Dirty election campaign in israel: gantz or not at all

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is trailing challenger Gantz, according to polls. But the head of government is unlikely to be replaced.

Selfie with general: election challenger Benny Gantz Photo: dpa

One of the dirtiest election campaigns in the history of the state is over. The Likud party’s campaign berated Benjamin Netanyahu’s most dangerous opponent, Benny Gantz, as "crazy," "unstable" and "completely unfit for the office of head of government." Netanyahu took advantage of the affair surrounding Gantz’s cell phone, from which Iranian hackers allegedly tapped explosive information, including about the former chief of staff’s love life.

Gantz, head of the Blue-White Party, summed up the campaign period as "the most difficult weeks in my life." In a television interview, he accused Netanyahu: "If he had a way to hurt me, to kill me, he would do it."

Cult of personality and personal attacks replaced substantive disputes. Until election day, it remains open where the differences are between Likud and Blue-White. On foreign and security issues, both are pursuing the same goals, and where the journey will ultimately take them in terms of domestic policy details is partly up to the future coalition partners. Nothing would be more fitting than a grand coalition of Likud and Blue-White. Gantz, however, ruled out joining forces with Netanyahu.

Some 6.3 million citizens are called upon to cast their ballots between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Poll results should be treated with caution. On election night in 1996, after the first projections, the champagne corks were already popping in the Labor Party to celebrate the victory of Shimon Peres, but then it was Netanyahu after all. In 2015, too, the projections gave the alliance of the Social Democrats and Zipi Livni a lead, and yet it was Netanyahu again.

As in 2009

For the two leading candidates, it’s all personal. Blue-White could disappear from Israel’s party landscape as quickly as it appeared in it if it loses. Many parties before it managed a lightning start in the Knesset, followed by dissolution a few years later. Zipi Livni and her Kadima is a case in point. She won the 2009 elections ahead of Netanyahu, but then had to concede the field to him to form a government due to a lack of coalition partners. Just six years later, Kadima no longer existed.

Netanyahu is fighting for his freedom. Only if he wins the elections and then pushes through a legal reform that gives him immunity can he save himself from the threat of impeachment. Only then would the plan he had in mind when he decided on the early election date work.

Nothing would be more fitting than a grand coalition of Likud and Blue-White. Gantz, however, ruled that out

Even shortly before the elections, he sought backing from abroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin presented him with the remains of a soldier who had been missing for 37 years. The repatriation not only of living hostages, but also of the bodies of fallen soldiers, is hugely important in Israel because of the military ethos of not leaving comrades behind in the field. And U.S. President Donald Trump gave Netanyahu recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory just in time for the elections.

The two populists speak the same language as Netanyahu when it comes to democracy, dealing with regime critics and the media. And both could make Netanyahu pay afterwards, Trump with his century plan for Middle East peace and Putin? "The idea of what Putin expects in return sends a cold shiver down one’s spine," writes Jossi Verter in the liberal newspaper Ha’aretz. Putin is pushing for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Syria. Israel has so far rejected the withdrawal of U.S. troops. It is possible that Putin is counting on Netanyahu’s intercession.

15 mandates missing

The scenario of the 2009 elections could repeat itself if Gantz finishes first but fails to achieve a coalition majority capable of governing. The leftist miniparty Meretz, the only one of the Jewish (Zionist) parties that advocates a two-state solution, would be a natural partner for Blue-White and the Labor Party. But even with an optimistic calculation, Gantz would still be 15 mandates short.

He does not want to form a coalition with the Arab parties, which, if they are lucky, will come up with 13 mandates, and the pious parties take exception to the Blue-White’s secular agenda: compulsory military service for all, public transport on the holy Sabbath, the possibility for LGBT couples to start families, and freedom for merchants to open their shops on weekends.

The ultra-Orthodox politicians don’t want to hear about any of this. Netanyahu knows the pious parties on his side, the right-wing nationalists, the national-religious and the racist lists. Whether he wins the election or not, Netanyahu is assured of a majority in the Knesset.