After months of speculation, it’s official: former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has declared his desire to run for office in the upcoming national elections, whenever they may be held. Such a decision should hardly come as a surprise to observers of the Israeli political scene, given the many times Gantz has hinted at throwing his hat into the ring. The only question that remained was how he would go about doing so. Given his widespread popularity, Gantz had a bevy of options from which to choose: start off on his own, or join an existing center-left or center-right party, all of whom would be more than happy to have him on their slate. As of now, it seems Gantz has settled on the former, yet the establishment of a new party doesn’t preclude joining forces with someone else later down the road.
Left-leaning voters may be initially heartened by talk of Gantz’s decision given his military background and his moderate politics. As opposed to a figure like Moshe Ya’alon who has been cast out of the Likud but still considers himself part of the right-wing bloc, Gantz is a fitting figure for many to project their ideal of a liberal warrior-statesman in the same mold of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an individual often celebrated as a perfect synthesis between cold-eyed realism and pragmatic liberalism who might also appeal to soft-right voters troubled at what their political camp has become. However, if polls are anything to go by, it hardly bodes well for their fantasy of finally taking down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rather than siphon off votes from the right, Gantz’s solo entry would help accelerate another round of political cannibalization on the left, and with it another victory for the rightist bloc.
Gantz is but one individual and his initial decision to go it alone speaks to a much wider problem evident in the political center and left that has prevented a concentrated effort toward unseating Netanyahu from ever coming to fruition. Despite the oft-heard complaint that there is no one capable of taking on the prime minister’s seeming hegemony over the leadership of the country, there are in fact quite a few candidates including Gantz who fancy themselves future leaders of the left: former Prime Minister Ehud Barak who has spent the better part of the last few years lambasting Netanyahu and has since mulled returning to politics, current Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, and fellow former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who has been somewhat cagey about entering the field, among others.
It’s fair to point out, of course, that any number of these individuals have their own baggage weighing them down, to say nothing of shunning the Palestinian-Israeli-led Joint List, further complicating efforts to put together a majority of seats. Some of these challenges might actually be dealt with if there were some or any consensus regarding the candidate of choice to do so. Yet with the exception of Hatnua Chairwoman Tzipi Livni, who has signaled her openness in standing aside as head of this theoretical grouping of parties, none of the possible candidates have been willing to compromise their place as leader of the bloc. Some, like Lapid, have even explicitly ruled out building a cross-party alliance, fearing that to do so would politically taint them. Instead of concluding that crowding the political scene with yet another party, or fashioning themselves as the only one capable of taking down the prime minister are short-sighted tactics, many of these individuals believe that perhaps they can wait out their rivals. This is especially glaring in the case of figures like Gantz, who, despite their stellar reputations, are politically untested, and may find that they fare far worse in the Knesset than on the battlefield.
The right, conversely, has clearly had no such problem over the course of the last decade in coalescing around a single figure. Netanyahu, for many politicians and voters alike, is the gift that keeps on giving, and has, clichés painting him as some sort of miracle worker notwithstanding, managed to deliver victory after victory. As opposed to the left’s wide array of possible candidates, Netanyahu has spent years preventing even those loyal to him and his rule from amassing an iota of power, forcing those aspiring Likudniks to perpetually delay their play for party leadership. And despite talk of threats from outside the party and their one-upping of the prime minister during coalition negotiations in 2015, upstarts like Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked seem to have proven no match for Netanyahu’s political prowess, and, more importantly the image he projects of being irreplaceable, even to right-wing voters sympathetic to Bennett and Shaked. Simply put, many on the right understand that Netanyahu is their meal ticket, and will continue to prop him up at any cost as long as he continues to pay electoral dividends, mounting corruption charges be damned.
Yet perhaps what makes the right so successful in uniting despite its myriad views regarding the future of the West Bank, annexation, and its own internal power struggles is a simple unifying message of fear. It is easy to point out that the nationalist right has employed scare tactics in order to consolidate its power and radicalize its base, but, just as we’ve seen in the United States, Israeli politicians seem to have fallen for their own rhetoric, envisioning the left’s ascent in near apocalyptic terms; we witnessed this used to devastating effect in 2015, when a nascent takedown of the rightist bloc was turned around at the last minute by Netanyahu’s racist entreaty to get out and vote. Ironically enough, even in not standing for something concrete, the right seems to have defined itself against what it is not, and what it believes the country cannot become.
The left too fears the right’s worldview, and regularly makes plain its opposition to the coalition’s policies that have slowly come to erode democratic norms. Yet for all of its complaints and its genuine fears of creeping illiberalism, the left’s inability to come together in times of crisis not only robs it of mandates, but sends a dangerous message to its constituents: pride of place in the bloc’s hierarchy seems to trump the dangers befalling Israel. This cynicism is only exacerbated by the very real possibility that a number of these parties might gladly join a future Likud-led government if the price is right.
It has long been a trope that the right, and by extension, Netanyahu, is an unbeatable force that will continue to win elections far into the future. However unfair or inaccurate a prediction, the left’s continued inability to put ego aside for the sake of the country and the seeming willingness of its parts to get in bed with a rightist coalition will only strengthen such a possibility. With elections looming on the horizon, it’s imperative that the bloc learn from its past mistakes and rally around a single figure, whatever his or her flaws may be.