By Mati Tuchfeld
The current election campaign is giving many people a sense that, unlike the last three years, there won’t be another on its heels. This time, things will be different, and not only if Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc secure 61 seats. This time, something will happen that will upset everything and allow the system to put a stable, functioning government in place.
No one can explain exactly what this will be. Will the haredim leave the right-wing bloc? Will there be a revolt in the Likud? Will a party from the anti-Netanyahu bloc give in and join a Netanyahu government? It’s not clear, but that doesn’t change people’s sense of things.
This sense of change in the air was the primary motivation behind the New Hope-Blue and White merger. Of course, there was also the strong sense that New Hope wouldn’t make it past the electoral threshold by itself. But for some time, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has been walking around feeling like he missed out, that his commitment to his bloc has come at a very high price. He is the only coalition party leader who wasn’t promoted, even though he was also the only one who could have switched sides.
Gantz turned down offers of a rotating premiership, despite warnings from the haredi parties. Not out of any heroic sense of devotion, but because he was afraid of the media. He had already gone over to the other side once and suffered for it.
But Gantz hasn’t shelved his dream of becoming prime minister. He thinks that this election could bring him the opportunity of his life. While Netanyahu and Lapid will prefer to fight their battles in public, Gantz thinks that the real fight isn’t between Lapid and Netanyahu, but rather between himself and Netanyahu. He believes that Netanyahu will have one chance to form a government, and if he can’t, the mandate will go to Gantz.
Gideon Sa’ar sees things the same way. If he wants to be part of a future coalition, he should bet on Gantz, not Lapid. They both saw the strong message coming from Netanyahu’s circle over these past two weeks, which was a direct attack on Lapid, saying he will form a government with the Joint List.
On one hand, Netanyahu knows that brutal, extremist attacks are off-putting to the moderate right, the ones who voted for Yamina and New Hope in the last election. Netanyahu wouldn’t waste much time on them if he wasn’t in critical need of their votes. To win their support, he needs to tone it down and muzzle the people in the Likud who spark antagonism like David Amsalem or Miri Regev.
On the other hand, Netanyahu can pick up other votes, like the people who didn’t vote last time around. The way to wake up apathetic Likudniks is to lay into his rivals: the left, Lapid, the legal system, the media and all the rest of the right’s sworn enemies. The problem is that a campaign tailored to those voters will repel the others and vice versa.
Over the last two weeks, Netanyahu has found the perfect formula: the claim that Lapid cannot form a government without the Joint List. This message has no need for crude rhetoric or hyperbole, and all the studio pundits will have to agree with it, because it happens to be true.
For Netanyahu, the Gantz-Sa’ar merger is a complication. It’s a third possibility for a government, without the Joint List. Right now, as long as Gantz and Sa’ar are polling in the double digits, Gantz’s candidacy for prime minister can gain traction in terms of their message. If they poll in the single digits, they’ll need to rethink their strategy. We’ve already had a prime minister with only six mandates, but it wasn’t a success that Gantz can point to as an example.
Netanyahu can try to paint the new Gantz-Sa’ar list as part of the left, and possibly take a few of the right-wing voters Sa’ar brought with him. The prevailing belief, however, is that Netanyahu will focus on criticizing Lapid.
Still, Gantz has a long way to go before he becomes prime minister. Assuming he isn’t tempted to join forces with the Joint List, conditions will have to be right for him to execute his plan. First, the haredim would have to defect from the right-wing bloc. This might be easier for United Torah Judaism, but when it comes to Shas, it’s much more complicated.
The UTJ haredim, particularly those from the Degel Hatorah faction, have already made it clear to Netanyahu that, if it is up to them, there will be no sixth election. They want a government, with him or without him. At the moment, “without him” looks impossible, but both UTJ and Blue and White think that if Netanyahu fails to form a government this time around, something will shift and the Likud will become restive. There could even be a party revolt. And they believe there is already a coalition that could be formed. It includes the haredi factions and Blue and White, without radical players like Yisrael Beiteinu, Ra’am or the Joint List. The Likud would share power with Gantz, but not Lapid. This, UTJ and Blue and White think, could change the map.
And if it doesn’t, if Netanyahu loses, they think he will double down on his attempts to reach a plea deal in his corruption case, which could force him to leave politics. If they’re wrong, Gantz can forget about being prime minister, and there would be yet another election.
The primary motivation of all the parties outside the right-wing camp is to keep Netanyahu out of government. If it comes down to forming a shaky coalition, another election or joining a Netanyahu government, they would all opt for one of the first two options. At least, everyone but Ayelet Shaked, whom the “anyone but Bibi” camp counts as part of Netanyahu’s bloc.
Meanwhile, this week Labor members will vote between current party leader Meirav Michaeli and party secretary Eran Hermoni, who is much preferred by the old guard. In recent years, Hermoni has fought against attempts to change the party’s constitution, empty the party institutions of value and take away any vestiges of democracy. For the most part, he has failed. The traditional party activists see him as a better representative of Labor values, but Michaeli as the one who can bring in the votes.
Unlike Hermoni, Michaeli continues to insist that Labor will not run on a joint ticket with any other left-wing party, despite warnings from senior Meretz officials, who are following the polls with concern. After Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz resigned, Yair Golan appears to be the last man standing, and with all due respect to Golan, despite his venomous attacks on the right, many in the party still see him as a symbol of the “occupation” and militarism in Israeli society.
The Meretz top brass know their voters, so they are doing everything they can to persuade former party leader Zehava Gal-On to come back and take the wheel. Since she resigned from politics, Gal-On’s comments have become harsher and more bitter, but for the Meretz leadership she would still be preferable to a former general.
Mati Tuchfeld is Israel Hayom’s senior political correspondent. This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.