Despite the Rise of a Strong Centrist Bloc, Netanyahu Can’t Be Discounted

Israel’s political landscape underwent more than one seismic change with the union forged on Wednesday night, Feb. 20, by three former IDF chiefs of staffs and a leading opposition politico. They created a new centrist bloc called “Blue-White” dedicated to the paramount goal of unseating Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud-led rightist government after a decade in power.

This goal was powerful enough to bring these otherwise assorted and opinionated figures together for a realistic attempt to win power in the April 9 election. Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid announced they had decided “out of national responsibility” to form a union between their Hossen Le’Yisrael (Resilient Israel) and Atid (Future) parties “as the new ruling party of Israel.” Former Defense Minister and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, a defector from Likud, was the first to join forces with Gantz. Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashknazi waited until the Ganz-Lapid deal was in the bag.

Gantz and Lapid agreed to rotate the premiership between them, with the former going first for a two-and-a-half-year stint, followed by his partner, for one and a half years in power. This format follows the lone precedent in Israel’s 71 years, when Labor and Likud leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhk Shamir agreed in 1986 to take turns as prime minister.

The new centrist union has effectively melted down the dozens of lists bidding for election into a race between two main blocs – right, challenged by left-of center. Netanyahu was savvy enough to prepare against the shift in the national political anatomy with a rushed effort to bring three right-wing religious parties, Jewish Home, National Union and Otzmah, aboard. This was essential for expanding Likud’s voter base by roughly half a dozen critical mandates and stemming the flight of religious voters.

To bring this effort to a satisfactory conclusion in time to register the amended Likud list by the Feb. 21 deadline, the prime minister was even willing to delay at the last minute his much-awaited date with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That day, he and IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Nurkin and Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, were scheduled to discuss the Syrian situation with the Russian president in the Kremlin.

The left-of-center space on the opposition map is occupied by the Gantz-Lapid alliance, Labor and far-left-Meretz. Positioned on the right are Likud plus the three-party religious bloc as well as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Orly Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher. Three Israeli Arab parties are vying against each another.

Israel was last overtaken by a political earthquake 14 years ago, when the late Ariel Sharon broke away from Likud, which he led as prime minister, to form the Kadima party, which beat Likud in the 2005 election. He led a Kadima government for just three years.

Kadima consisted of a mixed bag of high-profile defectors from the two opposing parties, Likud and Labor. The new centrist bloc is very different in that it largely represents the well-off elite class of Israeli society and, as a further black mark for many voters, its most visible leaders hail from Ashkenazi communities. This raises the specter of identity politics infiltrating the campaign and the election, after it was blurred for many years by frequent inter-communal marriages, shared military service under a unifying flag and the opening-up of Israel’s thriving hi-tech industry to talent, regardless of class or communal background.

The preponderance of generals at the top of the new bloc is another novelty for Israeli politics. Is this for better or for worse? The coming election will disclose whether the ordinary Israeli’s love and esteem for the military, “and all our serving sons, brothers and husbands” leak over to boost the former chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi. The new bloc’s advantages are, firstly, its novelty for an electorate hungry for new faces, and secondly, an opponent, Netanyahu, who must campaign against them saddled with legal battles. In the coming weeks, the attorney general promises to publish his decision with regard to four police investigations on charges of bribery and breach of trust. Publication ahead of election day is bound to have an impact on voting.

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