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Ex-IDF chief Eisenkot, former Yamina minister Kahana join Gantz-led ‘National Unity’

Retired general to get 3rd spot on newly rebranded electoral alliance of the Blue and White party and New Hope; Matan Kahana chooses Gantz over Shaked, will get 9th slot on list

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

  • Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks during a conference at the Reichman University in Herzliya, May 17, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
    Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks during a conference at the Reichman University in Herzliya, May 17, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
  • Then-minister of religious affairs Matan Kahana arrives to a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Then-minister of religious affairs Matan Kahana arrives to a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • Blue and White leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) and New Hope leader Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar announce a merger of their parties, July 10, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
    Blue and White leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) and New Hope leader Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar announce a merger of their parties, July 10, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

After weeks of anticipation, former military chief Gadi Eisenkot on Sunday officially took the plunge into politics, declaring that he will run for the Knesset together with the Blue and White and New Hope parties under a unified center-right list.

Yamina MK Matan Kahana, who was religious affairs minister in the collapsed, now-outgoing government, will also run on the new slate.

Eisenkot will take the third spot in the so-called HaMahane HaMamlachti, officially translated as The National Unity Party, behind Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who respectively head Blue and White and New Hope. Gantz and Sa’ar joined political fortunes in July and on Sunday rebranded their joint list from the unwieldy Blue and White-New Hope.

A longtime friend of Gantz, Eisenkot succeeded his new political partner in the Israel Defense Forces, taking over as chief of staff from Gantz in 2015 and serving in the post until 2019. Nevertheless, Eisenkot was said to be heavily courted by Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and the retired general took weeks to finalize a decision in the run-up to the November 1 election.

Although former generals entering politics have had mixed success, their entry is often hotly anticipated and expected to deliver electoral tailwinds. Eisenkot was strongly expected to enter the current race, but took his time in deciding where to land. Rather than being a flash in the pan, Eisenkot is said to want to be in politics for the next decade and was reportedly searching for a political home aligned with both his values and his ambitions.

A sticking point for the former general was his interest in building institutions that could develop his chosen faction into a long-lasting ruling party, according to a Channel 12 news report this weekend. On this point, at least, Eisenkot was satisfied with the agreement he signed with Gantz.

“As part of the agreement… it was decided that immediately after the elections, The National Unity Party will begin regulating its institutions and will hold internal democratic elections ahead of the elections for the 26th Knesset,” a Blue and White statement said on Sunday.

Kahana, who is modern Orthodox and could potentially draw support from voters on the so-called “soft right” disenchanted by the Benjamin Netanyahu-led bloc’s far-right Religious Zionism party, will get the ninth slot on the Gantz-led list.

Kahane, who was one of the Yamina members most loyal to former prime minister and party chief Naftali Bennett, spent recent weeks weighing whether to stay with Bennett’s designated successor Ayelet Shaked, who last month merged Yamina with the Derech Eretz faction into the new Zionist Spirit alliance. Kahana’s decision to tie his political future to Gantz and Sa’ar represents a blow to Shaked, whose Zionist Spirit is polling beneath the 3.25% threshold for Knesset representation in many surveys.

Then-minister of religious affairs Matan Kahana arrives to a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The November race is framed by several overlapping questions for the new alliance along with other parties, chief among them whether to support Likud leader Netanyahu’s desired return to the prime minister’s seat, and how to win the support of soft-right voters who fled Yamina in the aftermath of a difficult year leading a broad coalition that challenged its base’s right-wing ideology.

Both Gantz and Sa’ar have been burned by Netanyahu. Netanyahu slipped out of a prime ministerial rotation deal he had signed with Gantz by blocking the passage of a budget in late 2020, thereby triggering elections without having to give up the premiership. Sa’ar was a former Netanyahu confidant-turned-rival who left Likud after unsuccessfully challenging its longtime chief for leadership of the party in 2019.

While some Yamina voters have migrated to Gantz, his union with Sa’ar has yet to deliver the boost they hoped for. The addition of Eisenkot inserts another question mark, as he has made statements on pulling out of the West Bank that don’t line up with the pro-settlement stances of Yamina and New Hope voters.

In a January interview to Hebrew daily Maariv, Eisenkot said that he thought a one-state, two-nation solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be “the end of the Zionist vision.”

“I think a bi-national state is the end of the Zionist vision. It doesn’t take a great genius to understand the significance of millions of Palestinians mixed with us, plus the complex situation vis-à-vis Israeli Arabs, who also made very specific decisions over 75 years, which brought the situation to the current problem,” Eisenkot said.

“Is this what we want? Do we not see that this is what will happen in another 10-20 years? We are passing the problem on to future generations,” Eisenkot said, adding: “Or, in fact, do we prefer separation from the Palestinians?”

Nevertheless, early commentary suggests that Eisenkot’s inclusion can create momentum around the center-right unified faction.

“I think Blue and White will add a seat,” said Army Radio political analyst Sefi Ovadia following the announcement. “It’s no doubt an increase in power, not just about the person who adds the seat… there’s momentum in the campaign, and more conversation about you,” he opined.

Blue and White leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) and New Hope leader Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar announce a merger of their parties, July 10, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The broadening political alliance, which has yet to release a full slate of names, said that it will push to create a wide, stable government that addresses security and social problems, without going into specifics.

“The union will serve as the basis for the establishment of a broad and stable state government that will bring an end to the ongoing political crisis, mend the rift between parts of Israeli society, and promote the national interests of the State of Israel in security, economy, internal security, and education,” said an official statement from Gantz’s Blue and White party.

Eisenkot is “expected” to bring additional candidates with him to the slate, according to a Blue and White spokesperson, although their names were not available.

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