Two dramatic images, two defining moments in the 2019 Israeli election.
The first, a picture of Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Yaalon announcing the much anticipated merger of Kantz’s Resilience Party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid into a new Blue and White party.
The second, a picture of Jewish Home party leaders joyfully approving a merger with Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, a noxious crew of racist thugs and disciples of Meir Kahane.
If this election ultimately hinges on a few hundred thousand moderate right Likud voters abandoning Likud and voting for the new Blue and White party, these two images represent the push and pull factors that could change the election.
Will Benjamin Netanyahu’s role helping to get a party of racists elected to the Knesset act as a repellent and push moderate Likud voters away? Does the Gantz-Lapid merger present a compelling centrist vision on security that will pull those voters to the new party?
The creation of the Blue and White party by Gantz, Lapid, Ashkenazi and Yaalon represents a very significant challenge to Netanyahu’s Likud. Within hours of the party’s formation the opinion polls were predicting it would win 35 seats to Likud’s 30 but Likud still has a better chance of forming a coalition due to the greater strength of its allies on the right.
If Blue White have any chance of forming the next Government they need to be edging up into the high 30s and pushing Likud down into the mid 20s. Bibi’s response to the merger showed he was rattled.
Seasoned Israeli journalists who have followed his every move for years reported that his speech was rambling and repetitive. In every statement he has uttered the simple mantra that they are leftists who will rely on the Arab parties to form a Government.
How successful is that message going to be?
The problem for Bibi is that the security credentials of the merged party are impeccable. Three former chiefs of staff who command respect and win trust. The real test for them is how skilfully they can make the transition from talking about defence and security in uniform to talking about it as civilian politicians and how they handle the constant attacks on their record and their future intentions. Above all, voters want to know who is in charge.
If they win, Gantz will be prime minister for two-and-a-half years and then hand over to Lapid. If they can’t decide who their leader is then Israelis may be reluctant to support them.
Since the start of the election campaign Benjamin Netanyahu has been obsessed with the concept of lost votes. In the Israeli system, if a party fails to win 3.25 per cent of the vote then they do not win any Knesset seats and their votes are effectively wasted. When Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked formed the New Right their former party, Jewish Home, was losing support.
Although polls have consistently shown that Netanyahu will form the next coalition, the margins are tight and the loss of just four seats could be fatal. Faced with the problem of how to boost Jewish Home, Netanyahu came up with an ingenious, unexpected but toxic solution.
He worked behind the scenes to facilitate a merger between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit a small party who hold noxious racist views towards Arabs and cleave to the abhorrent ideas of Meir Kahane’s Kach party which is illegal in Israel and banned as a terrorist organisation in Europe and the US. Jewish Home were even offered the Education Ministry in a future Government if they went ahead with the merger.
For some political analysts in Israel, Netanyahu’s matchmaking was just politics. A desperate scramble for votes to secure a right wing Government, even if it meant scraping the dregs from the bottom of the barrel. But for others this is a new low.
Naftali Bennett said the Kahanists have no place in the Knesset and Avigdor Lieberman said he would shun them. Meretz, Labour and Yesh Atid have filed a motion for the Central Elections Committee to ban Otzma Yehudit candidates because they incite racism.
Otzma Yehudit’s policy platform includes a proposal that non-Jews should be encouraged to emigrate from Israel and that Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty to a Jewish state, which they consider to include the West Bank, should be expelled.
This is a party whose leaders have a history of incitement to racial hatred and encouraging violent attacks on Palestinians. They openly supported Baruch Goldstein after he murdered 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.
For the old National Religious Party to agree to such a merger is a stunning ideological race to the bottom and its founders will be turning in their graves. For Benjamin Netanyahu, who claims to be a responsible leader who cares passionately about the future of the State of Israel, it is inexcusable.
Originally published in The Times of Israel