The great gevalt. It has become one of the constant elements of recent Israeli election campaigns, and is about to move into high gear with Election Day looming in 11 days.
Named for the Yiddish expression of alarm, the great gevalt refers to a Netanyahu-honed tactic that found its origins in 2015, when he was certain he was going to lose that election.
Final polls published the weekend before that election predicted that Netanyahu would lose to what was then called the Zionist Union, a merger between Labor’s Isaac Herzog and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
But in the final days before the Tuesday vote, Netanyahu launched an extreme offensive. Israel, he warned, was at risk of being taken over by a left-wing government supported by Arabs; Arabs were voting in large numbers; and a vote for Naftali Bennett would lead to a victory by the Left.
Gloves were off and everything was permitted. Netanyahu needed to win, and he did, pulling a victory out of his hat with an incredible 30 seats, six more than Herzog and Livni.
It was an important moment and a personal turning point for the embattled prime minister. The win gave Netanyahu the feeling that he needed to run his campaigns by himself. It was he who came up with the gevalt idea, and it was he who singlehandedly pulled off an impossible win. He didn’t need managers or advisers. He, alone, knew what to do.
But 2015 was also a damaging turning point for Israel’s leader. The win he snatched from the jaws of defeat might have been the catalyst for what could trigger Netanyahu’s eventual downfall: the charge against him of bribery. It was after 2015 that the Bezeq-Walla affair intensified, turning into Case 4000 for which Netanyahu is currently standing trial.
Was it the win in 2015 that made him think he could get away with the alleged crime? That will be up to the court to decide.
Whatever the case, what 2015 taught Netanyahu is that the gevalt works. Since then, it has been featured in all of our election cycles – April 2019, September 2019, and March of last year.
Netanyahu usually keeps it in his back pocket until the end of his campaign, but this round it made an early appearance. One can see it in the way Netanyahu runs around the country every day to a different rally, meeting with parts of the population that he consistently ignored previously.
This week it was a visit to a Bedouin tent, where he promised to transfer authority over the Bedouin housing problem to the Prime Minister’s Office. The announcement was met by a round of applause from his entourage – who pretended to be surprised to hear the proclamation from the man who has been prime minister for the last 12 years and has worked repeatedly on the Bedouin issue.
Netanyahu has visited numerous Arab towns in this campaign, searching for votes in places that he warned not that long ago were the home of Israel’s alleged fifth column. He now holds daily gatherings with activists in halls and on beach promenades, and he even gave a video interview this week to the Tel Aviv International Salon, an organization that represents Anglo olim that Netanyahu has never appeared before in past elections.
Every vote is important in the race to immunity, which will require at least 61 seats made up of Likud, the haredi parties and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina. And to snatch every vote, Netanyahu needs to reach out to everyone no matter who they are, even if they are part of a sector of society – like the Arabs – who just three elections ago he warned with racist overtones were voting in high numbers.
The gevalt, however, does not belong exclusively to Netanyahu. Other parties have also adopted the tactic, especially if it can help them cross the electoral threshold that a number of parties – Blue and White, Meretz and Religious Zionist – are currently teetering along the edge.
But there is a bigger question to ask ourselves that even a great gevalt cannot answer: why is there so little fresh blood in Israeli politics today? Why does the country keep recycling the same parties and the same party leaders?
Of the current parties that polls show passing the threshold, there is only one female leader – Merav Michaeli – and she has been in the Knesset since 2013. The “freshest” face among party leaders today is Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White since 2019 but whose past record as IDF chief has kept him in the public eye for most of the last 20 years.
The situation is so dire that the big news last month ahead of the submission of the final party lists was that Tzipi Livni might be coming back. Not someone new, fresh, young and/or famous entering politics, but rather someone who had been in the Knesset for two decades and had failed.
The other breath of fresh air this election was supposed to be Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv since 1998.
“Breath of fresh air” is not exactly the best description of Huldai, a man in his mid-70s who has been in politics for more than 20 years. He was supposed to be the new face on the Israeli political landscape. If it wasn’t sad it would be amusing.
And this is what should really have us concerned: the fact that people don’t want to enter politics, don’t seem interested in establishing movements that can change the country’s trajectory. This is not good for the country.
There are a number of reasons why this is so. First is that our current party heads don’t appear to be going anywhere. Netanyahu is running for prime minister for his ninth term in office; Shas leader Arye Deri has been in government, in jail, and back again; and Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, still viewed as the young faces, are already marking nearly a decade in politics.
Without term limits, no one seems in a rush to go anywhere, and no one is molding a successor. Netanyahu is notorious for doing the opposite, killing off anyone who becomes too popular in Likud. But Bennett, Lapid and Deri are also not indicating when they will call it quits.
I know that it is much easier to write about the lack of fresh faces in politics than it is to establish a political party, to put yourself out there, to run for public office; and it is much easier to write about politics than to be a politician.
Nevertheless, we have to recognize that people today are turned off from the very idea of joining the system. Public trust in the Knesset and the government is the lowest it has ever been in national polling, and will likely continue to decline if the political deadlock remains.
In the meantime, enjoy the next 11 days of our politicians’ great gevalt. But remember: the people who should really be sounding the alarm are us.
I visited Israel for the first time in 1989. My parents brought the family here for Pesach, and it was an amazing trip. We crisscrossed the country and saw all the important tourist sites: the Dead Sea, the Golan Heights, Tel Aviv beaches, and Jerusalem’s Old City.
Most importantly, I remember from my youth, we got to eat “Kosher for Pesach” pizza at a restaurant in Jerusalem, something unavailable in Chicago where kosher restaurants shut down for the duration of the holiday. Kosher for Passover pizza? Hahaha. Forget about it.
One place we visited was “Beit Hatfutsot,” as it was called then, the Diaspora Museum located on the Tel Aviv University campus. I don’t remember everything from that museum, but I definitely recall the models of ancient synagogues that were on exhibition on the top floor.
There was the Tempio Maggiore, the Great Synagogue of Florence; a model of a synagogue in Fez, Morocco; one from Poland; another from Croatia; and others. It was like getting a glimpse of an ancient world, an ability to peer into what our people once did and looked like.
I have had the opportunity to visit the museum a number of times in the years since, but no visit was like the one I made this week when the museum reopened its doors after a massive renovation and rebranding.
After 10 years of work and $100 million in investment, the museum – now called ANU – Museum of the Jewish People – has completely transformed itself.
Half of the money went into the physical structure and renovation of its 72,000 sq. feet. The other half was invested in the content – and it shows.
There are close to 30 interactive exhibitions, cool consoles where visitors can do things like mix music composed by Jews. Imagine taking Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and mixing it with a Dag Nahash or Shlomo Artzi beat.
There is also an innovative console that can be used to learn Jewish cooking, as well as human-size screens of different Jews from different places telling their unique stories.
Creating a museum is never a simple endeavor, and in today’s divided Jewish world it is even more complicated. But the museum gets after it: there is now a beautiful exhibition on the third floor showing the different faces of Jewish people. One can see haredim, secular, Conservative, Reform, intermarried couples, LGBTQ, and more.
While the pluralism will be engaging for most visitors, it could be a turn off for others. But the museum is trying to walk the fine line, seeking to be as interactive, engaging and interesting to as many people as possible. It wants Jews to leave with a stronger sense of connection to their people, religion and culture, and non-Jewish visitors to gain a better understanding of the Jewish people’s story, what makes us tick and how we became the way we are today.
It is a unique experience, and the museum does an impressive job telling the story. And not to worry: the synagogue models I first saw there in 1989 are still on display. Go visit.