Would-be “Stars” Hijack Traditional Parties, Shake up Israeli Politics

Israel’s election campaign for the 22nd Knesset on April 9 is laying bare the seismic breakdown of its traditional party makeup, throwing up new faces and reducing old factions into splinter groups fighting for survival. The lines dividing former camps are blurred, as new and old opposition groups forge unstable mergers. They all share one goal, to unseat the long-serving Likud’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

However, as these entities emerge, their platforms are seen to be empty of programs and ideology, serving only as backdrops for would-be “stars.,” who vow to create a better world after sweeping him away. The only stable props of the existing system are Likud, the National Religious Party and an ultra-religious bloc of three smaller groupings. They are the core of Netanyahu’s coalition regime.

The politicians sworn to replace this one-man show with a more democratic one don’t exactly practice what they preach. The opposition Future party founded seven years ago by Yair Lapid has never held a primary for electing him or any of its parliamentary slate. The leader holds this exclusive prerogative, and no party institutions were set up for appeals against his decisions.

Labor, which ruled the country unchallenged for 31 years after the founding of the state and before, has never recovered from being unseated in 1977 by Menahem Begin’s Herut (forerunner of Likud). Labor performed the historic task of laying the foundations for a democratic Jewish state and its national institutions. Although Labor does hold primaries, since Avi Gabai was elected chairman in 2017, the party has been divesting itself of partners and old-timers – most recently Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, and leaders of the Kibbutz movement and trade unions, once the party’s Socialist backbone. From its days as a big party fit to assume the reins of government, Labor has shrunk in size and influence, reduced to providing Gabai with a personalized stage.

The Kulani Party of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has undergone a similar metamorphosis as Kahlon stuffs its Knesset list with his relatives.

This leadership cult trend was dramatically highlighted when former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz unveiled his new party “Resilient Israel” at prime television time on Tuesday, Jan. 29. Gantz, was hailed almost as a messiah by the mainstream media, for challenging Netanyahu as the next head of government.

As such, he saw no need in his maiden speech to lay out a program of reforms to heal the maladies he listed – or even share his candidates’ list with the voter – any more than did his partner, former defense minister and chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, whose new party joined forces with Resilient Israel to run for election.

While this tall, good-looking political tyro was the darling of the mainstream media, the social media poked fun at his speech as a hodgepodge of slogans and tired soundbites, obviously dreamed up by PR and advertising whizzes. His party jingle was slick: Neither right nor left, but squarely center.

Even that idea is not new. As a fledgling politician, Gantz should have taken a look at history. There were at least five attempts to establish centrist parties in the last 45 years and only one made it – although it was short-lived. In 1974, a party called “Change” made its debut. Unlike the contemporary groups, this one adhered strictly to democratic principles. Every member had the right to vote for the party’s actions. Change won 15 seats in the 1977 election, but then split into three over a decision on whether to join the Begin government.

Twenty years later, in 1999, a group of politicians dropped out of the two main parties, Labor and Likud, and joined forces to create another centrist party. They didn’t make it. The voter gave them just 6 mandates when they ran for election.

In 2005, Ariel Sharon, a war hero and a powerful figure, who headed the Likud government as prime minister and defense minister from May 2001, quit the party in 2005 over its resistance to the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, which he orchestrated. He went on that year to found the centrist Kadima. Its short term in office from 2006 to 2009 was the only time that Israel was ever governed by a centrist party. But it did not last. In 2009, Sharon suffered a stroke from which he never recovered, He was briefly succeeded as head of government by Ehud Olmert. In 2009, Kadima was beaten at the polls and fell apart.

Three years later, in 2012, the popular broadcaster Yair Lapid founded the centrist “Future” party. It has been struggling ever since to climb to the level of a large and influential player on the political scene – without success.

In January 2019, the Gantz-Ya’alon duo launched the latest bid to fill the centrist vacancy. Although they shot up in the polls the next day, our political analysts rate their chances of toppling Netanyahu and his party as slim, barring an unexpected crisis in Likud. To stay the course, Gantz would need to substantially lift his image. In their first appearance, neither Gantz nor Ya’alon established the charismatic presence of an aspiring Israeli leader. Nor can they boast experience in government or the political savvy and bold enterprise with which Binyamin Netanyahu is endowed. The mainstream media are ready to produce exciting opinion polls at the drop of a hat, but the social media may more correctly represent the voting public and its true opinion of the new faces and their shortcomings.

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