Move over Gantz, Tel Aviv’s mayor is the new anti-Netanyahu kid in town

While the Blue and White leader fumes at the political price he is paying for his sacrifice, voters are no longer listening. Will they find Ron Huldai more compelling?

David Horovitz

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).

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announces his new 'The Israelis' party, December 29, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announces his new 'The Israelis' party, December 29, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)

A very angry sounding Benny Gantz on Tuesday night claimed to have safeguarded Israel from the evil machinations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, predicted that Netanyahu will lose the elections to which the country is being dragged in March 2021, and promised that his Blue and White party would lead Israel to a better future.

He claimed, too, among other achievements, that Blue and White had saved Israeli democracy, kept the courts open, rescued Israel’s military advantage, and halted the previous disastrous handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

He fumed at the reporters and the critics — and even at his own former voters, whom he accused of tweeting while he ensured they retained the right to demonstrate — who refuse to face what he said were these “facts.” And he bitterly protested the heavy political price he and his party have paid for their heroic national service, for their sacrifice: “We lay on the fence; some would say, we jumped on the grenade.”

Unfortunately for Gantz, the one fact that most of the 25% or so of the electorate who backed him in three successive elections remember is that the Blue and White leader, having vowed never to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu so long as the Likud leader faced criminal charges, wound up using their support to sustain Netanyahu in power.

Gantz tried to put a self-salvaging spin on that saga, too, asserting that if he hadn’t partnered with Netanyahu, the prime minister would have managed to build a majority without him, or used the transitional period before elections to secure immunity from prosecution.

But whatever the dubious validity of this account, the Israeli public has manifestly moved on. Blue and White, 33-seats strong in the outgoing Knesset, is down to 5 or 6 in the polls, barely above the parliamentary threshold. Gantz’s own MKs are abandoning him. And his Tuesday night appearance is most unlikely to arrest his slide into political oblivion.

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz speaks at a press conference, December 29, 2020. (screenshot)

Indeed, mere minutes after he spoke, the latest pretender to the “anyone but Bibi” crown was presenting his credentials to the public: Tel Aviv’s Mayor Ron Huldai, 76, unveiling his new party, to be called “The Israelis.”

Although he is another former military man (a fighter pilot who fought in the 1967 and 1973 wars), Huldai, unlike ex-chief of staff Gantz, is not jumping directly from the IDF into national politics. He’s had two careers in-between — as a school principal and, for the past 22 years, running Tel Aviv.

Also unlike Gantz, he is clearly classifiable on the Israeli political spectrum, as a man of the left, which he made emphatically clear on Tuesday night. He staked out positions against annexation of West Bank territory, for instance, and in favor of full equality for all Israeli citizens in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

We were presented with two more Ashkenazi gentlemen, promising to oust a third who was doubtless watching with wry amusement, while a fourth was across town angrily resisting oblivion

He also brushed aside the anti-Netanyahu right, and its new champions Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, declaring them “our brothers” but also part of the problem he intends to solve. “Not being corrupt isn’t enough,” Huldai said.

He urged Israelis to vote for his party as a “home” of “values,” the values he said he has brought to Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a city now the envy of the world, where Jews and Arabs, Orthodox and secular, straights and gays live together “without hatred and fear.”

With the electorate tremendously volatile even by Israeli standards, with parties rising, falling and merging, and with the progress of the pandemic capable of rewriting public opinion several times over between now and election day, there is no telling how resonant Huldai’s appeal will prove.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, December 29, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)

He can hardly claim to be breaking the political mold. His first recruit, introduced on Tuesday night, was Gantz’s outgoing Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, a redoubtable protector of democracy perhaps, but not the most compelling of public personalities.

And thus we were presented with two more not-so-young Ashkenazi gentlemen (although Nissenkorn is only 53, and a national youth sprint champion to boot), promising to oust a third who was doubtless watching with wry amusement, while a fourth was across town angrily defending his own record.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media in Jerusalem, on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Huldai, in fact, could end up weakening the left, were he to draw votes away from Meretz and leave both that party and his below the Knesset threshold. Or he could reach a deal to harness the dying Labor party’s still-effective organizational structure, and start to draw back some of the voters who have moved toward Sa’ar.

For Huldai, time will tell if his party can have an impact. For Gantz, however, the party is over.

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