After a dirty election campaign that seems to have ended in disappointment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chief rival, Benny Gantz, the former army chief is facing a new challenge: A possible attempt by the premier's Likud party to get Kahol Lavan MKs to defect.
Likud is eyeing Kahol Lavan's dozens of seats as a pool of potential defectors, who might give Netanyahu the desired 61-seat majority required to build a stable coalition. Exit polls projected the right-wing bloc would get 59-60 Knesset seats, but the final result might weaken the bloc by one or two seats and make it even more difficult for the prime minister to try and form a government.
Gantz clarified on election night that he was still acting to change Netanyahu's rule, but despite his promises he hasn't clearly stated yet that he would not join a coalition headed by the premier. "We will do everything the results and the law will let us, in order to replace the [Netanyahu] rule," Gantz announced on Monday at the end of the first faction meeting his party held after the grim exit polls were published. Party members are waiting for the final count and finding solace in the possibility that they might be able to cultivate a winning bloc of 61-62 seats that would stop Netanyahu from getting the first crack at building a coalition.
However, Kahol Lavan MKs are already looking ahead at the viable option of joining forces with Netanyahu, and are outlining two possible scenarios. In one, Kahol Lavan would splinter off into two camps: Gantz, former army chief Gaby Ashkenazi and other members of his Hosen L'Yisrael faction will enter the coalition with Netanyahu, while Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya'alon – who oppose Netanyahu most vehemently – will remain in the opposition with their Yesh Atid and Telem factions.
The second scenario entails recruiting a few defectors who would agree to join Likud, despite legal restrictions. This scenario is already happening behind the scenes, it turns out. "Likud is shooting in all directions," a Kahol Lavan source said. "They already approached some lawmakers of ours in an attempt to convince them to defect – including those who based on their positions it's clear that there is no chance they will defect." Haaretz has meanwhile learned that several lawmakers, including some not associated with right-wing positions, received offers from Likud to try to get them to defect, but that none have agreed.
Additionally, "the usual suspects," Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, were quick to issue a statement saying they would not defect and that they weren't and will not be approached.
Lawmaker Omer Yankelevich was also marked as a potential defector after a recording was released last week in which a former Kahol Lavan adviser is heard quoting Yankelevich as calling Gantz a "dumb loser unfit to be prime minister."
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On Monday, Channel 12 News aired a recording in which Netanyahu associate Natan Eshel describes pressure on Yankelevich. "Look, I know of contacts who have already talked to her about moving to Likud, that she will get to be at the head of an important committee dealing with the ultra-Orthodox," Eshel is heard saying. "She won't be just some lawmaker without any significance there, and she can save the world, save ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Of course we will need to surrender to Lieberman on something, and she can stop it. She is still ultra-Orthodox. She is still not 'not ultra-Orthodox.' She walks around with a headscarf and she walks around with a short skirt. But she still has her husband who lives in an ultra-Orthodox community and prays in the synagogue with ultra-Orthodox people. He won't go against the ultra-Orthodox."
Yenkelevich said Tuesday after reports of the pressure practiced on her: "It's all rumors. It won't happen!"
What are the odds of Kahol Lavan breaking apart? Depends on who you ask. To join Netanyahu, Gantz would have to violate his election promise and break up the political bloc he worked hard to create. One of the party's lawmakers believes a split is possible, however. "It's no secret that Ashkenazi Jews very much wanted and pressed for joining Netanyahu in the previous round," the lawmaker said. "Gantz certainly might do it. Neither of them was built for being in the opposition."
Haaretz has meanwhile learned that lawmakers for Hosen L'Yisrael are considering supporting such a move if it comes forth, mainly due to the need to pass a national budget aimed at handling the threat of the new coronavirus. On the other hand, a senior member of the party told Haaretz that "the possibility that Hosen L'Yisrael will split off and join Netanyahu is absurd. Gantz could have done it already in the previous round and preferred, making a very difficult decision, to go to another round. He made the principled choice, and so the chances that he would do this now are low."
The party is still waiting for final results in the hopes that the scope of its failure will be lessened. Either way, party staffers have not yet launched a post-mortem for the campaign to try and understand the loss of votes. "The campaign against Gantz was very low and vile, but also very effective," said a party source. "Likud's 'Bibi or Tibi' campaign also worked. We saw its results in real time." In addition to this campaign, some in Kahol Lavan pointed at the unveiling of Donald Trump's Middle East deal as a point at which Gantz began losing support. Party sources say it is still unclear whether the leak of a recording in which a former Kahol Lavan adviser was heard insulting Gantz had an effect on voters.