Analysis

With Gantz as Election Rival, Netanyahu Competes Against an Old Version of Himself

The fact that the right rose to power 42 years ago and that Netanyahu has ruled for a decade doesn't stop them from arguing the real power remains in the hands of their political opponents

Election campaign posters are seen depicting Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, April 1, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

At the core of the election campaign, now nearing its end, are ideas about state institutions – the civil service, the army, the justice system and law enforcement. Right-wing parties are united in their distrust of existing organizations and traditions, and in their attempts to replace them.

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This is the message conveyed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich and Moshe Feiglin. Netanyahu claims that the police and the prosecution are an underground resistance operated by "the left and the media," Bennett portrays the army as flaccid, Shaked is revolted by judges' independence, Smotrich wants the state to be devoted to the annexation of the West Bank, and Feiglin proposes taking everything apart and putting it back together.

The fact that right-wing parties rose to power 42 years ago and that Netanyahu has been prime minister for a decade running doesn't stop them from arguing that the real power remains in the hands of their political opponents, who control the High Court of Justice, academia and the media.

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The current right-wing government has led many changes: It has institutionalized discrimination against Arab citizens, intimidated cultural institutions and appointed conservative judges to the Supreme Court. These gambits, accepted by Israelis smoothly enough, whetted appetites for the much more aggressive phase of the revolution, including rescuing Netanyahu from a corruption trial, turning the justice system into an arm of the governing coalition, and turning watchdogs in the public service into a squad of government cheerleaders.

Netanyahu's rivals, led by Benny Gantz, represent what the right wants to destroy; at the head of his Kahol Lavan party stand three former military chiefs and the old mainstream's poster boy, Yair Lapid, and news anchor, Miki Haimovich. These people don't want to change anything; not in the army, not in the justice system, not in the civil service and not in social constructs. 

Supporters of this view want to save whatever's left of the old-time Israel of "Mr. Television," anchorman Haim Yavin, music legend Arik Einstein and songwriter Naomi Shemer. Or at least they want to slow the pace of the transformation, willing to pay the price of Gantz's planned coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties and Feiglin's Zehut.

Annexation vs. status quo

"The diplomatic issue," a sanitized term for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has occupied little space in the election campaign, unlike the situation before the 2015 vote. But despite the agreement among Israelis that "there is no partner" on the Palestinian side, that there's no one to talk to and therefore nothing to talk about, and despite efforts by Gantz and his partners to distance themselves from anything "leftist," two opposing approaches about handing the conflict can be identified.

The right aims to annex Area C – the majority of the West Bank, where most settlements, army bases, firing zones and nature reserves are located. This demand is supported by parties to the right of Netanyahu's Likud (Hayamin Hehadash, the Union of Right-Wing Parties and Zehut) and many Likud members.

Until recently, Netanyahu remained cautious about formal annexation, preferring small steps that would strengthen the settlements' connection with Israel. He preferred keeping open spaces in the West Bank for a future agreement with the Palestinians. But under election pressure and increasing dependence on his right-wing partners, as a decision on whether to indict him for corruption nears, Netanyahu has changed course and begun hinting at his support for a U.S.-backed annexation.

He justified his policy of containment in the Gaza Strip with a will to deepen the separation between Gaza and the West Bank, in a bid to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state that would surround Israel on two fronts. Netanyahu proposes shattering Palestinian hopes of a state with territorial contiguity in the West Bank and strengthening Hamas as Gaza's ruler.

Gantz proposes to carry on with the status quo in the West Bank, develop the settlement blocs and avoid annexation – Netanyahu's policy of the past decade, which Gantz implemented as army chief. For Gaza, Gantz and Kahol Lavan offer a more aggressive policy against Hamas, both its leaders and forces. That is, this view preserves the option of a territorial compromise in the West Bank and seeks to weaken Hamas in Gaza with military might.

This is the exact opposite of Netanyahu, even if these policy lines can hardly be branded "leftist," and even if Gantz's proposals are a far cry from the most basic Palestinian demands.

The magic of Zehut

The platform of Feiglin's Zehut party divides Israel into two states – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – and offers solutions for the aspirations it assumes for their respective residents. For religious Jerusalemites, Feiglin proposes keeping Arabs out of sight by encouraging Palestinian emigration and expelling the Waqf Muslim trust from the Temple Mount, which he would hand to the Chief Rabbinate. He would also build a synagogue near mosques, a first step before replacing them with the Third Temple (which isn't mentioned in the platform).

File photo: Moshe Feiglin greets people as he campaigns ahead of election at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, April 4, 2019.
Ammar Awad/Reuters

For secular Tel Avivians, he offers marriage without state supervision, the legalization of marijuana, and a less bureaucratic state where the money you have – not the people you know – buys health and education.

It's easy to paint Feiglin's backers as a trippy bunch who know nothing about the economy, get excited by the nonsense of a legal joint and ignore the terrible dangers of a libertarian worldview. But Zehut is the only party that actually takes on issues in the economic and social debate – that the health system is collapsing, the education system is backward, the police go after decent citizens, taxes are exaggerated and politicians are corrupt.

Zehut's naysayers compellingly back up their arguments but struggle to win support for their solutions – that the people responsible for failed policies would learn from their mistakes and fix broken systems, that one day Netanyahu, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz would wake up, confess and say they'll now heed the experts' advice.

Kahol Lavan offers an alternative in increasing budgets for the bad health system, hoping the money will end long waiting times and unbearable bottlenecks. That's a tough sell, as similar budgeting plans for the education system and paving roads didn't solve the problems, which only worsened. Kahol Lavan isn't inclined to undermine the status quo.

Feiglin calls for a complete reform of decayed systems; brand new patterns to replace Israel's social policy born during the long-gone days of Labor's predecessor, Mapai. We can argue over his proposals, about whether they're practical or just Ayn Randian fantasies incompatible with Israeli conditions.

But we can also understand the people who are convinced that something is wrong and follow a leader who promises to uproot the existing order, lower taxes and intrude much less in Israelis' lives – not thinking about the unfortunates whose loved ones would be killed or wounded in the war to Judaize the Temple Mount.