The Ego Lost

A mega-galactic political boom accompanied the beginning of the second half of the 2019 elections: the formation of a new centrist party, under the patriotic name “Kachol Lavan” (“Blue and White”). Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, bolstered by Moshe Ya’alon and, more importantly, Gabi Ashkenazi, joined forces to create the ultimate dream team to challenge and replace  Netanyahu. Overnight, the election started all over again, as the battle between King Bibi and the fantastic four has the potential to make Netanyahu stronger than ever or alternatively, to bring his ten year rule to an end. The first polls after the great center bang already pushed the new Kachol Lavan party far beyond the Likud with an impressive gap of six-ten seats. Moreover, this week, for the first time in months, the balance between the right and left blocs started to turn around and tilt to the anti-Bibi bloc’s favor. Netanyahu is used to facing one or two opponents, but this time he will be facing a special commando force of four, which includes three former IDF top generals, who together have spent more hours on the famous red phone than Bibi and can pose a real challenge to his “Mr. Security” image.

Up until the last minute (almost literally) the common assumption was that a Gantz-Lapid alliance would be impossible because of the number one enemy working against politicians joining forces: ego. Both of them had quite justified claims to the throne and arguments justifying their claim for the leadership and premiership: Lapid has the party mechanism and the political experience while Gantz’s debut dazzled the polls and immediately turned him into the preferred candidate to lead the fight against Bibi. Eventually, they agreed on a peculiar and criticized rotation agreement that will divide the premiership between them if they win the elections. Put Lapid and Gantz aside, however, and the real game changer is the addition of former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who was one of the most active players working behind the scenes to create the connection that could replace Netanyahu. Ashkenazi is the only one who is considered to have a magnet effect that can lure right-wing voters away from Bibi, and he is expected to play a very visible role in the campaign, especially in Likud strongholds around the country.

Netanyahu in Emergency Mode

Netanyahu turned on emergency mode shortly before Lapid and Gantz concluded the agreement last week. He un-diplomatically postponed a long awaited meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin and stayed in Jerusalem to wage a last minute effort to salvage right-wing votes from going down the drain, orchestrating the infamous old-new alliance between Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit, led by radical right-wing Kahanists Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir. On Thursday, minutes after the generals’ quartet launched their new party, Netanyahu reacted with a well known strategy: dividing between “us and them.” Instead of the Arabs who came out “in droves” in 2015, this time we got flocking generals who are leftists in disguise who supposedly plan to form a government based on the Arab parties’ support.

The new Kachol Lavan party, which is projected to get over 30 seats in the polls, carries the potential of turning the Israeli political arena into a more stable bipartisan model, with two big parties competing for the rule. As such, it is considered good news for Netanyahu: a real opponent posing a clear danger can help consolidate right-wing support for the Likud. But it is very bad news for all the small satellite parties that will have to resist abandonment of voters who may prefer to cast their vote for one of the two leading parties. Netanyahu secured the Jewish extremists by forcing them into Bayit Yehudi, but almost all the other members of his natural coalition are in danger. Kahlon, Liberman, Deri, even Bennett and Shaked, may fall below the electoral threshold if Bibi’s campaign actually works, and that could endanger the dominance of the right-wing bloc. A few days after the new centrist party was announced, Bennett launched an attack on Netanyahu’s alleged intention to accept President Trump’s peace plan, accusing the prime minister of working to establish a Palestinian state. Bennett knows that Netanyahu will be trying to steal his right-wing electoral base and is already preparing his line of defense.

The elections restarted last week with the Gantz-Lapid bromance, but they are probably going to restart again in the coming week. The long awaited decision by the attorney general whether or not to indict Netanyahu is just around the corner. It is difficult to predict what the combined effect will be of this significant event with the special anti-Bibi task force and whether it will strengthen or weaken Netanyahu. But the combination is causing much concern for Netanyahu, and he is prepared to go very low and fight by all means. The attorney general’s decisions deadline may also oblige Gantz and Lapid to make a clear statement about sitting under Netanyahu, and themselves bring the voters’ decision into a sharp divide between “us or them.”

[Less] Girl Power

As the final lists have been submitted, a pessimistic picture emerges regarding the place of women in Israeli politics. The outgoing Knesset had a record number of 35 women MKs, four female government ministers, and one female member of the security cabinet. The next Knesset is likely to have, again, very unequal female representation. True, two parties (Meretz and Gesher) are headed by women, and Bennett and Shaked have adopted the concept of an egalitarian leadership, but the map is expected to gather around the Likud and Kachol Lavan in a head-to-head competition for the government, and both of them suffer from a particularly low proportion of women at the top. The Likud has only two women in the top ten (Miri Regev and Gila Gamliel). Gantz and Lapid only have two in the top ten also, positioning two female newcomers, former TV presenter Miki Haimovich and former IDF general Orna Barbivai, at relatively low spots: seven and ten. The generals, unsurprisingly, preferred other political considerations over including women in their top brass.

In sharp contrast to the bleak inequality in the big parties, the gender equality prize goes to Naftali Bennett, who is not ashamed to surround himself with strong and worthy women, sharing joint leadership of Hayamin Hehadash with Ayelet Shaked and building the only list equally distributed between men and women. The Labor Party also boasts an impressive team and 40 percent women, but one should remember that they gave up on their number one female partner when party head Avi Gabbay brutally kicked out Tzipi Livni and dissolved the Zionist Union.

It’s not only about the numbers. The lack of senior female rankings means that when the government is formed they will be pushed back in line waiting for substantial or significant cabinet posts, and that once again, 51 percent of the population will be poorly represented in decision-making circles. Women are banned from the ultra-Orthodox parties, underrepresented in the Arab factions, and far from the top in the two biggest lists, which both aim to represent secular and liberal values as well. Unfortunately, in an election that is ultimately going to be defined by one question, yes or no to Bibi, gender considerations are not likely to change the vote.