Israeli Election Update 2/21/2019

February 21, 2019
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Gantz and Lapid Team Up — A Nightmare Opponent for Netanyahu?

For months, Israeli commentators have argued that former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is the only candidate who could conceivably lead a successful challenge to Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud. Gantz’s new Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience) Party surged in the polls shortly after its creation, and received a small boost last month when it teamed up with Telem, the new party created by former Likud Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon. Yet in the past few weeks, as the Gantz-Ya’alon slate has remained at least ten seats behind Likud in the polls, Netanyahu’s opponents across the left and center have urged Gantz to team up with Yair Lapid and his centrist Yesh Atid Party.

Today, after weeks of “will they or won’t they” speculation, Gantz and Lapid finally dropped the political bombshell, announcing a new joint slate to be called “Blue and White.” Under their partnership agreement, Gantz would initially serve as prime minister in the next government, while Lapid would be foreign minister. After two and a half years in office, Lapid would then take over the prime minister’s role. Such a “rotation” agreement has some precedent in Israeli politics — in the 1980s, Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir formed a coalition government and rotated the role of PM.

Under the agreement, Moshe Ya’alon would serve as defense minister — the post he formerly held under Netanyahu from 2013-2016. Also adding a major boost to the new partnership is former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, another popular figure with strong security credentials, who will take the number-four spot on the “Blue and White” list. Polls before the partnership indicated that if Gantz and Lapid were to join forces, they would have a good chance of finishing ahead of Likud to become the largest party in the next Knesset, thereby giving them first crack at forming a government. Ashkenazi joining the list could help push it over the top. But how this new centrist force would actually govern — and how they would approach Israeli-Palestinian issues in particular — is far from certain.

Where they stand on the two-state solution:

Gantz’s campaign has focused so far on appealing to center-right voters with a “strong on security, tough on terror” message. At the same time, he has indicated a desire to pursue peace and refused to rule out a future evacuation of West Bank settlements outside the major blocs.

Lapid has been publicly supportive of the two-state solution in the past, though he has largely de-emphasized the Palestinian issue in recent years.

As an avowed opponent of the two-state solution, Ya’alon is the clear right-winger of the group. After his partnership with Gantz was announced, Ya’alon replied “of course not” when asked if he would support the principle of two states for two peoples.

Among Blue and White’s top four leaders, Ashkenazi may be the most publicly supportive of proactive negotiations towards an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In an interview last year, he said that “Oslo shows the ability to take a calculated risk….I think if our goal is to exist as a state with a Jewish majority, a Jewish state, democratic, safe, in a security sense — strong and legitimate, we have no way out besides separating from the Palestinians, in a secure, responsible way.” In 2012, Ashkenazi, said Israel must “outline the parameters for peace, including permanent borders, in order to see if the Palestinians will accept our conditions.”

Netanyahu Orchestrates Partnership Between HaBayit Yehudi and Party of Kahanist Extremists

Facing a major threat from Gantz’s bloc, Netanyahu has feared that right-wing votes could be “wasted” on extreme right-wing parties that will fail to meet the 3.25 percent threshold needed to enter the Knesset. He therefore took the step of pushing the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi Party to agree to a partnership with Otzma Yehudit — an ultra-racist party led by the disciples of the former far-right leader Meir Kahane.

In the 1990s, the Israeli government made Kahane and his Kach Party officially illegal under Israeli anti-terrorism laws for inciting violence against Arabs and praising Baruch Goldstein’s horrific murder of 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The US State Department continues to list Kach as a foreign terrorist organization. Today, Otzma Yehudit is led by Kahane’s close associates and upholds his anti-Arab agenda. In addition to supporting full annexation of the West Bank and opposing any negotiation with Palestinians, the party calls for Israel to seize control of the Temple Mount and to pursue the mass deportation of Palestinians from Israel and the Palestinian territory.

Under the agreement finalized between Habayit Hayehudi and Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist party was given the fifth and eighth slots on a combined list, making it likely that at least one of its members will sit in the next Knesset — and potentially form part of the next governing coalition. The fifth slot will be filled by former MK Michael Ben Ari, who in 2012 was banned from entering the US because of his ties to Kahane and Kach.

The partnership and Netanyahu’s efforts to bring it together were denounced by many in Israel and the American Jewish community. In J Street’s statement, we observed that this move shows that “there may be no red line Netanyahu will not cross in his desperate effort to remain in office, no matter how much damage he does to Israel in the process.”

Arab-Israeli Parties Appear Set to Run on Two Slates

In 2015, the four major Arab-Israeli parties ran together as the Joint List, winning 13 seats. For this year’s election, they appear set to run on two different lists. Earlier this week, Balad and the United Arab List, (known in Arabic as “Ra’am”) agreed to run together. Today, it was announced that MK Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al Party would run together with Hadash, which is led by former Joint List head Ayman Odeh. Odeh and Tibi will take the top two spots on the list and agreed to rotate in the position of chairman.

Other Developments

With the progressive Meretz Party in danger of falling below the threshold to enter the next Knesset, many on the left have called for the party to run together on a joint slate with Labor. While Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg has welcomed such a partnership, Labor’s leader Avi Gabbay announced today that he will not allow it.

Two centrist parties, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Orly Levy-Abekasis’ Gesher, will run independently on their own slates. Gesher had reportedly been close to a merger with Gantz earlier this week — but it fell apart in advance of Gantz’s deal with Yesh Atid.

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