Party poopers: 7 things to know for February 22
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Party poopers: 7 things to know for February 22

Israel has a real race on its hands, with Gantz and Lapid joining forces, but there are questions on right and left as to where exactly Israeli politics is heading

Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid, right, at the new alliance's unveiling in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid, right, at the new alliance's unveiling in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

1. Party town: After some last-minute dramatics, the party lists for April Knesset elections are set and the candidates are off to the races.

  • A record 47 parties registered, almost double the 24 parties that ran in 2015 and outdid 2013’s then-record of 34.
  • The factions run the gamut from heavy hitters Likud and Blue and White, to Oren Hazan’s Tzomet and the pirate party, which is hoping to make “the internet” prime minister.
  • The large number of parties means officials will have to print and distribute 376 million ballot slips, enough for all 47 to have tickets for every eligible voter.
  • Many of the new parties had slim pickings for letters to be represented on those ballot slips — Hazan ended up with the meaningless Zatz — while others had fun with it, like former YouTube star Semion Grafman, who went with the Hebrew letters פק for his Betach – Bitachon Chevrati party. ToI’s Raoul Wootliff explains that the combo, which reads as “fuck” in English, was no coincidence, with Grafman telling Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, the head of the elections committee, that the letters “sound better in English.”

2. Poll positions: A swell of polls published Thursday show Blue and White with a sizeable lead over Likud, with all the other parties hovering in single digits.

  • A Channel 13 poll gives the Gantz-Lapid juggernaut the biggest advantage, sitting with 36 seats to Likud’s 26. A Channel 11 poll has the smallest gap, with Blue and White at 35 over Likud’s 32, while Channel 12 and Ynet have Goldilocks results right in the middle of the two.
  • More importantly than the specific number of seats, though, is how the blocs will play out, and the polls show an almost dead-heat between the right and the center-left-Arab parties, with Channels 11 and 13 showing a slight advantage for the right and Channel 12 and Ynet having the sides even.
  • The Ynet poll notes that while there is also a dead heat between Netanyahu and Gantz in terms of suitability to be prime minister, a whopping 59% think Netanyahu will get a fifth term anyway.
  • There are two important caveats news consumers should be aware of, though: Tallying the blocs is based on a wide assumption of “natural partnerships” which aren’t always so natural. There’s no law that says New Right won’t go with Gantz over Netanyahu — party leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid famously made a bro-pact for coalition negotiations in 2013 and they could join up again.
  • And the polls themselves should be considered as less than reliable. The sample size is both too small — the largest being around 700 potential voters — and though no news site actually bothers to publish their methodology, given that the polls were conducted within several hours, the results were almost certainly collected online or by text message, the least reliable method.

3. Bibi the puppet-master: The last-minute horse-trading included Likud pulling a move to promise their number 28 seat to someone from Jewish Home, which may be technically illegal, but which they got around by having the candidate — Eli Ben-Dahan — join a defunct party, which then merged with Likud.

  • It was all part of a master stroke to get a bunch of far-right parties to band together to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a better chance at forming a new coalition after the election.
  • Israel Hayom portrays both the right-wing merger and the Blue and White unity deal as all part of his master plan. “It was what he always expected,” reads the top headline of the paper, which in recent days has dropped all pretense of being anything but a Netanyahu/Likud party organ, at least with its first few pages.
  • “The order of the parties, from right to left, is all the doing of the prime minister. After he pushed with all his might for the right to unite, he basically left the left with no choice but to unite among themselves. The joint run of Gantz and Lapid is supposed to put pressure on him … but Netanyahu is calm,” writes Mati Tuchfeld. “Netanyahu wants this pressure. This way he will be able to rally right-wing voters to cast ballots for Likud.”
  • Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, though, says Netanyahu is afraid of the Gantz Lapid merger.
  • “The prime minister may have reacted to the news of the new partnership with his staple warning against ‘a leftist government beholden to Arabs,’ but he knows the ludicrous allegation won’t sway anyone outside his loyal base. Describing a list that includes three former army chiefs with proven battle records in its top four spots as defeatist and disloyal is a bridge too far for anyone but blind admirers of the prime minister. In any other context, the Gantz-Ashkenazi-Moshe Ya’alon triumvirate would be viewed as overly hawkish, bordering on a military junta,” he writes.

4. 50 shades of hawk: Indeed many on the Blue and White slate are even further to the right than Netanyahu. Moshe Ya’alon scoffed at ToI recently when asked about a two-state solution.

  • With a race that seems to be Netanyahu right vs. Non-Netanyahu right shaping up, ToI’s Jacob Magid dissects the various shades of hawk.
  • Particularly he looks at how the national religious movement moved from being a wide-tent right-wing bourgeois party to joining up with Kahanists this week, tracing it to the rise of the national Haredi community, which has hardened its positions in response to the disengagements from the Sinai and Gaza and has split from the more pragmatic rightists of the Jewish Home.
  • “Rather than question their messianic ideology that failed to foresee a setback in the march toward a Greater Israel, a large section of the national religious camp doubled down in its dogma and ‘began preferring a metaphysical version of Israel over a more practical one,’” according to Professor Avi Sagi.
  • But while Jewish Home members expressed distaste for the views of the Kahanaist Otzma Yehudit party, Sagi says the party’s willingness to join together for political purposes shows that perhaps “its rhetoric, which appears to be much more moderate, is simply just rhetoric.”
  • In Makor Rishon, Hagai Segal, a former Jewish terrorist who now edits the respected national religious paper, writes that people in synagogues should say the prayer one says after surviving a perilous situation, to thank God for the union.
  • Flagging the column on Twitter, Channel 13 reporter Barak Ravid notes that many in the community are “making like Nadia Comaneci” to justify the merger.

5. Too soon? Many pundits are also taking a hard look at the Gantz-Lapid merger and whether much of the excitement may be premature.

  • “Motivation and political capability are leaning in [Gantz’s] favor, but the election is determined in the president’s residence, and the way there is tortuous,” Haaretz editor Aluf Benn writes. “Behind Netanyahu stands a camp united in its ideology — keeping the territories and open hatred of Arabs. Gantz needs the support of a bloc beginning with Moshe Ya’alon and Yoaz Hendel and continues all the way to Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh. There’s no agreement in this bloc about anything, except replacing Netanyahu. And it has parties in danger of extinction, Labor and Meretz who weren’t wise enough to unite.”
  • Yedioth’s Nahum Barnea portrays the merger as disorienting to supporters, who didn’t know whose name to chant as the next prime minister at a party event Thursday.
  • “It’s not clear who is doing what and who will fire whom on the first day, in the name of stability. Very confusing,” he writes.
  • ToI editor David Horovitz writes that Blue and White will shake things up, especially as Netanyahu cannot play up his security credentials against a bunch of ex-generals, and can’t brand someone like Moshe Ya’alon a leftist, but Gantz isn’t perfect; there are a lot of free radicals floating around that can still change the calculus.
  • “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 this week on Netanyahu’s military record and years in the US,” he writes.
  • “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,” he adds.

6. No country for women: Blue and White is also facing criticism for being male and male, with few women on the list and none anywhere above the seven slot.

  • “This group of well-off, white men, from the center of the country, adorned with medals (with apologies to the Bemahane writer [Lapid]), promise us a resilient future, but we are really talking about more of the same. They want to replace another group of well-off, white men, of the Likud, who also promise a new country,” Hen Arzti-Srou writes in Yedioth.
  • Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer writes that the “four amigos” are symptomatic of a larger trend in Israeli politics that has suddenly seen women shoved back under the glass ceiling.
  • “In 2019, the failure of women to become players at the highest political levels in Israel stands out at a time when so many women are throwing their hats in the ring to be president of the United States and when key Western countries (Great Britain, Germany) are led by women,” she writes.
  • And Israel Hayom’s Haim Shine claims that the ex-generals have no intention of legislating, only ruling.
  • “It’s quite possible that if the thinking public prevents these generals from forming a government, they won’t stay MKs for even a minute. There’s no chance Gantz, Ashkenazi and Ya’alon will rush through the halls of the Knesset to gather votes or pass laws and won’t serve on committees. Without rule, they prefer money. It’s clear opportunism,” he writes, apparently forgetting that Ya’alon was an MK for years.

7. One giant leap for Israel: Israeli papers are celebrating the country’s first moonshot, an attempt to land an unmanned lander on the satellite.

  • In the lead up, the SpaceIL team ran ads comparing the launch to the 1969 moon landing, and though the rocket carrying the lander was shot overnight, the Israeli press followed along breathlessly with streaming updates of its success and the small amount of drama after a short loss of communications.
  • Adi Kay, the head of the Ramon center (named for the late astronaut Ilan Ramon) tells Army Radio that the launch is a “historic” event.
  • Reporting from a cafeteria at Israel Aerospace Industries, where the lander was built, ToI’s Melanie Lidman writes that some 500 engineers and their families gathered before 4 a.m. to watch the launch, hold their breaths and cheer Beresheet’s journey.
  • “At 4:23 a.m., another cheer went up as the command center in Yehud, where Israel Aerospace Industries is headquartered, received the first data from Beresheet as the spacecraft prepared to separate from the rocket. At 4:25 a.m., Beresheet separated from the Falcon 9 rocket that launched it into space, successfully deploying its landing legs in the first test of its ability to function under its own power,” she writes.
  • The spacecraft will now travel around for seven weeks before reaching the moon on April 11.
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