Opinion

Tel Aviv Diary: As Israel's Centrists Unite, Netanyahu Falls Behind in the Polls | Opinion

When Benjamin Netanyahu called for an early election, he had every reason to expect to be reelected before the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit could report back on whether or not he would indict Netanyahu on one or more charges of corruption and graft. With an opposition in disarray, caught unaware, and Israel’s relatively good economic status and security situation, this election must have seemed like a cakewalk.

Now, two months later, and six weeks before the actual election Netanyahu has found himself in an uphill fight for his political survival. Israel has a long history of chasing after a sudden white knight candidate, who tends to burn brightly before petering out. Many thought that was the likely trajectory for the candidacy of former IDF Chief, General Benny Gantz.  While Gantz’s star did not fade following the first few weeks of his campaign, it did not rise either. According to polls, Gantz’s party was the second largest, but still substantially trailed the Likud.

Since Gantz announced he was running, talks have remained ongoing between Gantz and Yair Lapid, the talkshow host and news anchor turned leader of Israel’s main centrist party, Yesh Atid, to explore a merger. Observers doubted the negotiations would bear fruit, if only because the egos of those involved were just too big. But During the last week, talks between Gantz and Lapid accelerated, not least thanks to the roleNetanyahu played in the banding together of the far-right religious party, with the even-further-right party of disciples of the late Jewish supremacist Meir Kahane. In the early hours of Thursday morning, Gantz and Lapid announced that their two parties would merge to create a brand new party, dubbed Blue and White, after the colors of the Israeli flag. As part of their agreement, if they indeed become the largest political party and form the government, Gantz will serve as Prime Minister for 2 1/2 years, and Lapid will take over as Prime Minister for the remainder of their Knesset term.

As an added benefit, former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi signedon to Gantz’s party leadership, joining former IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon — to form what has been dubbed “the party of the generals”. Ashkenazi was extremely popular when he completed his term as Chief of Staff — so much so, that the Likud passed a special bill dubbed “the Ashkenazi Bill” to prohibit IDF Chiefs of Staff from entering into politics until four years after stepping down from the military. Passage of that bill indicates the level of fear that permeated the political area regarding Ashkenazi’s popularity.

The impact of the new “Blue and White” party’s arrival was immediate. All the polls taken on Thursday showed “Blue and White” leading Netanyahu’s Likud party. One poll, considered reliable, indicated Blue and White is projected to receive 36 seats, compared to only 26 for the Likud. However, polls show that the coalition of right-wing and religious have a slight advantage to the center-left bloc, and thus maintain a better chance of forming a coalition, at the moment.

Netanyahu wasted no time before attacking the new party. In the ten-minute address delivered by the prime minister, he warned of the dangers that would result from electing “Blue and White.” Netanyahu stated “the Blue and White is a party of ‘left-wing generals’ who pretend to be right-wing” — which has been the right-wing’s lock-step line of attack against Gantz, since he announced he would run. Among the hardcore Likud supporters that line is working. If you ask any of them about Gantz, their first words are always — “that left-winger.”

Netanyahu went on to lie about his opponents’ record. I use that strong word, since among his assertions, Netanyahu claimed Lapid and Gantz supported the nuclear deal with Iran. I interviewed Lapid for this column the day the agreement was signed, and Lapid strongly opposed it, saying for the record: “I think this is a bad day for the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” He went on to add he would go to Congress to fight it.

Though Netanyahu’s Likud party is behind in the polls, for the moment, no one counts Netanyahu out. When it comes to running an election, Netanyahu has always been a formidable opponent.

There is one other wild card in this election. As I stated at the beginning of the article, Netanyahu called the election in order to preempt the Attorney General’s announcement of his decision vis-a-vis an indictment. That plan may not have worked out so well, since by many accounts, the Attorney General is prepared to announce his decision in the next ten days.

While the AG could reveal he will not charge the Prime Minister (in which case, Netanyahu will receive a significant boost), that outcome is unlikely. Alternatively, the AG could announce he is only charging Netanyahu with minor charges, e.g., improperly receiving gifts — which is the outcome most of his supporters expect. However, almost all news accounts point to a recommendation to indict on much more serious crimes, including bribery. If that happens six weeks before the election, it is anyone’s guess how that might affect the outcome.

As of Thursday night, the party lists are final. Israelis now know who is running, and in which parties. Over the next six weeks, most will decide between voting for one of the two large parties — the Likud of Netanyahu, or the Blue and White Party of Gantz. Few in Israel tonight are willing to wager who will come out on top.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​

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