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Israel Election: Netanyahu's Party Is Counting on Gantz

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, September 17, 2019.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, September 17, 2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum, Ofer Vaknin
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

After achieving its goal of toppling the government, Israel’s largest party is preparing for elections. Likud’s primary will take place soon, probably in the first week of August, and members of the party’s central committee are promising big surprises.

They are talking about an unbridled downgrade of people who were once considered shoo-ins for the top five slots on Likud’s Knesset slate – Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz, Nir Barkat and Miri Regev – and of daring promotions for Amir Ohana, Galit Distal Atbaryan, David Amsalem and Shlomo Karhi. Everyone has their own internal polls, but nobody knows how valid they are, who commissioned them or in general how much they really mean.

Nevertheless, amid all this chaos, every one of my Likud sources keeps reiterating two things. The first is that party leader Benjamin Netanyahu is determined not to help any of his Knesset members and is making fairly substantial efforts to uphold that resolution. For instance, when I asked about the state of his relationship with Amsalem after their latest vitriolic argument, a senior party official said this relationship, though really not great, is nevertheless a relationship of some kind, in contrast to the commander’s lack of a relationship with any of his other foot soldiers.

Netanyahu’s tirade against Amsalem – due to the fact that the latter didn’t entirely rule out future cooperation with the United Arab List as part of a governing coalition – was less against Amsalem himself and more against the loss of seats to the Religious Zionism party. The latter is gradually becoming MK Itamar Ben-Gvir’s party, given his growing strength among Likud voters.

The second consensus – which is both more important and more interesting – is that absolutely no one in Likud, from the most junior member to the most senior, failed to cite Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz, the current defense minister, as the person they are counting on to complete the tally of 61 Knesset seats that Netanyahu needs to form a government.

Likud’s complete confidence that Gantz will join such a government is strange, since he holds an extremely bitter personal grudge against Netanyahu. The campaigns the Likud leader waged against the former IDF chief of staff in previous elections were the most shocking ever seen here and exacted a heavy toll on Gantz.

And that’s not even to mention Gantz’s participation in a unity government under Netanyahu, which turned him from the leader of an entire bloc to the leader of a niche party supported by fans of state-funded pensions for career officers and lovers of those good old songs from the state’s early days (though he deserves credit for consistently maintaining his strength in the polls).

So why would Gantz repeat this mistake and be tempted to buy a unicycle from the person who shoved him into the trunk for a wild ride and threw him out somewhere in the wilderness with no cellphone reception?

Likud members explained this possibility by projecting from their leader’s emotional world – who cares what happened in the past, who was offended and who was hurt? Gantz isn’t built for fighting from the opposition benches, and he won’t readily part from the Defense Ministry. They predicted that throughout the campaign, Gantz will promise not to crown Bibi but refrain from saying explicitly that he won’t sit in a Netanyahu-led government.

The only thing left to do was ask the sought-after bride. Gantz’s associates said he has received “crazy offers” in recent days to convince him to enter a Netanyahu-led government, but were careful to say in the same breath that they didn’t believe a word of them.

They reiterated with mechanical apathy that no such thing will ever happen; they will not sit in a government with Netanyahu under any circumstances. They claimed that Gantz is very popular among Likud and ultra-Orthodox voters, and therefore, Netanyahu is trying to forcibly embrace him and bring him into his own bloc.

At the moment, Gantz is doing well in the polls on his own compared to wiped-out Meretz; sinking Labor; crumbling Yamina; Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which has yet to break through the five-seat ceiling; and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, which is crawling on its belly around the electoral threshold.

If Gantz unites with Sa’ar, that would make a clear statement that would shatter the dreamworld Likud members are living in once and for all. If not, then it’s worth keeping an eye on this energetic courtship.

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