New Blue and White Alliance shakes up Israeli election campaign

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of the new Blue and White Party at a joint a statement in Tel Aviv on Feb. 21, 2019. (Credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.)

Update from AIJAC

 

Update 02/19 #04

This Update deals with the dramatic developments in the Israeli election campaign over the past days – particularly the merger of two centrist parties to form a large new party called the “Blue and White Alliance” (BWA) which polls indicate could pose a strong challenge to incumbent PM Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud party when the country goes to the polls on April 9.  It also discusses some much criticised political manoeuvrings by Netanyahu to engineer an electoral merger between the right-wing Jewish Home party and the far right party Otzma Yehudit – a party led by followers of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane and widely viewed as racist.

We lead with a piece summarising what the leaders of the Blue and White Alliance are saying, Netanyahu’s reaction, and some expert political analysis of what the new political configuration in Israel might mean. Written by Sean Savage and Jackson Richman of the Jewish News Service, the piece also reports some recent polls suggesting a potentially strong showing by the Blue and White alliance in April. Particularly notable in this story are comments by Israeli intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi explaining why the new political spectrum in Israel tends to be more Centre to Right, rather than Left to Right. For all his insights and much more, CLICK HERE.

Next up is an effort to put the latest political developments in Israel into historical context from Joshua Krasna, an academic who previously served as an Israeli diplomat and senior public servant. Krasna explains the rise of the Blue and White Alliance as part of a pattern in Israeli political history of centrist parties rising suddenly to prominence, though often declining quickly afterwards, as well as in terms of the traditional inclination in Israel to favour former generals as political leaders (three out of the four top BWA leaders are former IDF Chiefs of Staff). He also notes that recent decades have seen trends in Israeli politics that make it easier for right-wing parties to form coalitions than centre and left-leaning ones, and argues this election probably remains Netanyahu’s to lose.
For Krasna’s detailed and knowledgeable political analysis, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer an example of some of the strong criticism being directed against the agreement to merge the Jewish Home party with the Kahanist extremists of Otzma Yehudit written by David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel. Horovitz, a centrist who, unlike many Israeli journalists, is not known for being a determined or consistent critic of Netanyahu, nonetheless says the Israeli PM’s involvement in this merger is “reprehensible.” In addition to providing good background on who Otzma Yehudit are, he also discusses some recent political exchanges between Netanyahu and Blue and White Alliance head Benny Gantz. For this important view from an always throughtful and informed observer,  CLICK HERE. Another good take on the Otzma Yehudit deal comes from American columnist Jonathan Tobin.

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Gantz and Lapid appeal for ‘unity,’ Netanyahu touts ‘strong leadership’

 

The two men sought to promote themselves as centrist politicians seeking to unite the country after a decade of right-wing leadership

 

BY SEAN SAVAGE AND JACKSON RICHMAN

JNS.org, February 21, 2019


From left to right: Blue and White party leaders Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz , Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi pose for a picture after announcing their new electoral alliance in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The leaders of the new Blue and White Party–Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid—held their first political rally on Thursday night after the two candidates shook up the Israeli political scene earlier in the day.

In a joint appearance, the two men sought to promote themselves as centrist politicians seeking unite the country after nearly a decade of under the right-wing leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“This is a historic day for Israel because this picture of unity has not been seen here for dozens of years,” said Gantz. “All of us have an ego and agenda, but when we saw the country torn apart, we put our egos aside, decided on a mutual agenda and decided to run together. We will work as a team to fix Israel.”

In his remarks, Lapid said that he believes in the leadership of Gantz, who would take the reins as prime minister for the first two-and-a-half years if the party if he able to secure a governing coalition. Lapid would initially serve as foreign minister, then take over as prime minister, according to the agreement forged by the two party leaders earlier on Thursday.

“I wouldn’t be standing here today if I didn’t believe that Benny Gantz could lead us to victory and then lead the country. He’ll be an excellent prime minister. I believe in him,” said Lapid.

The two were joined on stage by former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and by former Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who joined the party on Thursday in the No. 4 position behind Ya’alon, giving the new political party formidable security credentials up top.

“I believe we can complete our mission and I have no doubt we will succeed,” said Ashkenazi.

A history of generals at the helm

Meanwhile, Netanyahu touted his own record protecting Israel in the last decade during a rally on Thursday night. Netanyahu derided the Gantz and Lapid as being leftists, despite their centrist appeal.

“We may have a left-wing, Lapid-Gantz government relying on Arab parties. A government like this will destroy our economy. Sooner or later, probably sooner, they will establish a Palestinian state … that will endanger our existence,” he warned voters.


Israeli Prime Minister and head of the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media on Feb. 21, 2019. (Credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.)

Netanyahu also noted that Israel has had former generals as leaders, which he said led to more terrorism.

“We have been in this picture twice before with generals on the Left who dress up as Right and talk about unity, but want left-wing policies,” Netanyahu said, referring to former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barack, who both led the left-wing Labor Party.

“In 1992, we got [Yitzhak] Rabin and the Oslo disaster, and in 1999, we got [Ehud] Barak and the intifada with exploding buses and over 1,000 killed.”

“When I’m prime minister, you’re not afraid to get on a bus or enter a restaurant,” he added.

Too early to make predictions

Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told JNS that it is too early to tell how the new Gantz-Lapid team will shape up on security issues.

“The new party certainly has candidates with strong security credentials, but some would argue that there are too many generals, especially now that [former IDF chief of staff Gabi] Ashkenazi has been added,” she said. “Even regarding the two women in the first 10 places, one of them is also a general.”

“What unites them most is the fact that they have a realistic chance of providing an alternative to Netanyahu, a goal that seems to have significant resonance in the Israeli public at this point,” said Landau.

“Voters are probably more focused on this than on specific positions, although Gantz has been working hard to appeal to a wide audience, to the point that he is ‘accused’ by different sectors as being both right and left and middle … ”

In polling released on Thursday, the new Blue and White Party seemed to have a strong initial impact on voters.


According to a poll from Israel’s Channel 12, the Blue and White Party would gain 36 seats, while Likud would win 30. Another poll by Israel’s Channel 13 found a similar total for Blue and White, while Likud would only manage to gain 26 seats.

Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli author and journalist, told JNS that the new Gantz-Lapid party shows that the only feasible challenge to the Israeli right-wing bloc headed by Netanyahu can come from the center.

“The Israeli political map is no longer defined, as many American Jews still think it is, by the left-right divide. The new divide is center-right,” he said.

As such, Halevi noted that several key distinctions differentiate the new Israeli center from the Israeli right.

“The center shares with the right the deep conviction that all of the land between the river and the sea is ours. But unlike the right, the center is prepared under certain circumstances to compromise,” he said. “Again like the right, the center basically agrees that there is no chance anytime soon of solving the conflict. But unlike the conflict, the center believes that Israeli policy should be laying the foundation for a long-term solution that would include withdrawal from much of the territory.”

Nevertheless, Netanyahu made it clear that choosing to vote for Gantz and Lapid would be supporting a left-wing government.

“Tonight the decision is as clear as it ever was: a new left-wing government, weak, led by Lapid and Gantz, with a blocking majority of Arab parties, or a strong right-wing government presided over by me,” he said.

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Bibi’s Balancing Act: Can Netanyahu Lose?

 

Joshua Krasna

The American Interest, Feb. 21, 2019

This April’s elections in Israel are no longer a sure thing for Netanyahu, but even with his rivals teaming up against him, the race is still Bibi’s to lose.

In recent weeks, the Israeli elections, called for April 9, 2019, changed from a sure thing for Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu to something approaching an actual race. The election is still Netanyahu’s to lose, but it certainly has become more interesting.

On December 26, 2018, the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament), in which Netanyahu’s government has a thin but stable majority, voted to disband itself and to move up the elections planned for November 2019. The proximate cause was Netanyahu’s desire to receive a renewed mandate from the public in the face of the possibility of criminal indictments being issued against him (one has already been issued to his wife) by the Attorney General, and Netanyahu’s declared intention not to resign if indicted. Netanyahu probably assessed that in the political constellation existing at the time none of the other heads of party in the Knesset had the stature to defeat him.

In September, Lieutenant General (res.) Benjamin (Benny) Gantz, the former Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), had ended the compulsory three-year “cooling-off period” for retired senior officers. This event was widely anticipated by Netanyahu’s opponents, and there had been much speculation—and elements of a “bidding war”—regarding his joining an existing party. On December 27, Gantz registered a political party by the name of “Israel’s Resilience (Hosen L’yisrael).” On January 29, Gantz announced that his party had unified with the Telem list headed by former Chief of General Staff and Defense Minister Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon, who would be number two on the combined list. On the same day, he gave his first, much anticipated programmatic speech, which was well received.

Since then, Gantz has become the main challenger to Netanyahu. On February 21, after a lengthy tug-of-war with the former front runner of the opposition, Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party (who felt he, as the more experienced politician, should be at the top of the list), the two parties agreed to run on a joint list, called “Blue-White” (the colors of Israel’s flag), with Gantz first on the list, Lapid second and Yaalon, third. Lapid had been under significant public pressure by the anti-Netanyahu camp, which feared splitting its vote, and that cannibalistic infighting in the Center would only help Netanyahu. The two parties have agreed that if the joint list is able to form a government, Gantz would serve as Prime Minister for the first 30 months, and Lapid for the next 18.

While handicapping polls is a mug’s game, it appears that since Gantz’s Israel’s Resilience has been running at around 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in the polls, and Yesh Atid at 10-12, the combined list is running neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s Likud party, which is polled at around 30 seats (similar to their current number).1 It may even enjoy a bounce due to the merger. This is dramatic, since Gantz’s party didn’t even exist before late December.

Netanyahu’s strategy now largely consists in attempting to besmirch his rivals’ records (slightly problematical, since both Gantz and Yaalon served him as Prime Minister), and piling up achievements that highlight his political and security experience. This includes taking credit, after a decade of useful ambiguity, for attacks on Iranian targets in Syria; stressing diplomatic successes with Arab and Muslim states, including visits to Oman and Chad; spotlighting his close relationship with the current U.S. President and his willingness to irritate his predecessor; and taking an outsized role at the recent Warsaw Summit. (His arranging to host a summit, in Israel, of the Visegrad Group states—Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia—did not work out as planned: When Netanyahu and his freshly appointed Foreign Minister made remarks that annoyed the Poles, the summit was summarily cancelled.) But will the strategy work anyway?

To answer that question we have to look at a series of deeper political trends in Israel. The first is that Israel has a tradition, since 1977, of “flash-in-the-pan” center parties, which do very well in their first election cycle and then dwindle away—either by losing support or by being absorbed into a larger party—by the next cycle or the one after. Israelis have for many years been unimpressed by the choices given them by the Right and the Left, and by their leaders, and so have plumped for new faces promising a “third way.” In the past 42 years, the following center parties have come and (mostly) gone:

1977—Democratic Movement for Change—15 seats (the third largest party in the Knesset).

1981—Telem (Dayan)—2 seats, Shinui -2 seats.

1984—Yachad—3 seats.

1996—Yisrael Ba‘aliya—7 seats, The Third Way—4 seats.

1999—Shinui (new)—6 seats, Center—6 seats.

2006—Kadima—29 seats (the largest party in the Knesset, in both this and the 2009 elections), Pensioners—7 seats.

2013—Yesh Atid—19 seats (second largest party), Hatnua—6 seats.

2015—Kulanu—10 seats.

These parties—with the notable exception of Kadima, formed by breakaway, very senior members of Likud and Labor—were often headed by non-politicians or unconventional politicians and strove to create lists of mostly non-political candidates “untainted” by previous service in the legislature or government. Yesh Atid itself was founded in 2012 and only entered the Knesset in 2013; Lapid was then a media personality and political newcomer. “Israel’s Resilience” is, therefore, only the latest example of a long tradition in Israeli politics.

The second trend that Gantz’s meteoric rise illuminates is a recurrent longing on the part of the Israeli public for a “man on horseback”—a politically unsullied general who rises above mere politics yet is a proven “safe pair of hands.” This phenomenon is partly due to the centrality of security concerns in Israel, but also to the high level of trust in the IDF in Israel, as opposed to political institutions. According to the Israeli Democracy Institute’s Annual Index, the IDF is the most trusted institution by 78 percent of the general public, as opposed to the media (31 percent), the government (30.5 percent), the Knesset (27.5 percent) and political parties (16 percent).

 


Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin: The three senior generals who served as Prime Minister of Israel. 

Political debuts by generals into Israeli politics have known their ups and downs over the years, and once engaged, most generals have not proven themselves significantly different in their political and executive capabilities than their civilian counterparts. Be that as it may, half of the “third way” parties listed above were headed by a former general or senior security official. In addition, many civilian parties seek the “ballast” that former generals or security officials can provide to their civilian-led lists (witness Labor’s recent “parachuting” of a retired general to their number two slot).

Unlike in most states, however, the Israeli electorate’s desire for the involvement of former generals in politics does not necessarily stem from a conservative worldview. To the extent that the IDF command level can be said to have a political orientation or culture, it has been, for the past thirty years at least, moderate. Of the three former generals to have become Prime Minister, two—Itzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak—headed the Labor Party, and one—Ariel Sharon—broke with his Likud Party to form the centrist Kadima. The majority of generals and former senior security officers who have gone into politics in Israel’s history entered Left and Center parties.

In any case, the addition of Yaalon to Gantz’s list, and the addition of yet a third former Chief of General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, present a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s self-professed image as “Mr. Security,” and to a campaign strategy that stresses his foreign policy and national security expertise and experience.

A third trend in Israeli politics highlighted by the current race is the increased difficulty of coalition building. No large party has ever been able to form a government entirely on its own in Israel; the government has always been a coalition. The head of the party with the most votes is the one Israel’s President first asks to form a coalition government. In 2009 Netanyahu was able to form a government by bringing in the Labor Party under Ehud Barak (against the opposition of many luminaries within Labor); in 2013 Yesh Atid gave him the majority, and in 2015 Kulanu joined his coalition.

In the past, creative coalition-making was eminently possible. In recent years, however, the political system has hardened. The chances are vanishingly small that the parties to the right of Likud will join a Left or Center-led government. However, many of their leaders are personally ill-disposed toward Netanyahu, and may be positioning themselves to try to take over Likud if Netanyahu is forced from office.

The Arab party bloc will not join a right-wing government, but has a significant problem with the Center parties, which, in their desire to woo voters from Likud, often venture into problematic rhetoric and policies from the perspective of Arab citizens. The ultra-orthodox parties, which used to be ideologically flexible on security and foreign affairs and have joined Left and Center governments in the past, have in the Netanyahu years become ever more oriented toward the Right, in consonance with the political leadings of their electorates.

It is therefore more difficult in general for parties of the Center and Left to build a coalition, since any coalition that excludes Likud and the right-wing parties would have to include both the ultra-orthodox and anti-ultra-orthodox (Meretz and to a lesser extent, Yesh Atid) parties, which are ideologically incompatible. Otherwise, they would have to depend for their majority on the support of the Arab party(s), which they fear doing since they leave themselves open to claims of “lacking a Jewish majority”—an accusation that haunted the government of Yitzhak Rabin until his assassination.

The bottom line: For several decades it has been easier for Likud to form a narrow government than for parties to its Left to do so.

The math may work out slightly differently in the coming elections. This is to a large part due to the “electoral threshold,” a mechanism built into Israeli election law, which was designed to prevent the proliferation of small parties, which were perceived to have led to un-governability and government instability in the past. The 11th (1984), 12th (1988), and 15th(1999) Knessets, for instance, each contained 15 parties, some of which had one or two seats but held the pivotal role in close election results and therefore had inordinate leverage and influence.

In 2014, the Knesset passed legislation raising the threshold to 3.25 percent of the vote: Since the Knesset has 120 seats, this meant that the minimum number of seats a party needed to get into the Knesset was four. That, in turn, led to the merging before the 2015 elections of ideologically close parties to ensure reaching the required number of votes, creating the Jewish Home party on the Right, and the United Arab List on the Left.


The Jan 1 media conference in which Labor party head Avi Gabbay (left) unceremoniously dissolved his alliance with Tzippy Livni’s (right) Hatnua party, without informing her beforehand he was doing so. 

However, personal rivalries and stubborn ideological differences within these “portmanteau parties” have caused them to collapse: Labor’s Gabbay unceremoniously dissolved his alliance with Tzippy Livni, who after 20 years (including an electoral victory in 2009 that she was unable to translate into a governing coalition) recently announced her retirement from politics; the Jewish Home split into three parties; and the Arab List has split into at least two.

This could have led to the discounting and “loss” of a substantial number of votes on the far Right, since they will be spread too thinly over too many parties. In addition, Kulanu, Netanyahu’s Right-Center partner, may not pass the threshold. This would strengthen the larger parties, including their ideological enemies (Israel’s Resilience/Yesh Atid).

Netanyahu therefore put unprecedented effort into convincing the two remaining modern-Orthodox, pro-settler factions in Jewish Home (whose leaders, Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, split to form the own, secular, party, the New Right), to join with “Jewish Power” (Otzma Yehudit), a far-right racist party not in the current Knesset. This would ensure that votes cast for these three parties’ would not be dustbinned due to their not crossing the threshold.

Netanyahu has promised the resulting, new, far-right portmanteau party the Education and Housing Ministries and two seats in the Security Cabinet; He also promised to put their representative in the 28thplace on his own Likud list, from which that representative would return to the new party after the elections. This strategy should strengthen the Right bloc and prevent the erasure of votes. But it is also risky, since some “soft” Likud and Jewish Home supporters are dismayed by the entry of the racist, and perceived anti-democratic, Jewish Power into their camp.

With the reshuffling of the party decks and the creation of a new balance between the Center-Left and the Right, the ultra-orthodox parties may return to their traditional balancing role.

Lastly, it is important to note the decline of the Left in Israeli politics. Labor, which as recently as 1992 had 44 seats in the Knesset (and 34 in 1996), had 19 seats in 2006, 13 in 2009, 15 in 2013, and 24 in 2015, after it joined with the remnants of Kadima under Livni. The most optimistic predictions say it will win 10-11 in the next Knesset. Meretz, the Zionist party to the left of Labor, which had a peak of 12 seats in 1992, has five seats in the current Knesset, and is expected to achieve a similar result in the next elections, if it doesn’t disappear entirely due to the election threshold. Livni’s party, the rump of Kadima, has folded. Why has this happened?

The perceived failure of the Oslo process, and of the unilateral withdrawals from Southern Lebanon (2000) and the Gaza Strip (2005), key policies of Left- and Center-led governments; the continued stalemate on the Palestinian issue (attributed by the majority of Israelis to a lack of a viable Palestinian partner, especially since the split in 2007 between the Gaza Strip under Hamas and the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority/Fatah); as well as demographics, have moved the midpoint of Israeli politics to the Right.

Centrist (or even right-of-center) parties like Yesh Atid and Israel’s Resilience are delegitimized as “leftists”—a term of opprobrium in Israeli political discourse today: The actual Left is largely seen as irrelevant. Recent internal developments in Labor seem to indicate that the party is shifting from seeing itself as a potential ruling party to a democratic-socialist “woke” opposition, which may explain the internal pressures to merge with Meretz on its Left.

The overarching dynamics of the system as sketched above still work to Netanyahu’s advantage. He enjoys the powerful benefits of incumbency, with its accompanying ability to largely shape the political, diplomatic, and media agenda. His base disregards his legal problems, either seeing them as the product of a conspiracy by left-leaning elites and the deep state or shrugging them off as peccadillos that should not bring down a strong and effective leader (especially since they would return “the Left” to power).

To win, Netanyahu only needs his current coalition to do no worse than before in the aggregate; the election is his to lose. However, Netanyahu’s legal issues and increasingly polarizing political style, combined with possible loss of seats due to inability of prospective coalition partners to pass the electoral threshold, may have opened a narrow path to victory for a “clean-hands” rule-of-law candidate of the Center-Left.

Even if Netanyahu is elected, it is not at all clear that the indictments (which are expected to come before the elections despite the Prime Minister’s ferocious efforts to push them off) and the court process they will engender, will allow him to remain in office through his term. So whatever the results of this election, expect more political reshuffling and possibly even another round of elections in the not-so-distant future.

Joshua Krasna, a former senior Israeli civil servant, lives in Israel, teaches at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, and is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, as well as a fellow of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

Notes:
1A word of caution: Public opinion polls in Israel historically slightly underestimate support for Likud.

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Netanyahu’s despicable push to bring racists into Israel’s political mainstream

 

The PM has persuaded the religious-Zionist Jewish Home to partner with the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit. It makes cynical political sense for his interests, but what of Israel’s?

By DAVID HOROVITZ

Times of Israel, 20 February 2019,


Michael Ben Ari (left) speaks during a ceremony honoring the late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in a Jerusalem hall, October 26 2010. At right is Baruch Marzel (Yossi Zamir / Flash 90)

The Jewish Home party, the current iteration of what used to be Israel’s National Religious Party, on Wednesday night voted in favor of a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit, a racist successor to the banned Kach party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Kahane, who won a seat in the Knesset 35 years ago on a platform of revoking citizenship from Arab Israelis and a pledge to “transfer” out of the country those who would not accept this status, and who sought to outlaw sex and marriage between Jews and non-Jews, was banned as a racist from seeking re-election four years later.

The platform of his disciples in Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) — “Kach” and a subsequent iteration, “Kahane Chai,” are banned in Israel (and the US) as terrorist organizations — envisages Israel not as a Jewish state and a democracy, but rather what it calls a “Jewish democracy”: The Land of Israel’s sovereign borders will extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River — that is, throughout the territory that was captured by Israel in the 1967 war. “Enemies of Israel” anywhere within those expanded borders — West Bank Palestinians, Arab Israeli citizens, et al — will be resettled elsewhere in the Arab world. Jewish sovereignty will be “restored” to the Temple Mount — where Israel already claims sovereignty, but where Muslim authorities maintain religious control, Muslims pray, and Jews do not.

Interviewed on Army Radio on Wednesday afternoon, the party’s leader, former MK Michael Ben Ari, was asked to disavow Kahane’s racist ideology. He ridiculed the notion. Kahane, he said, was his teacher, his rabbi.

Also at the party helm is lawyer Itamar Ben Gvir, who first made headlines in Israel in 1995 when he held up the stolen Cadillac symbol from prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car and crowed to a TV camera, “Just as we got to this symbol, we can get to Rabin.”

So too is Baruch Marzel, a former top aide to Kahane known for organizing parties in celebration of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994.

And Benzi Gopstein, an ex-Kahane student and Kach activist whose Lehava movement works to prevent relationships — romantic and otherwise — between Jews and Arabs.

Jewish Home’s leadership had been reluctant to join forces with the Kahanists, but, apparently for those at its helm, you gotta do what you gotta do — even when what you gotta do takes you beyond the pale. The original NRP was the emphatically mainstream representative of Israel’s religious Zionists, the Orthodox ally of Israel’s secular Zionist pioneers. Broadly centrist in political orientation, it gradually moved to the right in the decades after the 1967 war, dwindled away politically, and was subsumed into Jewish Home (itself a merger of various factions) a decade ago. When leader Naftali Bennett and his ministerial colleague Ayelet Shaked abandoned Jewish Home in late December and set up their New Right party, seeking to make their eventual way to the national leadership and feeling encumbered by the settler-rabbi imprint, Jewish Home was on the brink of disappearing altogether.


Betzalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz are seen after agreeing to form a joint Jewish Home-National Union Knesset slate, February 14, 2019. (Courtesy)

Though polling barely around the 3.25% Knesset threshold, its new leader, ex-IDF chief rabbi Rafi Peretz (who last week agreed to an alliance with the National Union faction) was still resisting pressure to merge with Otzma Yehudit… until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spearheaded a personal campaign of phone calls, meetings, promises of ministerial posts, and — at a Wednesday afternoon meeting with Peretz — all manner of other complex political deals, to change his mind.

Netanyahu had been scheduled to fly to a vital meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday; it was postponed so that he could tend to this evidently more crucial imperative.

That a rival party to Netanyahu’s Likud would bow to his will, rather than stick to its own principles, indicates that, for the Jewish Home, antipathy to the center-left outweighs abhorrence of racism. The “technical” partnership was announced on Wednesday morning, and, backed by Peretz, was put to Jewish Home members and approved Wednesday night. By Thursday, all parties must submit their final slates for the April 9 Knesset elections.

Confronting Netanyahu in the wrong places

In a speech presenting his own Knesset slate on Tuesday evening, Benny Gantz, the only realistic anyone-but-Netanyahu hope, issued a spectacularly personal attack on the prime minister.


Benny Gantz, head of the Israel Resilience party, speaks at a conference presenting the party’s list of candidates for coming Knesset elections at an event held in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It was not spectacular by the standards of this election — Netanyahu and his supporters have been castigating Gantz as a weak leftist incapable of running the country; the prime minister on Monday accused Gantz of drawing up plans for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank while head of the army during 2013-2014 peace talks, when it was Netanyahu himself who reportedly gave Gantz the orders to do so; an anonymous smear campaign against Gantz promoted on social media was traced back to Likud.

But it was out of character for Gantz, who was soft-spoken when in uniform, and who had promised to take the high road in his debut political speech last month.

Gantz intimated that Netanyahu was less than fully Israeli — given that he spent years in school and working in the US, during which he changed his name. In a lower blow, Gantz lambasted the prime minister for having also spent years perfecting his English at glamorous American cocktail parties — a charge that missed its mark, since Netanyahu was working as an Israeli diplomat at the time. And in the lowest blow of all, Gantz compared that swanky US lifestyle enjoyed by Netanyahu with his own decades of military service, training generations of commanders and troops, sleeping rough in the muddy trenches on innumerable freezing winter nights, risking his life behind enemy lines. Netanyahu hit back, saying that this critique was particularly outrageous given that he had risked his own life many times as a soldier and officer in Israel’s most elite special forces unit (Sayeret Matkal).

On election day in 2015, dishonorably and inaccurately, Netanyahu sought to get out the Likud vote by claiming that Israel’s Arab citizens were streaming in droves to the polling stations. Now, ahead of the 2019 poll, he has worked energetically — and successfully — to bring into the mainstream a group of racists who would deny Israel’s Arab citizens the right to vote at all

Where Gantz’s vituperative fire was more damaging was when he charged that Netanyahu has “ruled the country through incitement, deception and fear,” stirring up internal divisions, and when he lambasted the prime minister for seeking to weaken the pillars of Israeli democracy as he battles against indictment in the three graft investigations against him.

Said Gantz, referring to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who must decide on whether to press charges against the prime minister who appointed him: “A legal adviser appointed by the ruler became a traitor and a leftist when he did not do what the ruler expected him to do.” Said Gantz on ex-police chief Roni Alsheich, another Netanyahu appointee, who oversaw the investigations: “The police commissioner appointed by the ruler was called a leftist and traitor because he dared to be loyal to the laws of the state and not to the demands of the ruler.”

Gantz said nothing, however, of the then-looming Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit merger that Netanyahu was so energetically and appallingly pushing. On election day itself in 2015, dishonorably and inaccurately, Netanyahu sought to get out the Likud vote by claiming that Israel’s Arab citizens were streaming in droves to the polling stations. Now, ahead of the 2019 poll, he has worked energetically — and successfully — to bring into the mainstream a group of racists who would deny Israel’s Arab citizens the right to vote at all.

It is not Netanyahu the diplomat or the soldier that Gantz should be campaigning against. It is not Netanyahu the leader who has tried to keep Israel safe from external threat. It is the Netanyahu harming Israel from within.

It makes perfect cynical political sense for Netanyahu to encourage the return of Kahanists to the Knesset. A merged Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit ticket could win at least four seats, surveys indicated before the deal was approved, while separately, Otzma Yehudit would not have cleared the electoral threshold, Jewish Home also might have failed, and all the votes they got would have gone to waste. Ben Ari is set for fifth place on the merged list, and Ben Gvir for eighth.


Otzma Yehudit leaders (from L-R) Michael Ben Ari, Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Benzi Gopstein in a crowdfunding campaign video on November 5, 2018. (Screen capture/Otzma Yehudit)

In terms of Israel’s values, Israel’s character, Israel’s essence, by contrast, the prime minister’s tactic is reprehensible.

Seen through to its likely conclusion, the merger of the two parties will find their representatives, the Kahanists potentially included, taking their seats in Netanyahu’s next governing coalition. At which point Israel — which boycotts far-right parliamentary parties in countries such as Austria, Germany and France, and which castigates the dangerous rise of racist politicians overseas — will itself have sunk, at Netanyahu’s insistent, self-serving instigation, to the very level it warns against elsewhere.

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