Israel’s election campaign began in earnest yesterday, 47 days before the polls open, when former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and MK Yair Lapid merged their parties to form the Blue and White Party. The political map has organized into what seems like the natural order of things in Israeli politics: A large right-wing party, Likud, a large left-wing party, Blue and White, and their satellites on each side.
Of course, Blue and White will tell you, as Gantz’s party’s jingle goes, “there is no right or left, just Israel before all.” And they have a mishmash of ideologies on their list, from former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and several other strong opponents of a Palestinian state, to Avi Nissenkorn, the chairman of the Histadrut Labor Union and others who are solidly on the left.
But this is the fourth election in a row in which it was basically the Bibi camp versus the anyone-but-Bibi camp, which is to its left.
The real point of the merger was to finally create a center-left bloc that could outweigh the power of Bibi’s Likud. If Blue and White can pull it off, they will form the next coalition and institute a rotating arrangement for the top spot in Israeli politics with Gantz serving as prime minister for the first 2.5 years and Lapid for the next 1.5, as stipulated by their agreement.
On Thursday night polls on the major Israeli news channels showed the Blue and White-Likud breakdown to be 36-30, 35-32 and 36-26
The problem for Blue and White is that it’s not the largest party in the Knesset that forms the government; that right goes to whichever group can assemble the largest bloc by striking between different factions. In 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister with a Likud that has one seat less than its main rival, the now-defunct Kadima, because he had the larger bloc.
And those same polls that show Blue and White pulling ahead of Likud also show the right leading in bloc size over the Zionist center left: 61 to 45, 62 to 36 or 60-49.
According to most surveys, the majority of Israelis identify as either right wing or center right. That means that if Blue and White wants to win, pulling right-wing votes into their bloc is a requisite.
Israel’s Arab parties hadn’t made any formal announcement as of the time this article was published, but, historically, they have never agreed to sit in a coalition, because they do not want to be complicit in Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians. Despite the precedent, in a speech Thursday night Netanyahu accused Blue and White of “relying on Arab parties who not only don’t recognize the State of Israel.”
That slight lead currently enjoyed by the right-wing bloc hasn’t been enough for Netanyahu, who has pushed for weeks for the religious-Zionist Bayit Yehudi-National Union list to bring in Otzma Yehudit, the party led by disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, into the coalition. The exact ideology and ramifications of such a push are beyond the scope of this article but parties led by Kahane and his students have long been cast out of mainstream Israeli politics because of their peddling in racist incitement. Netanyahu’s Likud negotiated with the party in 2009, but this is the first time he has really gone to bat for them and so publicly. The reasoning was that, in 2015, Otzma came very close to the 3.25-percent threshold necessary to make it into the Knesset, but fell just short, which meant tens of thousands of right-wing votes didn’t count in the parliament’s makeup.
Despite the 2009 precedent, Blue and White seems to be betting on the biggest-party strategy more than the biggest-bloc strategy, but they do have at least one secret weapon to try to pull votes from the right to their party: IDF ex-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
For those keeping track at home, that makes three former top commanders of the Israeli Army in one party: Gantz, Ya’alon, and Ashkenazi. That in itself presents a strong front on security issues, although Likud has been working overtime to try to poke holes in Gantz’s record. Ashkenazi, who is widely respected for having rehabilitated the IDF after the Second Lebanon War, may be the wild card in the race. He’s the rare politician associated with a left-leaning party who has the popularity and security credentials that polls have shown specifically attract right-wing votes.
“All of us have an ego and an agenda, but when we saw the country torn apart, we put our egos aside,” Gantz said. “We will work as a team to fix Israel.”
Twenty minutes later, Netanyahu sent a foreboding message: “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. 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.”
Both speeches were shoring up the blocs. Gantz continued to say right and left can be at home with him, while Netanyahu told right-wing voters they would be making a dangerous mistake if they abandon him.
The real battle for votes has begun.
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Lahav Harkov is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She tweets at @LahavHarkov.