Analysis

Israel Election Results: Gantz Must Decide Whether to Overthrow Netanyahu – or End Religious Rule

Dismantling the religious-right-wing bloc is possible, but it would mean unpopular concessions to Netanyahu

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid during a press conference, September 19, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

>> UPDATE: President Rivlin tasks Netanyahu with forming government as unity talks with Gantz fail

A very senior official who had worked a few years in the bureau of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once told me that he gained 20 kilograms during that time from the constant stress. He explained that he wasn’t referring to the difficulties of coping with government ministries and the entire world, as is typical of such jobs, but to the incessant noise from within.

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“With Netanyahu you never knew where you stood,” he said. “That was Bibi’s thing, to leave you in a sort of uncertainty, so that you don’t really know what the ultimate objective is and how you are meant to organize for it.” The official quit and lost some weight. But the air compressor – to use Amos Oz’s nice allegory – continues to rattle and clatter .

At the moment, Netanyahu has both signed off on a right-wing “bloc” of 55 out of 120 Knesset members and is negotiating a unity government with Kahol Lavan. Like in the story of the official who gains weight from the stress, Netanyahu is keeping everyone in a state of neurotic ambiguity, which is how he erodes their power.

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Many think that Netanyahu’s real goal is to bring about new election, in an effort to once again try to scratch out 61 seats so that he can face the pending indictments from an improved position. They argue that everything we’re seeing now – the handshakes, the planned dinner with President Reuven Rivlin and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz – are nothing but sleight of hand, despite the pretty palpable risk that voters will punish him more severely on a third election. What’s the truth, and what’s an act? Does Netanyahu even distinguish between them?

Another example of a man with unclear motives is Avigdor Lieberman. The Yisrael Beiteinu chairman is deeply enamored of his new VIP status. Other than his anti-Arab racism, one cannot assume anything about the man. Many, particularly on the right, get the impression that he’s going all the way to remove Netanyahu.

The theories being tossed around regarding Lieberman’s motives cross seas and continents and some sound like an exaggerated episode of “House of Cards.” And still, even if they’re ridiculous, their very existence proves how dark this vacuum is, how little faith there is in the man. Justifiably so.

Facing these two characters we have Gantz, who earned his achievement precisely because of his totally opposite image. The center-left camp, which was in euphoria over the weekend because for the first time in a decade it got to savor the taste of non-defeat, is starting to have doubts. How will our Benny manage against the fox from Balfour Street and people like Lieberman? He hasn’t even had the chance to shake the confetti off his shoulders and they’re already showering him with criticism and claiming he’s acting like a defeatist wimp. As far as Gantz is concerned, that’s actually a good thing. After all, they said the same thing about his campaign.

The truth is that Kahol Lavan has to prioritize its target bank. If the overriding principle is to wean Israel off religious-Haredi messianism, as was argued in their campaign, then the most urgent mission is disconnecting people like Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz from the centers of power and restoring them to their natural small size. This is also the case for their pan-Israel agents, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, who are riding on the tiger’s back. In other words, the top priority must be demanding that Netanyahu dismantle the right-wing bloc. This is mission possible, but any compromise with Netanyahu is liable to lead to the sky opening on Kahol Lavan and create a real problem for it with its voters.

However, if the top priority is shoving Netanyahu aside, which was the initial reason for Kahol Lavan’s formation, then the one thing about which there can be no compromise is the question of who will serve first as prime minister in rotation. Before all the excited leftists start jumping up and down (“Yes!” “Yes!”), one must understand the significance of this choice. It could be that the price will be forming a rightwing government based on Kahol Lavan, with the Haredim, Lieberman, and the faction of Bennett and Shaked, on assumption that they’d split from Yamina. It sounds imaginary, but this is also on the table given the stalemate, and it could raise a different problem for Kahol Lavan’s voters, or at least a large part of them.

First Kahol Lavan must decide which shelf in its supermarket of ideas is most important. When it does this, it will be less susceptible to the spins of the rest.