A new left wing party won't change the country's fortunes - analysis

Casting longing eyes toward Eisenkot as some kind of political savior seems a relic of a bygone era.

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (photo credit: TAMIR BARGIG)
Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot
(photo credit: TAMIR BARGIG)
With new elections apparently lurking just around the corner, calls are mounting for former chief-of-staff Gadi Eisenkot to enter the political ring. Not on one of the existing lists, however, but rather as head of a new center-Left party.
One of the leading advocates of an Eisenkot run is influential Channel 13 journalist Raviv Drucker, who in a Haaretz piece on Monday urged Yesh Atid-Telem MK Ofer Shelah and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, both with political ambitions of their own to lead a new center-Left formation, to move aside and let Eisenkot take the reins.
Under an op-ed headlined “Shelah and Huldai need to let Eisenkot lead,” Drucker – who has been pushing an Eisenkot turn since at least July – wrote: “The most worthy candidate to lead a party like this [center-Left] is Eisenkot. He has the potential to sweep away more voters, and is the best suited among them to run against [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu on foreign policy and security issues.”
And the calls for Eisenkot to run – calls significant enough for KAN to throw his name into the mix in a recent poll looking at various election scenarios – could justifiably lead one to ask: Don’t they ever learn?
There are currently nine parties in the Knesset: two on the Right (Likud and Yamina), one in the center (Blue and White), one center-Left (Yesh Atid-Telem), one on the Left (Labor-Meretz), one Arab party (the Joint List), two haredi parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism), and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, which defies easy classification.
Right now the three Zionist Center, center-Left, Left wing parties are polling at between 32 to 36 seats, depending on the poll. Added together with the Joint List, this gives a potential center-Left-Arab bloc between 43 to 48 seats.
Do those who are urging Eisenkot to run really believe that he will significantly add to that number and push this bloc over the 61-seat threshold needed to form a coalition?
According to the KAN Bet poll last week, Eisenkot could pick up four seats. That, obviously, is not going to do much to change the overall political math.
EISENKOT WAS an acclaimed general widely viewed as having been an excellent chief-of-staff. Casting longing eyes toward him as some kind of political savior who will ride in from the horizon and save the Left, or at least sweep it to victory, seems a relic of a bygone era.
Of the country’s 21 former chiefs-of-staff, only four of them – including Eisenkot – have not gone or tried to go into politics, many of them entering the arena amid bells and whistles and great expectation. And the results have been spotty at best, with only Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak having gone on to become prime minister.
Interestingly – and the current fascination of the center-Left with Eisenkot fits the bill – the infatuation with former chiefs-of-staff has always been stronger on the Left than on the Right.
Of the eight former chiefs-of-staff who have gone into politics since 1987 – Dan Shomron, Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Shaul Mofaz, Moshe Ya’alon, Dan Halutz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz – six went to center or Left wing parties initially, and two, Mofaz and Ya’alon, drifted there after first joining the Likud.
During the Netanyahu era, the interest by the center-Left in generals seemed very logical: a way to chip away at Netanyahu’s image as “Mr. Security.” Blue and White put three chiefs-of-staff at the top of its list in the last three elections, and gave Netanyahu his greatest election scare in a decade – actually outpolling the Likud in the September 2019 election, but failing to form a government.
It is hard to believe that Eisenkot, not blessed with Churchillian oratorical skills or an overabundance of magnetism, will be able to succeed where the other three chiefs-of-staff running together failed – in unseating Netanyahu. Especially if Eisenkot forms a new party, rather than joining one of the two existing centrist parties – Blue and White and Yesh Atid-Telem – that would seem like it would serve him as a good political home.
And this goes to one of the two main problems facing the center-Left – they can’t rally around one leader to serve as an alternative to Netanyahu, and they don’t realize that it is not only about the persona, but also about the message.
Blue and White equaled Netanyahu in the April 2019 election because Gantz and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid realized that there was not that much separating them, and that they would do better running together than running against one another.
There is still little separating the two parties, except that one – Blue and White – is willing to sit in a Netanyahu government, and the other is not. But on the marquee diplomatic and economic issues, it would be hard to find that much separating them. The same will be true if Eisenkot forms a new party.
In order for the center-Left to present itself as an alternative to Netanyahu, it needs to do just that – present an alternative to Netanyahu. Not three or four different alternatives: not Gantz or maybe Ashkenazi, and Lapid and Eisenkot, if he were to run – but one alternative.
THE US system, as made painfully evident during the last campaign and election, is badly flawed, and there is no reason for Israelis to look at their own political dysfunction and say, “If only we had the American system, everything would be wonderful.” It wouldn’t be.
Given that, however, there is something to be said about the way party candidates slug it out mercilessly during the primary season in the US – often savagely going after each other’s policies and characters – but then rally around the party’s nominee once that person is crowned.
President-elect Joe Biden was engaged in a vicious battle for the nomination with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, his eventual running mate Kamala Harris and about a dozen others. Yet when he won the primaries, they all rallied around Biden to defeat US president Donald Trump. There was one candidate; one alternative.
With its multi-party parliamentary system, things obviously work much differently in Israel. But the idea that you defeat your opponent by presenting one alternative – not three different ones – would seem to have as much traction here as it does in the US, especially as there is not that much in terms of policy difference separating Gantz, Lapid and Eisenkot.
But there is another element involved as well, which is that the center-Left seems to believe that if they just shuffle the deck with new players, if they just field an attractive roster, then they will be able to siphon off votes from the other side. That is a mistaken assumption.
The center-Left has been unable to come to power in this country for some 15 years, since Kadima won an election in 2006 – not because it lacked attractive candidates, but rather because its message did not resonate strongly enough with the electorate.
Israel since the second intifada in 2000 has moved rightward. That was a watershed moment in Israeli history. Covid-19 is also shaping up as another watershed moment.
For the Left to move voters from the Right to the other side, it will need to present the voters with convincing arguments reflecting the realities of a post-intifada, corona-weary Israel. Just changing the names at the tops of the lists – replacing the name Gantz or Lapid with Ashkenazi or Eisenkot – will not be enough. A compelling ideology and argument is needed. “I’m not Bibi’’ will not work in the next election – any more than it has worked in the previous six.