Israel, that cover breaking news and invest in original journalism, try both to keep our readers up to date on major stories and to direct our readers’ attention to matters we think would and should interest them that have not yet become major stories. In a period like this one, days ahead of an Israeli election, we inform readers of what their elected leaders and would-be leaders are up to, and focus too on areas those politicians might not want voters to watch too closely. Our site — with a top story that changes frequently, and where the placement of a story directly affects how many people read it — aims to balance our coverage of those parts of the daily agenda that is set by others with coverage of the issues we ourselves think should be prominent and resonant.

And why, you may wonder, am I sitting down and writing this fairly obvious stuff two days before we go to the polls?

Because I have been struck by the thoroughly unavoidable truth that, here at The Times of Israel, as with all Israeli media in the run-up to election day, coverage has been so staggeringly dominated by one man and his sayings and doings: Benjamin Netanyahu. (And yes, I am also struck by the irony that this very article is only adding to that picture.)

This second election in five months is just overwhelmingly about Netanyahu — more so, I would submit, than in many of his previous battles for the prime ministership, and certainly more so than in April. Then, a greater proportion of reporting across Israeli media was focused on the neophyte Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, his two other ex-chief-of- IDF-staff colleagues, and their friend Yair Lapid, getting together to try to give Netanyahu a run for his money.

Much of this enormous focus on Netanyahu is inevitable. He is the prime minister. He’s running the country, and we need to tell readers what he’s doing. And he is the election issue. Israelis rightly obsess about security and safety, and, after that on our lists of priorities, we care about our finances, and the religious nature of this country, its standards of morality, the well-being of our democracy and more. But most of those issues, an unbroken decade into his record-long premiership, also revolve around Netanyahu: his stance on them; his handling of them; the question of whether other, rival, leaders would deal with them more effectively than he does.

Yet part of Israeli media’s radically Netanyahu-centered coverage in the run-up to Tuesday is also a function of the prime minister’s political expertise (and that is not entirely a compliment), and his rivals’ relative disunity, failure to exploit areas where he is weak, inability to corral the national agenda, and lack of focus on key technical aspects of winning elections — like ensuring that votes don’t go to waste.

It’s Netanyahu’s campaign; they just react to it

Day after day as September 17 has drawn nearer, Netanyahu has orchestrated revelations, issued diplomatic promises, set off on overseas trips and unveiled legislative initiatives that fair-minded media is obligated to prominently report, while his opponents have been largely reactive.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press regarding the Iranian nuclear program, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on September 9, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Again, he has been able to do part of this because he is the prime minister. Benny Gantz, as leader of the largest opposition party, simply does not have the authority to determine that hitherto unpublicized material relating to Iran’s nuclear weapons program should now see the light of day. Only the prime minister could decide, as he did on Monday, that right now, eight days before polling day, was the appropriate time to expose the existence of a defunct Iranian nuclear weapons development site that Israel has known about for quite some time — and to do so via a live TV presentation self-evidently designed, whatever the diplomatic justification, to burnish his credentials as the Israeli leader who reliably faces down the ayatollahs.

Was there really no resonant world leader prepared to take a few minutes out of his or her schedule and pose alongside a visiting Gantz?

Similarly, it is doubtless more difficult for Gantz to secure an audience with the likes of Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (12 days before the elections) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (as Netanyahu did on Thursday, albeit after three hours cooling his heels in the Sochi Hyatt awaiting the arrival of his host).

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside 10 Downing Street in central London on September 5, 2019. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

But was there really no resonant world leader prepared to take a few minutes out of his or her schedule and pose alongside a visiting Gantz? No prominent European prime minister or president, when so many EU governments are so critical of Netanyahu’s policies on the Palestinians, ready to unsubtly signal to the Israeli electorate that perhaps it is time for a change? No Gulf prince? No mainstream rising American star?

Now, the answer to those questions might be no. Perhaps there is no headline-making, globe-bestriding figure prepared to so much as hint at Israeli political life after Netanyahu by consenting to be photographed alongside his main rival in the days before a fateful election. But I wonder: How hard, if at all, did Gantz, and all those other Israeli politicians who consider another Netanyahu victory to be disastrous for Israel, try to dominate the news agenda for a few hours with an international meet and greet like that?

Much of Blue and White’s campaign has focused on direct meetings with voters, its leaders crisscrossing the country, tackling issues earnestly and with nuance. This is praiseworthy, and may well be effective with those voters who get to meet the party’s leadership face-to-face. But it is no substitute for high-visibility events broadcast into living rooms across the nation.

Potentially dramatic policy pledges, as opposed to nuclear revelations, are not the sole prerogative of the prime minister

On Tuesday, Netanyahu orchestrated another late afternoon of headline-making with his pledge to immediately extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley if he forms the next coalition. Unlike nuclear revelations, potentially dramatic policy pledges are not the sole prerogative of the prime minister. Those who seek to unseat him, and claim they could do a better job, are also entitled to set out their policies. And Blue and White has done so several times in recent months.

Time and again, in the run-up to polling day and in the weeks and months before, Israel’s opposition seems to have gifted the political agenda to Netanyahu

But did the leaders of Blue and White and Labor-Gesher and maybe the Democratic Camp even think of quietly getting together for a few hours to try to draw up a common position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, on dealing with Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, and tackling terrorism from Hamas-run Gaza? Israeli media would have rushed to cover a resulting joint presentation by, say, Gantz, Lapid, Amir Peretz, Nitzan Horowitz and Ehud Barak, setting out core principles for an approach to the conflict that differs from Netanyahu’s.

Is it the case that those gentlemen are just so divided that they proved incapable, after hours of intense discussion, of agreeing on any kind of common stance? Their ostensible goal, after all, is to form the next government together. Or, more likely, did none of them so much as consider attempting to build a shared position?

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz gives an impromptu press conference in a bomb shelter at Yad Mordechai as rockets fly overhead on May 5, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Spurned chances, rebuffed alliances

Time and again, in the run-up to polling day and in the weeks and months before, Israel’s opposition seems to have gifted the political agenda to Netanyahu, and passed up opportunities to challenge him.

Case in point: Blue and White placed no strategic focus on Likud’s outrageous April election day initiative to send partisan observers equipped with hidden cameras into Arab polling stations. Blue and White did not lead a post-election campaign to insure that, henceforth, nonpartisan use of technology to ensure the integrity of the vote would be the order of the day. When the Supreme Court justice in charge of the elections banned Likud’s planned repeat operation, and Netanyahu then failed in an attempt to fast-track legislation to outflank the judge, Blue and White opted to make an issue neither of Netanyahu’s attempt to outmaneuver the judge, nor of its failure.

Very different case in point: The prime minister was forced off stage at his own campaign event in Ashdod last Tuesday evening when Gaza terrorists fired a rocket at the city. Gantz boasted that “I wouldn’t have moved” and Blue and White chortled over its candidate, Gabi Ashkenazi, who was also speaking down south that night, having continued his address undeterred. Blue and White made a bit of a fuss for the next few hours about the evident failure of Netanyahu’s Gaza policy. But when Netanyahu hit back by condemning the “cries of joy” from Blue and White after terrorist fire at an Israeli prime minister, it largely backed off and allowed the matter to drop. Imagine what political capital Netanyahu would have made of such a pre-election gift had the roles been reversed.

Imagine, too, what capital Netanyahu would have made if a US president assiduously courted by his rival began to change tone on that rival’s key foreign policy item — as Trump is now doing, to Netanyahu’s horror, by signaling readiness to open a dialogue with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

While Netanyahu demonized part of the electorate, Gantz did nothing to draw Arab Israelis closer

As Netanyahu has again ramped up his criticism of the Arab electorate and its Knesset representatives, meanwhile, it was not the opposition but rather Facebook — a social media giant globally criticized for having tolerated the relentless abuse of its platform — that highlighted the depths to which this abuse had sunk, imposing the extraordinary measure of shutting down the chatbot on the prime minister’s Facebook page for spreading a campaign message to the effect that Arab MKs “want to annihilate us all.”

While Netanyahu demonized part of the electorate, Gantz did nothing to draw Arab Israelis closer, instead slapping down Joint List leader Ayman Odeh’s overtures to partner with Blue and White in the effort to defeat Netanyahu. However rightly troubled Gantz may be by some of the Joint List’s policies and personalities, the rejection was harsh and politically maladroit. Compare his rude rebuff of Odeh to Netanyahu’s relentless negotiations with the Kahanist disciples in Otzma Yehudit, whose extremist party the prime minister personally ushered into the political mainstream before April’s elections (via the Union of Right-Wing Parties) and whose support Netanyahu is even now working relentlessly to ensure does not go to waste.

Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh filming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a discussion on the cameras bill at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on September 11, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While we’re on the subject of votes going to waste, here, too, Netanyahu’s involvement contrasts starkly with the paralysis exemplified by Blue and White. Netanyahu almost won April’s elections despite 256,629 right-wing votes — approximately seven Knesset seats — being thrown away when the New Right of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut, failed to clear the Knesset threshold. Ahead of these elections, Bennett and Shaked have reconstituted themselves in Yamina, and are safe bets to make it this time, while Netanyahu bought off Zehut with the offer of a cabinet post to Feiglin and tried to defang Otzma Yehudit.

Labor’s refusal to ally with the Democratic Camp could turn out to be the egotistical decision that helps hand Netanyahu the elections

On the center-left, meantime, Labor tore itself apart, and attempted to reconstitute itself under new leader Peretz alongside Orly Levy-Abekasis, while Meretz joined forces with Barak and ex-Labor MK Stav Shaffir in the new Democratic Camp. Peretz then spurned overtures for a grand Labor-Democratic Camp alliance. The result, at this writing, is that both these parties are polling uncomfortably close to the 3.25% threshold, whereas together they would have been entirely safe.

Labor’s refusal to ally with the Democratic Camp could turn out to be the egotistical decision that helps hand Netanyahu the elections if one or both of the parties fails to make it into the Knesset. In the late days of July, when Barak urged a partnership, and Peretz shot him down, where was Gantz? Certainly not playing the role of matchmaker and broker that Netanyahu took upon himself with the various right-wing egotists.

Gesher party chair Orly Levy-Abekasis (L) and Labor head Amir Peretz announce their joint run in the September election, in Tel Aviv, July 18, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

And one more point on the issue of lost votes: Was the goal of ousting Netanyahu not sufficiently compelling for Yair Lapid to temporarily put aside his goal of becoming prime minister? Might Blue and White not have been able to garner a little more support on the right had he been willing to abrogate the commitment he won from Gantz that they would rotate the premiership?

Which would-be PM has galvanized voters?

This writer does not know who is going to win Tuesday’s elections. But this writer feels keenly which of the two main would-be prime ministers has shown that he wants the job more.

Netanyahu has done everything in his power to maximize the advantages of incumbency — even in little-noticed but significant ways, such as the fact that he made sure he was the last in the series of party leaders to be interviewed on Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday night, thus appearing after Shabbat was over, when viewing figures on the top-rated channel were at their highest. He also did the interview from home, whereas Gantz was in the studio, and thus was able to speak directly into camera — directly, that is, to the electorate he repeatedly urged to go out and vote for him. (It was just two weeks ago, incidentally, that Netanyahu was urging the electorate to boycott that outlet.)

He is fighting with the desperation of a suspect who fears he could go to jail, or at the very least, face years attempting to prove his innocence if the legal cases against him mature into an indictment and a trial. He is utilizing all the experience of decades of political campaigning. In victory-at-all-cost mode, he has shown a willingness to blacken his opponents, to make far-reaching political and diplomatic promises he would not ordinarily make in order to win over voters, and to directly question the independence and integrity of the police force and state prosecution.

Gantz and Co. have had an uphill struggle, but certainly not an impossible one

He has also helmed Israel for so long that, as in all democratic and nondemocratic systems where one person has held protracted power, even many Israelis who think he’s well past his sell-by date will admit that the notion of an Israel not led by Netanyahu can give them pause.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taken off stage during a campaign event in Ashdod due to incoming rocket sirens, September 10, 2019. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Facing all that, Gantz and Co. have had an uphill struggle, but certainly not an impossible one. Netanyahu can be plausibly painted as a prisoner of the settler-right; as a capitulator to the ultra-Orthodox; as a potential saboteur of Israel as a bipartisan American cause; as an alienator of non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews; as the overseer of a failed Gaza policy; as a threat to Israeli democracy with his attacks on the media, the cops, and the prosecutors. Not all Israeli voters would accept all of those depictions. Many would reject them all. But as themes for an effective opposition campaign, they are potent indeed.

The task of Gantz and the opposition, most of all, however, has been to provide reassurance and inspiration to voters. Their success depends on persuading Israelis that our country would be more secure, more capable, morally finer, more unified, with them and without him. That requires formulating a compelling vision, seizing the national agenda to disseminate it, challenging the prime minister in his areas of weakness, and working astutely within the political system to maximize alliances and widen their appeal.

Aware that turnout will be a major factor on Tuesday, Gantz tweeted on Friday that voter participation last time was 77% in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak and 63% in nearby, largely secular Tel Aviv: “Those who want a secular unity government must go out and vote,” he urged. And those who want them to go out and vote must galvanize them.

Gantz has made clear that he does not want to go low to battle Netanyahu, which may be admirable. But he seems to believe that since his policies are sound, and since he is a man of integrity with a heroic track record, this should be sufficient to win over voters — and that, if it isn’t, then that’s not his fault. But moving public opinion requires more than credible policy and personal decency, especially in this country and these elections. Telling Israelis that you’re what’s good for them is not sufficient. They need to be energized to take that plunge and move away from the familiar.

Tuesday’s elections were imposed upon us by a desperate prime minister, who realized at the eleventh hour that he couldn’t form a majority coalition and whose only escape from outright defeat was to disperse the Knesset. Yes, Netanyahu had many advantages, but for an opposition, the very circumstances in which we were plunged into this campaign offered a rare opportunity.

Three and a half months after a furious Netanyahu rounded on that “leftist” Avigdor Liberman for shattering his coalition plans, and with just two days before Israel goes to the polls, can the opposition honestly say it has done everything in its power to seize its chance?

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