Personal Politicking Trumps Policy in Israeli Elections

Benny Gantz (Wikimedia Commons)

by Chaim Tantz

Campaigns for Israel’s 2019 elections are now underway, and new parties are cropping up everywhere.

Former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, an as yet unnamed party headed by former chief of staff and defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, a fresh right-wing force headed by former Jewish Home ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and more to come, are recent inventions, even if predicted in some form by astute observers. Reports and rumours have also sprung up of defections: by Labour members to leftist Meretz, by the Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni to a bloc headed by Gantz, by centrist Yesh Atid members to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

On the centre and the right, a main cause behind these personality politics is a fear of Netanyahu, and then, of the post-Netanyahu period. On the right, where many leaders are Likud splinters, there is a tradition of gentle schism. Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman, Hayamin Hehadash’s (the New Right’s) Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon all have ties to Netanyahu and his party. And their break-offs have borne fruit. Mild-mannered Kahlon has commanded a solid 10-seat share in the Knesset since the he formed Kulanu in 2014. A former Likud MK, Kahlon says he split from Netanyahu’s party when it “lost its compassion”, but promptly returned to serve under the PM when he was reelected in 2015.

But new parties do not mean new policies. Kulanu has run on a salt-of-the-earth social platform, but failed to stem crises in cost of living in the country, which has seen flare-ups of the very welfare grievances that led to mass protests in 2011.

Despite the risk that the PM may be indicted for a range of corruption charges next year, his grip on popular support has not diminished. This stranglehold on the leadership of the right has often prevented others in his camp from being able to build a personal profile. Running separately allows the heads of new parties to gain some limelight while continuing to benefit from proximity to their erstwhile leader.

Kahlon, Bennett, Lieberman and others are concerned that in Netanyahu’s absence, the Israeli right will lose its decade-old lynchpin and have to go through a Game of Thrones-style succession crisis that may keep them from power. It is this very fact that allowed Netanyahu to keep hold of his post. Even fiery criticism from his coalition partners over his handling of the operation in Gaza in November couldn’t bring them to topple him. Though Bennett seemed on the verge of resignation from the coalition at the time (a move that would have triggered an election), his fear of being blamed for bringing down one of Israel’s most powerful right-wing governments proved to be too much.

Much of this comes down to meeting the demands of the electorate. Nearly a decade of Netanyahu’s increasingly presidential, self-serving rule has changed Israelis’ expectations of their leadership. Continued assaults on the judiciary, on cultural and multi-cultural values, and a slow wilting of the power of the cabinet now have many casting their eyes into the pool of candidates for a figure capable of single-handedly steering government. These efforts have weakened the country’s institutional and legislative fabric to the extent that those who wish to now replace Netanyahu must compete on his terms. These are the very terms he has been honing for a decade, and which allow him to hold unflinchingly the country’s top elected post despite facing a litany of corruption charges.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the anti-Netanyahu camp, too, appears to suffer from the malaise of personality politics. Its major hope, Gantz (the dark horse of the 2019 elections), has delivered a consistent boost in polls to every party he was speculated to join. Yet when he submitted his party registration paperwork, he wrote in two vaguely-worded items for his agenda. He continued in this mysterious vein when he told reporters on 31 December: “It’s all Israel–Left, right, doesn’t matter.”  Knowing that his elusive political beliefs are his greatest assets, Gantz hopes to defer venturing into actual ideas, and instead leave Israelis and the media to speculate over his agenda. His army reputation and good looks alone, he hopes, will carry him.

The Zionist Union’s Avi Gabbay, meanwhile–who has pitched his campaign as a personal “Netanyahu or me” battle–trails in the polls behind former Labour Party PM Ehud Barak, who is not even officially running. Barak, who is known for his eloquent put-downs of Netanyahu, is–like Gantz–able to compete with Netanyahu on his security track record, something Gabay lacks.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Netanyahu, amid the policy-light individualism of the campaign so far, is expected to run away with the 2019 parliamentary election. Gantz, his supposed challenger, may dip in the polls as he reveals his hand. Others, too weak to pose a threat, will instead groom themselves to succeed him.

These bids for stardom may also prove to stymie both sides. Israel’s proportional representation elections will mean that parties may not be represented at all if they don’t meet a 3.25% threshold share of votes. This could spell bad news for the right, with some polls predicting that the Jewish Home–without Bennett and Shaked–and Yisrael Beitenu may fall between the cracks and therefore be unavailable to shore up a Netanyahu coalition.

In the last 20 years, new Israeli political parties have been the most successful when they have signaled a break with the past. The 2005 formation of Kadima under Ariel Sharon and his successor Ehud Olmert saw the party winning thirty seats, the right to govern, and (albeit quashed) hopes for a de-escalation in tensions with the Palestinians. Almost fifteen years later, the Israeli political spectrum, now much more polarised, can see less and less difference between the platforms of its proliferating centrist parties, most of which are united only by their attitude towards the PM.

As was the case for Kadima, the draw of new parties does not last forever, and with the centre-left now in opposition, this constant shifting prevents parties building a stable and credible challenge to a prime minister whose continued success is almost taken for granted. Continued shifts risk making them appear rootless and visionless, against the recognisable identity that Likud boasts.

Voters, too, must be given time to know the groups to whom they entrust pressing policy issues like poverty, the burgeoning tensions with Iran in Syria, and the millions of Palestinians living under occupation. Splits and slogans will not fix this. Biding time until Netanyahu is removed by the courts is not an option either.

Reliance on big names and faces can only take these parties so far–and in the meantime, there’s a country to govern.

Chaim Tantz is a Cambridge graduate and independent journalist specialising in Middle East politics.

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