When we speak of the upcoming elections, we are more often than not talking about the personal future of several dozen candidates and the personal fate of one, Benjamin Netanyahu. The fight over “Bibi yay or Bibi nay” has tainted much of the discourse to the point of rendering policy discussions meaningless. Where we are at is simple: Netanyahu’s supporters believe that there is no future without him, and his opponents believe that there is no future with him.
As it stands, the Netanyahu bloc is unified, totally tight, unbridled, and completely unrestrained. They have their back against the wall, and their leader Bibi is determined, by any means necessary, on returning to the premiership.
The change bloc represents a collection of rival parties from the center to the left to Arab parties and even those that represent the anti-Netanyahu right. Unlike in the Netanyahu bloc, not all the parties are united behind its leader Yair Lapid, and few share a unified vision for the state. What solidifies them is their mutual agreement that a Netanyahu reign must be prevented.
But the one question on everyone’s mind is whether Netanyahu’s recent alliance with the far-right is part of an electoral strategy or whether the extreme nationalist ideas he has recently embraced are truly what Netanyahu represents going forward.
Bibi, the talented statesman who had brought Ehud Barak into his government, plus Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Begin, and Dan Meridor into Likud, has now formed an alliance with Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, and Rabbi Thau from the nether regions of the extremist right.
While seen as a marginal figure for much of his political career, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, has received Netanyahu’s kosher stamp of approval for the November 1st elections. This move gained him a rise in support among the mainstream right, and he now aims to become a minister in a possible future Netanyahu-led government. Ben Gvir is a disciple of Meir Kahane and a product of the once-designated terrorist group Kahane Chai. He first came to the public’s attention when he incited the crowd from a balcony in Zion Square, brandishing the hood ornament from the car of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, promising: “Just as we got to Yitzhak Rabin’s car, we’ll get to him too.” This was just two weeks before Rabin’s assassination.
Today, Ben Gvir is walking a thin line, claiming to be a changed man, careful not to give the Knesset’s Central Election Committee any reason to disqualify him from running. He made sure to tell the media that he has removed Baruch Goldstein’s picture off his wall (a mass murderer he once celebrated) and that he no longer shares Kahane’s ideas. The fact that the party’s two previous leaders, Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben Ari, left Otzma Yehudit in protest of Ben Gvir’s new style of play has perfectly cemented his narrative – that he is indeed a changed man, and many have chosen to believe him. This is where he is correct, things have changed, he has successfully repackaged himself as a ‘family-friendly’ version of Kahanism. He has become an expert of the dog whistle, alluding to his goals without explicitly stating them like in the past. It is perhaps this reason that many see him as far more dangerous than his radical predecessors, he so claims to have abandoned.
In an effort to further cement his electoral victory, Netanyahu brokered a deal between Ben-Gvir and another far-right leader, Bezalel Smotrich, to ensure they run together. If they hadn’t, Smotrich might not have made it into the Knesset, depriving Netanyahu of a critical source of support. The Smotrich-Ben Gvir alliance isn’t new, they ran on a shared ticket in the 2021 elections, but negotiations to once again submit a joint electoral list collapsed with Ben Gvir accusing Smotrich of negotiating in “bad faith.” Despite these quarrels, a ‘higher’ vision unites the two, and Netanyahu knew precisely what buttons to push to get the band back together.
The final link in the chain is Netanyahu’s alliance with Rabbi Zvi Thau, the Noam party spiritual leader. Bringing Thau into the fold with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich was executed to prevent the possible loss to the bloc of a fraction of a Knesset seat. This move symbolized to many Israelis the completion of the dramatic change the Likud chairman has undergone in recent years. Noam is a benighted party that views women as 2nd class citizens and promotes legislation of conversion therapy for homosexuality. Here is a small and charming text from the pen of Rabbi Thau, which appears in “The Courage for Independence,” concerning secular Jews: “They are trying to destroy family life: to grant legitimacy to adultery and incest, and single-parent families. Bestiality, too, is on their agenda, and voices have begun to be heard declaring that pedophilia is normal. They are trying to depict all this ugliness as a Paradise on Earth.”
It cannot be ignored that as part of Netanyahu’s struggle for a return to power, he has chosen to ride the waves of hatred to re-appointment. He has dipped his hands in the most malodorous fringes in all of Israeli society. In the deepest pools of Kahanism, messianic nationalism, and for dessert, homophobia, too. In the not-too-distant past, people such as these disgusted Netanyahu, but as a means to garner seats, they have become essential figures for his courtship.
One would think that Netanyahu’s antics would espouse a backlash from the liberal-minded Prime Minister Yair Lapid, but on the contrary, Lapid is not engaging in the dramatic pathos of the Bibi yay and Bibi nay crowd. Instead, he has chosen to focus on his day job as prime minister. This has garnered criticism from some political insiders, who say, look at Netanyahu; he’s already done all the groundwork, forcing the various factions to merge. He has ensured that his bloc of parties is running in only four slates, all of which are guaranteed to pass the electoral threshold.
But this is where they are wrong. The absence of Yesh Atid representatives in the television studios and the paucity of advertising online is not an oversight or the result of complacency. Over the last few weeks, it has become clear that Lapid is betting the Israeli election on one idea – that, more than anything else, Israelis want normal, quiet, and responsible leadership.
It’s a calculated gamble based on the premise that most Israelis are exhausted from endless elections. Therefore, Lapid has spent his time negotiating the Maritime border with the US and Lebanon, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, re-establishing relations with Turkey, and cementing the historic Straits agreement with the Saudis. He recently reignited the EU-Israel Association Council, where a high-profile meeting between European foreign ministers and Israel reconvened for the first time in a decade.
Lapid’s plan has been to spend as much of the four months he has between Bennett’s departure and the election just being prime minister and trying to strike a careful balance between being prominent enough not to avoid notice while not getting stuck in the voter’s face. So, the thinking goes, each day he does this successfully is more valuable than a day of campaigning against Netanyahu.
But in the past few weeks, Lapid has encountered difficulties in the change bloc. To his right is Benny Gantz, who claims he is the only one who can form a government, and to his left is Merav Michaeli, whose entire raison d’etre is trying to restore Labor to the days of old. One should grant Michaeli credit where credit is due. She has, in some ways, brought Labor back from the ‘dead.’ However, her stubborn refusal to undertake Lapid’s plea to join an electoral slate with Meretz as a tactical bloc to ensure both parties comfortably cross the threshold might be foolish. Such a move doesn’t fit with Michaeli’s aspirations of one day being taken seriously as a prime ministerial candidate. Therefore, Lapid’s efforts to unite the two were met with rejection. If both parties cross the threshold and Labor sees a rise in seats, Michaeli will be dubbed a strategic playmaker, worthy of praise and capable of delivering upon calculated risks. If the gamble fails, however, forgiveness won’t come easy, and the left will more likely than not demand that she see herself out the door.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Arab voters will decide whether Netanyahu makes it back into office or remains in the opposition. A high turnout in the Arab community will mean that unless some of the smaller parties of the anti-Netanyahu bloc fail to cross the 3.25-percent electoral threshold, a Knesset majority will elude the Netanyahu bloc.
As things stand, it is likely that neither bloc will manage to win the 61 Knesset seats needed to form a viable government. One possibility being noticed is a rotation government comprising of Likud headed by Netanyahu, the National Unity party formed by Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar, and the ultra-Orthodox parties. But this time, Gantz would be the first to enter the Prime Minister’s Office (after all, one doesn’t fall into the same trap twice).
This works for Netanyahu because this government is his only chance to survive politically. Despite enjoying strong support and an enthusiastic base, even Netanyahu himself is preoccupied with the question of how long his Likud party loyalists and his ultra-Orthodox allies will keep rallying him. A government like the one described above is also the only chance for the ultra-Orthodox parties. The last time they were dragged from election to election, they were at least inside the government and enjoying all its perks. But today, they have been cast aside on the opposition benches, angry and forlorn. Thus, Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox have a reasonably clear interest in forming such a government.
Quite aside from political calculations, Netanyahu actually prefers Gantz to Itamar Ben-Gvir – the Kahanist balloon that is gradually inflating alongside him, and for which he is to blame. Like many others whom Netanyahu has nurtured for his own gain, he knows that Ben-Gvir will sooner or later turn on him and cause him damage.
Gantz’s campaign behavior in some ways also supports this theory as he has spent a considerable amount of time cozying up to the ultra-Orthodox parties, with whom Netanyahu cannot win without and who he would require good relations with in the event of such an outcome.
Gantz, like Lapid and Michaeli, understands that the dangers of Netanyahu coming to power with his extremist alliance could be severe. Therefore, many believe the deal he would strike would primarily be based on one condition – Netanyahu must break his promise to the Ben-Gvir/Smotrich alliance in exchange for his partnership. This move may be the only way to keep these extremists from holding significant positions of power should Netanyahu arise victoriously. Such a move has personal gain for Gantz as well, in making this play, he assumes the role of savior; to the one side, the pro-Netanyahu folk would have their king anointed once more, and to the other side, he would be the man responsible for keeping the far-right on the fringes where they belong.
Perhaps this is where the answer lies to the initial question as to whether Netanyahu’s electoral strategy with the far-right is simply that – a strategy to strike a deal with a ‘savior’ from the opposing side, a deal he would otherwise not be able to leverage, or if he truly has become a pothead for Kahanist thought.
Gantz and Sa’ar still adamantly claim that they will not sit in a government with Netanyahu, and there are reasonable grounds to believe them. Gantz has an enormous grudge against Netanyahu, who hurt him and his family through the despicable campaigns he ran back when Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party was a threat. And it’s frightening even to think about the deep, boundless enmity between Netanyahu and Sa’ar. But the possibility of a Netanyahu-Gantz coalition still can’t be ruled out. After all, in the March 2020 elections, Gantz entered into such a partnership with Netanyahu despite an explicit campaign pledge not to.
In Israeli politics, and especially over the last few chaotic years, we’ve already learned that promises are often meant to be announced with grandiosity before an election, only to prove after the election to have been an inflated performance that was “right at the time,” but now “the good of the nation requires x or y.”
Time will tell.
Samuel Hyde is a writer/researcher at The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance, based in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is the editor of the book “We Should All Be Zionists” by Dr. Einat Wilf and is currently co-writing a second book with Wilf titled “Political Intelligence.”