More than 1.2 million Israelis voted for Kahol Lavan, the centrist party headed by Benny Gantz, in the March 2 election. They represented just over 26 percent of the total number of Israelis who cast their ballots in the third and last election within the space of a year.
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If there was one thing that united them all, it was a desire to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office.
So when Gantz and Netanyahu announced on Monday evening that they had reached an agreement to form a rotation government – one that would allow the incumbent prime minister to hold onto his seat for another 18 months – many Kahol Lavan voters were left feeling crushed.
Suddenly, the man they had seen as an alternative had become an enabler. Suddenly, the man who had vowed never to sit under a premier facing indictment was signing an agreement to do just that. And suddenly, the man they had hoped would stymie plans to annex parts of the West Bank was giving his approval to move ahead with them.
“I’m still trying to digest it,” says former Kahol Lavan campaign volunteer Avi Sabzerou, 42, a day after the agreement was signed.
But it was not a total shock to him. After all, at the end of March, Gantz had split with his political partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon – heads of the Yesh Atid and Telem factions in Kahol Lavan – in order to negotiate a unity government with Netanyahu. The Kahol Lavan leader insisted he had no choice but to break his famous campaign promise because of the emergency situation created by the coronavirus pandemic.
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During the negotiations between Gantz and Netanyahu, Sabzerou still held out hope that a decent agreement could be reached. That hope was dashed, he says, when he started reading the fine print.
“What troubles me most is that, under this agreement, the opposition will be totally trampled,” he says. “It will no longer have representatives in the committee that appoints judges, and it will no longer control any of the important Knesset committees.”
Sabzerou spent many hours over the past year volunteering at Kahol Lavan headquarters in Rosh Ha’ayin, the town where Gantz lives. Until this past year he had always voted for Meretz, which he describes as “the only party I knew would never hand over my vote to Netanyahu.”
He says he knew there was a slight chance that could happen with Kahol Lavan, but decided nonetheless to throw his support behind the party because “I believed Gantz was the best option out there for prime minister, and I decided to push as hard as I could for him.”
He adds: “I didn’t see any other alternative.”
Adi Tal-Cohen had been active in Yesh Atid for many years, so voting for Kahol Lavan was an obvious choice for her. “I believed Gantz was a man who stood by his word and who represented the liberal values I believed in, whether it had to do religion and state or the rule of law – and, in fact, that seemed to be the case until just one minute before he joined Netanyahu,” says the 36-year-old from Modi’in, who serves as director of training at Israel Hofsheet, a nonprofit that promotes religious pluralism.
Tal-Cohen refuses to use the term “emergency government” or “unity government” to describe the partnership between Gantz and Netanyahu. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the fifth Netanyahu government,” she says, “and I feel just awful, totally betrayed.”
It was reportedly after he was presented with a poll showing that a majority of Kahol Lavan voters – 56 percent – supported a unity government with Netanyahu that Gantz decided to break ranks with Lapid. Although she obviously doesn’t know all the Israelis who voted for Kahol Lavan, Tal-Cohen says she definitely has a good sense of the mood among key activists.
“Like me, most of them came from Yesh Atid, and I would say that more than 90 percent feel as I do,” she says. “Maybe there are voters who support what Gantz did, but I think they just don’t understand politics and will realize in the end that this was a colossal mistake.”
A poll published on Israel’s Channel 13 a day after the government agreement was announced found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis supported it (though a plurality of more than 40 percent did not believe Netanyahu would honor his commitment to hand over the reins in November 2021, when his 18-month term expires). Presumably, there were many Kahol Lavan voters among that majority.
“I would imagine that many of them are saying to themselves that maybe this is not the clean politics they had wanted, but at least they saved the country,” says Gayil Talshir, a senior lecturer in political science at the Hebrew University. “I think most Kahol Lavan voters are probably pretty disappointed right now, but at the same time they understand the rationale behind Gantz’s move and feel it was justified given the emergency coronavirus situation,” she adds.
Such voters would include Meir Charash, a social worker and fitness trainer from Jerusalem, who moved to Israel from New Jersey 40 years ago. A self-described centrist, Charash goes as far as to describe Gantz’s decision to form a government with Netanyahu as “bold, courageous and responsible.”
And yes, he concedes, it wasn’t what he had hoped for. “Bibi’s still in power,” he says, referring to the prime minister by his nickname. “We wanted him out, but it didn’t work.”
Charash, 62, says that unlike many Kahol Lavan voters he knows, he does not feel betrayed by Gantz.
“Holding a fourth election during the coronavirus crisis, wasting so much money while people are losing jobs and families are being crushed – I thought that was untenable,” he says, referring to the possibility that if a coalition government had not been formed by early May, another election would been required in August or September.
Barak Dukas, a Jerusalem-based tour guide who also runs a boutique winery, voted for Kahol Lavan in all three elections. To his mind, Gantz opted for “the least of all evils.”
“To say that I’m happy with the outcome would not be accurate,” says Dukas, 65. “But I think Gantz achieved the maximum he could under the circumstances, which is better – or perhaps I should say, less bad – than any of the alternatives.”
Does he believe Netanyahu will step down when the time comes? “I’m not entirely sure, but I think we have to take the chance,” he responds.
As soon as the exit polls were published on the night of March 2, Dukas relays, he understood that “Bibi is staying, and now we have to cut our losses.”
Nomi Roth, a Jerusalem-based spiritual care provider, takes a similar attitude. “Am I thrilled about what happened?” asks the 67-year-old former Labor Party voter. “No, not at all. But I ask myself, what would have been different had we gone ahead with a fourth election in the summer? God forbid, we might have ended up with an even more right-wing government.”
What frustrates and angers many Kahol Lavan voters, especially those on the left, is that Gantz did not seriously consider the option of a minority government, supported from the outside by the predominantly Arab Joint List. Indeed, all 15 Joint List lawmakers – including those from the more radical Balad faction – had recommended Gantz for prime minister after the March 2 election.
Even hard-liner and former defense minister Ya’alon was open to such a deal, as were a large majority of the party’s voters: A survey published in mid-March by the aChord Center, a nonprofit that specializes in the social psychology of intergroup relations, found that two-thirds of Kahol Lavan voters would have supported it as well.
“I think a minority government would have worked and would have been amazing,” says Amelia Terkel, a retired zoologist from Herzliya who says she feels “totally betrayed” by Gantz.
“We went into this knowing this guy [Gantz] was not all that different from Netanyahu, but that he had the possibility of forming a government that would be meaningful and get things done,” says Terkel, 77, who until this past year had always voted for Meretz. “But now, this whole thing has melted away in a very ugly way, and I feel that my vote has been wasted.”
Another longtime Meretz voter, Shelley Goldman, says she is “ashamed to say” she voted three times for Kahol Lavan – “and persuaded others to as well.”
“I know politics is about compromise, but this is not compromise,” the 67-year-old English-language editor says. “This is capitulation.”
Although Gantz was not her first choice, Goldman adds, she rallied behind him because she felt he was the best hope for bringing an end to Netanyahu’s regime.
“And now he’s gone and tipped the scale in favor of Bibi and in favor of lawlessness,” says Goldman, who moved to Israel from Great Britain 35 years ago and lives in Tel Aviv. “He did not have a mandate for that, we did not vote for him for that, and that’s why many of us feel so let down.”
Goldman chooses her words carefully when asked to describe what she thinks of Gantz now. “I wouldn’t call him a traitor,” she says. “I’d call him a disappointment, a liar and a thief.”
And then she adds: “But he’s in good company. That’s what the Knesset has become – a safe haven for such types.”