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Gantz tried to ‘wink to the Right’: these three MKs called his bluff

Gilad Greenwald
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Published: 7 April 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Gilad Greenwald: Gantz adopted policies and candidates from the right to win over Likud voters. But like many centre-left leaders before him, the tactic backfired spectacularly

IN THE RECENT ELECTION in Israel, the traditional separation of the political map into two blocs - the Right ultra-Orthodox and the centre-left - experienced a profound change.

The emphasis was not on each side’s political stance or ideology, but on the question of whether Benjamin Netanyahu should continue serving as Prime Minister, despite the legal charges against him. That was the only reason there was an election, the third in a year.

In April 2019, when Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, refused to support Netanyahu's coalition, the latter claimed that "Lieberman is now part of the Left". Many Israelis were laughing out loud. I wrote at the time that "Lieberman may easily ‘defect’ to the Right ultra-Orthodox bloc again, immediately after the September 2019 elections".

In retrospect, Netanyahu was right.  Lieberman did not suddenly espouse leftist positions in the political or security fields, but he did join the bloc that sought to oust Netanyahu.  And this bloc is dominated by centre-leftists.

Lieberman's "transformation" was reflected in three key areas. First, after many years in which he was a fixture in right-wing-ultra-Orthodox governments, Lieberman began to insist on his liberal/secular attitudes (including public transportation on the Sabbath, military service for the ultra-Orthodox and civil marriage).

To achieve this goal he was, for the first time, willing to cooperate with the left-wing Meretz party.

Second, Lieberman's party recommended Benny Gantz as prime minister, and supported the plan to replace Likud's Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, with the centre-left’s candidate, Meir Cohen. Lieberman also suggested a bill that would ban a prime minister from serving while under indictment.

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Third, and most amazingly, Lieberman was willing to collaborate with the Joint List, which represents the Arabs citizens of Israel (those he has named more than once "the fifth column of Israel's Knesset"), in order to establish a centre-left government. This government would consist of the Blue and White and the joint Labor-Meretz parties, with the "outside support" of Lieberman and the Arab Knesset members. This, in Netanyahu's words, was "Lieberman joining the left".

Thus, Lieberman was not the barrier between Gantz and the establishment of a centre-left government for the first time in 20 years. Gantz had 62 Knesset members (against Netanyahu's 58), enough to form a government headed by him.

Instead, he agreed to join forces with Netanyahu in a unity government. Why?

Gantz said it was to allow Israel to recover from the coronavirus outbreak. "These are not normal times," he told the Knesset in his first speech as Speaker, "and they call for unusual decisions." He said this was "the right thing to do at this time," stressing he would "not compromise democracy".

But the deeper answer to his decision lies in the months before the last election campaign (and the one before it), and to the political tactic leftists call the "wink to the Right".

This tactic is based on the following logic: historically, the Centre parties have been largely unable to recruit right-wing voters, who vote for the Likud party. However, if they adopt some of the ideology of the Right (for example, annexing some West Bank settlements) and included right-wing representatives in their party lists, they would win support from right-wing voters, and as a result gain power.

However, this tactic has repeatedly failed. In 2013, Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich declared that "the Palestinian issue is dwarfed compared to social affairs issues", yet    Labor won only 16 seats in the Knesset. Also in 2013, the centrist Yair Lapid formed an alliance with right-winger Naftali Bennett that joined the coalition government headed by Netanyahu. It didn’t work; Netanyahu sacked Lapid from his ministry the following year.

Most importantly, the tactic failed in the past two elections, when Gantz and Amir Peretz (the current leader of the Labor Party) insisted on including right-wingers in their parties. Right-wing voters were not persuaded to abandon Netanyahu and switch to them.

In the Blue and White party's case, two right-wing opportunists, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, were elected to the Knesset solely through the votes of liberal (leftists and Centre) voters, who were interested in only one thing - ousting Netanyahu.

This did not prevent Hauser and Hendel from objecting to a government led by Gantz that had the support of Arab Knesset members. Without their votes, Gantz would not have his majority, which forced him to abandon his own coalition and join a right-wing government led by Netanyahu. Evidently, in the eyes of these two, corrupt Jewish politicians are better than law-abiding Arab citizens.

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Orly Levy-Abekasis, a former member of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party who joined forces with Labor, also refused to back a government that relied on the support of Arab MKs. She had said exactly the opposite before the elections when she supported the inclusion of the Joint List.

Her political betrayal is far worse than Hauser and Hendel’s. First, unlike them she clearly stated before the election that she saw no problem with a government that relies on the support of the Joint List. "They are equal citizens of Israel", she argued. Second, Levy-Abekasis was elected to the Knesset by left-wing voters.

Lieberman and the Joint List cannot be blamed for the failure to create a Gantz-led government. On the contrary, they were probably the only political actors who wanted such a government to be formed.

The blame falls on Gantz and Peretz, who (in their naivety and stupidity) continued to advocate "the wink to the Right". It weakened the centre-left, preventing it from a possible return to power after 20 years in opposition. This was an opportunity squandered.

READ MORE
Gantz tells Rivlin he’ll likely request extension of mandate to form government (Times of Israel)
President says he will consider request when April 13 deadline approaches; Blue and White leader updates him on coalition talks with Likud

What can we learn from the left's disappointment in Gantz? (Al-Monitor) 
The left-wing camp is disappointed after perceiving Blue and White leader Benny Gantz as a 2020 model of late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

Main Photo: Yoaz Hendel (left), Zvi Hauser and Orly Levy

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