WASHINGTON – The AIPAC Policy Conference this past week will not be remembered as the shining moment for Israeli politicians.
It is true that Blue and White Party chairman Benny Gantz gave a surprisingly impressive speech that touched on all of the topics the local audience wanted to hear – his career in the IDF, his Holocaust survivor mother, his desire for peace and his promise to promote religious pluralism.
And while he seemed a bit stiff in the beginning, Gantz quickly warmed up to the 18,000-strong crowd – he moved away from the podium and walked around with one hand in his pocket as if he owned the place. It seemed to remind the AIPAC delegates that an Israeli leader doesn’t have to speak flawless English to impress them; that there is something even authentic about a general-turned-politician who speaks English with an Israeli accent.
The problem was that none of this radiated back home. Hamas’s rocket attack that morning stole the show, and in what seemed like an effort to get something of a headline out of his trip to DC, Gantz’s advisers arranged for him to be interviewed on the Channel 12 News, the most watched news broadcast in Israel.
There was one word for it: awful. Gantz looked uncomfortable and sweaty, and sounded sick with a cold. He struggled adjusting to the delay in the satellite broadcast between Washington and Israel, and kept on repeating the name of Yonit Levy, the Channel 12 anchorwoman. “Yonit, Yonit, Yonit, Yo, Yo, Yo, Yonit,” he stammered at one point when trying to answer a question, getting even the experienced Levy to raise more than an eyebrow in trying to understand what the former IDF chief of staff was doing.
“Why did they even put him there?” one member of the list asked me the following day. “His advisers should have let the images of him speaking at AIPAC do the talking. Not him.”
The question was legitimate, and can be added to how the Blue and White campaign managers handled Iran’s hacking of Gantz’s cell phone. While rumors circulated about what exactly was on the phone that might now be in Iranian hands, Gantz only amplified them when he publicly said: “It is a personal matter. It will remain a personal matter, and my wife supports me.”
Why didn’t he just answer every question about the phone with a smile, a laugh, and a quip: “I hope the Iranians enjoy pictures of my kids and dog.” If the Iranians one day release intimate information, he will deal with it then. Why turn it into a story now when he doesn’t yet have to?
THEN THERE was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He arrived in Washington on Sunday for what was supposed to be a three-day celebration: on Monday he was scheduled to meet President Donald Trump and witness the signing of the declaration recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and on Tuesday he was scheduled to speak at AIPAC in the morning and then be hosted back at the White House in the evening for a festive dinner.
But Hamas had other plans. In what seemed like a move mostly intended to divert attention away from the anti-Hamas protests in Gaza, the terrorist group fired a long-range missile deep into the center of Israel, smashing not just a home but also Gantz and Netanyahu’s AIPAC getaway. Gantz’s speech was forgotten amid the fighting in Gaza, and Netanyahu was forced to cut short his trip and head back home immediately after the meeting with the president.
When Netanyahu returned to Israel, he still gave his speech to AIPAC by satellite, but even that didn’t go smoothly. The connection faded in and out. What was supposed to be the highlight of his reelection campaign had gone from bad to worse.
Did Netanyahu have to return home early due to the rocket attack? It is an interesting question. On the one hand, a rocket striking a home deep in the center of Israel is a major escalation that needs to be dealt with immediately. Netanyahu is not only the prime minister; he is also the defense minister and one of them – in either case, him – needed to be back in Israel to oversee the military response.
On the other hand, there was something unsettling in the way a Hamas rocket succeeded in completely undermining the schedule of a nation and its leader. Putting elections aside for a moment, Netanyahu was in Washington to strengthen Israel’s ties with the US and advance the Jewish state’s strategic interests.
Why give Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar the pleasure of knowing that he can control what Israel does? Israel could have responded and Netanyahu could have remained in Washington. The rocket attacks from Gaza are a major challenge and threat for Israel, but cutting the prime minister’s trip short gave the rockets strategic significance, and Hamas a win it did not deserve.
This is where elections come into play. If Netanyahu had remained in Washington, his political rivals would have accused him of neglecting Israel’s security. Pictures of him at a festive White House dinner would not have gone down well as tens of thousands of people hunkered down in bomb shelters. Even if the right move would have been to remain in Washington, with two weeks left to elections he had no choice but to return home.
SPEAKING OF elections, get ready for the next week and a half. If the political mudslinging until now hasn’t disgusted you, just wait, it’s about to get much worse. Likud, for example, took Gantz’s poor interview on Channel 12, edited it, and asked if he is mentally stable. Blue and White, on the other hand, is pretty much using its campaign to brand Netanyahu a traitor who sold out his country and its submarine fleet for money.
The New Right is selling fascism perfume, and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman is dressing up as an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student to explain why there is no reason haredim can’t serve in the IDF alongside their religious studies.
Unless there is a dramatic shift, it seems based on the current polls that the Likud will be forming the next coalition. Blue and White does not have a coalition with just Labor and Meretz, and the smaller right-wing parties have already pledged their allegiance to Netanyahu. This doesn’t stop some Likud members from spreading conspiracy theories that say President Reuven Rivlin will give the mandate to Gantz even if more parties recommend Netanyahu.
What no one is talking about, though, is the possibility that a government will not be possible unless Netanyahu and Gantz join together. Over the next 10 days, Likud and Blue and White will do what they can to take the lead on the other. For Likud, this means sucking votes away from the New Right, URP and Liberman. For Gantz, this means trying to draw away votes from Labor and Meretz. Moving over votes from the Right has until now failed for the party of former IDF chiefs of staff.
In a normal political climate, there would be something advantageous to having a government of just Likud and Blue and White, especially when considering that the alternative for Netanyahu appears to be a government consisting of Likud, New Right, URP, Shas, UTJ, Zehut, Yisrael Beytenu and maybe Kulanu. That would be seven-to-eight parties, each of which would have the ability – at any given moment – to topple the government. This would be constant political chaos.
Considering the challenges facing Israel, political stability is a vital asset. Mudslinging might be the convenient weapon right now, but the parties need to remember that after April 9 there is a country that needs to be run, a people that needs to be kept safe, and an economy that needs to keep growing. If only they keep that in mind over the next 10 days.