Analysis

After Replacing Netanyahu, Gantz's Party Will Self-destruct. And That's OK

The Kahol Lavan electoral alliance has a self-destruct mechanism that will go off whether or not it fulfills its mission of replacing Bibi. It’s all part of Israeli political history

The four leading men in Kahol Lavan: Gabi Ashkenazi, left, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya'alon in the Golan Heights, March 4, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Yair Lapid had an embarrassing, some would say revealing, moment Sunday night. At a campaign event, the number two on Kahol Lavan’s Knesset list – and its candidate for prime minister in the second half of the term if the party wins the election – tried to explain why there were only two women in the slate’s top 10. “It’s not right,” he said. “It’s a result of the way the party’s list was assembled in one night.”

Lapid went on to ask one of the women on the ticket, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Orna Barbivai, to stand up and show herself to the audience. Barbivai refused and Lapid joked: “You see? We have few women, and they’re not even well-behaved.” He has since tweeted an apology “to the women who were offended. It was an unsuccessful joke.” In another of his tweets, he is seen mock-saluting Barbivai, who is embracing him.

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This episode says a lot, not only about Lapid and the masculinity of Israeli politics, but about the fly-by-night nature of the party currently leading in the polls. Kahol Lavan was indeed formed in one night (by a group of men) and now has a chance to form the next government. What does that say about the party and Israeli politics?

Technically, Kahol Lavan isn’t a party. It’s a list formed out of the candidates of three different parties: Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem. The first two parties present themselves as resolutely centrist while Telem is a party of right-wingers who have fallen out with Benjamin Netanyahu and believe he must be replaced as soon as possible.

The slate includes trade union leaders along with capitalist free-marketeers; staunch believers in the two-state solution and those who oppose any concession to the Palestinians; militant secularists mingle with religious-Zionists candidates. The only thing that brings them together is a burning desire to end Netanyahu’s rule. That is why they joined forces and what is keeping them together.

The only accurate way to describe Kahol Lavan is as the project to get rid of Bibi. What will happen to it the day after the election? Does it have a life expectancy?

Should Netanyahu defy the polls once again and engineer yet another comeback, Kahol Lavan’s leaders will say on April 10 that they intend to stick together and wait for Netanyahu’s inevitable downfall as a result of the corruption indictments against him. But chances are they will fall out among themselves before that. There will be recriminations on how the campaign was run.

The members of Yesh Atid, which often resembles Lapid’s personality cult more than a political party, will accuse Gantz and his supporters of having ruined the chances of beating Netanyahu by putting the neophyte general at the top of the list. Some of Kahol Lavan’s right-wingers in the Knesset will find it very difficult not to vote with the coalition on various issues. Maintaining discipline will become a nightmare.

Grand coalition?

But even if they win, Netanyahu departs and Gantz become Israel’s next prime minister, sticking together won’t be a cakewalk. The only viable coalition he can form will be a centrist one with a post-Netanyahu Likud and Labor. In government, the Kahol Lavan members will find themselves gravitating toward the left and right poles of the coalition. Lapid will present himself as prime-minister-in-waiting, and this will naturally grate with the others. And if Gantz sticks to the agreement and resigns after two and a half years to make way, by law it will mean the entire government has resigned and Lapid will have to form another one.

Even if this goes smoothly, which is highly unlikely, which of the two prime ministers will lead Kahol Lavan into the next election? Assuming both have put together a relatively successful term as prime minister, it’s hard to see either Gantz or Lapid giving up the top spot next time around.

Kahol Lavan is a party with a self-destruct mechanism that will go off sooner or later, whether or not it fulfills its mission of replacing Netanyahu. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Very few new Israeli parties have ever lasted very long. The handful of relatively successful centrist parties lasted less than a decade and then faded away. Only one ever won power. None fully survived the departure of the founder. Meanwhile, the original parties of the first Knesset have achieved remarkable longevity.

Present at the creation

If the current polls are anything to go by, of the 47 tickets running in the April 9 election, only 10 or 11 will cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold and have representatives in the Knesset. Six of them – Likud, Labor, Meretz, Habayit Hayehudi, Hadash and United Torah Judaism – will have been represented in one form or another since the first Knesset was elected in January 1949.

Their power has waned somewhat over the past seven decades. In the first Knesset, these parties held 100 of the 120 seats. In the current Knesset they’re down to 69, and going by the polls they’ll lose some of those. But they’ll still have a majority, and if bridging the ideological differences between them were humanly possible (it isn’t, of course), parties that have been in every single Knesset could still form a coalition. Newcomers haven’t fared nearly as well.

Dash, the Democratic Movement for Change led by Yigael Yadin — a mild-mannered and respected former army chief, much like Gantz — won 15 seats in 1977. Most of that it took from Labor and other left-wing parties, enabling Likud to come to power for the first time. It lasted barely a year before its right-wingers and left-wingers parted ways. Yadin didn’t remain in politics.

Two decades ago, Shinui — which had been part of Dash, then became an independent party, then part of Meretz — had its brief moment in the sun under the leadership of Tommy Lapid (Yair’s father). It won six seats in 1999 and then 15 in 2003. But Shinui had nothing to offer the Israeli voter beyond its anti-religious manifesto, and when the next centrist wonder came along, it plummeted in the polls, leading to infighting and Tommy Lapid’s departure.

When Ariel Sharon left Likud to form Kadima in 2005, he swallowed up Shinui’s vote but also put the new party on its own short-term course to oblivion by falling into a coma before the 2006 election. His aura was still sufficient for Ehud Olmert to achieve victory, making Kadima the only party besides Labor and Likud ever to form a government.

But neither Olmert nor his successors Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz had what it takes to keep Kadima together for long. The party lasted less than a decade. Livni founded Hatnuah after the rank and file voted for Mofaz as leader instead of her — another centrist party that had a short lifespan of two terms before it was disbanded by Livni last month.

None of these parties could rely for long on the fickle nature of the largest and least loyal bloc of Israeli voters — the centrists. Lapid Jr.’s Yesh Atid is just the last party to learn the lesson, winning 19 seats in 2013, losing nearly half of those in 2015 and now being forced into an alliance with Gantz to avoid further humiliation.

What are the chances that Kahol Lavan will avoid the infighting and the splits, maintain a succession of leadership and retain the loyalty of centrist voters? Next to nil. But then, so is its life expectancy. Just like a salmon that swims upriver to mate, spawn and die, all Kahol Lavan has to do is stay together, win and replace Netanyahu on April 9. It won’t last much longer.