As the deadline loomed Thursday evening for the registration of party slates for the April 9 elections, Israel was part of the way to a political revolution. Part of the way.
Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience had united with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to run together, with the boost of another ex-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi, and mount what would seem to be the most potent challenge Benjamin Netanyahu has faced in a decade as prime minister. You don’t survive as prime minister of Israel for a decade without facing down challenges, however potent, but Netanyahu’s re-election campaign certainly just got a whole lot harder.
A major Netanyahu advantage over centrist and center-left rivals throughout what is now the longest consecutive term in office of any Israeli prime minister was his and his party’s security credentials. Himself a former officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, Netanyahu went into the 2015 election having presided over a conflict with Hamas months earlier in which his defense minister was the vastly experienced ex-IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon. His opponent Isaac Herzog had no remotely comparable security credentials, and nor did the centrist upstart Yair Lapid. In a tiny country faced with security threats across and inside its borders, the electorate immensely values the wisdom military men are deemed to bring to government.
The Gantz-Lapid merger, under the name “Blue and White,” changes that equation. Gantz was Netanyahu’s own appointee as IDF chief. Ya’alon was Netanyahu’s right-hand military man, the Likud party’s own defense minister. And now Ashkenazi has entered politics too. Three ex-chiefs of staff are all chorusing that it’s time for the prime minister to go, and that they’ll take care of Israel’s security challenges just fine without him.
Ya’alon’s presence also complicates a key Netanyahu anti-Gantz strategy to date. The prime minister has been assiduously branding Gantz a leftist, notwithstanding Gantz’s opening political address last month, in which he ruled out Palestinian statehood by insisting he would retain overall security control of the West Bank and maintain a unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In an address to the Munich security conference just days ago, moreover, Gantz echoed Netanyahu’s profound concerns about Iran. (Echoed being the operative term, since some of Gantz’s phrases sounded near-identical to those in Netanyahu’s own speeches.)
While Netanyahu can argue that Gantz is an unproven neophyte politician whose words may not be his bond, Ya’alon, with his lengthy political track record, is more difficult to brush off as any kind of a dove. Indeed, Ya’alon is plainly more hawkish than Netanyahu on some security issues, including his utter disbelief in the possibility of negotiating any acceptable accord with the Palestinians.
Where Netanyahu still emphatically scores over the Gantz-led alliance against him is in the sphere of experience — in stewarding the country, and in winning elections. Gantz is a political neophyte. To date, he has been long on promises and short on concrete positions. And he’s been making mistakes — including an ill-judged assault earlier his week on Netanyahu’s military record and years in the US.
The merged list presented by Gantz and Lapid on Thursday is also notably short on women in high spots; lots of security chiefs is a plus, but that’s not all a credible party of government needs to offer.
Whereas Netanyahu is in his element behind most any microphone, in front of most any camera, Gantz is stiff, sometimes clearly ill at ease. Netanyahu knows world leaders as peers going back years, is comfortable on the global stage, and can speak faultless English. Gantz doesn’t, isn’t, and can’t.
At this writing, it’s not clear what pushed Gantz and Lapid to sufficiently rein in their egos as to merge their Knesset slates. Lapid, now a political fixture, was reluctant to set aside his immediate prime ministerial ambitions. Did the final decision come when Netanyahu brokered a deal Wednesday between the religious-Zionist Jewish Home and the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit? Was this the point at which Lapid swallowed his pride, and consented to serve as Gantz’s foreign minister and No. 2 until November 2021 should they win the elections?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, however. Surveys to this point, even those that asked Israelis how they’d vote if Gantz and Lapid joined forces, have not shown any significant movement of votes from the Netanyahu-led right of the political spectrum to the center. Those polls have shown the merged parties winning more seats than Likud. But if the new centrist partners don’t draw votes from the right, they simply won’t form the next coalition. That’s why Thursday’s great big political shake-up is only a partial revolution.
What happens from here is anybody’s guess. Will the Gesher party of Orly Levy and the Kulanu party of Moshe Kahlon now fall below the 3.25% Knesset threshold, and if so, where will their votes go? Will Ashkenazi prove any kind of added draw for voters on the right? Will the Jewish Home alliance with Otzma Yehudit lift it above the threshold, or alienate voters, and with what impact on the New Right of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked?
And potentially overshadowing all such questions is the possibility of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announcing his intention to indict Netanyahu in one or more of the three graft cases against him. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Mandelblit will publish his decision next week or the week after. To date, the polls have indicated that support for Netanyahu would hold firm even if Mandelblit decides to indict, pending a hearing. But that was before the Gantz-Lapid alliance was sealed and the alternative made concrete. Now that they have finalized their deal, might some voters reconsider?
Incidentally, political analysts were noting on Thursday afternoon, Gantz has reportedly assured Lapid, as part of their deal, that he would not join a Netanyahu-led coalition. The new partnership has not, however, ruled out a coalition with Likud under a different leader. The very fact that such potential scenarios are now being discussed underlines that Israel’s election campaign became far more interesting on Thursday, and uncomfortably so for Netanyahu.