Analysis |

Israel Election: Gantz, Sa'ar Force Three-way Race, Threatening Both Lapid and Netanyahu

With their newly announced alliance, Gideon Sa'ar and Benny Gantz hope to create an alternative to Netanyahu's right and Lapid's left, asking Israeli voters not to wait for the last moment to cast a 'strategic' vote

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Benny Gantz (right) and Gideon Sa'ar preparing to announce their joint run in Israel's November 1 election, at a press briefing in a suburb of Tel Aviv on Sunday.
Benny Gantz (right) and Gideon Sa'ar preparing to announce their joint run in Israel's November 1 election, at a press briefing in a suburb of Tel Aviv on Sunday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Lawmakers Gideon Sa’ar and Benny Gantz have been talking for several months now.

It's not all about Bibi: Election Overdose returns

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The deal on a joint run in Israel's November 1 election was finalized on Friday in the defense minister’s office in Tel Aviv. Nobody knew, nobody heard anything.

Something that seemed inconceivable until five or six years ago, a center-right party and a center-left party uniting, now seems necessary and responsible given the reality of recent years – that is, anyone but Bibi. Or Smotrich. Or Ben-Gvir.

This was the supreme goal for which the so-called “government of change” was formed – a government that included both Yamina and the United Arab List, both Meretz and New Hope. The glue that united this bizarre political beast, which survived for only a year, back in June 2021 remains relevant in the upcoming election, and perhaps even more so. Gantz and Sa’ar saw and heard Netanyahu and his buddies in the Knesset, understood their plans and took action.

Their confidants – Zeev Elkin from New Hope and Chili Tropper from Kahol Lavan, along with some legal experts – were brought into the picture after the Knesset’s dissolution was announced.

There was never any real bad blood between these two. Ideologically, their differences are well known – a Palestinian state vs. Israeli-Palestinian separation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the nation-state law. But those can wait.

What they have in common is also well known – a statesmanlike approach, liberalism, respect for the rule of law and strengthening the justice system, and a deep revulsion for the extremes on both sides.

And of course, first and foremost, the fact that if Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc wins a majority in the Knesset, the cloud that would descend upon Israel is both men’s nightmare, to the exact same extent.

Supporters of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at a rally in Jerusalem, in April. The signs read, 'Today, more than ever, we need a leader. Return.'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The logic underlying the move is simple – to create a significant force that will be located in the center of the political map, between Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz to the left and Likud, Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox parties to the right. By forming a joint ticket, Sa’ar helped Gantz separate from the “Lapid bloc” (which the Kahol Lavan chairman actually never acknowledged belonging to), pushed Yesh Atid leftward and created a three-way race for the prime minister’s job.

Lapid was the big loser Sunday night, though there was nothing he could have done but hope for zero mergers right of his own party and left of Likud. The message Gantz and Sa’ar conveyed Sunday night could be summed up in a single sentence – don’t wait until the last minute to cast a vote “strategically”; decide now.

The merger could be the game-changer of the 2022 election, just as Kahol Lavan itself was a few years ago. But it also might not be. The burden of proof is on the two gentlemen.

Netanyahu also gained no satisfaction from this move. The most convenient format for him is a binary race, him against Lapid (that is, “the left and the Arabs”).

Gantz and Sa’ar are trying to disrupt his battle plan by creating a third alternative. It will first try to keep Netanyahu’s bloc from winning a Knesset majority and then make it easier to form a “broad unity government” (that will be their slogan) with the ultra-Orthodox, led by Gantz as prime minister.

Gantz couldn’t do that with a single-digit party. The experience with Naftali Bennett’s Yamina actually proved that. Bennett became prime minister with six Knesset seats (one of his original seven vanished even before the coalition negotiations finished). His resultant lack of public legitimacy, the Achilles’ heel most useful to the opposition.

To build something stable and functional, the party asked to form the next government must have a significant number of seats. A double-digit number is a start. And there’s another necessary condition – the candidate to head a “broad unity government” must be a consensus candidate insofar as possible. In other words, not Lapid.

Some people think Gantz and Sa’ar were premature. The election is 114 days away; that’s a long time. Why not wait until mid-September?

Their answer is that they had no choice. The binary battle between Netanyahu and Lapid was inbuilt due to the latter’s status as the caretaker prime minister. The funnel effect of a head-to-head race would have endangered New Hope, and maybe even Kahol Lavan. Gantz and Sa’ar decided they had to create facts on the ground, immediately.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Sunday.Credit: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

It was cruel to Lapid. Gantz presumably enjoyed every moment. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say he has been fantasizing about this moment for more than a year.

That’s less true for Sa’ar. He’s friends with Lapid. They worked well together in maintaining the outgoing government. But in politics, and especially during a fateful election (yes, it’s fateful), sentiment gets pushed aside.

One person who thought his star was shining brightly but has seen it extinguished with almost incidental coldness is Yoaz Hendel. The communications minister portrays himself as a robbed Cossack. But he has no case.

The agreement his Derech Eretz party signed with New Hope was for the outgoing Knesset, and it was scrupulously honored. Hendel and Zvi Hauser insisted on maintaining their own party to preserve their options. That’s legitimate, but options are a double-edged sword.

They hitched good rides on Moshe Ya’alon, Gantz and Sa’ar (each in turn). Now, their momentum has stalled. It’s true that Gantz didn’t even want to hear about the two philosophers who once prevented him from forming a government “because of the Arabs.” But Sa’ar also had no difficulty parting from them. He didn’t even fight to the first bullet.

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