Netanyahu’s centrist challengers Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid agree merger

Netanyahu’s centrist challengers Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid agree merger

Just as the two main British parties splinter over antisemitism and Brexit, Israeli politics sees a coming together ahead of elections

Jewish News Reporter
L-R: Moshe Ya'alon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenasi
L-R: Moshe Ya'alon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenasi

Just as Britain’s two biggest political parties fractured and split, Israel’s fiercest electoral forces this week agreed to merge, with Benjamin Netanyahu agreeing terms with the far-right, while centrists Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid tied the knot.

Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, and Lapid, a former TV presenter, said on Thursday that they would combine their two parties – Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Gantz’s new Israel Resilience, in a move seen as hugely significant.

They will be joined by two other former IDF chiefs of staff – Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – and Histradut (labour federation) chair Avi Nissenkorn, in what many now see as a formidable grouping set to shape Israeli politics for the next decade.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu looked increasingly desperate as he cut a deal with Jewish Home and Jewish Power, the latter taking its inspiration from Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose devotees are so extreme that they are deemed terrorists by the FBI.

In what appeared to be a last throw of the tactical dice, Netanyahu promised the two groups ministries and a seat on the Likud list. If he were to retain power therefore, one of his ministers is likely to be fanatical settler and “proud homophobe” Bazazel Smotrich, who demands Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.

Once arrested for organising violent protests, Smotrich opposes any construction permits for Palestinians, wants to legalise illegal settler outposts, supports the segregation of Jews and Arabs in hospital, says Palestinian stone-throwers should be shot, and thinks LGBT+ Jews control the media.

Gantz blasted the embattled prime minister as having “lost his Zionism and his dignity” as he courted the limelight with Lapid. The two men are now Israel’s centre ground and an early poll by Channel 12 suggested they may get slightly more Knesset seats than Netanyahu’s Likud, with 32 compared to 30.

In the event that Gantz, Lapid, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi are asked to form a government, they have agreed that the position of prime minister will rotate, with Gantz serving the first two and a half years and Lapid serving the next.

In a joint statement, they said they had been “motivated by national responsibility,” confidently stating that their joint list “will serve as Israel’s new governing party”.

They added: “The new governing party will present a new team of security and social leaders that will ensure the country’s security, and will reunite the parts of the people and heal the divided Israeli society.”

All polls suggest that the country’s left-wing has been decimated in the past two years by fractious Labor leader Avi Gabbay, whose conduct – which included lying to his party to have secret meetings in the Gulf – has led to three of his current Knesset Members resigning, and others publicly berating him at the party conference.

Long a force in Israeli politics, Labor is now expected to comprise only about six percent of the Knesset from April. By contrast, Gantz’s star shines ever brighter, prompting a worried Likud to label the former Army chief “left-wing” this week.

In a sign that Netanyahu’s party had returned to its former ballot-box tactic of stoking voters’ fears using racist threats, Likud added that Gantz’s party would be beholden to Arab parties, who would “block” laws they didn’t like.

Commentators heard echoes from Israel’s last election, when Netanyahu tweeted on polling day that Israeli Jews should rush out because “Arabs are voting in droves!”

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