I wrote this in late February 2019.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Israelis awoke on Thursday morning, February 2 with news that three former generals and a populist centrist political leader were joining forces to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In power for almost a decade, Netanyahu looked unbeatable in polls up until the alliance of Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilence party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. It gives hope to voters in the center and left that change is coming in Jerusalem.
Gantz served as Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2011 to 2015, leading the army during the last Gaza war. He was proceeded by Gabi Ashkenazi, who has also joined this new political alliance. Moshe Ya’alon, the former defense minister who was also Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2005, joined the three other men for a photo published February 21. If all goes well between now and the April 9 elections, they could receive slightly over 30 seats in the 120 seat parliament, enough to form a governing coalition.
The general’s party is making history for a variety of reasons. At a time when women are increasingly playing a major role in Israeli politics, it is a very male party. It is also unprecendented to include three of the last six chiefs of staff in one party. Israel has had generals in the past who became politicians, former chief of staff Ehud Barack was Prime Minister in the 1990s and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak served as a minister of tourism and transport. Ytizhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon came from military backgrounds. But this coalition will appear heavy on the fatigues, and a bit light on other substance.
The three generals have partnered with Yair Lapid whose party has performed well in the last two elections. A former popular TV presenter, his party has appealed to middle class centrist voters. Broadly speaking it tends towards populism rather than talk of peace or left-leaning policies, but it is critical of the growing power of the Orthodox Jewish religious establishment. Lapid has positioned himself well to take advantage of a voting block of younger, secular voters who have gravitated towards Israel’s high-tech cities near the coast grouped around Tel Aviv. This is the new Israel, the one that is innovative and wants to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aside.
Netanyahu has been able to navigate Israel’s complex coalition politics by managing the center and right wing parties that form his governments. While the Israeli electorate has deserted the traditional Labor party, likely to decline into the single digits in this election, it has sought out centrist politics. Netanyahu has succeeded in weakening that center by playing it off against the religious and right wing blocks, forcing them all to rely on him to broker coalitions between them. Netanyahu has also capitalized on his image of “Mr. Security” to pose as the politician most trusted to handle Israel’s growing tensions with countries like Iran in the Middle East. He has been largely successful at avoiding a new conflict with the Palestinians and instead managing the tensions with Hamas in Gaza.
Now Netanyahu is outflanked on his security image by all the generals. Two of these generals served him as Chief of Staff and the third was his defense minister. It is hard for him to critique them on their handling of the last wars, given that he was in charge. Nevertheless Netanyahu’s Likud has sought to portray Gantz as “weak” and too far left. Allies called the generals “clowns.”
The public likely won’t be fooled by this. The IDF is Israel’s most trusted institution and in a country where a majority of men and women serve in the army, it’s hard to convince them that their former commanders were “weak” or too far left.
To shore up support Netanyahu has sought out alliances on the more extreme right, among religious groups and residents of the West Bank, some whom want Israel to annex the West Bank and all of which oppose a Palestinian state. But this voting group may not be enough to get Netanyahu the votes he needs. Instead Israel appears headed to a historic election and a chance at a a major change in government after ten years.