Analysis

For Netanyahu, Unity Is a Dirty Word

Netanyahu is realizing that his 'innocent victim' campaign strategy is no longer working ■ Gantz's platform flirts with the moderate right, but there are signs he'll break left if he comes to power

Illustration: Netanyahu faces Gantz, Ashkenazi and Ya'alon.
Amos Biderman

Don’t project arrogance, don’t display exaggerated self-confidence. This time we’re in a whole new soccer game. The speaker was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing candidates on Likud’s slate during the past week. This time, he added, we face an adversary. This isn’t Bougie Herzog and Tzipi, he added, referring to Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who co-founded Zionist Union in the 2015 election.

Netanyahu met with the Likud candidates in three rounds at the Balfour Street residence in Jerusalem, between Friday and Sunday. The polls show there is still a segment of voters who remain undecided between right and left, between Likud and Kahol Lavan, he told them. There are two to three seats up for grabs there. In our bloc, there are parties that are wavering around the electoral threshold (the 3.25 percent of the votes a party must get to enter the Knesset). Former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, who is running with his own independent Zehut party, is in a far better situation than what the polls show, he said, sharing the data at his disposal with the candidates. He’s taking votes from the Russians, from Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf, the cannabis legalization party that declared it wouldn’t run in this election for the first time in 20 years) and from other parties on the right. In short, the going is not easy – it’s not easy now, and who knows what will happen after?

What about the unity government option, they asked. Don’t say that under any circumstances, he said, leaping up from his chair, no one must say a word about unity. I’ve committed to not sitting with the left. Tell people that we will establish a right-wing government exactly like the previous one, which was an excellent government.

Some of the listeners left with the opposite feeling: The more vigorous Netanyahu’s denial of a possible unity government, the less credible it sounded. The unity scenario, possibly a rotation government, is in the cards, if neither of the big parties succeeds in forming a stable, functioning coalition.

We didn’t see any signs of defeatism or despair, two of the participants said. He was in excellent spirits. And she – Sara – was, too. They were energized with the spirit of combat. Tell your audiences that Likud has to be bigger, he urged them, otherwise the president might not give us the mandate to form the government. What about the blocs, they wanted to know. It’s always decided on the basis of the blocs.

We have to be careful and focused, he replied. There are parties with layers of fat that it’s easy to draw from (referring to Hayamin Hehadash, the new party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked), and there are parties that won’t make it across the threshold.

He showed them data from focus groups the party is organizing among the Russian, Haredi and religious-Zionist voters. The candidates were impressed by the seriousness, the professionalism. There’s no segment of the population that isn’t being worked.

All his listeners, in all three groups, told him, “Enough, Bibi, stop being occupied with yourself, enough with the investigations and the prosecution. Let’s talk about the achievements of our government. We accomplished quite a bit in these four years. We have lots to be proud of.” (That’s in fact the line he took in his speech the next day, at the launch of Likud’s formal campaign. Though it wasn’t because of their advice: It’s become clear to him that the strategy of the innocent victim who’s being persecuted has played itself out for now.)

Say only the “Lapid-Gantz party,” not the other way around, he instructed them. They heard from him that, according to Likud polls, Yair Lapid is the weak link in Kahol Lavan. Of the party’s four top people, he’s considered the most left-leaning and the least suited to be prime minister. Netanyahu is five or six percentage points ahead of Gantz in that rubric, but dozens of points ahead of Lapid.

Lapid as a rotation prime minister is an Achilles’ heel of Kahol Lavan. Spotlighting him is the only possible preventive treatment against a shift of right-wing voters from one bloc to the other.

Netanyahu, they found, was extremely displeased with the way some of his people – notably Miri Regev, of course – derided the military service of the three former chiefs of staff in Kahol Lavan. He checked and discovered that the public, including the right-wing public, esteems and respects them. Don’t deal with the generals’ military background, he directed his listeners, talk only about their civilian life: about the collapse of the technology startup, Hameimad Hahamishi (The Fifth Dimension), that Gantz managed, about Lapid’s poor record as finance minister, about Gabi Ashkenazi’s bad episode with the Shemen Oil company.

“I had the feeling that this time, because three generals are confronting him and not Tzipi-Bougie, he’s really afraid. Or at least worried. It’s not a game and not a spin,” one of the candidates told me after the briefing. “I think it’s sending him back to the 1999 election, when Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Itzik Mordechai [two former chiefs of staff and a major general] ran against him – in two separate parties. He understood then the magical power that the ranks, the captivating force of the ‘falafels’ [equivalent to generals’ stars], the khaki and the medals exert on the Israelis.”

Handshake of the century

There wasn’t one chord, not one note calculated to stir the soul of a Likudnik, that Netanyahu didn’t harp on in his speech launching the party’s election campaign at the Kfar Maccabia complex in Ramat Gan on Monday evening. It was a masterpiece of reaching out to the tribe. In his distress, he’s returning to the roots, to the base. Without balloons and puerile cacophony and Sarit Hadad to fawn over him (to a degree) and sing to him about how great he is. It was just him and the audience.

He made only one – inexplicable – mistake, by not inviting Likud’s top lineup to the stage at the end of his speech. The slate that was chosen a month ago gave the party an additional two seats in the polls. He has no reason to be ashamed of it; indeed, if anything, many of them should be ashamed of him. The faces of the chosen ones occasionally flashed on the screen behind him, somewhat blurred and vague, to ensure that his glory shone strong.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Rami Shllush

The explanation that was offered beforehand for the exclusion of the group from the stage was that Netanyahu refused to have his picture taken with Gideon Sa’ar and another 39 people. Well, now. But that notion went by the boards right at the start of the festivities, when Netanyahu entered the hall and shook hands with everyone in the front row, where those on the party’s slate were seated.

Sa’ar, who’s in fifth place on the slate, was expelled to the end of the row and placed between two female MKs who occupy unrealistic slots, Osnat Mark and Anat Berko. Netanyahu reached him at the end of a long march. Not only did he shake Sa’ar’s hand, but the handshake went on for a relatively long time, morphed into theatrics and ended with a sort of mutual raising of clasped hands. The plot of the century became the handshake of the century. Someone was reminded of Netanyahu’s January 1997 handshake with Yasser Arafat at in the White House, in the wake of the blood-drenched events that followed the prime minister’s decision to open the Western Wall tunnel. “I’ve found a friend,” he gushed, after the summit with Arafat. He doesn’t yet see Sa’ar as a pal. There’s a limit to everything.

After that matter was taken care of, there was nothing to prevent him from inviting the group onto the stage for a joint photo. The fact that he didn’t do so made it clear to some of those present that Sa’ar was only an excuse. Similarly, the way he chose to dispense credit and recall the activity of his cabinet ministers, who were sitting opposite him and below, at his feet, gazing at him with adoring eyes, was more offensive than respectful. No satirical program could have come up with a more sidesplitting and spot-on skit.

It looked and sounded as though the prime minister had remembered the existence of the ministers only as he made his way to the stage. As he stood on the podium to the sounds of the eternal Likud anthem, he scribbled a few quick words on his notepaper. His demeanor suggested that to give them credit would only hamper his speech, break the rhythm and sequence, and that to mention their names, even if only in a passing syllable, would somehow impugn his honor.

Examples: “We brought tourism – Yariv, don’t listen – to an all-time record” [Yariv Levin, tourism minister].

“We’re bringing, Miri [Regev, culture and sports minister], culture to the periphery. Culture and sports as has never before been done… culture… Welfare! Haim! [Katz, labor and social affairs minister].”

Netanyahu’s eyes dart across the front row. “Police! Police! Gilad [Erdan, public security minister].” The eyes continue to cast about, desperately, for forgotten ministers.

Someone bleated: Akunis! Netanyahu leaped into the breach: “Science! Science! We haven’t forgotten,” he bellowed, pointing a finger and wagging it at science and space minister Ofir Akunis, as though beckoning a stray dog.

His eyes went on scouring the hall for the forsaken and forlorn: “Help with the genders!” The finger was extended toward social equality minister Gila Gamliel.

“Look at the towers being built in Dimona, in Afula, in Kiryat Gat. What towers! They thrust out of the ground… Yoav [Gallant, housing and construction minister].

“And we did one thing I’m especially proud of, Zeev [Elkin, environmental protection and Jerusalem affairs minister], you know what it is. As the son of my father and the grandson of my grandfather, I am proud that we did a project for heritage preservation.”

That marked the end of the sloppiest, most half-baked round of thanks ever meted out to Likud ministers. Netanyahu didn’t see fit to improvise two or three words in honor of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who garnered first place in the primary and follows Netanyahu on the Likud slate. Why? What is Edelstein guilty of? Edelstein responded by tweeting a photo of their handshake with the caption, “True right is only Mahal [Likud]! A strong Likud for a strong Israel!”

I asked one of the ministers whether I should be insulted on his behalf, utter his outcry. “We’ve become used to being satisfied with a little,” he said. “Interesting that Bibi barely remembered us, but Afghanistan [which Netanyahu, in an apparent slip, said he had visited], where he’s never been, he remembered well.”

Ehud Barak is seen in front of a portrait of Yitzhak Rabin, 2009.
Daniel Bar-On/Jini

Mission impossible

Benny Gantz likes to compare the political situation in which he finds himself to a navigation mission that was assigned to him in a course for special-ops commanders in the United States. He was sent into a dense forest, where the trees left only patches of sky visible, and told to find his way back out. The instructions were to bypass the trees in a kind of zigzag, one from the right and the next from the left, and so on. If you keep going on the same side all the time, he was warned, you could find yourself muddled and then lost.

He’s trying to follow that advice in his daily personal-political comportment between his partner at the top of the Kahol Lavan party, Yair Lapid, and number three on the slate, Moshe Ya’alon. The ideological navigation between the left flank and the right flank leaves him constantly in the center, with a slight rightward squint and eyes focused on the target: victory on April 9.

The platform the party published on Wednesday flirts with the moderate right. It rejects further withdrawals in the territories and doesn’t mention a Palestinian state or the evacuation of isolated settlements, which in no agreement in the world would be allowed to remain where they are now.

It’s fashionable to wax nostalgic about ideological platforms and to bemoan their disappearance from Israeli political life. But in 1977, Menachem Begin didn’t write that he would evacuate all of Sinai, Yitzhak Rabin didn’t promise in 1992 that he would sign the Oslo accord with Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon didn’t commit orally or in written form to removing the Gaza Strip settlements. In fact, one phrase applies to them all: on the contrary.

They were elected and then they did what they thought was the right thing. Platforms are like the sheet of instructions that the protagonists of the old television series “Mission Impossible” would get from their handlers at the start of each episode: The instructions themselves would dematerialize within a specified time. That’s how we should look at the Kahol Lavan platform, but even so, it’s good that someone took the trouble to produce it.

Gantz is drawing his inspiration from Rabin and from Ehud Barak, who defeated Netanyahu in 1999. They, like him, were former chiefs of staff. Like him, they conducted campaigns with a right-wing aroma. But once elected, they did not preserve the lethal stalemate and didn’t make do with merely managing the conflict and putting things off. They acted.

The timing and the circumstances are working in Gantz’s favor. This April, Netanyahu will conclude a decade in power. The suspicions against him, after being thinned out, reduced and compressed, look to be standing on iron foundations. What do you want, Gantz will ask the public – a halftime prime minister for a year, preoccupied, worn down, tired, fearful - or stable, fresh, sustainable leadership

Gabi Ashkenazi, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya'alon at the Golan Heights, March 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Legitimacy of victory

Most of the people Gantz meets are very dubious about his chances of being entrusted by the president to form the next government. In Israel, the winner of an election is decided by the number of MKs who recommend him and/or commit to joining his coalition. Gantz is starting the race with a built-in deficit of 11-12 Arab MKs, who will not be part of a coalition. In addition, the Haredim are ruling out cooperation with him because of Lapid and, as of this week, even more intensely because of the religion-and-state section of Kahol Lavan’s platform: public transportation on Shabbat, annulment of the law barring supermarkets from opening on Shabbat, support of surrogacy for gay couples and more.

The “Likud without Bibi” option, mentioned by both Gantz and Lapid, is a nonstarter. If Likud loses, Netanyahu will stay on as leader of the opposition. If he resigns or is kicked out, there will be no one for Gantz to talk to, no one to strike a deal with. In the war of the succession that will erupt, joining a Gantz-led government will not be on the agenda.

Gantz responds to the widespread thesis that he can’t win by invoking the story of Lot’s wife. She turned into a pillar of salt because she took her eyes off the goal. Something pulled her back, toward the past, to the old examples.

Something unprecedented is happening here, he tells his interlocutors. A party that was registered two months ago and arose out of nothing, is now the biggest party, with a lead of five seats over the ruling party. This isn’t Kadima, which was created from the kishkes of an existing government by a popular and beloved prime minister, and was led into the election by his replacement.

This is an unexampled event, Gantz says. What will follow it will be equally unexampled. The president will this time charge the largest party with the task of forming the government. Provided, that is, that the disparity is significant, a disparity that will create a “consciousness of victory” and create a “space of legitimacy” (two phrases frequently heard in his circle) for a decision of precedent like that. Three or four seats won’t be enough. Five or six? That could do it.

When he gets the nod and opens his arms, the parties will flock to him with goodwill and a willingness to compromise. They’ll find him ready for compromises.

That isn’t only the wishful thinking of Kahol Lavan, it’s also their strategy. In fact, they have no other strategy. In the game of blocs, they’re not on the field. Likud will always have, in every kind of weather and in every electoral constellation, more potential partners for a coalition. Netanyahu doesn’t even need 61 – it’s a mistake to think he does. He’ll make do with 58 or 59, while Kahol Lavan has only 49 or 50, for President Rivlin to summon the serving prime minister, after the consultation stage, and charge him with the task of forming the government.