Until 29 January 2019, the Israeli public showed little interest in the general elections scheduled for 9 April. The reason was a consensus, substantiated by most polls, indicating that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party would once again be victorious and form a new coalition that would vary little from the present one. Even the emergence of some new candidates and parties did little to sway this opinion, especially as Likud’s traditional rival, the Labor Party (Zionist Union), appeared to implode. Splits rather than mergers promised Likud a fractured opposition and further electoral success.
All that changed when the famously non-partisan Benny Gantz, Israel Defense Forces former chief of staff, finally broke his silence and presented his political views during the launch of his new party, Israel Resilience, under the patriotic slogan ‘Israel before all else’.
While the content of Gantz’s speech was interpreted in various ways, in accordance with his disavowal of being either left or right wing, his support surged. The spike was not surprising for a new party, and it is likely to decline at least a little over time. What was surprising was his populist position, identical to Netanyahu’s on security issues, but projecting honesty and anti-corruption – pointedly in contrast to Netanyahu, who is currently embroiled in a number of bribery cases. Moreover, he was centrist enough to challenge the other centrist parties, notably the more popular of them, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.
Gantz’s current position in the polls has significantly narrowed Netanyahu’s lead, marking him out as a viable contender for the country’s top job. Of the 16 parties that have appeared to date, speculation is rife about which combinations, mergers or blocs would ensure a new coalition after April. Gantz has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu government. Indeed, it has been suggested, probably accurately, that he wants to be defence minister in a Netanyahu government.
However, the question on everyone’s lips at the moment is: which bloc, centre-right or centre-left, will lose more votes to Gantz? And within this, the most discussed option is said to be an alliance or merger between Gantz’s party and Yesh Atid, provided the two leaders can agree on who would be first on the list, that is, prime minister. Since neither is likely to surrender that spot, odds are against them joining forces. There are other candidates for a merger, such as Orly Levy-Abekasis’ new socially oriented party of one (so far), along with the addition of another army general or two to Gantz’s own list.
Similarly, there are whispers of a bloc on the left, between Labour and Meretz, in hopes of gaining votes from the centre or preventing the disappearance of one or both parties due to a failure to pass the minimum threshold (3.2% of the votes) to gain a seat in the Knesset. Both parties fear that the overwhelming desire among their respective supporters is to unseat Netanyahu, and to achieve that they will vote for Gantz as the only viable candidate. Still, such an alliance seems unlikely since neither Labour nor Meretz would gain votes by joining forces, even if they were willing to do so.
There are splits and talk of mergers at the edges of the political spectrum too. The Joint List of Arab parties has already lost one of its most popular components, suggesting that this significant electoral block (the third largest in the previous elections) is losing power. In any case, only Meretz has ever declared a willingness to invite the Arab parties to join a coalition, and Meretz has never been (and most likely never will be) chosen to form a government. Until the parties all make up their lists and the 21 February deadline for registering as a party for the elections has passed, speculation will continue.
So far, this speculation is undermining discussion about the real issues facing Israelis today: the occupation, emerging apartheid, the anti-democratic nature of recent legislation, government incitement and racism. Only anti-corruption is accorded a central place and only because there are four cases pending against Netanyahu. A decision on whether he will be indicted will be announced before the elections.
With the exception of some populist nods to social issues, major candidates and parties act as if Israel were still in the 1950s, unrecognized, unaccepted and in mortal danger from its neighbours. Only strength – be it from our former chiefs of staff or ultra-nationalist, right wingers – can save us, the public is told.
In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin was willing to tell the public that things (the world, the region, Israel) had changed and that the greatest danger to the country’s future was continued occupation. The only independent party to say that today, the unabashedly left-wing Meretz, may not even get enough votes to stay in the Knesset.