After a decade of Netanyahu, Israel finally has a real election contest

In uniting, Gantz and Lapid have potentially upended years of political predictability. With their move, for the first time in years, the prime minister has a fight on his hands

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Left, Benny Gantz, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, Yair Lapid. (Hadas Parush, Noam Revkin Fenton, Hadas Parush/ Flash90)
Left, Benny Gantz, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, Yair Lapid. (Hadas Parush, Noam Revkin Fenton, Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

For years, aspiring leaders of Israel have tried to outdo each other in excoriating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

They have charged that he is, variously, egotistical and power hungry, a criminal, the head of a dishonest government, leading Israel to disaster with his diplomatic and security policies, inciting sectors of the Israeli populace against each other, undermining the courts and the police, capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox, alienating world Jewry, and plenty more.

What has been staggering, however, is not merely the avalanche of criticism and doomsaying by the prime minister’s would-be successors, but rather the disconnect between the insistence that Netanyahu has to urgently go and his critics’ abiding unwillingness to take the one step that would most effectively advance this ostensible national imperative. No matter how grave the purported danger, they simply refused to get together to defeat it.

Even as Israel geared up for April’s election with opponents of the prime minister promising that this time they would succeed, no one of note appeared willing to put their own ego aside for the sake of the “upheaval” they claimed necessary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, in Jerusalem on February 18, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

At 5:31 a.m. on Thursday, that changed.

With the dawn announcement that Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid had agreed to a merger deal that will see them run on a joint ticket against the prime minister in April, both this election and the years-long phenomenon of an unbeatable Netanyahu were, if not turned on their heads, certainly recalibrated dramatically.

After marathon, all-night talks, the leaders of the two top-polling centrist parties said that they would forge an alliance by agreeing to share the premiership in a rotation deal if they succeed in winning the election. And in a further game-changing move, due to the “pivotal moment and the national task at hand,” the joint statement said, former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi had also decided to join.

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog and MK Tzipi Livni attend a faction meeting in the Knesset on February 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2015, the formation of the Zionist Union, a merger between then-Labor chief Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni, presented what for a time seemed like a real challenge to Netanyahu.

But Gantz and Lapid offer a more potent threat.  Based on opinion polls taken before the merger deal, the joint slate may already have enough support to overtake Netanyahu. And that support could grow.

For the first time in a long time, polls suggest there are now two sides in an Israeli election.

In one fell swoop, with the addition of Ashkenazi giving the party three former chiefs of staff in total (the other being ex-Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon), Gantz and Lapid have transformed individually lukewarm political clout into the most significant threat Netanyahu has faced in a decade. From this position of strength, the two hope to attract centrists who have come to dislike Netanyahu but could not see any viable alternative.

IDF generals Benny Gantz, right, and Gabi Ashkenazi on July 1, 2009. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

As expected, Likud has already turned its wrath on the new alliance, labeling it as “leftist” and warning that it will imperil Israel.

“Now the choice is clear: Lapid and Gantz’s left-wing government backed by the Arab parties, or a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu,” the party said in a tweet Thursday morning.

Since launching his campaign in January, Gantz has failed to articulate any clear policy proposals other than one: beating Netanyahu. In opposition for the past four years, Lapid has long asserted that the prime minister is both personally corrupt and running a corrupt coalition, and that he needs to be replaced. And ex-defense minister Ya’alon has taken every opportunity to declare that the premier is a crook and that he must step down.

In joining each other, the leaders of the new union indicated to the public that they were prepared to put aside a modicum of personal ambition for the benefit of their cause. And with that, the race, at long last, is on.

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