A Year to Kahol Lavan’s Founding: How Israel’s Party of Generals Became an Effective Political Force

Riding high in the polls, Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan currently has no reason to feel blue. But what will it do the day after Netanyahu is gone?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz at a party conference in Rishon Letzion, February 4, 2020.
Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz at a party conference in Rishon Letzion, February 4, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A group of party activists gathered outside the Kahol Lavan headquarters – a glass-fronted restaurant that went out of business recently – on a cold night in Jerusalem earlier this week. A passerby, planning to vote for the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, challenged them on the increasingly right-wing positions their party has taken in recent weeks. “It’s all OK,” one of the activists told him, smiling. “We’re all on the same side, voting for the same camp.”

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Nine months ago, on the eve of the first election it contested, Kahol Lavan’s frantic message was that it needed to be the largest party. That was the only way to beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. The strategy worked so well, it nearly pushed left-wing parties Labor and Meretz beneath the electoral threshold. Had that happened, Netanyahu’s majority would have been ensured.

Now, a few weeks before the third election in less than a year, Kahol Lavan is playing a much savvier game. Instead of cannibalizing its partners, it is finally aiming for Likud’s soft underbelly: Right-wingers who are fed up with Netanyahu. Its leaders have finally understood that the priority is growing the anti-Netanyahu coalition, even if it means losing seats to the left.

A year after it was formed as a merger of Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem parties, Kahol Lavan has transformed what was an unwieldy and uncoordinated list of haphazardly selected candidates into an effective campaign unit.

The polls are healthy. Despite the expectation that a stronger alternative to its left in the form of the Labor-Meretz slate, coupled with Kahol Lavan’s pivot to the right, would likely push former Labor voters back home, it is currently polling at about 35 seats – two more than it won in last September’s do-over election.

It may not be enough of a base on which to build a Gantz-led governing coalition, but it is at least beginning to look like a realistic government-in-waiting.

Things are working at Kahol Lavan. You can hear it in the voices of party members, who are at once more optimistic of their prospects of winning and, simultaneously, afraid to speak on-the-record as the party leadership exerts greater and more effective control.

The disparate slate of candidates, ranging from former members of left-wing Meretz to right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, is more disciplined, sticking to the party message in interviews (or, more often, simply refusing to give interviews, on headquarters’ orders).

The party was bedeviled in the previous two campaigns by an often stuttering Gantz, leaks from its strategy meetings and reports of discord among the leadership. All this has almost entirely disappeared. The team around Gantz has either been replaced or else simply learned from past mistakes. And, of course, the biggest source of rancor – the Gantz-Lapid rivalry – has all but disappeared following Lapid’s announcement last October that he no longer expects to share the prime ministerial term with Gantz and is fully behind his leadership.

Kahol Lavan's Yair Lapid, left, Moshe Ya'alon and Gabi Ashkenazi attending a party event in Tel Aviv, February 2, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. New centrist parties in Israel don’t usually survive beyond their initial success. They don’t have the staying power that the more established parties have built up, or the critical mass of committed activists united by a history of joint campaigning.

Also, most ex-generals have failed to prosper in Israeli politics. They tend to struggle with the transition, look weird in a civilian suit, have trouble with people not snapping to attention upon their arrival. Gantz, on the other hand, is overcoming his earlier awkwardness and gradually growing into the role. Along with Lapid and his fellow ex-Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Ya’alon, the four-man cockpit is – after a few bumps – working together remarkably smoothly.

The party has stuck together through three election cycles – which might seem incredible if these cycles weren’t compressed together into just a single year. Yet it has shown it can learn from its mistakes and up its game impressively.

Kahol Lavan has proven itself as an election machine and platform for its candidates. Whether it can actually win next month’s election is probably less up to it by this point than it is about Netanyahu’s weaknesses and legal predicament.

The questions now are whether Kahol Lavan can retain its large-party status if it actually wins power, and whether it has irrevocably replaced Labor as Israel’s main centrist alternative to Likud’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties.

Making the transition from campaigners and aspirant leaders to members of a government will severely test the party. Even though Gantz’s role as prime minister has been assured, it is hard to see the other three members of the cockpit receiving portfolios they feel are commensurate with their talents, experience and public standing, whatever coalition Kahol Lavan is part of.

But even if they are all relatively satisfied with their future roles in government, their party faces a much greater challenge.

Likud’s propaganda is right on one count at least: the only thing motivating Kahol Lavan is “rak lo Bibi” (just not Netanyahu). The party represents the massive groundswell of animosity to Netanyahu, and very little else. It is enough to win an election while Netanyahu is still leading Likud, but what happens the day after?

Labor represented both its past as the party that founded Israel and guaranteed its survival and eventual prosperity, and provided a centrist, relatively liberal counterpoint to Likud’s nationalism. Even when it fell on hard times, it succeeded in being a clear alternative within the Israeli mainstream. How will Kahol Lavan be an alternative to a post-Netanyahu Likud? What will it campaign on once Netanyahu is removed? As it is, some of its more prominent members are ex-Likudniks who only left the party because of Netanyahu. What’s to stop them going back once he’s gone?

It is impossible to predict how Kahol Lavan will fare once it fulfills its goal of replacing Netanyahu and becomes the party of government itself. If Israeli political history is anything to go by, it will become a victim of its own success and, a decade from now, will have disappeared.

But that history is based on the precedent of Labor comebacks. Today, Labor isn’t even capable of running on its own; another comeback may be beyond it. If Kahol Lavan implodes, though, resurrection would still be possible.

Now a year old, Kahol Lavan is doing better than expected and is poised to do even better in the upcoming election. Even so, its long-term prospects are far from assured.

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