The political news out of Israel over the weekend has been stunning. Let’s review, then bring in Yossi Gurvitz to explain what it all means.
First, at the last minute before Israeli party lists were finalized, centrists Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid forged a new party called Blue and White, loaded with Israeli generals who might cut into Netanyahu’s following on the right. Polls showed Blue and White at 36 seats (out of 120), far beyond Netanyahu’s Likud at 30. Though both parties would need to form a coalition of a majority or near majority to lead the government.
Next: Desperate to hold on to power (and stay out of jail too), Netanyahu supervised the merger of the rightwing Jewish Home party with the heirs of the banned Kach party — Jewish Power — to make sure that no rightwing votes would go to waste. His fear was Jewish Power would get under 3 percent of the vote, the threshhold for representation, and therefore have no seats and not be available for a coalition.
Next, The outrage at Netanyahu over the move has been unprecedented, for rehabilitating the “David Dukes” of the Israeli political scene, heirs to Meir Kahane who advocate for transfer of Palestinians to other countries. Under pressure from American Zionists, both the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC — yes AIPAC — condemned Netanyahu’s deal, without mentioning Netanyahu. AJC said that Otzma’s (Jewish Power’s) views are incompatible with the core values of Israel and are “reprehensible,” while AIPAC said they are “racist and reprehensible” and on that basis AIPAC has refused to meet with Kahanists.
We agree with AJC. AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party. https://t.co/WBkCScx4U3
— AIPAC (@AIPAC) February 22, 2019
These are unprecedented — if very narrowly crafted — public distancings from an Israeli PM these organizations empowered. Bari Weiss of the New York Times was over the moon; she said, All you anti-Zionists who say we can’t criticize Israel are wrong, see we can do it! (Evidence that we really have gotten under her skin). The Times of Israel cited leading US Jewish journalists’ anger at Netanyahu, including Bret Stephens’s endorsement of former Netanyahu water-carrier Eli Lake’s attack on the prime minister for legitimizing “hateful fanatics until recently considered beyond the pale.”
There are already indications that Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid will use the AIPAC and AJC statements in the coming campaign to argue that Netanyahu will mess around with the crown jewels — the Israeli relationship with American Jewry/the Israel lobby — in order to hold on to power.
These developments actually place Netanyahu in opposition to AIPAC. “The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom — owned by Sheldon Adelson — had a screaming headline calling AIPAC ‘irresponsible’ for getting involved in domestic politics,” Jewish Insider says. Though AIPAC has made clear that Netanyahu will speak at its policy conference in late March.
Now let’s get to interpretations of the news.
The Jewish Power merger with Jewish Home could come back to hurt Netanyahu. “Maybe it was a natural partnership but it has shocked a lot of people out of complacency about what has been going on . . . in the right wing of Israeli politics,” says Evan Gottesman of the Israel Policy Forum. He adds that if Netanyahu wins, the Trump State Department should prevent some Israeli officials from coming into the U.S. because of their affiliation with a designated terrorist group. Though “I don’t know if they know or care.”
Just the same, Netanyahu’s Likud has an easier path toward forming a coalition than anybody else. Much of the right is saying it will stick with Netanyahu — getting him very close to a majority.
And the left in Israel is utterly shattered. If you look at the polling, the entire Israeli left, including Palestinian parties, is at only 20 percent of the electorate. Labor is polling at as little as 5 seats, and Gantz and Lapid are “both careful to not be tarred by the leftist epithet which really has become an epithet in Israeli politics,” Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum says.
Then there’s what Koplow terms the “stigma” that marginalizes Palestinian voters. All Jewish parties, including Meretz, are Zionist, and most Palestinian parties are anti-Zionist. Meaning they can’t work together, and so the Gantz bloc has a built in deficit of 10 to 15 seats on the left, because it can’t sit with the Palestinian parties. (Cue Dixieland!).
Here’s the polling from Channel 12 in Israel (tweeted by Lahav Harkov):
Blue and White 36
UTJ (religious party) 7
New Right 6 (Shaked/Bennett)
Ta’al Hadash (Tibi/Odeh) 6
Joint List 6
Shas (religious Mizrahi party) 5
Yisrael Beytenu 4
Bayit Yehudi (including Jewish Power) 4
Even so, one of the most important developments of the last week was the splitting of the Palestinian Joint List, which held 13 seats in the last parliament, into two parties. Ta’al and Joint List. The Ta’al/Hadash faction is led by Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh, who have not ruled out serving as a “blocking” vote to keep Netanyahu from gaining power. Ie, if Gantz got to 55 seats and Netanyahu got to the threshhold of power with 59 seats, Taal/Hadash could say that it would vote alongside Gantz/Lapid but not join their government — because it would never wish to be a party to Gantz’s policies toward Palestinians — so as to deprive Netanyahu of the prime ministership.
This possibility has already opened the floodgates of racism from the Likud side, with Netanyahu allies suggesting that Gantz will turn to Arabs to get to power. A continuation of the famous 2015 warning by Netanyahu: Arabs are coming out to the polls in droves.
Netanyahu has been using the “Arab lover” line at every opportunity, says Yossi Gurvitz.
Here are Gurvitz’s other responses to the numbers.
Sorry to rain on everybody’s parade, but right now (goddess only knows how things will stand in April), Gantz has no path to the premiership.
Kulanu, a key centrist portion of Netanyahu’s coalition led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, has already announced it would not support Gantz (which makes sense — its voters are softer Likudniks who dislike Netanyahu, but will not let the government go “left”).
It’s not at all clear Hadash-Ta’al will support Gantz. They may participate in a blocking block, ie, prevent Netanyahu from reaching 61 seats, but even that is unlikely. For that to happen, Gantz will have to give them something, and to acknowledge them; so far he has consistently avoided doing so.
Netanyahu is using all the big guns he has to make his voters fear that blocking block with the Palestinians parties, ostensibly in order to force Gantz to commit himself to not doing so. So far Gantz hasn’t, but the big squeeze began tonight. Netanyahu has one formidable political ability: he knows the stress point of his rivals’ parties, and often manages to rattle them or even disintegrate them completely (re Kadima, the ruling party formed by Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, both gone from the scene). Gantz’s weak links are former Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon and Yair Lapid. Enough pressure on them, one of them will say something along the lines of “of course we won’t sit with Arab parties,” and Gantz will lose the Palestinians.
Update: This post has been updated at bottom, reporting the evident willingness of Lapid to ultimately join Blue and White with Netanyahu’s party.
My prognosis is that if we get to April 9th with things as they are, we’ll have a hung Knesset. Gantz will likely get first chance at creating a government because Blue and White will get the most seats, but he will fail, and after 42 days, it will be Netanyahu’s turn. In those 42 days, Netanyahu will do everything in his power to break up Blue and White, and may succeed. At the same time, elements in Likud will try (very, very quietly) to oust Netanyahu so as to position the party as part of a national unity government.
Unless . . . Unless Netanyahu makes a huge unforced error. And he may have done just that with the Kahanists.
The AIPAC denounciation is getting heavy play here, and Gantz has shown unuusal verve in attacking Netanyahu over it, but in the most respectful words. There is also significant Netanyahu fatigue on the right. That, however, is unlikely to change things.
Phil Weiss asked Gurvitz to explain the low numbers on the left.
It is pathetic. The main problem is Labour. It used to hold 24 seats. It lost at least 14, possibly 18. Those votes went over to Gantz and Lapid. The problem here is Labour leader Avi Gabay, a politician so awful people are actually wondering whether he’s a Netanyahu trojan horse within the party. It’s too late to change anything about that, though (the parties’ lists were officially sealed on Thursday). While two weeks ago, Labour seemed to be on the brink of extinction, that does not look likely at the moment. But those votes aren’t returning home. Not before Gantz making a huge mistake, in any case. And he’d be hard-pressed to top Gabay in this regard.
Meretz will be part of any blocking block. Getting into the coalition would be more problematic, though. Meretz’s party leader, Tamar Zandberg, is held in very low esteem (not to say contempt) by many in the party, and she’ll have to get some successes in the negotiations to make the party vote for moving into a government.
The election is already in high steam, with Netanyahu blaming Gantz with the death of a soldier in 2000 (awful story), and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak strangely taking a bullet for the team and saying it was his fault (he’s been dodging the issue for 19 years). Netanyahu has been lying through his teeth, and of course using the “Arab lover” line at every opportunity.
Strangely, it does not seem to work. That is, it does not move the voters. It does, however, make his followers more rabid than even their usual. This could end in violence.
Yes, the splitting of the Joint List was bad news for Netanyahu. The new Palestinian block is more amenable to a blocking block and possibly even a coalition (Tibi has been speaking about this for a while.) The Palestinian public has had enough with opposition, and the vibe – as much as I can catch it – is “we want ministers.” Ministers have the power and the purse strings.
Finally, another wild card: Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is supposed to publish his indictment decisions on the various Netanyahu scandals this week (he said he’ll do so before the end of February, but he’s very bad with deadlines). Nobody knows how this will affect the elections. No indictments, and this would enrage huge parts of the public, who already sense Netanyahu corrupted most of the system. An indictment or two, and Netanyahu can claim he is persecuted by the system. Sensible people would note he appointed both Mandelblit and the former commissioner of police, but such people are at a premium during an election!
Postscript: Tibi has ruled out being a party of a Gantz government because of Gantz bragging about slaughtering Gaza. Here is Shlomi Eldar at al-Monitor: reporting on the potential of Ta’al/Hadash to block Netanyahu.
[Ahmad Tibi of Ta’al] has not ruled out building a new bloc with parties from the center-left, which could prevent the right from forming a coalition and allow Gantz to form the next government.
In a Jan. 27 interview with Army Radio, Tibi said, “We previously had enough seats to block it [the right] in the 1990s. We were successful then, and we will have no problem re-creating that success.” Tibi was referring to the 1992 elections, after which Yitzhak Rabin formed a narrow left-wing government of his Labor Party and Meretz, with outside support from Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party (headed by Abdulwahab Darawshe, formerly of Labor).
And Evan Gottesman says that Hadash and Ta’al have a “decent chance of attracting not insignificant number of leftwing Jewish votes.” Hadash reserves a few seats on its list for Israeli Jews, one of whom will likely get in. The softspoken Dov Khenin held that seat in the last parliament. The new Jew on the block is Ofer Cassif, a Hebrew University professor who has called the Israeli Zionist regime the heir to Nazi Germany. It will be interesting, Gottesman says, to see how that plays with Hadash’s Jewish base.
Update: Yossi Gurvitz reports the news on Monday Feb. 25 in Israel. About an hour ago, Lapid announced Blue White won’t create a blocking block with the Palestinians, but will ask Likud for a national unity government. It’s basically game over.
And, in response, Blue and White is now congregating all their nominees in order to “speak about content” with the leading candidates. They’ve also decided to “minimize interviews in the media.”