For the first time in Israeli history, our next election will be a battle fought overwhelmingly on the right wing of the political spectrum.
It will, however, have almost nothing to do with ideology. It will, rather, be all about that one man, again.
And yet whoever wins, it will result in a profoundly changed Israel.
The center-left Labor party, which led modern Israel for its first three decades, is almost certain to disappear from the political map. The Blue and White alliance, to which Benny Gantz drew hundreds of thousands of center-left voters by pledging repeatedly that he would not join forces with a Benjamin Netanyahu facing corruption charges, will vanish too.
Some of the voters Gantz abandoned will remain in the center-left, voting for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. But most, the surveys indicate — including at least some of the masses who have for months been demonstrating nationwide against Netanyahu — are heading toward the latest champions of the “anyone but Bibi” movement: the Orthodox-nationalist Naftali Bennett’s resurgent Yamina, and the hawkish Likud rebel Gideon Sa’ar’s newly formed and remarkably popular New Hope.
If our last three rapid-fire elections largely revolved around the question of whether Israelis wanted Netanyahu as our prime minister any longer — pushing to the margins what had once been core electoral issues such as the Palestinian conflict, settlements, the powers of the Supreme Court, and military service for the ultra-Orthodox — the March 2021 vote is all about whether Israelis want Netanyahu as our prime minister any longer.
Bennett and Sa’ar are soaring not because of their political ideology, but because, just as Blue and White claimed it did, they have made supplanting Netanyahu their flagship cause
Bennett seeks to annex most of the West Bank; Sa’ar opposes a two-state solution; both want to curb our justices’ authority; both would happily partner with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Yet while Bennett’s party won only six seats in the March 2020 election, and Sa’ar’s was just a twinkle in his eye, together they are now heading for a hefty 30-35 seats — soaring not because of their political ideology, but because, just as Blue and White claimed it did, they have made supplanting Netanyahu their flagship cause, “the order of the day,” as Sa’ar put it when announcing his breakaway two weeks ago.
Their arguments for replacing Netanyahu are not ideological. Nor are they clamoringly moral. His two prime challengers have not backed Netanyahu’s relentless assault on the law enforcement hierarchies that are prosecuting him, but neither have they led an outraged defense of the police and the state prosecution. These are two highly ambitious politicians who see an opportunity to do what politicians are hard-wired to do: gain power.
Sa’ar attempted to defeat Netanyahu for the Likud leadership last year, failed, and so is now trying to beat him from the outside, complaining that the prime minister has turned Likud into “a personality cult,” cannot offer stability, and has weakened Israelis’ faith in the political system. To ostensibly rectify this, Sa’ar has set up his own personal party and worked cynically behind the scenes this week to expedite the downfall of a government led by the party that got him elected mere months ago.
(One of Sa’ar’s loyalists, Michal Shir, hid out in the Knesset parking lot before dramatically casting her vote against a bill that would have given the coalition a little more time to pass the state budget. A second, Sharren Haskel, absented herself. Hours later, both announced they were leaving Likud to join his new party. Had they quit Likud before the vote, the bill might well have passed, and the coalition survived.)
For his part, Bennett found himself in the opposition during the brief lifespan of the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition not because he considered the prime minister a national liability and refused to join, but simply because Netanyahu left him out, at which point he resorted, Netanyahu-style, to attacking as “left-wing” the government that had spurned him.
Netanyahu will come to miss Gantz — who, having unexpectedly become IDF chief after the intended appointee was derailed, again found himself in the right place at the right time to pull together Blue and White, and proved so ill-equipped for national politics. Sa’ar and Bennett are both veteran operators, tougher adversaries with decades of Bibi time, who wouldn’t dream of letting Netanyahu go first in any prime ministerial rotation deal.
Only fools predict Israeli elections; nobody can know at this stage how this one will end up. But Netanyahu, having gotten rid of the irritating Gantz, signed a succession of Arab normalization deals, reportedly and sometimes openly overseen certain staggering Mossad activities against Iran, and played a personal role in securing the rapid delivery of millions of COVID-19 vaccines, would have wanted more time to bring the pandemic under control, and to see the first flush of public enthusiasm for Sa’ar fade, before again facing the public.
Netanyahu will deride the notion of Sa’ar or Bennett bestriding the international stage, balancing normalization and annexation, managing the Mossad, and calling up the world’s pharmaceutical chiefs. But if the polls are to be believed, parties dedicated to his ouster currently have the support of almost two-thirds of the electorate; his battle to survive this time may be harder than ever.
Our pendulum doesn’t swing
Again, the election will have almost nothing to do with ideology. It will be all about one man.
But here’s the thing: No matter who wins, we will be a very different Israel ideologically when it’s over. An Israel most of whose legislators will work to rein in our justices. An Israel most of whose legislators will favor deepening our presence everywhere in the disputed West Bank, including in areas beyond the security barrier and outside the major settlement blocs, further reducing the possibility of an eventual disentanglement from millions of hostile Palestinians, and thus putting at risk Israel’s foundational nature as both a Jewish and a democratic state.
Unlike in the US, our political pendulum has stopped swinging.
It’ll be Bibi. Or maybe it won’t be Bibi. But our next leadership, and our next legislature, will be unprecedentedly right-wing.
** This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
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