Are Israel's Elections About Right vs. Left?

Monday, March 11, 2019 |  Arthur Schwartzman

Following the indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just when his victory seemed inevitable, we witnessed a sudden tipping of the scales. Judging from a poll conducted by TNS, if the elections were to take place today, Netanyahu's Likud would get 29 seats, while the center-left faction "Blue and White" would win 37 seats.

The timing of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit's announcement that he had decided to indict Netanyahu raised a lot of eyebrows on the political right. The justice system vehemently denied that it was pressured or influenced to indict the prime minister by his left-wing political opponents or foreign elements. But the Likud will certainly try to portray it as such for the remainder of the election campaign.

Netanyahu’s previous campaigns employed rhetoric along the lines of “there is no good alternative; only I can and should lead the nation.” The stronger the opposition in the polls, the more negative the campaign against other leading candidates. A few days ago, the Likud posted a promotional clip on the new Likud TV channel in which publicist Avishai Ivri criticized Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, saying that “Gantz is the Left, and the Left is dangerous” against the backdrop of a military cemetery. The clip sparked an uproar, especially among bereaved families who have lost sons and daughters in wars and operations defending the country. The video was quickly removed, and the publicist wrote a public apology to the families for the misuse of IDF casualties for political means.

The other right-wing parties’ campaigns will side with Netanyahu, slandering the left, and backing the prime minister despite his indictment, not that they have much of a choice. The parties of the center and left will go on pointing fingers at Netanyahu, harping endlessly on his indictment. They’ll call on Netanyahu to resign, and try to convince the public that someone indicted on criminal charges shouldn't be allowed to stand for the most powerful office in the land. It seems that Bibi is the key to everything, and the nation will further divide in two – those who want to see another term with him in charge, and those who have had enough.

As of late, Israelis don’t so much as vote for a party, but rather for a face that represents the party. A good example of this is the decline of the Labor Party. Rooted in the Zionist socialist vision of the last century, Labor nevertheless appointed to its leadership a capitalist, Avi Gabbay. Many insisted that Gabby was not a good fit for the party, pointing also to his Mizrahi (Eastern) background, while most Labor voters are of Ashkenazi (European) lineage. Indeed, that was likely the point, as some hoped to reposition Labor as a centrist party and chip away at some soft-right votes.

Netanyahu is often called ‘Mister Security’, but Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, poses a serious challenge to that title. And though Netanyahu has branded him a "leftist," Gantz has firmly endorsed many right-wing positions in regards to control of the land and security. Gantz has said that he will not divide Jerusalem, nor will he surrender control of the Jordan Valley or the Golan Heights.

Again, all of this has little to do with the ideology of a particular party. The parties no longer grow their leaders; instead, leaders now mold the parties to their personal visions. Prominent public figures no longer enter the political arena via an existing party, but instead form their own parties, where they get to select a list of people of their own choosing, and lead a policy of their liking.

Israelis now have a little less than a month to think things through before casting their ballots. Ultimately, in this battle of faces, the election is not about “Strong Right vs. Weak Left”, as Netanyahu’s campaign slogan suggests. It is about whether or not Israelis want him to continue leading the nation into the future.

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