Finally, a close race in Israel

February 24, 2019

Former Israeli army chief and rising political star Benny Gantz and centrist leader Yair Lapid have upended Israel’s April 9 elections with their decision to join forces against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu and his right-wing allies are still favored to win on a security platform but Gantz’s “Blue and White” alliance with Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party represents a major challenge. Gantz’s newly created Resilience Party soared in opinion polls taken a day after he made his maiden political speech. Gantz and Lapid, who agreed to rotate as prime minister if they win, are joined by former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and ex-military chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi in a move intended to emphasize their military experience to challenge Netanyahu’s claim that he is the only one who can keep Israel safe.

With three former IDF chiefs of staff offering their military experience, the threat to Netanyahu has never been more serious. Netanyahu is still more likely to emerge as prime minister at the end of this election campaign, but it is a competitive race. Polls have shown that a merger of both parties would become the biggest Knesset faction and have a better chance to challenge Netanyahu’s Likud.

According to the latest polls, Likud would muster 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset, to 59 for the center, left and Arab parties. By itself, the Blue and White Party would receive 10 more seats than Likud, an important symbolic victory. However, the merged parties would not be able to form a coalition. Netanyahu can, but possibly a weak one, with small parties forming a balance of power and thus enjoying massive political leverage.

The challenge facing Gantz is nothing less than enormous. He wants to win the elections with a centrist party that didn’t even exist two months ago and is built around newcomers from the left and the right. Only once in all of Israel’s history has a new centrist party managed to win an election and form a government, in 2006 under Ehud Olmert’s Kadima.

Separately, Netanyahu will try to make sure that none of his allies defect to the generals’ side while forging an alliance with several far-right parties to try to shore up votes. As part of an alliance with Likud, Netanyahu has joined forces with Jewish Power, which includes disciples of the anti-Arab extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane led a right-wing fundamentalist group in the 1980s that advocated attacks on Arabs, and was later outlawed under Israeli anti-terrorist legislation. It is an indictment on the electoral process of Israel’s claimed democracy that it allows in the Knesset, however small, a racist party.

Likud leads the polls despite an investigation into corruption allegations against Netanyahu. The Israeli attorney general is due to make a decision on whether Netanyahu should be charged in the coming weeks, specifically before the elections. He has vowed to remain in office whatever the outcome of the attorney general’s decision. If he does, members of the current governing coalition will have to determine whether they’re willing to serve in a future government with an indicted prime minister.

So, the center ground agreement is seen as making the race more competitive and a challenge to Netanyahu’s decade-long premiership. Without the bloc, he would have had a relatively easy time winning the election. However, the vote will likely bring results little different than the current government. The faces may be different, the leader may be different, but the essential rejectionist views of all Israeli governments going back several decades will remain the same.

To prefer one of the leading groups over another is an exercise in futility. All Israeli politicians play the same game under a different name. The faces may change, but the essential views that have characterized Israel’s government for decades will remain the same after April 9.

February 24, 2019
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