Netanyahu Might Be the Best Hope for Israel’s Center-Left

For Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, joining a Likud-led government could be a more appealing option than the alternative.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-army chief of staff Benny Gantz during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on July 28, 2014.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-army chief of staff Benny Gantz during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on July 28, 2014. (GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)

The ghosts of two past elections loom over Israel’s upcoming general election on April 9: 1977 and 1992. The 1977 election was a watershed in Israeli politics. Until that year, the Labor Party which had—in its various iterations—built the country and its institutions, enjoyed full hegemony over the worlds of government, business, and other centers of power. The mood was “l’etat, c’est nous,” and the left’s rule was expected to last for a long time.

But in 1977, voters, in particular those of Jewish Middle-Eastern heritage, shocked the party and elected in its place the right-wing Likud party led by Menachem Begin, who appealed to those who felt ignored by the Labor establishment. The hope on the Israeli left was that 1977 was an anomaly; it wasn’t. This anomaly has lasted 42 years, with a few interruptions. And as things stand, it is likely to continue after the April 9 elections.

In Israel’s parliamentary system, voters elect 120 members to the Knesset. The candidate who garners the support of 61 members becomes prime minister. Current polls estimate that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s potential right-wing coalition will win between 60 and 65 seats, while his opponent Benny Gantz’s potential center-left coalition would have only 45 to 50 seats, with 10 to 12 seats going to the two parties representing Israel’s Arab population. Therefore, Gantz’s only possible road to 61 is through the support of those Arab parties, whose platform is not a Zionist one—the uniting thread of Israeli Jewish society. For that reason, Gantz stated that he would not partner with them.

While Netanyahu has an easier path to 61, he too runs into trouble when it comes to the nature of his potential partners. Concerned about a split in the vote of the national-religious population— Orthodox Jews strongly identified with the settlement movement—Netanyahu muscled the Jewish Home and National Union parties into forming a united front with the Jewish Power party, which is considered racist and beyond the pale even in Israel’s far-right circles. The combined list, called the Union of Right-Wing Parties, has virtually ensured the election of at least one Jewish Power member. This move was broadly condemned, including by leading U.S. Jewish organizations.

Then, on March 17, Israel’s Supreme Court disqualified Jewish Power’s leader from running based on comments he made questioning Arab citizens’ loyalty to Israel, but another member of the party is still likely to make it into the Knesset. Netanyahu is not likely, however, to include a Jewish Power member in his coalition; he didn’t in 2009, and will try to avoid doing so now. Moreover, the Union of Right-Wing Parties could split after the election—allowing Netanyahu to pick and choose who is appropriate for his cabinet. If he refuses to partner with a party widely condemned as racist, then Netanyahu’s 61-seat threshold effectively becomes 62.

If Gantz reaches 61 with the help of the Arab parties, a long shot by current polls, he has a playbook to follow: that of 1992. Then, the Labor Party, led by Yitzhak Rabin, and the Arab parties together managed to reach the 61-seat threshold. Rabin did not bring the five members of the Arab parties into his government. Instead, he leveraged their support to negotiate a deal with Shas, one of the ultra-Orthodox parties; after Shas left his coalition, he relied on the Arab parties’ support outside of a formal coalition.

Courting the ultra-Orthodox isn’t likely to work this time. Gantz has essentially denied himself this possibility by teaming up with Yair Lapid, the archrival of the ultra-Orthodox who pledged to draft them into the military—a hugely controversial policy in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox Jews have long been exempt from service—and cut subsidies to their educational institutions. The ultra-Orthodox parties have all stated unequivocally that they would support Netanyahu and not join a Gantz-Lapid coalition.

Gantz is therefore holding out hope for a split on the right. Even with Netanyahu’s brokered union of Jewish Power with the other nationalist-religious parties, there are still four right-wing parties that, according to polls, risk falling short of the 3.25 percent minimum threshold needed to win any seats in the Knesset. If these parties—Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu, Zehut, and Shas—all fail, Netanyahu’s coalition could lose 10 to 12 seats. This would be a repeat of 1992. That year, three right-wing parties whose members were partners in outgoing Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s coalition fell short of the threshold, helping Rabin win.

The Gantz campaign’s focus on Netanyahu’s pending indictment on corruption charges is also reminiscent of 1992, when Labor’s slogan—“Corrupt people, we’ve had enough!”—painted Likud as corrupt based on various criminal investigations involving members of its coalition. Yet these days, Netanyahu’s supporters seem unfazed by his pending indictment. They view it as a 25-year smear campaign against the prime minister and his family in the media and justice system. If Netanyahu manages to get re-elected, with the public being fully aware of the indictment and its 57 pages of details, removing him could be perceived as an extraordinary negation of the people’s will.

And so, those three pillars of the 1992 victory—attracting swing voters through allegations of corruption, the right losing seats due to splits, and leveraging a 61-seat blocking coalition by using the Arab parties to draw in the ultra-Orthodox parties—are not likely to work in 2019. This should lead to a long-term reassessment on the left. Indeed, voters on the left must recognize that over time, realistically, Netanyahu’s successor may not be Gantz or Lapid but rather somebody from the far-right.

Since 1977, Israel’s demographics have shifted to the right. Today, about 55 percent of Israeli Jews are either ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, or somewhat religiously traditional—populations that vote overwhelmingly for the right. Meanwhile, the secular minority’s vote is split, and while the Arab vote tilts overwhelmingly left, with just 20 percent of the population and lower turnout, it is not enough to dent what is becoming Israel’s permanent right-wing majority.

Gantz has implicitly acknowledged this trend by using the slogan “There is no more right or left” and positioning himself as what critics on the far-left see as a Netanyahu clone. Indeed, Gantz and Lapid’s Blue and White party’s campaign does not focus on replacing Netanyahu due to his right-wing policies but rather due to his allegedly corrupt conduct.

But they should be careful what they wish for. A challenge to Netanyahu from the right might come sooner than anticipated, as the Trump administration prepares to unveil its “deal of the century” on Middle East peace sometime after the elections. Leaders to the right of Netanyahu, such as Naftali Bennett, have already expressed strong reservations about the pending peace plan.

Other possible successors to Netanyahu, such as the popular Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Likud’s Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and the brigadier general-turned-populist politician Miri Regev, are also perceived to be to the right of Netanyahu on a number of issues, such as in their unwavering commitment to settlement expansion.

If Netanyahu is forced to resign to face a corruption trial, his successor is likely to be from his own Likud party, but it is not clear if it would be from the more moderate or far-right wing of the party. It could even be Bennett or Shaked if they decide to return to the party that they previously abandoned and among whose voters they are still popular; in many ways, their current New Right party is simply a waiting room for a post-Netanyahu era. A survey last year showed that a Likud party led by Shaked would get the same number of seats as under Netanyahu.

It is not only Israel’s demographics that have shifted since 1977; Israelis have also become more skeptical of left-wing coalitions. The 1992 elections and subsequent Labor Party rule produced the Oslo Accords, which are viewed in retrospect by many Israelis of all political stripes as disastrous. Israel handed Gaza and parts of the West Bank to the Palestine Liberation Organization. This didn’t lead to peace and was followed by a massive wave of terrorism, claiming hundreds of Israeli lives.

Israelis on the left and center are understandably nervous about entering another “bet the farm” deal under their watch, while at the same time recognizing that to make difficult concessions, Israel needs a strong, credible, and experienced prime minister.

Under such political circumstances, a centrist coalition led by Netanyahu might be the most realistic hope for left-wing voters who want a government that can deliver a peace deal. Some argue that Netanyahu has already adopted the historic views of the left, moving Likud’s position from staking claims to portions of Jordan to that expressed in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, in which he essentially agreed to give up most of the West Bank in exchange for a peace deal. And when Netanyahu has formed centrist coalitions, such as between 2009 and 2015, as opposed to the current right-wing one, he enacted policies that were advocated by the left, such as settlement construction freezes.

Gantz and Lapid insist that they would never join a Netanyahu-led government. But staying in the political wilderness of the opposition and hoping for another shot the next time around has not worked for the left for most of the last 42 years and is not likely to work now. It would only lead to a more right-wing government that would make the prospects of peace less likely.

Israel’s left must accept that the pre-1977 era is not coming back and it needs to execute its agenda based on current political realities, not wishful thinking. This means that Netanyahu might be the left’s best hope. Joining his government is certainly much better for the left than a far-right alternative.

Gol Kalev writes about Zionism, Europe, and global affairs. He is a board member of the America-Israel Friendship League and chairman of the AIFL Think Tank.

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