Netanyahu’s Losing Rivals Need Open Primaries or Even a Reality Show: The Choice

In elections dubbed fateful, the center-left will make do with candidates such as Gantz and Lapid who were chosen only by themselves

Kahol Lavan's Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi.
Emil Salman

The April 9 election was widely described as critical for the future of Israel and its democracy. But despite its best efforts to put together a winning team, the center-left lost decisively. Benjamin Netanyahu’s frantic quest for legal immunity then led him to call a new election on September 17. What is the center-left doing with its unexpected and possibly last opportunity to change the results and unseat Netanyahu? Nothing much. Nothing at all, actually.

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The center-left bloc was given a new chance for a return match that its leaders didn’t pray for, did nothing to advance and don’t seem enthusiastic to exploit. Apart from the vote for leadership of the now-truncated Labor Party, which became unavoidable after Avi Gabbay’s embarrassing fall into the honey trap laid by Netanyahu, the center-left intends to field the exact same team that lost the previous round.

They are thus ignoring the full version of the iron rule set by the legendary manager of the English side that won the 1966 World Cup, Alf Ramsey: “Never change a winning team; always change a losing team.” They are also overlooking Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

True, Likud is also skipping the unpleasantness of voting for, or at least reconfirming its leader and its Knesset list, as tradition and the party’s constitution would have it. They are eating their cake, by dispersing the Knesset, and having it too, by freezing the current setup as is.

Likud, however, has several good excuses: 1. It won the election, and you don’t tinker with a winning team, etc. 2. Likud may have effectively turned into Netanyahu’s one-man show, but it is nonetheless a veteran party with ostensibly democratic institutions that are formally authorized to circumvent its own processes. 3. Netanyahu has been Likud chairman by acclamation since 2015, but his list was elected in full-fledged primaries only four months ago. 4. No one dares challenge Netanyahu anyway, not least because no one has his political smarts or appeal.

For Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s past and presumably future challenger, as well as for his vehicle, Kahol Lavan, the situation is diametrically opposed. No one in the center-left chose them to lead. Kahol Lavan’s Knesset slate is comprised of candidates, talented and suitable as they may be, who were handpicked by Gantz and his partners Moshe Ya’alon and Yair Lapid. Who elected Gantz? No one. He elected himself.

A quick recap: On December 28, 2018 Gantz set up his own party, Hosen L’Yisrael, and registered it after securing the necessary signatures. On January 29, Hosen L’Yisrael merged with Ya’alon’s Telem, another instant party in which the leader anoints himself and then chooses his underlings. Less than a month later, on February 21, Gantz and Ya’alon allied with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to set up Kahol Lavan.

Yesh Atid is ancient by Kahol Lavan’s standards: It has existed for all of seven years and has participated in three elections. Nonetheless, Yesh Atid is also a one-man show: Lapid set up the party and dictated its constitution, which mainly consists of perpetuating his rule and investing all powers and decisions in his hands. Yesh Atid’s Knesset list is comprised of experienced and talented individuals, but the only prerequisite for their inclusion was to be sufficiently liked by Lapid.

And so it came to pass that a random cluster of candidates, which no one actually ever voted for, was imposed on the center-left as a fait accompli. Desperate to defeat Netanyahu and avert his panic-driven frenzy to undermine Israeli democracy, and mindful that beggars can’t be choosers, the center-left accepted the brokered deal. This is what there is, they cited a popular Israeli saying, and with this we will win.

Things didn’t work out that way. Gantz and Kahol Lavan lost. They may have garnered an impressive 35 Knesset seats but they failed to deliver on the only promise that mattered: to take enough seats from the right to defeat Netanyahu. What was their main takeaway from the defeat? More of the same: Not change, not innovation, not an effort to open the ranks and no wish to let their voters have any kind of say in choosing their leaders.

Instead, Gantz and Co. closed ranks, consulted with themselves and decided they’d done nothing wrong. Their loss, it seems, was an unstoppable force majeure. It had nothing to do with Gantz’s limp and muddled campaign, which has since morphed into his pale and ineffective two months as leader of the opposition. Their decision to ignore the Arab minority also doesn’t require any revision, apparently. The same is true of their decision to honor the rotation agreement of Gantz and Lapid, by which Lapid would replace Gantz as prime minister after two and a half years, despite the fact that it troubles undecided voters, without which there is no hope. Mutual respect and keeping agreements are admirable qualities, though arguably less vital when one is engaged in a battle of life or death, as Gantz and his friends depict it, over the rule of law and Israel’s democratic foundations.

Gantz seems perfectly capable of being a good, perhaps even excellent prime minister. He certainly looks the part, which may be one of his shortcomings: He often conducts himself as if he were already prime minister and not a candidate who has to spit blood and fight for his life to become one. Gantz inspires trust and confidence but he lacks the kind of charisma needed to push hordes of voters to the polls or to snap chronic nonvoters out of their apathy. He also lacks the sinister cunning, ruthless execution and alley-cat instincts that are required to fight Netanyahu with his own weapons.

Nonetheless, the Gang of Four — Gantz, Ya’alon, Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi — decided among themselves that Gantz has no case to answer for. They relieved him of the need to vie for his post, thus denying him the legitimacy and force multiplier inherent in a popular mandate. Then they decided that the Kahol Lavan Knesset list will remained unchanged as well, because who needs change when there is no party to demand it?

Time is too short and the task too complex to change things before the August 2 deadline for submitting candidate lists to the Central Elections Committee, they say. But desperate times call for desperate measures, or as the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates, put it: “For extreme illnesses, extreme cures are suitable.” If the ostensible leaders of the center-left were imbued with the sense of emergency they claim exists, they could have recruited the political savants and hi-tech wizards, as well as the necessary funding, to create a radical primary election system that could grab voters’ attention, galvanize the center-left electorate, neuter Netanyahu’s tested strategy of division and incitement and end up picking a potential winner.

Open primaries, for example. On the Internet. Voting would be open for any Israeli citizen of voting age who is not a member of any party to Kachol Lavan’s right and who vows, in writing, that he has no intention of voting for Netanyahu or any of his satellites. The preselection of potential candidates poses a more formidable challenge: One avenue is to limit the field to candidates who previously served as prime minister, as defense, foreign or finance ministers along with former army chiefs of staff, directors of national security services or current center-left party leaders who would commit to supporting Kahol Lavan even if they lose. Needless to say, all candidates must be as clean as a whistle in legal terms and should not have unduly close ties to business tycoons or the like.

One might also set up an ad-hoc appointments committee that could interview potential candidates and approve them. It would have to be panel that is universally trusted and above reproach, and could include well-respected politicians such as Yossi Beilin, Dan Meridor or Zehava Galon, a Supreme Court judge and possibly even Ehud Barak, as the overall executor of the entire endeavor.  And if we already have such a committee, and if we assume that time is indeed too short to organize reliable open primaries, one can always draw inspiration from Volodymyr Zelensky, who turned a television show into a platform that made him President of the Ukraine.

One thing is for sure: In a country already addicted to reality shows, one that presumes to pick the next prime minister would be a blockbuster. Instead of “The Voice” they’d get “The Choice.” The appointments committee or panel of judges, bolstered perhaps by a sharp no-nonsense litigator experienced in cross-examination, would carry out public auditions for potential candidates. It would choose six semi-finalists, for example, who would compete in two semi-finals, each producing one of two finalists. The vote would be divided between the judges and an audience at home, preselected in accordance with the above-mentioned criteria. The grand finale could be held as late as July 31.

Fantasies? Perhaps. But one thing’s for sure: To defeat Netanyahu, his rivals have to reinvent themselves, ignore their own interests and think outside the box, which they are currently entrenched in. God himself, for those who believe, hardened Netanyahu’s heart, compelling him to nix his own April 9 victory and risk new elections. Gantz and his colleagues, however, seem shell-shocked. They may talk the talk of fighting for Israel’s future freedom but they walk the walk of those who have defeat and servitude seared into their hearts and, unfortunately, visible on their faces.