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Politics

With Just Over 40 Days Until The Israeli Elections Netanyahu’s Challenger Gantz Is Punching Below The Belt

Netanyahu cancels trip to Moscow, stays in Israel to hammer out a unified bloc before tomorrow’s moratorium on party list changes

Benjamin Netanyahu as a young warrior in Sayeret Matkal (from Netanyahu’s tweet)

Few things are sacred in the rough and tumble Israeli politics. Personal finances, family life, anything and everything is fair game. Israel is a winner takes all society and Israelis play to win. Still, there was one thing that was reserved for only the nastiest of battles and only the battles for the very top and that thing was attacking the military record of your opponent. Politicians in Israel often rise to power either through the military, where only the two top ranks, that of major general and lieutenant general (held only by the Chief of General Staff) translate into top-level positions in the party of the retired officer’s choice. Others rise to power climbing the ranks of party bureaucracy as Knesset back-benchers and junior ministers. Others yet build their political base in the big labor unions before transitioning to national politics.

The class of non-military politicians usually involves people whose military service was not particularly distinguished and is thus outside of political debate. They have served the mandatory minimum, but their military service is not the source of their leadership abilities and experience. And then there is Netanyahu. In this like in many other things, Netanyahu is a bit of an outlier. His military service was distinguished, but never rose to the level of command that typically shows up as a positive on a politician’s resume. Netanyahu served for five years in the top special forces unit of the IDF, Sayeret Matkal, and was discharged with the rank of captain. This was the same unit that was commanded by Netanyahu’s elder brother Jonathan, who was killed commanding the daring Entebbe raid in 1976. During his service, Netanyahu saw plenty of action, including raids that he personally commanded. At the same time, Netanyahu rarely if ever cites his military service as part of the resume that supports his quest to be reelected as the prime minister of Israel.

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Normally, a five year service in the top commando unit and a discharge at the rank of captain would hardly be fodder for negative campaigning, but the circumstances of this election are hardly “normal”. The current election in Israel is seeing a return to the wars of the titans period in Israeli politics that began with the first ever Likud victory in 1977 and lasted until the collapse of the Israeli left in the aftermath of the Oslo accords and the unilateral withdrawals from the Gaza strip and Southern Lebanon. The failure of these unilateral peace overtures to secure anything but worsening security situation for Israel decimated the left bloc led by the Labor party and resulted in undisputed rule by right and center right coalitions led by the Likud and its leader, Bibi Netanyahu.

This period is now at an end. The exploding buses, the mass suicide attacks that left two thousand Israeli civilians dead and bleeding on the streets of Israeli cities are a receding memory, mostly due to Netanyahu’s and the Likud’s policy of muscular, but not provocative containment with a major emphasis on securing political backing from the international community. The lack of progress on the “peace” issue, the “two state solution”, and the rapid expansion of Jewish building activity in Judea and Samaria are proving to be scary to a new generation of Israelis who ask themselves what the end game might be. Does it all mean that Israel will have to become a state in which the only two choices will be the loss of Jewish majority or the creation of a class of citizens without a full set of rights, the dreaded “apartheid state” outcome?

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History teaches us that this is a false choice, that the demographic argument that the left has always used to spook Israelis into signing reckless “peace” deals has not proven to be accurate. On the contrary, the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union brought to Israel a million “new” Jews, while birthrates among many sectors of the Arab population have been declining due to higher living standards and female empowerment. Increasing anti-Semitism and declining quality of life, both the results of unchecked Muslim migration to Europe are already leading to higher levels of immigration from countries like France and this trend is likely to intensify. Even in America, increased anti-Semitism and the elevation of anti-Semitic Muslims like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to the level of representatives in Congress can yet be a cause of some Jews choosing to return to their historical homeland of Israel.

And yet, it seems that the specter of the lack of a “peace” deal with the Palestinian Arabs is now once more sufficiently powerful to coalesce around it a major challenge to the ruling right wing coalition and recreate the left wing block that has already brought so much death and suffering to Israeli citizens and allowed thousands of missiles to be placed within range of every Israeli mother and child. This time the Israeli left will not be led by the Labor Party, which has collapsed into itself and whose brand is finished. Rather, it will be led by an ex Chief of Staff Benjamin Gantz, a personage in the mold of the discredited Ehud Barak, whose stint as PM was arguably the worst in Israeli history. Armed with good looks, charisma, military bone fides and unbridled ambition, Gantz is assembling around himself all the anti-Netanyahu forces that have been sloshing around Israeli politics for decades. Every bureaucrat, every mid-level functionary who has ever been rightly or wrongly snubbed by Netanyahu , is now orbiting Gantz, hoping for some crumbs to fall his way should he succeed in slaying the giant, in toppling the longest serving and the most effective prime minister Israel has ever known.

Gantz, as far as his actions show, is playing for broke. Today, he attacked Netanyahu’s military service, comparing it with his own. “When I was fighting in the trenches, you were polishing your English speaking skills in America, ” he attacked. “Netanyahu, when you studied drama, I was training the next cadre of fighters and officers”, he added. Netanyahu’s response came quickly via Twitter. “Gantz, you should be ashamed of yourself,” he tweeted earlier today. “As a soldier and an officer in Sayeret Matkal, I often risked my life. I was wounded in battle with terrorists and nearly lost my life on the Suez Canal defending this country, the same country you wish to destroy with your one-sided withdrawals and with your support for the Iran deal,” he added. This war of words is unusual because Gantz’s attack on Netanyahu, who served more than honorably, but who, unlike Gantz, never based his political career on his military exploits, is rather unprecedented in Israeli politics. The personal nature of the attack and counter-attack is further underscored by the use, first by Gantz, and then by Netanyahu, of surnames, rather than first names in the address. In the camaraderie that exists among the graduates of IDF’s top military units, a group that both Gantz and Netanyahu belong to, address by anything other than first name or nickname is tantamount to a hostile act, an assertion that one’s interlocutor does not deserve to be a member of the group. It is a low blow indeed, but Gantz went there and he went there early.

We are less than 24 hours away from the “trade” deadline, a deadline after which no changes can be made to the parties that participate in the elections and the numbered lists they present to the public. Under the Israeli system, the entire country is one single district and citizens vote by placing a single paper ballot carrying the letter symbol of the party of their choice into a physical ballot box. Depending on various factors such as the percentage of eligible voters who exercise their right to vote, each seat in the Knesset can be “worth” anywhere between 30 and 60 thousand votes. Once that number is determined by dividing the total number of votes cast by the 120 Knesset seats, the number of votes cast for each party is divided by the number of votes representing one Knesset seat to determine how many seats the party gets. Any fractional numbers are discarded, unless the party in question has signed a “overage agreement” with an ideologically similar party that states that the bigger of the two will get the lesser’s “overage” votes to add to its own.

In order to prevent the proliferation of very small parties, a threshold of minimum four seats is established. A party that fails to reach this threshold will have no parliamentary representation and its voters will be de-facto disenfranchised and lost. This is why PM Netanyahu has canceled his very important visit to Moscow; the more extreme fringes of the right-wing bloc’s landscape are populated by three small parties, none of which is expected to cross the minimum threshold, leading to a loss of as many as four or five Knesset seats for the right-wing bloc. Netanyahu is staying put to convince these small parties to combine together or join the Likud so as to prevent this loss of seats. His personal involvement is crucial, because he is the only one who can promise “goodies” such as ministerial positions and Knesset committee memberships, “goodies” that can only come at the expense of Likud party members.

The outcome of the election is known. Likud will be by far the largest party and under the Israeli system of governance, the President, as the titular head of state will ask Netanyahu, as the head of the largest party to form a coalition government, a task for which he will be given a period of 45 days. But there is a twist, if the left-wing bloc, including the Arab parties has 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, and outcome that is predicted by a new poll just out today as a result of losses of seats by small right-wing parties, Netanyahu will not be able to form a government that enjoys even the minimal 61 vote majority. In this case, the President will have no choice, but to give the task of forming the government to Benjamin Gantz, the head of the second largest party, one that will have only 20 or so seats in the Knesset. The result will be a constitutional crisis, since the clear choice of the people, Netanyahu, will be enjoined from forming a government by Arab members of the Knesset, people who oppose the very existence of the state of Israel. This will be a very dangerous time for Israeli democracy. Recent events, thous fluid, show that Netanyahu is succeeding in consolidating the right-wing bloc ahead of the deadline. By doing so, he is once again saving Israel, this time from the megalomania and greed of many of its politicians.

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