For weeks, Benny Gantz and his party, Hosen L’Yisrael, have gained steam as the top challenger to Prime Minister Netanyahu. On Tuesday, Gantz held a major launch event for his campaign, hoping to garner primetime TV attention. Speaking at the rally, the former IDF chief of staff warned that Netanyahu “sows division and incitement.” He said that, “The struggle between right and left rips us apart … the tension between Jews and Arabs tears us apart.” He promised that a government led by his party would “strive toward peace and not miss an opportunity to get to regional peace.” At the same time, Gantz said that any government he leads would maintain full control over the Jordan Valley and “strengthen the settlement blocs.”
Earlier in the week, Gantz released a new campaign song: “There is no more Right or Left. There is only Israel – Israel before everything.” And on Tuesday, officials from Hosen L’Yisrael also confirmed that the party is finalizing negotiations to run on a joint slate with the Telem party, launched earlier this month by another former IDF chief of staff, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon.
Ya’alon was formerly a leading figure in Likud, serving as defense minister under Netanyahu from 2013-2016. Following his resignation from the defense post in 2016, Ya’alon warned that “extreme and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud Party.” He has since been a critic of the Likud’s hard-right drift under Netanyahu’s leadership. Ya’alon continues to maintain right-wing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, confirming to press on Tuesday that he is strongly opposed to the two-state solution.
It remains uncertain whether Gantz and Ya’alon would agree to join a Netanyahu-led coalition under any circumstances. In his speech, Gantz did say that “The idea that a prime minister who has been indicted can stay in office is ridiculous in my eyes.”
In the first poll taken following Gantz’s speech, Walla! Newsfound that the Gantz-Ya’alon joint slate would garner 19 seats — up from the 12-14 seats shown in previous polls. The Walla!survey found Likud dropping from 33 to 29 seats.
According to Haaretz’s average of major polls taken so far, Netanyahu could struggle to form a coalition if he is indicted before the election — even if Likud, as expected, wins the most seats. Haaretz found that parties expected to garner an additional 57 seats in the 120-member Knesset “have definitely announced that they won’t sit in a Netanyahu-led government if he is indicted: Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael (15), Yesh Atid (11), Labor (9), Ta’al (6), Joint List (6), Meretz (6) and Kulanu (4).”
That could put the balance of power in the hands of the newly-formed Gesher party, led by MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, which is currently expected to receive four seats. Gesher has yet to take an official position on whether it would join a government led by Netanyahu if he is indicted. If they refuse, in combination with the other center and left parties, they could deny Netanyahu the 61-seats he needs to form a coalition.
With Likud’s primary election set for February 5, candidates are battling to win themselves the highest-possible place on the party’s final Knesset list. Some of their efforts, apparently intended to win favor with right-wing base voters, have been extremely ugly.
MK Yaron Mazuz, who placed 29th on the Likud list in 2015 and currently serves as deputy minister of environmental protection, posted a video of himself smiling and shaking hands with Elor Azaria — the former IDF soldier who, in 2016, was caught on video executing an unarmed, incapacitated Palestinian terror suspect at point-blank range. Azaria, who ultimately served nine months in prison after a manslaughter conviction, became a major cause celebre for the Israeli Right. Mazuz has given Azaria a job on his campaign and argued that his crime was justified, telling Israeli media that “We cannot tie [soldiers’] hands and neuter them when facing vile murderers.”
That ad may not even be the most shocking or hostile towards Palestinians. Likud MK Anat Berko posted a video in which she argues with a “Palestinian terrorist” — who actually appears to be an Israeli man crudely caricaturing a Palestinian. The man in the video is unhappy with her “tough record” on security. MK Avi Dichter, currently chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, went a step further. In his video, Dichter disguises himself as a Palestinian, putting on a kaffiyeh and fake mustache, so that he can secure a meeting with Palestinian President Abbas (played by an actor) and subsequently berate Abbas about the Palestinian Authority’s financial support for the families of terrorists.