Analysis |

Israel Elections: With New General, Gantz Could Force a Three-headed Race

Gantz's party triumphed over Lapid in recruiting the former Israeli army chief Eisenkot, and has created a problem for Netanyahu

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Gadi Eisenkot, Benny Gantz, and Gideon Sa'ar, during the announcement of the founding of the National Unity party, on Sunday.
Gadi Eisenkot, Benny Gantz, and Gideon Sa'ar, during the announcement of the founding of the National Unity party, on Sunday.Credit: Hadas Parush
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

"The National Unity Party" is a somewhat cumbersome name for a party; it’s like a foreign body stuck in your throat. Former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot approached Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar with this idea, and they bought it. More importantly, they acceded to his demand to take leave of their parties and merge them into one.

His third condition: to end the autocracy, and to hold primaries for the chairman and the slate by the next election after Israel's November vote, for the 26th Knesset (which theoretically could take place as early as six months from now).

In doing so, even before setting foot on the playing field among the snakes of Ariel Sharon, his political mentor, Eisenkot has already brought about a series of positive changes to the political system. That also demonstrates that the seemingly naive man, devoid of ego, who sanctifies statesmanlike behavior, is not a sucker. Far from it.

He will try to achieve gender equality on the party's Knesset slate, or at least something approaching it. A ruling party must be of a minimal size that makes sense. The threshold that he has set for himself: 19 Knesset seats. Why? Because in Sharon’s first government, which was formed in 2001, after the direct election for prime minister, that was the number of Likud members in the Knesset. A ruling party with 12 or 13 seats is a joke in Eisenkot's opinion. He won’t lend a hand to that. If, after the election, the National Unity Party doesn’t reach this minimum, he will try to bring about a practical merger between it and Lapid's Yesh Atid party before going to the president, as well an agreement regarding their candidate for prime minister: Yair Lapid or Benny Gantz.

Eisenkot and Gantz in the Western Wall, Jerusalem, in 2015.Credit: AFP

In the many discussions he held in recent weeks with Gantz and Sa’ar, and with Lapid, he spoke mainly about matters of substance: a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, if not by agreement then unilaterally, and the need for consolidating a “security concept for Israel,” whose absence, in his opinion, borders on criminal negligence.

He is capable of talking for hours about these subjects. For example, the concept of “minimizing the conflict,” which Gantz and Sa’ar took from an article by Micah Goodman in the Israeli monthly magazine Liberal, in order to bridge over their conceptual gap, is in his opinion total nonsense. Minimizing, managing, navigating, leading – all these are empty words and euphemisms used to justify stagnation, that will inevitably lead to an explosion. He currently estimates the chances of a popular eruption in the West Bank in the near future to be as high as 20 percent.

Eisenkot has very solid positions about "clean" and "despicable" politics. In the latter category, he includes bringing Michal Shir, a refugee from Likud and New Hope, to join Yesh Atid. He considered it contemptible. Same goes for Yamina’s Idit Silman.

The condition he set for disbanding New Hope and Kahol Lavan in order to establish a new political home arose from what he describes as a major and very typical Israeli problem: a multiplicity of parties. Establishing a single central, broad and democratic framework, which will forge ahead for many years to come, is the start of the healing process. Gantz and Sa’ar gave in. Those who are focused on large supermarkets rather than small kiosks must make concessions.

MK Matan Kahana, in June.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The leaders of Kahol Lavan-New Hope, the very young party that is no longer with us, had an initial advantage over Yair Lapid. Gantz was Eisenkot’s commander for decades. They are friends. He knows Sa’ar from their work together in Sharon’s bureau when he was military secretary and Sa’ar was cabinet secretary. They have remained in contact ever since.

In private talks last month Eisenkot expressed doubts about the feasibility of forming a government headed by Gantz or Lapid after the election: Kahol Lavan is too small for his taste, for now, and the chances of an ultra-Orthodox party defecting from the Bibi bloc are slim; on the other hand, the Haredim categorically reject Lapid.

So what happened recently to change his mind? Maybe Eisenkot was convinced that there actually is a chance. Sa’ar publicly declared that there is, as if he has knowledge of the matter. He probably provided details about the piece of intelligence he possesses to his new partner.

Eisenkot’s electoral appeal will be tested in the coming weeks and months – and not in those polls that are carried out hastily, before most of the public is even aware that something has happened (the sad news of the death of pop icon Svika Pick attracted more attention than this political development.) Even without measuring Eisenkot’s appeal, it is undeniable that in the film “Bringing in Lieutenant General Gadi,” Gantz and Sa’ar beat Lapid, who is having difficulty attracting prominent figures to his camp.

Netanyahu voting the Likud primary, last week.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Lapid and Netanyahu are interested in a two-way battle, but Gantz and Sa’ar have not given up their intention of turning it into a three-way battle, which has been unsuccessful to date. Matan Kahana of Yamina is also joining them as part of the Eisenkot brigade. The man who was a more daring and innovative minister of religious affairs than any of his predecessors has the potential to bring about a change in the religious-right wing of the political map. Kahana is popular in the moderate parts of so-called “religious Zionism” (the sane camp, not that of the racist and messianist Bezalel Smotrich).

Without Kahana, Ayelet Shaked’s Zionist Spirit will find it very difficult to pass the electoral threshold, according to internal polls commissioned by Kahol Lavan-New Hope. Without Shaked, at least according to the current polls, Netanyahu doesn’t have a government. In the conceptual world of the new acquisition, he and his two partners have succeeded in their holding action.

Ayelet Shaked announcing her new party, Zionist Spirit, in July.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Now we will wait for the familiar ritual: The “poison machine” – the expression coined by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to describe the Likud – will begin to operate 24/7 to produce false sleaze against the former chief of staff. Netanyahu is a champion at doing that. Apropos Bennett: Statesmanlike behavior means not preventing the appointment of former Supreme Court Justice Menachem (Meni) Mazuz as chairman of the committee vetting senior officials, one reason being in order to hasten the appointment of the next chief of staff.

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