Reality Check: It’s all about Bibi

Will Gantz commit to not joining a Netanyahu-led coalition?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 23rd, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 23rd, 2018
Back in 1992, a young Benjamin Netanyahu broke party discipline and defied prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to vote in favor of a change in the electoral system: the direct election of the prime minister. For Netanyahu, it’s always been about him, and he firmly believed direct elections for prime minister would propel him into Balfour Street and the Prime Minister’s Residence.
The idea behind this hybrid system in which voters had two votes, one for the prime minister of their choice and one for the party of their choice, was that a directly elected prime minister would have a direct mandate from the people. Also, so the argument went, this new system would encourage people to vote for the party headed by their candidate for prime minister and reduce the power of smaller parties and the creation of unstable government coalitions.
Reality proved otherwise. Although Netanyahu surprisingly did win the 1996 elections, Labor (back then it was still a party to be reckoned with) won the largest percentage of the vote, and Netanyahu was forced to make a coalition with smaller, right-wing and religious parties which eventually brought him down.
In 1999, when Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu, Barak’s One Israel alliance of Labor, Gesher and Meimad, won only 26 seats, and Barak was forced into a coalition with six smaller parties. Two years later, Ariel Sharon, as head of the Likud, decisively beat Barak, taking 62% of the vote, but still the Likud won only 21 seats, and Sharon had to form a national unity government.
As a result, it was decided to scrap the direct election of the prime minister and revert to a single vote for the party of the voter’s choice.
And what a choice the electorate will have come April. Unless smarter heads prevail between now and late February, when the party lists are submitted to the Central Elections Committee, these elections are liable to see a plethora of parties, where the only real difference between them will be the candidates standing at their head.
Can anybody honestly explain the difference between the Likud and Kulanu, except for Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon’s personal distaste for Netanyahu? Where do Labor and Hatnua diverge, except in Labor leader Avi Gabbay’s paranoia concerning Tzipi Livni’s determination to find a candidate on the Left who can really challenge the prime minister? And although there are clear ideological differences in the Joint List between the Ta’al and Balad parties, the only reason for the breakup of that alliance is personal: Ahmad Tibi’s thwarted ambition to head the list.
Given that Benny Gantz, head of the new Israel Resilience Party, has so far refused to open his mouth, it might be doing him an injustice to declare that his party will no doubt spout the same centrist, consensus platitudes as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. But yes, I think we can take a risk here and say there will be little daylight between the two parties’ manifestos – should they even bother to produce them.
THE TRUTH is that one’s choice of a party, except for one crucial issue, is not that important in these elections. Israel is not going to the polls over the state of the economy, the peace process (or lack of) with the Palestinians or matters of religion and state, in which different parties take a different stance.
Rather, these elections will decide whether voters want to provide Netanyahu with a record fifth term of office and become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, despite the serious allegations of bribery and breach of trust swirling around him.
For those who are happy to see as prime minister a politician who has delegitimized the civic rights of a fifth of the country’s citizens (Netanyahu’s infamous “the Arabs are voting in droves” video in 2015), they can vote for any of the parties on the Right, secure in the knowledge that these parties will join a coalition under Netanyahu’s leadership. The same is true for voters unconcerned by Netanyahu’s repeated incitement against the police and the judicial system, or his attacks on the media and the “unpatriotic” Left.
But for those who want change, and a move to a more open and tolerant society, their only hope is for the creation of a political bloc on the Center-Left large enough to prevent Netanyahu from returning to Balfour Street. When Gantz finally deigns to share his worldview with the public, the only issue of any importance will be whether he will commit, as Gabbay, Livni and Lapid have already done, to not sitting in a new Netanyahu-led coalition.
If he fails to make this commitment, then a vote for Gantz will be the same as a vote Netanyahu.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post