With less than two months before Israel goes to the polls on April 9, great uncertainty remains ahead of the critical date of February 21, the final day for the submission of the party lists.
Speculation was rife over possible mergers of the center parties, which in turn may trigger similar unity efforts on the right and left.
Benny Gantz’s much anticipated prime-time speech at the end of January launching his centrist Israel Resilience (Hosen L’Yisrael) party was broadcast live on Israel’s main television news shows, injecting some excitement into what had been a rather lackluster election campaign to date.
Specific policy commitments were conspicuous by their absence but the speech went down well, catapulting Israel Resilience into second place behind the Likud and setting up Benny Gantz as a serious challenger to Benjamin Netanyahu.
“No Israeli leader is a king,” Gantz said to tumultuous applause at the Tel Aviv Exhibition grounds, launching his new party. Thanking Netanyahu for his past decade in office, Gantz said, “We’ll take it from here.”
Presenting himself as a moderate alternative to Netanyahu, Gantz said that a government he headed would strive to achieve peace and would not miss an opportunity to produce regional change.
He said that if it became evident that there was no way of achieving peace at this juncture, he would forge a new reality, strengthening the West Bank settlement blocs. He also vowed that Israel would never leave the Golan Heights or the Jordan Valley.
Ahead of Gantz’s speech, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who also served as Israel’s top general, agreed to merge his new Telem party with Israel Resilience, guaranteeing the No. 2 spot for himself and prompting commentators to dub Israel Resilience “the generals’ party.”
Polls in early February projected the Likud would receive around 30-32 seats, Israel Resilience would receive 17-22, and Yesh Atid, the centrist party led by Yair Lapid, around 11.
More worrying for Netanyahu were polls showing that in the event of a merger between Israel Resilience and Yesh Atid, with former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi also joining, this centrist alliance led by Gantz would win 35-36 seats, overtaking the Likud, which would receive 29-32. A united list headed by Lapid would receive less votes than Likud.
Such a scenario, however, would not necessarily result in Benny Gantz emerging as the candidate to replace Netanyahu as prime minister because the right-religious bloc still leads the center-left bloc. However, with so many of the smaller parties, from both the right, center and left, hovering close to the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the overall vote, the final outcome is almost impossible to predict.
It remains unclear at this juncture if Shas, Yisrael Beytenu, Kulanu led by Moshe Kahlon, the Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi), the new Gesher party led by Orly Levy-Abekasis and some smaller right-wing parties – all potential coalition partners in a Likud-led coalition – will actually be represented in the next Knesset.
The prognosis for the left is dire. Meretz was hovering close to the threshold and could fail to enter the next Knesset in the event of a Gantz-Lapid alliance. Labor, the party that dominated Israeli politics during the first three decades of statehood is not faring much better under the leadership of Avi Gabbay, and is forecast to win a historic low of between 5-8 seats. There were growing calls for a Labor-Meretz merger in an effort to stop the rot.
Netanyahu’s nightmare scenario is that a last-minute agreement is reached by Gantz, Lapid and Ashkenazi just before the February 21 deadline, leaving the right-wing parties no time to respond in kind and establish a unified right-wing list.
After Israel Resilience surged in the polls, taking votes primarily from Labor and Yesh Atid, efforts to form a single list between Israel Resilience and Yesh Atid went into full gear, led by Ashkenazi, who has been courted by both parties.
However, Yair Lapid remains reluctant to relinquish the top spot to the political novice Benny Gantz, and other possible scenarios, such as a rotation agreement, are reportedly being discussed in ongoing talks between Gantz and Lapid.
A Yesh Atid source said it was far from a done deal.
“Benny Gantz said that he supports disengagement; we’re not there at all. If we can get 12 to 14 seats, maybe we’re better off on our own. Why give up our values?”
In his first newspaper interview since entering politics, Gantz told the daily Yedioth Ahronoth in early February that he wants to end Israeli rule over the Palestinians.
“We need to find a way in which we’re not controlling other people,” he said, and also praised the “painful but good manner” of Israel’s 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip, hinting he might consider similar steps in the West Bank.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the comments were “encouraging.”
Netanyahu’s Likud and others immediately branded Gantz a “leftist” who would uproot West Bank Jewish settlements.
Gantz clarified there would be no “unilateral decision” about removing settlements and he noted that Netanyahu as a minister in Ariel Sharon’s government voted in favor of the Gaza disengagement, though he later resigned in protest.
“You evacuated Jews,” Gantz said in comments aimed at Netanyahu. “You paid protection money to Hamas. Your time is up – we are moving forward.”
Likud members elected their party slate in primaries held in early February with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein taking the top spot behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, followed by Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar.
The Likud membership elected a relatively balanced and well received list that included newcomers Nir Barkat, the former mayor of Jerusalem, and Yoav Galant, formerly from Kulanu, in the top 10, while ignoring Netanyahu’s plea to reject Gideon Sa’ar, whom he accused of conspiring with President Reuven Rivlin in a plot to replace him as the Likud candidate for prime minister after the election.
The Likud members also rejected the unsavory and controversial Knesset Member Oren Hazan along with Communications Minister Ayoub Kara.
Netanyahu is expected to be indicted by the attorney general this month on corruption charges, pending a hearing, and it remains to be seen what impact this will have on the electorate.
Gantz made it clear that he would not serve under a prime minister facing an indictment, but, unlike some other party leaders, did not rule out the possibility of serving in a Netanyahu coalition until the judicial hearing is completed – a process that may drag on for a year or more.
The fallout from the anticipated indictment along with the possible mergers and alliances across the political spectrum makes this one of the most interesting and uncertain election campaigns in recent history, with everything still up for grabs.
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