Analysis

Gantz and Lapid's New Party Has a Single Ideology: To Replace Netanyahu

There is no other political glue uniting this new venture, and in case of failure it will be summarily dismantled

File photo: Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid in a political event in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 21, 2019.
Amir Cohen/Reuters

The Kahol Lavan alliance founded on Thursday by Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and co. in Savyon was set up for one purpose only: to bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu democratically through the April 9 election. Not by an indictment or High Court of Justice petitions next year or later.

This is the most heavily invested, serious political enterprise to oust Netanyahu since 1999. Then, two chiefs of staff and one general (Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Yitzhak Mordechai) got together and generated an upheaval.

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This time, three reserve lieutenant-generals (Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi) with Sgt. (res.) Lapid are on the starting line. Nothing is holding this party together but the desire to hear Netanyahu’s concession speech at the end of election day. That’s its strength, but also its weakness and self-destruct mechanism.

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Even the most high-resolution video camera wouldn’t be able to pick up a smidgen of shared ideology, whether in foreign affairs, socio-economic affairs, judicial and constitutional issues, or regarding the territories’ future and the settlements’ fate. Nothing. There is no common denominator save the slogans about change and love and fraternity.

A bunch of mostly amiable and well-meaning men and women came together for a kind of anthropological experiment. It’s a little like the “2025” Israeli reality show – something new, shiny, auspicious, the next thing! But it’s difficult to make out who’s against whom and what the hell they want from us. Oh yes, to topple Bibi.

An election defeat will expose the failures of this ambitious project and break it up even before the Knesset ushers learn to recognize the new MKs flooding the house.

The day after the election consists of more unknowns than facts. Take the rotation agreement between Gantz and Lapid, for example, under which the former would serve as prime minister two-and-a-half years and the latter would replace him for a year-and-a-half. On paper, it looks as easy as a hot knife through butter. But the chance that Gantz will leave the office and Lapid will stroll in is extremely slight.

In any event, there’s no certainty that the politically unseasoned Gantz’s government will last 30 months. Even if it does, the ministers may prefer to dismantle the cabinet and hold a new election. They’re not bound to the agreement Lapid made with Gantz.

If Netanyahu sets up the cabinet, he may offer Gantz and Lapid to join him. The issue on the table will be Trump’s peace plan. That could be an incentive. Who will join, who will remain outside?

The greatest mystery isn’t related to the union in the center-left’s ranks, but its impact on the election cannot be understated. It’s the looming decision of the attorney general in Netanyahu’s corruption cases. Will it strengthen Likud or weaken it? Will it move votes from one bloc to another or not? And what effect will a decision to indict for bribery in one or more cases have on the president’s recommendation?

While the dust is yet to settle after the center-left bloc’s big bang, it appears the turning point occurred last Sunday. A day before Lapid submitted his Knesset slate, he held a long meeting with Gabi Ashkenazi, who has worked tirelessly to bring about the partnership.

At the end of the meeting the penny dropped. Lapid made a decision – at this stage in principle – to abandon the dream and take a good, hard look at reality. He realized that his train had left the station the moment Gantz entered it. He also understood that his only chance to be prime minister in the foreseeable future is on the back of the new, seductive, attractive white knight, the one he once was.

He put aside not only his ego but his honor as well. His obstinacy to run alone was replaced by an open mind.

Ashkenazi served as an honest broker between them. He has a longtime relationship with Lapid – the two and their wives had dinner at the Ashkenazis in Kfar Sava some six months ago. He is less close to Gantz, but the two trust and respect each other. Gantz made several attempts to recruit Ashkenazi to his party regardless of the merger. But Ashkenazi didn’t want to hear about it.

Two opposing worldviews clashed on the via dolorosa to the agreement. Lapid argued that Netanyahu would be re-elected, but that his time is limited. He would be ejected from the political realm to the courts’ jurisdiction in a year or so. Then the gates of heaven will open up to them. What's happening now is just the preview, the foreplay to what will transpire in 2020. So let’s be patient. There’s no need to merge, we’ll grow stronger separately.

Gantz persistently advocated the opposite. You have no idea what will happen in the coming year, he said. Everything could change and we’ll find ourselves with Bibi in power for four whole years. This is the time to act; this is our opportunity.

On Monday, Lapid submitted his slate. On Tuesday, Gantz submitted his. Only after each had announced he was running independently did they start to talk business. The prime minister was watching with interest the three general scheming to oust him and probably was reflecting on the difficult memories from two decades ago.

At the end of Gantz’s speech, in which he scolded Lapid that “a shift schedule is no reason to give up a chance for historic change,” the chairman of Hosen L’Yisrael-Telem said he was going to call Lapid and invite him to a meeting. The Lapidniks were surprised. Why announce something that could end with nothing?

But the two had already agreed to meet that night. One of Israel’s best pollsters, Israel Bachar, whom Gantz had lured away from Naftali Bennett, met with Gantz the previous evening and urged him to merge with Lapid. This is your only chance of being prime minister after this election, he said. Hosen’s voters’ loyalty isn’t assured, he said, and could return to Yesh Atid at any moment. Running together doesn’t ensure victory, but it at least gives a chance.

Lapid and Gantz met on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday in Savyon. When Orli Levi-Abekasis declared she wasn’t going to join Gantz’s ticket after all, Lapid got the phone call: Let’s close the deal.

Sleeping with Kahanists

Merely 25 hours before the registration of parties running for the election closed, the agreement that will be remembered as an eternal abomination was reached. Rabbi Kahane’s hoodlum-students, those who spread hatred, racism and persecution of minorities, who carry the flag of homophobia and “race purity” won a ticket to the Israeli parliament.

Habayit Hayehudi’s central committee members have their fingerprints all over this disgrace, but Netanyahu made it happen. He once again proved that when his political survival – and this time personal survival, too – is at stake, nothing is too low; he has no morality or limits.

Habayit Hayehudi party memebers vote in favor of running a joint slate with the Otzma Yehudit party, February 20, 2019
Tomer Applebaum

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The transformation of Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, from an educator to a cynical politician without an ideology, is one of the fastest and most amazing ones in politics. Two weeks ago, he still objected to the extremism of his designated partner Bezalel Smotrich.

Then he embraced him, and on Wednesday he gave a fire and brimstone speech in favor of Itamar Ben Gvir, of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party.

The media reported that Netanyahu was forced to pay a “heavy price” to the radical right to ensure the merger. Heavy to whom? Not to himself. He didn’t bat an eyelid when he pledged to give Peretz-Smotrich two important portfolios in his next cabinet and reserve a place for another of their party on the Likud ticket. The silence of the Likudniks is shameful, and Justice Minister Shaked is welcoming the merger with chilling sangfroid.