The power of silence

Though a political novice, Benny Gantz felt the consensus better than the political wiz he faced.

The ultimate decider: President Reuven Rivlin (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The ultimate decider: President Reuven Rivlin
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As if instructed by Paul Simon’s famous lyrics, the vision that was planted in Benny Gantz’s brain remained within the sounds of silence.
The man who won the most votes in Israel’s 22nd election said hardly anything throughout his campaign in terms of his statements’ frequency, length, or substance.
It was pretty much the inversion of Netanyahu’s strategy, which deployed massive activity on social media that celebrated his personal record – as opposed to his party’s – checkered by broadsides against “the Left” in general and Israel’s Arab population, in particular.
Gantz’s victory is far from sweeping, and may take weeks to produce the coalition that would crown him Israel’s 14th prime minister.
Then again, judging by the poise he displayed en route to his electoral achievement, he will arrive at this aim as well, backed by a government that will be in a position to deliver some long-overdue change.
NETANYAHU’S defeat was fed by three major miscalculations. The first was about mainstream voters’ take on his legal situation. Too many of the voters Netanyahu needed didn’t like his attacks on the judiciary, the police and the media, which he insinuated worked in cahoots to frame him.
Netanyahu was also mistaken in his assumption that attacking the Arab population would prize him electorally.
The impression that Netanyahu had such a strategy was fed by his effort to pass a law allowing political parties to place video cameras in polling stations, in order to prevent election fraud. The bill didn’t pass, but the impression remained that Netanyahu tried to scare Arab voters from going to vote.
Meanwhile, a fan’s post on Netanyahu’s Facebook page alleged that Gantz was seeking a coalition “that relies on the Arabs who want to annihilate all of us.” Netanyahu’s campaign claimed the statement was posted “mistakenly” by “a staff worker,” but many assumed it had to have been approved by Netanyahu.
Finally, Netanyahu emerged on Election Day in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, and through a megaphone prodded the passengers to go and vote because Arab voters are turning up in large numbers in their towns’ polling stations.
Netanyahu’s effort to expand his electorate by pandering to swing-voters’ presumed anti-Arab hatred was a variation on themes like US President Donald Trump’s anti-Hispanic rhetoric, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-gay initiatives, or Hungarian President Viktor Orban’s anti-Muslim exhortations. The difference was that Netanyahu’s abrasive rhetoric, unlike theirs, failed to deliver its intended results.
Lastly, Netanyahu miscalculated the situation on his ultra-Orthodox flank.
First, when he accepted ultra-Orthodox demands in the summer that he backtrack from a conscription bill that had already passed a first reading, Netanyahu walked into a political ambush.
The ambush was Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s use of Netanyahu’s surrender to ultra-Orthodoxy in order to bolt coalition talks, and use the religious issue as his main battle cry.
Liberman vowed to emerge from the election as the arbiter who would impose a broad government that would include himself, Netanyahu and Gantz, and exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties. That promise tempted right-wing voters to protest Netanyahu’s historic alliance with United Torah Judaism and Shas.
Faced with this challenge, Netanyahu apparently did not gauge the intensity of public disenchantment with ultra-Orthodox non-service.
Added up, Netanyahu’s miscalculations of the swing vote’s attitudes toward the Arabs, ultra-Orthodoxy, the judiciary, the police and the media resulted in an electoral plunge, underscored by his rival’s shunning of antagonistic language and generally bombastic rhetoric, not to mention megaphones.
It was, in a sense, a contest between the power of words and the power of silence.
Netanyahu entered this election with, theoretically, 41 lawmakers: Likud’s 35; an additional four won in April’s election by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon who afterward rejoined Likud; and another two won in the spring by former Likud lawmaker Moshe Feiglin’s party, which failed to cross the electoral threshold, and now ran with Likud.
Of these 41, Netanyahu retained only 31. Likud’s satellite parties did not offset the picture. Shas rose by one seat to nine, United Torah Judaism retained its eight, and Yamina garnered only seven, hardly the sum of the five which Rafi Peretz’s Bayit Yehudi won in April, and the four that his ticket mates from the New Right won in April while falling short of the electoral threshold.
These, then, are the contours and causes of Netanyahu’s effective defeat. The results will be followed by a period of uncertainty, which will likely be followed by the rise of a new, post-Netanyahu order.
NETANYAHU’S personal fate will now depend on his legal situation.
Pundits agree that the hearing to which Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit invited Netanyahu, scheduled for October 2-3, will be followed by indictments. To meet such a development, Netanyahu has – in addition to the obvious political reasons – legal reason to want to become prime minister.
Legally, an ordinary cabinet minister must resign as soon as he or she is indicted, a precedent set in 1993 when the High Court of Justice ruled that Aryeh Deri must resign his cabinet seat due to his indictment.
A prime minister’s situation is different, the rationale being that unlike ministers who are appointed, the prime minister is elected, and the judiciary should therefore not be seen as undoing the voters’ choice. That is why by Israeli law a prime minister can remain in office after being indicted, and even after being convicted, until the conviction becomes unappealable.
However, the September election results make it pretty much impossible for Netanyahu to retain his position. With Likud and its satellites now six seats short of a Knesset majority, the only theoretical way he can become prime minister is if he gets Liberman to return to his fold. Liberman, however, even after one configures his unpredictability, has no such option.
For one thing, Liberman’s public oath to produce a broad government was delivered so repeatedly that he will be committing political suicide if he effectively delivers the very narrow coalition whose emergence he prevented last spring.
Beyond that, the personal history between Liberman and Netanyahu, a three-decade saga of repeated betrothals and divorces, last spring reached its unhappy end. Liberman’s move is widely believed to have been driven by a cold assessment that Netanyahu’s legal situation spells his political departure, and his resolve to succeed his former patron. Liberman’s quest to become prime minister cannot be helped by his resuscitation of Netanyahu’s career.
Combined, these political and legal circumstances lead to Netanyahu’s departure. Such a development can happen in one of three ways. The first scenario is that fellow Likud leaders will see him as a liability, and turn on him.
Such a development would defy the tradition of the party that in its 46 years of existence never deposed any of its leaders. Moreover, before Likud’s birth, its founder Menachem Begin’s previous parties, Herut and Gahal, remained loyal to him despite his eight consecutive electoral defeats.
In line with this tradition, both Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, after his defeat by Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin in 1983, after his botched invasion of Lebanon, resigned on their own volition rather than at their party’s demand. Considering this history, Likud’s ministers may seek a face-saving way to make Netanyahu resign.
If Netanyahu remains defiant even in the face of that, someone from among the many potential successors he sidelined over the years may take the risk of publicly demanding his departure. The main candidate for that role is former education minister Gideon Sa’ar.
The other two scenarios for Netanyahu’s departure are legal.
One would be a plea bargain with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, whereby charges against Netanyahu would be diluted in return for his political departure. This is, in essence, what former president Moshe Katsav was offered when he faced charges of sexual misconduct, an offer he fatefully rejected, failing to predict his consequent arrival in jail.
The other possibility is a presidential pre-trial pardon. 
The precedent for that was set in 1986 when former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom resigned in return for a pardon by President Chaim Herzog in the aftermath of the Bus 300 Affair, in which Shalom’s agents reportedly killed – on his orders – captured terrorists, followed by a cover-up scheme.
Now as then, the unfolding situation thrusts into center stage the ordinarily ceremonial Israeli presidency.
PRESIDENT Reuven Rivlin’s formal task is to choose the prime minister-designate and assign him with forming a government. That, as we saw, leads right now to Gantz. Informally, however, a president’s task in the current situation is also to help restore political stability.
In this respect, too, Herzog set a precedent, when in 1984 he prodded Labor and Likud, under the leaderships of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, to form a unity government following that year’s inconclusive election.
Rivlin is expected to do just that, and be joined in this effort by Liberman, regardless if Netanyahu clears the stage following his expected indictment.
A unity government enjoys broad public support, and would in its very emergence signal a quest to end the divisiveness that many feel Netanyahu represented and fanned, not to mention the era of bad feeling that his legal entanglement has spawned.
The one who understood this early was the political novice Gantz, when he promised to seek a unity government, as opposed to Netanyahu’s election promise to restore the conservative coalition he had headed since ousting the centrist Yesh Atid from his coalition in 2015.
Netanyahu’s call to Gantz two days after the election to jointly form a broad government was answered by Gantz’s terse statement: “We won, we will form a broad government, and I will head it.”
Netanyahu’s plea read like a surrender note from Israel’s most experienced politician to his painfully inexperienced rival: a lifelong soldier whose ineloquence during the campaign has been the antithesis of the trademark orations that crowned Netanyahu one of the world’s most famous speakers.
Though equally good-looking and also sporting credentials as a former IDF commando, Gantz would represent as prime minister a break with Netanyahu in more respects than the verbal, being a modest team-player’s inversion of the soloist Netanyahu’s penchant for drama.
Unity governments are themselves engines of humility, as they demand sharing power with a big partner rather than with a collection of small coalition partners, the kind of coalition with which Netanyahu had hoped to end up.
Then again, unity governments have been very effective, winning the Six Day War in 1967, defeating hyperinflation in 1985, and quelling the suicides’ terror last decade. The approaching unity government can strike similar accomplishments in various domestic realms, like producing a master plan for overhauling public transportation, launching a constitutional convention, or instituting civil marriages.
If he delivers any of these, Gantz will not need to sing his own praises. His silence will.