Analysis |

The Slow Fraying of Gantz's Party Has Turned Into a Panicked Flight

Former TLV Mayor Huldai's new party steals Gantz's justice minister, and his thunder, as it aims to consolidate its position as a serious left-wing alternative to Netanyahu

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Avi Nissenkorn and Benny Gantz in 2019
Avi Nissenkorn and Benny Gantz in 2019Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

“I’m finished with Benny,” Avi Nissenkorn told his associates as he left Kahol Lavan 10 days ago. His decision came after he was summoned to his party chairman’s home only to find former minister Haim Ramon – who seeks to reform the courts – sitting on the sofa. Gantz informed the shocked justice minister that Ramon was his representative in negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the short time that has elapsed since the Justice Minister decided to part ways from Benny Gantz, he has already attracted a series of high-profile suitors, and his indecision left them on tenterhooks. He met with Yair Lapid and Ron Huldai, both of whom have courted him assiduously. Over the following week, he changed his mind more than once.

Huldai was left on ice. So was Lapid, who offered him a piece of his kingdom very similar to what Huldai offered – number two in Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, a national campaign in which Nissenkorn would be billed as the next justice minister, and the chance to put two of his loyalists high enough on the ticket to have a realistic chance of being elected.

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But after several conversations with Gantz, most recently on Monday, Nissenkorn changed his mind again. He had heard Gantz say he planned to cooperate with the right, including the Yamina party, and that sealed his decision.

The rest happened on Tuesday. He chose Huldai primarily because he feared that under Lapid he would have to align his talking points with the “center” while winking at the right. Nissenkorn wouldn’t be comfortable with this.

Meanwhile, prime time television Tuesday night was devoted to two performances. One was by Gantz, who announced that he would remain head of the Kahol Lavan party in hopes of being a cog in the machine that would oust Netanyahu. The second was by Huldai, who launched his Hayisraelim party together with Nissenkorn.

As in a previous evening of competing speeches, by Naftali Bennett and Zeev Elkin, this time, too, the second announcement stole the first’s thunder.

Nissenkorn and Ron Huldai, December 29, 2020Credit: Miracle Productions

Huldai, who has been mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa for 22 years, was at his best – angry and scolding. Together with Nissenkorn, and perhaps also Ofer Shelah, Tzipi Livni and Amos Yadlin, as well as two of the three latest departures from Kahol Lavan (Asaf Zamir, Miki Haimovich and Ram Shefa), this could potentially be a left-wing Zionist party with considerable heft.

The new party, Hayisraelim, could well endanger the existence of Meretz, whose chairman Nitzan Horowitz will therefore have to think very carefully about whether to run alone or create a joint ticket with Huldai and company. Meanwhile, the new party could also push the dying remnants of Kahol Lavan below the electoral threshold.

After all, logic dictates there’s room for only one left-wing party between Yesh Atid and the Joint List. Huldai and Nissenkorn also hope to swallow up the rest of the Labor Party. They will find space on their ticket for Labor’s two current ministers, Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, even though only the second is still an asset, while the first is pure encumbrance.

Nissenkorn also considered reaching out to former Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, a onetime bitter rival who now publicly supports him and his policies, and suggesting that she return to politics. But so far, he hasn’t done so, and Yacimovich doesn’t intend to return in any case.

The breakup of Kahol Lavan, which began when it entered Netanyahu’s government in May, has become a panicked flight. Gabi Ashkenazi is also expected to announce on Wednesday that he won’t remain in the party. He too, has had enough of the experience of serving under Gantz.

The party that was the largest in the Knesset after the second of our three recent elections has already split up once, and what remains of Gantz's party is breaking apart like a piece of Ikea furniture put together by Mr. Bean. The former faction that saved itself from the tarnish of serving in a Netanyahu government – led by Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon – is also expected to split.

Kahol Lavan’s goodbye to Nissenkorn was one of the ugliest ever seen in Israel. Gantz’s spokespeople managed to sink even lower than Netanyahu’s did in saying goodbye to Gideon Sa’ar and Elkin, labelling him a “traitor” who “stuck a knife in our back” and saying “Huldai should watch his back.”

Anyone unfamiliar with the sequence of events might have thought the justice minister was responsible for the party’s plummet in the polls, its laxity, its shameful actions and its repeated defeats by Netanyahu. But the opposite is true. Nissenkorn, the gray activist from the Histadrut labor federation, became the shining star in the crown, while Kahol Lavan’s two former military chiefs of staff lost their luster and were ground to dust.

There probably won’t be any other prime time announcements about the establishment of brand-new, interesting parties. Now is the moment for the polls, which will adjust each party’s price upward or downward based on their negotiations over joint tickets.

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