Israeli elections 2019

Israeli elections 2019

The battle between Netanyahu and the generals

03/2019  | Reading time: 7 minutes

On 9 April, citizens of the Jewish state will decide who will lead their country, and in which direction. Regardless of whether the right, led by the reigning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or his challengers are to win the elections, domestic political consequences will be tremendous. Still, it is doubtful whether the next Israeli government will bring a new factor to the future trajectory of regional conflicts and alliances in the Middle East. The following article aims at sizing up the main opposing political forces in the upcoming elections.


Source: Shutterstock


The Israeli state, just as its people and culture, is defined by the army on all levels, may it be through security policy issues covered massively by media and being a matter of concern to the public, through soldier boys and girls amassing on public transport during the end and beginning of their weekend leave, or through the composition of the political echelon. Israel, which operates as a parliamentary democracy since its modern incarnation in 1948, can, on the one hand, be characterised as a Western like state where elected political bodies exercise unquestionable civilian control over an army which utilises a huge amount of manpower and material resources—especially compared to the country’s size—making Israel one if not the most militarized country in the globe. On the other hand, there was hardly ever a political leader who could rise to power without a significant military experience gained in either the Israeli Defense Forces or the Jewish militias which predate the establishment of the state. The complex geopolitical circumstances of Israel and the Middle Eastern—manifest through the fears and the will of the electorate—force the state to elevate strong military personalities to the highest levels of political power. This is also the case with the current Prime Minister and head of the right-wing Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was an officer of the Sayeret Matkal elite commando force, where he got unquestionable military experience. Small wonder that in the 2015 elections even an unprecedented bloc of leftist and centrist forces proved unable to contest Netanyahu’s rule, as it did not have any significant former military officers among its ranks. Since then, every expert on Israeli domestic affairs has discussed one vexed question: When will one or more former Chief of Staff activate themselves on the political front and present a real challenge to Netanyahu?


Benny Gantz, former Chief of Staff, the main challenger to Netanyahu
Source: Wikimedia Commons, licence: public domain


In Israel, the 9 April elections will be the most significant political event of the last decade, as three former highest-ranking military leaders from the Israeli army allied to end the Netanyahu Era. Their political alliance called Blue and White (Cahol-Levan), with a reference to Israeli national colours, was founded by three former Chiefs of Staff: Benny Gantz who runs for Premier, Moshe Ya’alon, a former Minister of Defence, and Gabi Ashkenazi, who is suspected to be the éminence grise behind the formation of the broad alliance. The triumvirate that has unquestionable military expertise is completed by the party of Yair Lapid—a former Minister of Finance and a star journalist—called Yes Atid, as he is promised to succeed the officers as Prime Minister in the second half of the term.

The new bloc brings both new and old traits into Israeli politics: old, because for one thing, the military prestige of political leaders is a recurring issue on all elections, and for another, by creating a sort of left-wing continuity, the former leader of the powerful general labour union (HaHistadrut) that represents the Israeli working class is also high on the list of candidates. On the other hand, the alliance is novel, as it can be hardly defined in terms of the traditional right–left political spectrum. Of course, Netanyahu’s campaign team tries to portray the politicians of the Blue and White as naïve leftist persons; however, the reality is more complex. Yair Lapid is a centrist, pro-market politician, while Moshe Ya’alon is a hardcore conservative, right-wing ex-general.

That being said, the new bloc is proclaiming a more socially conscious economic policy than Likud. In military issues, it also has a more nuanced approach than the governing party or the Israeli right in general: while it follows Netanyahu’s policy vis-à-vis Iran in sticking to total deterrence and promising retribution after a potential Iranian strike on Israel or its forces, Gantz and his team would show a more flexible stance on the issue of peace with the Palestinians. Based on previous experiences, only strong political leaders with a significant military background have thus far made any noteworthy concessions to the Palestinians—such as Yitchak Rabin during the Oslo process and Ariel Sharon with the Gaza disengagement. A Gantz government would try to go ahead with the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, as this is the main obstacle in the way of normalising and developing diplomatic, economic, and strategic cooperation with Arab states.


The Israeli Parliament, the Knesset
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Author: Icik Adri/צילוםאיציק אדרי, licence: CC BY 2.5


The main political cleavage during the elections has therefore already become manifest: on one side, the Israeli right-wing and religious forces, i.e. the Likud and other smaller parties, will stand with Netanyahu as their preferred Premier, while on the other side, there is the Blue and White alliance with smaller leftist and Arab parties. Recent polls show that Netanyahu would receive 30 seats in the next Parliament, while Gantz 36-38. However, this numeric advantage does not mean that the alliance could easily form a government, as the law stipulates that the right to this is not necessarily given to the head of the largest party but to a member of Parliament who, after the parties’ have consulted the President, the Head of State determines to have the best chances to form a government. In order for Gantz to win the elections, he needs either a more overwhelming victory than hinted by current polls or rifts to emerge in the right-wing bloc. The latter has every chance to occur: even though none of the leaders of the right-wing parties rejected the chance to join a Netanyahu-led coalition, a lot of bad blood has emerged during the last decade between the right’s leaders.

Besides “regular” domestic political disagreements, Netanyahu has just recently been indicted in three corruption cases, and the slowly grinding wheels of the law will further affect his popularity and campaign until the elections are held. However, this aspect is overrated in the international media, as the right-leaning and conservative Israelis will not be discouraged en masse from voting on Netanyahu by corruption charges alone, as no verdict can be expected until the elections. Party sympathies of the Israeli electorate is influenced primarily by security issues, and secondly, by social matters. On the other hand, if the threat to Netanyahu’s power sees a further increase, even right-wing voters otherwise preferring smaller rightist parties with slightly different agendas will come under Likud’s flag on 9 April elections.

Political struggles during next month will surely change the balance of power between the parties, but the main stake is whether the Netanyahu Era in Israel will come to an end, substituted by a new political leadership consisting of the former highest echelons of the state’s military power and the eternal aspirer Yair Lapid. While domestic political trends shaping the Israelis’ life are interesting, from a Budapest perspective, the most pressing issues are Israel’s future resilience, military capabilities, innovation potential, and foreign policy. In these matters, a change of government will not bring about huge differences: Israel will remain rich in R&D and capital, its military power will continue to expand, and it will be hyperassertive when it comes to handling security challenges, striking its enemies even on their own land—just as it has always done in Syria and Lebanon during each and every previous government when it was forced to take action. A prospective change of leadership will define the subtle details of the country’s foreign policy, but its fundamentals (i.e. inclination to form alliances aimed at encircling and deterring its enemies) will stay locked by the state’s social circumstances and geopolitical position. On the other hand, if the Netanyahu Era ends, in a few decades’ time, a completely different Jewish state can emerge to that we know today.

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