Israel needs a new political culture, not mergers - analysis

Political mergers -- as dramatic as they may seem -- are not going to extricate Israel from its political morass.

 New Hope Party head Gideon Sa'ar and Blue and White head Benny Gantz announce merger, July 10, 2022.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
New Hope Party head Gideon Sa'ar and Blue and White head Benny Gantz announce merger, July 10, 2022.

With Israel hurtling toward its fifth election in three and a half years, some – such as Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar – believe that what the country needs are new political mergers.

This is the reason the two leaders of parties in the current coalition – Gantz’s Blue and White and Sa’ar’s New Hope – announced a merger on Sunday night, saying it is time for a large center to emerge and for the fringes and extremes to be left outside.

When Sa’ar first announced with much fanfare the formation of his New Hope Party in December 2020, initial polls gave the party more than 20 seats. Then reality set in, and in the election the following March, the party won only six seats. It joined the government, and a year later, the polls showed that it might not win enough votes to make it into the next Knesset.

This is not an enviable trajectory for a political party, which explains – more than anything else – why Sa’ar felt the need to merge with Gantz. The merger is more the result of political reality than any ideological belief in the center; it’s all about political expediency.

But political mergers – as dramatic as they may seem at the moment they are announced – are not going to extricate Israel from its political morass.

People cast their ballot at a voting station in Tel Aviv during the Knesset election on March 2, 2020. (credit: FLASH90)People cast their ballot at a voting station in Tel Aviv during the Knesset election on March 2, 2020. (credit: FLASH90)

What Israel needs now is a new political culture, not more political mergers.

Israel needs parties that reward excellence and don’t just reflexively promote ex-generals. It needs parties that are as unwilling to rule out future coalition partners, as they are unwilling to let potential coalition partners dictate to them who should be on their Knesset list.

Gantz and Sa’ar may have given birth to a new political merger on Sunday, but it is one infused with the same staid political culture that has led the country to its current political stalemate: Old political spirits in new political bottles.

Already some of the new members of the merged parties were promising not to sit in a government under Benjamin Netanyahu, something that might yet again ensure that the next government – whether set up by the pro- or anti-Netanyahu camp – will be a narrow coalition of 61 or 62 seats that will, like the previous government, have little chance of survival.

“We will not sit in a government under Netanyahu,” Housing and Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin proclaimed in a 103FM radio interview on Monday, apparently having learned nothing from the last year and supplying the core ingredient to another stalemated government.

“We will not sit in a government under Netanyahu.”

Housing and Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin

Haredi pressure

Even more unhealthy is the decision by Gantz and Sa’ar, reportedly at the insistence of the haredi parties, to leave off their list two popular names from the Bennett government: former religious services minister Matan Kahana from Yamina and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel from New Hope.

Both men, relatively new to politics, came into their positions full of energy and determined to leave their mark. Kahana wanted to reform the country’s kashrut supervision system and the rabbinate, and Hendel wanted to reform the communications industry, including breaking a haredi monopoly on the widespread use of restrictive kosher phones in the ultra-Orthodox community.

They earned haredi opprobrium for their efforts. As a result, neither man will find himself on the new merged list. The haredi parties – which the new Gantz-Sa’ar party may need for future support to form a government – have nixed the idea.

For the haredi parties, Hendel and Kahana are red flags, men – though both religiously observant – whom they feel are determined to upend their way of life.

A cartoon in Monday’s Yediot Aharonot told the Hendel story in one frame: Gantz rescued Sa’ar from a crumbling building with a New Hope sign on it, while Hendel looked on forlorn from a window.Opposition to Hendel, however, is not only coming from haredim.

Gantz reportedly does not want him on his list because Hendel and fellow MK Zvika Hauser effectively kept Gantz from forming a minority government in March 2020 supported from the outside by the Arab Joint List. This move left scars that apparently won’t heal.

As far as Kahana is concerned, he is reportedly looking for a political home following the resignation of his political patron, Naftali Bennett, from Yamina, and the new Gantz-Sa’ar party would seem like a natural fit.

The net result is that Hendel and Kahana – energetic, forward-thinking and effective ministers – are being pushed off the political stage because of old political scores.

Not only is this just plain bad for governance, it is also questionable politically. Will voters gravitate to the new Gantz-Sa’ar list knowing that even before it has won a single seat or engaged in any kinds of negotiations, it is giving in to threats?

Shas and United Torah Judaism

After spending a year in the opposition, it is likely that Shas and United Torah Judaism would be willing to swallow the presence of Hendel and Kahana on the new list if a scenario presented itself where it was either that or more time in the opposition. That Gantz and Sa’ar are letting the haredi parties dictate who will be on their list does not give new hope, but rather is a throwback to a political culture Israel needs to leave behind.

Another vestige of the old political culture is the spectacle of Gantz and Sa’ar falling over themselves to offer the third spot on their list to former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot.

Eisenkot is being eagerly sought after, even though no one knows whether he has the skill set needed to be effective in politics (spoiler: not all generals do). Nor does the public know much about his political philosophy.

In other words, Eisenkot – a man without a political track record or known worldview – is being promoted on the new list, while two men with impressive records as ministers and whose worldviews are known are being kept off.

Kahana and Hendel, meanwhile, are in negotiations with new Yamina Party head Ayelet Shaked and may still land on their feet and remain on the political stage. And while Gantz and Sa’ar might try to frame their own merger as something new and fresh, their initial steps seem anything but.