Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu built his political career on the exploitation of his voters’ anxieties. From “Peres will divide Jerusalem” in 1996 to “Right-wing rule is in danger. The Arab voters are moving in droves to the polls” in 2015, Netanyahu has marketed himself as the ultimate defender of “the Jews” – both from their external enemies, Iran and Hamas, and their domestic enemy – “the left.” He didn’t invent anything new: insurance companies, investment houses and purveyors of medical services all successfully address the same mechanisms of fear.
Netanyahu’s new rival, Benny Gantz, is using the same method. Gantz promised to unite the nation and refrain from divisiveness, rifts or personal attacks, but his debut speech last Tuesday played on a range of anxieties of his would-be voters, even if his style was more refined than that of Netanyahu.
Gantz’s electorate, most of whom are Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent) and secular Jews, are afraid that their fate in Israel will resemble that of Christians in neighboring Lebanon – a large and influential community which founded the country, but lost its strength due to demographic changes and internal conflicts, and for the most part left the country and settled abroad.
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In the Israeli version, this anxiety is expressed in two ways: A feeling that “Netanyahu has taken the country away from us” and given it to communities that support him, the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) and the knitted skullcap wearers (religious Zionists); and a fear of religionization, which will turn Israel into a halakhic state in which the rabbis control daily life.
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Gantz promised to fight back, just before the young people in his camp vote with their plane tickets to New York, Palo Alto and Berlin. He is trying to convince them that it’s not too late, that it’s still possible to revive the worldview and recover the positions of power that were lost in the past four years, the years of the “anti-elitism revolution,” sponsored by Netanyahu and ministers Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Miri Regev. That’s how we should read his speech, which wrapped this message in high-flown words such as “I won’t let an entire generation live without hope!”
Gantz’s main promise is to form a “statesmanlike government,” and in simple translation, to return to the days of the “tribal campfire.” His promises of partial public transportation on Shabbat, implementation of the Western Wall plan (for an egalitarian prayer space) and equal rights for LGBTQs and women say to his audience: I’ll stop Netanyahu’s creeping religionization, you don’t have to rely on European passports to save your children.
Gantz was criticized for these statements, which ostensibly decrease his chances of forming a coalition with the Haredim, and contradict his promise “to deepen the partnership with the Arabs, the Haredim and the Druze.”
But Gantz is not preoccupied with forming a coalition, but rather with twisting the arm of Yair Lapid into joining a merged slate, so his party Yesh Atid becomes a battalion in Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael division, and so he makes do with the position of deputy chairman.
For that to happen he has to assure Lapid’s supporters that he can safeguard the secular community just as well as the son of Tommy (Lapid). Make no mistake: If Gantz wins the election and needs the Haredim as partners, he will recall his childhood in the religious elementary school and his adolescence in the Or Etzion yeshiva and the prayers he learned there.
Netanyahu is countering his rival’s threat by presenting Gantz as a “leftist.” There’s some truth to that. If we examine the positions of the two candidates in depth, we can identify two differences that place them on opposite sides of the left-right seamline in Israeli politics. Netanyahu promised that no settlement would be evacuated, and Gantz spoke only of “strengthening the [settlement] blocs.” Gantz promised to amend the nation-state law, and Netanyahu is satisfied with it as it is. Or on the famous scale of the late political adviser Arthur Finkelstein, Netanyahu is more “Jewish” and Gantz is more “Israeli.”
But cries of Netanyahu and the leading Likudniks to beware of the “left” also have a subtext: The prime minister is reminding his electorate that they suffered from an inferior status during the period of the Alignment (the forerunner of Labor), and that he is the one who elevated them to the status of “the new elites.” He is reminding them that the wheel is likely to turn back if Gantz and his ilk take the reins of government into their hands.
According to Netanyahu, Gantz’s talk of statesmanship and his disgust with “the court jesters in the government” should ignite the fears of right-wing voters and unite them once again around their leader, who is fighting the police, the state prosecutor and the “media.”
And with all the disparities between them, Gantz and Netanyahu are being cautious, at least at this stage, about opening a bloody front of personal attacks. They are continuing to signal that if the results of the election force them to cooperate, the subject is open for discussion. At least until a closed and final indictment against Netanyahu is submitted to the Jerusalem District Court.