“Two are better than one,” said King Solomon, for “if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.”
This was the thinking that brought together Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to merge their factions of six and eight lawmakers respectively, and field Gantz as its prime ministerial candidate.
The approaching general election on November 1 thus becomes a three-way contest led by Netanyahu, whose Likud is currently forecast to win some 35 seats, followed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid with some 25, and the new party with some 15 in the 120-seat Knesset.
Despite its apparently limited following, the new alliance is positioned to emerge as the game changer that might end Israel’s three-year political impasse.
Two are not always more than one
King Solomon’s insight may be true socially, but in Israeli politics, two were not always more than one.
In the 2013 election, for instance, Likud and its coalition ally Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu ran on one ticket, expecting to win more than the 42 lawmakers both parties already had. Instead, the whole yielded 11 seats fewer than its parts won when they ran separately.
Similarly, Labor’s merger with two sister parties in 1969 won seven seats fewer than their original combination of 63, much the way Menachem Begin’s welding in 1965 of his Herut Party with the Liberal Party yielded eight seats fewer than the two’s original sum of 26.
Other mergers, however, were big successes, most notably the four-party cluster that created the Likud. Having soared in its first joint run, in 1974, from 32 to 39 seats, the party added another three seats in the next election when it swept to power, and ultimately became Israel’s political hegemon.
The new combination, donning the cumbersome name Blue and White-New Hope, is not expected to register anything like that success. However, it is also not expected to be the flop that other political mergers have been.
Polls suggest Gantz and Sa’ar, who control eight and six seats, respectively, in the outgoing Knesset, could win 15 in the new Knesset.
On the personal plane, Israel’s 25th general election pits Prime Minister Yair Lapid against opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Though sworn enemies, both represent the same political species. Charismatic, eloquent and telegenic, both men understand the cybernetic era in which we live, and in fact can be seen as its embodiments.
That cannot be said of Sa’ar and Gantz. Though tall, handsome and carrying the aura of a former IDF chief, Gantz is not an inspiring speaker and has yet to publicly articulate an original idea. Sa’ar, though one of Israel’s more insightful politicians, is even less charismatic.
The new party can, however, collect votes across the no-man’s-land that sprawls between the ideological, social and cultural opposites that Netanyahu and Lapid attract.
Gantz vs. Lapid vs. Netanyahu
Lapid’s espousal of the two-state solution, which he reiterated in a news conference during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem in July, places him to the left of the new party.
Facing reporters with Biden at his side, Lapid said the two-state solution “is a guarantee for a Jewish and democratic Israel.”
Gantz has stopped short of openly espousing full Palestinian independence. Speaking in February at the Munich Security Conference, Gantz said the Palestinians will have “an entity” that will be less than a fully sovereign state.
While Gantz’s statement may be different mainly in tone, Sa’ar is firmly to Lapid’s right, and in fact also to the right of Netanyahu, having opposed Israel’s 2005 retreat from Gaza, back when Sa’ar was a Likud lawmaker and chairman of Ariel Sharon’s coalition.
Equally hawkish are Sa’ar’s key colleagues, Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Bitton, not to mention Benny Begin, the Knesset’s elder legislator and a standard bearer of his father Menachem Begin’s nationalist legacy.
Socially, the new party also eyes the electoral pastures that lie between Netanyahu and Lapid.
The well-bred Lapid has done a great deal to disabuse his party of his own elitist image as the son of a successful novelist, Shulamit Lapid, and prominent politician Tommy Lapid, who served as justice minister and deputy prime minister. Having become wealthy thanks to his career as a playwright, screenwriter and newscaster, Yair Lapid is perceived as representing the upper middle class.
To temper this image, Lapid surrounded himself by leaders who hailed from Israel’s social periphery, such as Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, who was born in Morocco and later became mayor of Dimona; Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, son of immigrants from Kurdistan who later became Jerusalem’s police chief; and Economy Minister Orna Barbivai, one of eight siblings born to immigrants from Iraq and Romania and raised in Afula, before she rose in the IDF to head its manpower directorate, holding the rank of major-general.
Despite such recruits, Yesh Atid is still dismissed as elitist by the proletarian following that Likud has wooed along the decades, and even more so under Netanyahu’s leadership.
Sa’ar and Gantz, like Lapid, were not humbly born. Sa’ar’s father was a pediatrician, and Gantz’s father was a Jewish Agency executive. However Sa’ar, whose mother’s family hailed from Bukhara, is perceived by many Likud voters as one of them, not only because of his lineage and views but also because of his long years in that party’s apparatus.
Similarly, the new party also cannot be attacked on the religious front the way Likud assails Lapid.
True, Lapid is a member of a Reform synagogue, and thus not exactly secular. However, he is identified with liberal causes like ultra-Orthodox conscription and civil marriages, and is thus seen by ultra-Orthodox politicians as their prime adversary, despite his efforts to temper this image.
Gantz and Sa’ar have no such problem. Gantz went to religious schools until 10th grade, and his three party representatives in the outgoing cabinet – Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper, Science and Technology Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen, and Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata – are all observant.
It is a distinction that might make his new party this election’s dark horse, and also the game changer of the constitutional crisis that is now leading Israel into its fifth election in three years.
Gantz and Sa’ar, if indeed they emerge as the next Knesset’s third-largest faction, will be in a position to cut Israeli politics’ Gordian knot.
Chances are high that both Netanyahu and Lapid will fail to produce a Knesset majority, as the balance will be held by the anti-Zionist United Arab List, which neither of the two can admit into his coalition.
In terms of their attitude toward Netanyahu, Sa’ar and Gantz are on Lapid’s side.
Sa’ar explained his secession from Likud before the last election as a protest against Netanyahu’s leadership, which he said became autocratic. In addition, said Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s indictments demanded that he forfeit the premiership until he is acquitted.
Gantz was less outspoken about Netanyahu, and in fact entered his government in 2020, thus creating the rift between him and Lapid, back when they formed Blue and White. That was two years ago. Since then Gantz has joined the anti-Netanyahu camp, following Netanyahu’s breakup of their shared government.
However, while Netanyahu is disagreeable to Gantz, Gantz is not disagreeable to Netanyahu’s allies, who see in him a non-provocative pragmatist. No other party leader outside the Right enjoys such a standing.
That is why in case of another hung parliament, the way to prevent a new election could be a rotational government between the Likud bloc and a centrist bloc headed by Gantz, even though his faction will likely be smaller than Lapid’s.
Fearing the destabilizing effect of a sixth election within four years, some of Netanyahu’s allies will agree to a rotation deal in which Gantz will become prime minister, and two years later will be replaced by a yet-to-be-named lawmaker from Likud.
The identity of that leader will depend on the outcome of Netanyahu’s trial, which by then will have hopefully ended. If Netanyahu is acquitted, then even Lapid will accept him, and if he is indicted, then even Likud will dismiss him.
The precedent of a smaller party heading the government has already been set by Naftali Bennett, whose faction, Yamina, was barely one-third of the Gantz-Sa’ar faction’s forecast size.
In such a case, Gantz will become prime minister the way he landed at the IDF’s helm: by chance. Gantz became chief of staff in 2011 because someone else’s appointment (Yoav Galant’s) was canceled, due to allegations of construction-law violations.
Gantz was not a brilliant chief of staff, but he restored stability within the IDF after a period of great turbulence, underscored by infighting and a complete loss of trust between much of the high command and then-defense minister Ehud Barak.
While Gantz brings a military background as well as a record of political responsibility, Sa’ar brings vast political experience in all branches of government: in the executive, as minister of Education, Interior and Justice, and before that as cabinet secretary; in the legislature, as a lawmaker since 2003 and before that a parliamentary correspondent; and as a lawyer who was an assistant to one attorney-general (Michael Ben-Yair) and one state attorney (Edna Arbel.)
Sa’ar and Gantz therefore complement each other, and may soon get a chance to restore some of the stability, impartiality, predictability, and sheer boredom that Israel’s roller-coasting politics now beg. ■