Analysis | Gantz’s Gamble vs. the Netanyahu Narrative: Israel Elects
The Israeli elections will redefine the course of the Palestinian peace process and Israel’s foreign relations with the West.
Chicago — Anxiety among Israelis has risen in the lead-up to the early election because of the prospective changes the two major party leaders — Bibi Netanyahu and Benny Gantz — intend to make. The April election will not only decide who will lead Israel as Prime Minister, but it also has the potential to make drastic changes to Israeli policies towards the Palestinian Territories. With the Israeli left essentially non-existent, the close race falls between the right-wing Likud party and the center-left Blue and White party who have opposing plans for the West Bank.
The right-wing Likud party, led by current Prime Minister Netanyahu, has recently announced his pledge to annex the remainder of the West Bank following the election of a Likud majority in the Knesset. Although it appears to be a desperate last-minute appeal for votes, Netanyahu’s immodest plan could see implementation with enough domestic pressure and coalition partner support.
A shift in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process of this scale as far-reaching as this would be irreversible, forcing parties to abandon decades-long policies in favor of a two state solution, instead leaving no recourse but to develop policy to bring about a bi-national one-state solution. Regardless, the seizure of the West Bank would at best ignite protest and uproar among Palestinians and a flurry of condemnations from the international community. At worst, it could provoke another intifada.
Recent polling indicates that the announcement could win back the favor of right-wing Israelis alienated by his bill to extend military draft to ultra-Orthodox Jewish students which brought the early election about in the first place. The Haredi vote has become increasingly significant in recent years as large families and immigration have brought larger numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews to the country.
Beyond the religious vote, Netanyahu has gained popularity with the wider populace for his hard-line stance on national security and demonstrated foreign policy savvy — traits he highlighted for voters by making state visits to both Moscow and Washington in the last week.
Due to Israel’s ongoing conflicts with neighbors — political and otherwise — many Israelis traditionally place greater importance on matters of national security, foreign policy, and counterterrorism ahead of domestic concerns such as the state of the economy and health care. Reinforcing this hierarchy of issues in the military culture of Israel is almost inescapable as a great proportion of Israelis will spend at least two years serving as part of the country’s national draft, and military presence is remarkably visible in daily life.
April’s election marks the first time in over ten years that anyone has seriously rivaled the incumbent Israeli Prime Minister, and with good reason. The weight Israelis attribute to security trumped domestic preoccupation with domestic affairs for three election cycles. Netanyahu’s unwavering dedication to counterterrorism and nationalist rhetoric brought him thundering victories in 1996 and for three consecutive terms from 2009 to today. No other candidate has thus far demonstrated such an aptitude for mustering the support of Israeli national security hawks.
The surging popularity of the military muscle-man Benny Gantz has put Likud’s all-encompassing focus on national security to the test. After more than a decade of strong-handed leadership, “King Bibi’s” reign may be coming to an end. Yet Gantz is far from a dovish politician, and brings with him an impressive background in the Israeli military, having served for over thirty years in the Israeli Defence Force as a paratrooper and later as the Deputy Chief of Staff.
Gantz’s military background has won him the attention of security-minded Israelis who are wary of the indictments handed to Netanyahu following a politically explosive corruption case. Many see this as an opportunity to bring Israel back to the center after over a decade of right wing rule. If Gantz can convince Israelis that he is capable of protecting Israel while addressing domestic economic, regulatory, and legal reforms, he may be able to shed enough votes from Likud’s base to lock up the race.
Yet while Gantz shares Netanyahu’s experience in national security affairs, the similarities end there. Gantz’s Blue and White Party promotes a platform nearly antithetical to the platform of the Likud. On behalf of his party, Gantz has proposed amending the greatly contested Jewish nation state law to include Israeli minority groups, an action that would counter Netanyahu’s claim that Israel is “not a state for all its citizens”. Additionally, he has presented his initiative for re-opening negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and removing Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
Nevertheless, Gantz is not a patron for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, nor is he advocating for the forfiture of current Israeli territories. He maintains that Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Israel and that advocates for the continued designation of the Jordan valley as Israel’s security border. He does claim, however, that “[Israelis] do not want to rule the Palestinians.”
In comparison with the Likud Party’s aggressive posture on the Palestinian question, Gantz’s has received a moderatly positive response from human rights activists and left-leaning Israelis who see the current administration’s methods as counterproductive to the development of a long-term and sustainable peace process. Though Gantz does not fully represent the position of the flagging Israeli left, when presented the alternatives, he’s credited with being the most favorable alternative.
Though Benny Gantz would seem to be an easy sell to Palestinian voters against the prospect of yet another four years of Netanyahu, his high profile in the Israeli Defense Force undermines his credibility among Palestinians and hampers his ability to gain their trust. Favoring neither option, many Palestinians have chosen to boycott the elections, arguing that their participation in the system grants legitimacy to the state and its institutions.
Eligible Palestinian voters make up about 20 percent of the Israeli electorate, yet their turnout in elections has remained disproportionately low. Ironically, Palestinian participation in an election has never had greater potential to influence Israeli politics, and could very well sway the vote given higher turnout. In such an event, Palestinian support could offer the rare opportunity to bring negotiations back to the table. Despite the potential, many analysts predict the election results will show little difference in Arab-Israeli turnout from previous elections.
Despite Netanyahu’s indictment charges and alienation of religious members of his coalition, he remains a strong candidate. His facility and tact for coalition-building grant him a unique ability to build a political consensus from which to develop policy — a skill at which Gantz seems less adept. Gantz has also been criticized for offering up vague political stances, wavering from support of Israeli settlement blocs and later pledging to bring about negotiations with the Palestinian Authority to freeze construction on settlements.
Netanyahu’s policy on the Palestinian territories, however, remains as rigidly uncompromising as ever, and many Israel-watchers predict that Likud will continue to move even further to the right in coming years. Nevertheless, Gantz remains a powerful contender as Israelis consider the prospect of retiring their long standing strongman for new leadership. In an interview this past week, Netanyahu himself predicted that he would lose to Gantz although the outcome is far from certain.
Volatile polls point to no clear winner, putting Netanyahu narrowly in the lead with 6% still undecided in the last week. Competing over a slim margin of votes, the Likud and Blue and White parties are neck and neck in nearly all public Israeli opinion polls. The uncertain outcome has prompted Netanyahu to reach out to his party to “prepare for a loss”, likely in an attempt to urge voters to the polls. Gantz continues to project a confident and unwavering persona, energizing voters charged by the prospect that, for the first time in a decade, the Israeli left has a fighting chance at unseating the right wing.
Whatever outcome the Israeli elections bring will irreversibly change the course of the Middle East peace process and alter Israel’s relationship with its Arab countrymen. Netanyahu’s victory may strike the deathblow to the two-state solution, forcing Palestinians to fight for equality in Israel rather than sovereignty in Palestine. His defeat could herald a new era of diplomacy, breathing new life into the Palestinian peace process and minority recognition in the country. Israeli voters must now decide: to gamble on Gantz’s promise of diplomacy under fresh leadership or to defend Netanyahu’s narrative of an Israel under siege.
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.