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AnalysisGantz's window has closed; his successor won't do any better

As elections loom, center-left must contend with its loyalty problem

Right-wing voters are famously faithful to their camp’s leader, giving Netanyahu room to maneuver, compromise, and live to fight another day

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the media outside his home in Rosh Haayin, during a protest by Israelis from the culture and art industry demanding the restarting of performances amid the COVID-19 pandemic, on August 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the media outside his home in Rosh Haayin, during a protest by Israelis from the culture and art industry demanding the restarting of performances amid the COVID-19 pandemic, on August 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The center-left has a loyalty problem. Not, as the right likes to claim around election time, regarding Jewish values or the nation’s interests. It is disloyal to itself.

Consider the phenomenal loyalty Netanyahu commands from his voters. He is no stickler for right-wing policies or ideologies. In the seven months since the swearing-in of the 35th Government, relatively few major right-wing policy demands have been realized. Netanyahu’s supporters claim that’s because of the deadlocked “unity” government and the de facto veto Blue and White has over, for example, judicial reform or the legalization of wildcat West Bank outposts. But that doesn’t explain why relatively few major right-wing policy demands have advanced at any point in the 11 consecutive years that Netanyahu has now been prime minister. Indeed, he is often excoriated on the right for failing to reform the judicial appointments process, for holding back settlement construction and for seeming to consistently prefer left-leaning coalition partners to right-leaning ones – Labor’s Ehud Barak in 2009, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in 2013, and so on.

He believes his political survival is so manifestly vital to the country that the country can be asked to suffer for his political needs. He proved it over the past year by freezing the state budget amid a once-in-a-century pandemic and a painful economic crisis just to avoid losing his seat.

He has violated most of his promises to his coalition partners.

He is, of course, on trial on corruption charges. Even if the Jerusalem District Court concludes his actions do not constitute criminal corruption, even many of his supporters acknowledge they were unethical.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And through all those compromises and scandals, the lies and obfuscations, nearly all his supporters have stuck by him.

Indeed, those voters who have abandoned him in disgust over the past seven months — primarily over the government’s handling of the pandemic — went rightward to Yamina, polls show.

And here’s the crux: It has always been so. There is a deep-seated culture of political loyalty and solidarity on the Israeli right, and Netanyahu is only its latest beneficiary.

Then-prime minister Levi Eshkol, center, and future prime minister Menachem Begin, right, greet troops in the Sinai Peninsula following the Six Day War on June 13, 1967. (GPO)

Former prime minister Menachem Begin, whose Herut faction was the core of the newly-established Likud party when it won its first election in 1977, spent the first 29 years of his parliamentary career in the opposition. Twenty-nine long years of election losses didn’t lead his supporters to replace him with a different party head. In fact, the party now known as Likud has had just four leaders since Israel’s founding in 1948.

That loyalty has its downsides. Would Netanyahu have allowed himself to hold up the state budget for a year and leave key government posts unmanned if he didn’t believe his voters would stick by him no matter what?

Activists protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz near Gantz’s home in Rosh Haayin, on December 2, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

But the past week’s events show the enormous benefits that accrue to a political movement that can rely on its supporters through thick and thin, through mistakes and unpleasant compromises. Netanyahu has room to maneuver — even to cooperate with non-Zionist Arab factions as he accuses his center-left political rivals of treasonously doing the same — that his opponents do not.

That’s because centrist and leftist voters abandon their leaders seemingly at the first sign of weakness or compromise, replacing them nearly every election cycle.

The now all-but-defunct Labor party has seen 11 leadership changes since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 — an average of 2.3 years a term.

Other parties have stepped into the breach as Labor has faded. The new parties lack primary races (with the exception of Kadima’s contest in 2012), and so aren’t worried about internal leadership changes. But their center-left voters responded to that internal stability by abandoning the parties altogether.

The Kadima party collapsed in the 2013 race from 28 seats, or nearly one-quarter of parliament, to just two. Where did those voters go? A lot of them threw in their hats with Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, which won 19 seats — only to see its Knesset faction shrink over 40% just two years later in the 2015 election, dropping to 11 seats. Moshe Kahlon’s newly-founded Kulanu party, which drew a majority of its voters from the center-left, took 10 seats in that race.

The center-left is unmoored, disloyal, and easily disappointed.

Supporters of the Blue and White party react as the exit polls are announced, September 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz concluded in March of this year that a fourth consecutive election in 18 months would bring him no closer to victory against Netanyahu and that Israel needed unity and stability to face the looming pandemic. He ended his long fight to oust Netanyahu, signed a unity and rotation agreement with Likud — and watched his center-left electorate abandon him in disgust.

The obvious must be said: No matter how passionately Netanyahu spoke at the time of his commitment to carry out his rotation pledge “without tricks and without shticks,” no one believed him. Off-camera and off the record, Likud lawmakers smirked at the notion of a trustworthy Netanyahu just as readily as left-wing critics of the prime minister. Gantz himself acknowledged at the time that Netanyahu might be lying, and got a long series of complex procedural laws changed to make it more difficult for Netanyahu to renege on those commitments.

But the voters’ abandonment of Gantz also made that prophecy self-fulfilling.

Netanyahu would not be able to hold the country permanently suspended at the precipice of a new election, delaying a state budget for a year and preventing the government’s most fundamental work from getting done in a bid to cling to his seat — if Gantz’s support hadn’t evaporated as soon as he joined the new coalition.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Israel-Lebanon border on November 17, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The simple fact that every poll for months has shown Netanyahu as the only viable contender for the premiership and Gantz shrunken to perhaps 10 seats at best — that is, that Gantz has everything to fear and Netanyahu nothing from new elections — has meant Netanyahu could run roughshod over their agreement and scarcely even pretend to intend to carry it out.

When Gantz needed his supporters most — in ensuring Netanyahu continues to fear elections up to and including the rotation — they evaporated.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

There is a counter-argument heard often on the center-left, and especially vociferously from Labor rebel MK Merav Michaeli. It goes something like this: The center-left’s leaders are those who started the cycle of disloyalty by betraying their voters’ desires and clinging at all costs to ministerial posts. It was that betrayal that prevented them from forging a coherent, convincing alternative to Netanyahu’s rule. Michaeli points especially to Ehud Barak, the former Labor leader who abandoned the party in 2011 so he could remain Netanyahu’s defense minister, as a trailblazer in that regard.

According to this view, Gantz’s failure to hold firm in the political standoff last spring, letting the chips fall where they may, was the original betrayal that created the current center-left dysfunction. When the leader isn’t faithful, they cannot ask voters to remain steadfast in their turn.

Both arguments may be true, a chicken-and-egg conundrum that is likely to continue plaguing the Israeli center-left for some time to come. The fickleness of voters drives a grab-what-you-can culture among leaders, which in turn drives voters to seek out better pastures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a graduation ceremony for new Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim air base near Beersheba, June 25, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/Pool/AFP)

Huldai, Eisenkot, etc., etc.

Gantz’s window of opportunity has exhausted itself. When the Knesset finally teeters over into a new election — a fourth in two years — the center-left will need yet another fresh champion to take up its banner.

It has already started looking.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who has polled at perhaps ten seats nationally in the most optimistic polls, is actively fundraising for a “Ron Huldai for Prime Minister” campaign.

Some have argued that what ex-IDF chiefs Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi couldn’t pull off, ex-IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot will. Fellow former military chief of staff (and ex-Gantz ally) Moshe Ya’alon is already claiming that Eisenkot will join forces with him in a new party — a partnership Eisenkot is not rushing to confirm. The theoretical party is polling worse than Huldai.

The center-left has sound ethical reasons and even some smart political arguments for disavowing leaders who compromise and for viewing cooperation with Netanyahu as a third rail. And, of course, it has no shortage of eager and ambitious new contenders always ready to take their stab at greatness.

Then-defense minister Ehud Barak (center), then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (right), and Gantz’s successor in the role Gadi Eisenkot, pictured near the northern border on Feb 15, 2011. (Defense Ministry/Flash90)

And that’s the point. The center-left can cling indefinitely to its culture of frustrated but ever-hopeful purity. Whether Gantz was right or wrong in entering into a unity agreement with Netanyahu is beside the point here. Gantz’s time has passed. But his successor won’t do any better if his electorate can permit only one outcome, and will once again begin its search for a successor at the first sign of trouble — or even at outright betrayal. Politics is sometimes the art of swallowing disagreeable conditions and living to fight another day, an art wholly lost on the center-left electorate.

After all, Netanyahu’s voters’ loyalty has endured through settlement freezes, power-sharing agreements, corruption allegations and hard-to-swallow peace talks. The center-left’s fortunes are unlikely to change until its voters are able to grant their leaders a more permanent and reliable platform from which to conduct their political efforts.

That doesn’t mean granting carte blanche. Even Netanyahu must campaign and make his case, and must be seen by his voters to be working to fulfill their expectations. But he nevertheless enjoys the maneuvering room, as previous Likud leaders did before him, to make unpleasant compromises.

Netanyahu has many worries on his mind at the start of a new election campaign. The spinning slide carousel of center-left leaders — whether his opposition is led by Eisenkot, Huldai, Yair Lapid or some entirely new and unexpected champion — isn’t one of them. He knows it’s only a matter of time before his opponent’s own voters will rid him of the latest challenger.

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