The political headlines in Israel on Sunday focused on Gadi Eisenkot, the retired general and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who decided to enter politics and form a new party with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a fellow former general, and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, one of the architects of Israel's 'government of change'.
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Officially called the National Unity party, the Gantz-Sa’ar-Eisenkot alliance hopes to transform Israel’s November 1 election from a one-on-one match between Prime Minister Yair Lapid and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, into a three-way competition, with Gantz emerging as a centrist alternative to form the next government.
As much as the media made a big splash of Eisenkot’s decision, the impact it will have on the election is probably limited. This is Israel’s fifth election since 2019, and the vast majority of voters aren’t going to change their mind at this point. In the previous four elections, Netanyahu and the bloc of religious parties that support his assault on the Israeli legal system were close to winning a 61-seat majority, but eventually fell short. This time, public opinion polls again show a very tight margin, with the pro-Netanyahu bloc being on the verge of winning the magic number, but still with a real chance of falling just short once again.
As much as Eisenkot was popular in his days as the military’s top general, no one expects his appearance in the political arena to dramatically alter the results. If his popularity helps move a single seat in the polls from Likud to Gantz and Sa’ar, that would be a big achievement in the current political stalemate. After all, a single seat could make all the difference between Netanyahu reaching 61 and creating a ruling coalition that will fundamentally change Israel, or falling short again and facing a rebellion from within his own party, after failing five times straight to win an election.
For this reason, a second piece of political news that was reported on Sunday was actually more significant than the Eisenkot decision. Overshadowed by the former general’s coverage was that of Matan Kahana – Israel’s former religious affairs minister, who announced that he was also joining the Gantz-Sa’ar party alongside Eisenkot. In an election where one seat could determine the results, Kahana’s decision could end up being more important than Eisenkot’s.
Kahana, a former air force pilot, is currently a member of Yamina, the party of former prime minister Naftali Bennett. He and Bennett have been close since age 18, when they served together in Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s top commando unit. He followed Bennett’s lead into politics and played a key role in convincing his former army buddy to go for the grand political experiment known as Israel’s ‘government of change.’
When Bennett announced he was taking a break from politics, it was clear that Kahana’s days in Yamina were numbered. The party was handed over to Ayelet Shaked, who was never at ease with Bennett’s decision to form a coalition with center-left political parties and did not hide her preference for a Netanyahu-led government with the religious parties. Kahana wants nothing to do with such an extreme government and is proud of the right-center-left coalition he helped Bennett assemble after last year’s election.
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Still, despite their differences, Shaked made a serious effort to convince Kahana to stay with Yamina for this election. She faces a dire situation, with Yamina failing to pass Israel’s electoral threshold in most public opinion polls. Shaked knows that Kahana is popular among a small segment of moderate religious voters in Israel, who identify with his view that there is a need to build bridges between religious and secular Israelis, instead of fighting endless, pointless culture wars. Shaked hoped that by keeping Kahana in the party, she would improve her slim chances to surprise the pundits and win enough votes to pass the threshold.
By joining Gantz, Sa’ar and Eisenkot, the former religious affairs minister may have just dealt a death blow to his former party. Kahana is not as popular as Eisenkot, but if he manages to bring ‘his’ constituency of moderate religious voters with him from Yamina to the new National Unity party – it could be just enough to move one seat from Shaked’s pro-Netanyahu party to the eclectic anti-Netanyahu bloc.
During his year as religious affairs minister, Kahana clashed with the ultra-Orthodox parties, who were furious at his attempts to end corruption and nepotism in the Chief Rabbinate and make it easier for Israeli businesses to obtain kashrut certificates. Their attacks on him, however, only strengthened his standing among more moderate religious voters, who agreed with his actions and thought they were long overdue. Now that he’s left Yamina to join Gantz and Sa’ar, he's being attacked by Netanyahu’s extreme allies once again. It remains to be seen if this will help his party win more votes on Election Day.