Former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz, left, and former finance minister Yair Lapid have taken the lead in Israeli polls after announcing an electoral alliance to try to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photos: Thomas Coex and Jack Guez / AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already facing potential indictment, has a major political challenge ahead of legislative elections on April 9: his rivals united into a new political force.

Less than 24 hours before the deadline for registration of elections lists, former chief of staff Benny Gantz and former finance minister Yair Lapid announced they were merging their parties. The new union is named Blue and White, for the colors of the Israeli flag. The party will also include former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who brokered the deal and is an immensely popular figure in the country.

In an inaugural press conference on Thursday, Gantz promised the new union would “win and win big”. There was even an emotional moment when Gantz revealed that his mother and Lapid’s father had lived in the same apartment building in the Budapest ghetto, where the Nazis had forced thousands of Jews to live.

Lapid, for his part, said he genuinely believes in Gantz’s leadership qualities. While the idyllic cooperation between the two is unlikely to last, the press conference was convincingly warm and boded well for their campaign.

According to three snap polls, if elections were held now, Blue and White would be the largest party in the Knesset by a comfortable margin. They would receive 35-36 mandates, according to the polls, while the Likud would receive 26-32. By providing an obvious home for the large number of Israelis who do not wish to see Netanyahu continue as prime minister, the new party has altered the electoral map.

Khaki and White

The new party is the result of feverish negotiations to unite Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party with Gantz’s Israel Resilience party.

Lapid held out for months despite repeated attempts to entice him into the union. A canny negotiator, the former journalist held out when Gantz was at the peak of his powers, waiting for the former general’s novelty value to lessen and his standing in the polls to drop somewhat before agreeing. As a result, he obtained a strong deal. If Blue and White forms the next government, Gantz and Lapid will rotate the premiership. Gantz will serve as prime minister until November 2021 and Moshe Ya’alon (number 3 in the party) will hold the role of defense minister. After that, Lapid will become prime minister and Gantz will take on the role of defense minister.

The addition of Ashkenazi brings the number of former chiefs of staff in the party to three. The decision to unite with Lapid and bring in Gabi Ashkenazi strengthens Gantz electorally. However, it does bring with it the risk of seeming elitist and detached. The party is clearly dominated by military figures and predominantly male and of Ashkenazi (European) background. Jokes in the country abounded that the party should be called “Khaki and White” to signify its ethnic and military tendencies.

Gantz had been negotiating a possible union with the Gesher (Bridge) party and its leader, Orly Levy-Abekasis. As a party focused on social issues, Gesher would have added much-needed depth to the party on those issues. Abekasis — a woman of Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) descent — would have also brought much-needed diversity to the list. However, it appears Gantz used negotiations with Levy-Abekasis as leverage to lower Lapid’s demands. The head of Gesher was clearly upset by this turn of events. Abekasis said Gantz had failed the “credibility test” and that the way he handled talks was “weird and hallucinatory.”

Despite its flaws, the union is set to genuinely challenge Likud primacy.

The Blue and White party will, however, face significant difficulty in forming a coalition. In Israel, the largest party does not automatically receive the opportunity to form the government. Rather, the head of each elected party notifies the President who they wish to see form the next government. Based on this information, the President then determines which party is most likely to form a stable government and allows them a chance to create a governing coalition.

It is currently difficult to tell which parties will be part of the next Knesset and participate in this process. Several parties are struggling to obtain enough votes to enter the parliament. It is also unclear what some of the less ideologically right-wing parties such as Kulanu (All of us) and the ultra-orthodox parties will do if Blue and White receive a significantly larger number of seats than the Likud.

The Zionist center-left may not receive enough votes to form a government on its own and therefore require support from the Arab-Israeli parties.

Maintaining the Gulf

Netanyahu gave a press conference of his own on Thursday, warning that a government based on an Arab party “blocking coalition” would be illegitimate since the Arab parties “not only don’t recognize Israel; they want to destroy Israel.”

The prime minister also warned that the new party would promote the “failed policies of the Left”. When it comes to foreign and security policy, this is almost certainly an exaggeration. Blue and White is unlikely to break strongly from the policies of the current government. While both Lapid and Gantz have criticized Netanyahu for his unwillingness to hold substantial talks with the Palestinian Authority, a dramatic breakthrough with them at the helm is unlikely.

Both Lapid and Gantz have expressed an unwillingness to divide Jerusalem or surrender the settlement blocs.

The new party would also be likely to continue Netanyahu’s successful policy of pursuing closer ties with the Gulf states as a counter to Iranian regional influence. But according to the Lapid party platform, they would seek to utilize that cooperation at home and integrate those informal alliances into the peace process.

Gantz and Lapid believe that by appearing to be more conciliatory towards the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia and other potential Arab allies would be more likely to cooperate with Israel more openly and be involved in negotiations. Saudi King Salman last summer conspicuously took over the Jerusalem file from his son, when he decided the brash heir known as MBS was promising too much to the Israelis and the Trump administration without preserving key Arab demands. 

White and Blue is likely to be more conciliatory in its image than in practice, however, due to the mood in Israel and the inability of the Palestinians to present a united front. 

Instead, the new party will focus on changing internal policies and the political discourse in the country. The message was one of unity and clean-dealing, which they juxtaposed with their portrayal of Netanyahu as a divisive and corrupt leader. This strategy is clearly designed with a decision pending by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on whether or not to indict Netanyahu in mind.

They are betting that in April, Israel will be craving for cleaner leadership. They may be right.

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