In three months, Israelis will head to the polls to pick their representatives in the Knesset. Israel’s electoral process is dictated by its multitudes of political parties and on April 9th, these parties will attempt to surpass the electoral threshold of 3.25%, translating into four Knesset seats out of 120.[i] After the votes are tallied and the seats are distributed, the elected parties will then focus on coalition building to get to the magic number of 61 seats. This coalition, in most cases, becomes the incubator for the Prime Minister, as they are able to control the most seats in the Knesset and have a multi-partisan support in their candidacy.
Due to the focus on political parties, the leaders of these groups are seen as potential candidates for Prime Minister given their ability to build a coalition. For the first time since current Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu returned to office in 2009, a rival candidate seems poised to take the role. Benjamin ‘Benny’ Gantz is the former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff and now the leader of the Israeli Resilience Party.[ii] Early polling indicates that if the election takes place now, his party would receive 21-24 seats, a third of the number needed before coalition building.[iii]
This contest is significant for a variety of reasons. It shows a significant shift in Israeli politics towards an outsider, as Gantz has never held any political or civilian positions and is adamant about having new voices in government.[iv] His swell in popularity is largely due to his anti-corruption stance, a clear contrast to Netanyahu, who is currently under investigation for corruption charges in three separate cases and may easily be indicted and sit trial before April 9th.[v] Gantz has made it explicitly clear that he is not a politician; he is a retired general and knows how to properly run things.[vi]
Netanyahu has long portrayed himself as “Mr. Security” to Israelis but this new challenge from Gantz makes this election more about personalities than policy.[vii] Gantz is decidedly more of a centrist candidate, but he has the relevant experiences to overshadow the nickname that Netanyahu has been particularly invested to continue to cultivate.
This kind of political discourse is a new concept to Israel as most of the previous elections center on the Palestinian question. The fact that the center of the debates is on corruption, Netanyahu’s tenure, and the distrust of politicians, highlights the volatility of this election.[viii] Netanyahu is no stranger to allegations and accusations, but he is a relative stranger to a strong opponent for his job. Gantz is mobilizing the country though his messages of strong security and anti-corruption.
The strong security portion of Gantz’s recent speeches fall into a right-leaning focus on borders, borders, and borders. The rhetoric he is using is “mean but clean”; able to get the job done without being corrupt.[ix] His long career in the IDF and his no-nonsense attitude directly translates to a stronger emphasis on the securitization of the country.
The situation in Gaza and the West Bank will remain at the status quo if either Benjamin wins 61 seats. Netanyahu’s last decade as Prime Minister and Gantz’s high-level role in the IDF both add credible weight to this claim. In their campaign speeches, the emphasis remains firmly on keeping Israelis safe and not allowing Palestinians to “endanger our security and identity.”[x]
Israel’s other borders are also at the forefront of the security discussions. Firstly, the recent discovery of the tunnels leading from Lebanon into Israel has revitalized the tensions between Hezbollah and Israel.[xi] In early December 2018, Israel launched Operation Northern Shield to destroy the tunnels.[xii] Netanyahu leveraged the classified operation to delay elections and shift focus away from the corruption charges. The decision to share these details is a major shift for Netanyahu. Sharing this highly sensitive information publicly is a political strategy showcasing the strong and crucial decisions that only Netanyahu can make.[xiii]
Another recent shift is Netanyahu’s acknowledgment of targeted airstrikes on Iranian military targets in Syria.[xiv] Although there was a persistent sense that Israel was behind similar attacks, Netanyahu’s policy was to stay ambiguous. Slowly and decidedly, Netanyahu is claiming responsibility for the attacks[xv], a choice that emboldens his stance against Iran but could easily increase tensions as Iranian leaders may be more keen to directly retaliate.[xvi] Gantz unequivocally agrees with this policy and is thought to be suggesting an increase in attacks.
Furthermore, Israel’s relationship with Russia may worsen due to its freedom of action in Syria and Lebanon.[xvii] A Russian blowback may be imminent especially as Putin is eager to fill the vacuum in Syria caused by the exacerbated conflict there. Russia’s increased prominence in the region and its new criticism of Israeli actions in Syria and Lebanon should be a worrying sign for the future of Middle Eastern geopolitics.[xviii]
Iran is seen as the biggest threat by Israeli government and military, and in this specific point, the Benjamins agree that cracking down on Hezbollah and Syria can limit Iran’s reach. Operation Northern Shield provided Netanyahu with a “victory” that he will claim as being strong on security.[xix] However, Gantz’s outsider status and direct experience in the IDF has allowed him to further call for more action.
It is a truism in politics that elections are about the future, and not just about the past.[xx] In Israel’s upcoming election, given the potential of looming indictments, many voters will want to consider whether Netanyahu can fulfill the responsibilities of the office while also devoting major time and attention to his legal difficulties. Gantz serves as a strong opponent to Netanyahu by using the tactics of personality politics, a strategy seldom seen in Israel.
Over the next three months, the rhetoric surrounding the elections in Israel will likely continue on the Benjamin vs Benjamin trajectory of Netanyahu flexing his political muscle and Gantz attempting to discredit it. This style of politics has overshadowed both Benjamins’ shared goal of secure borders and a stable region. Netanyahu’s decision to share confidential information regarding its northern borders in order to appear as the stronger “Mr. Security” overlooks the significant concerns about his corruption. On the other hand, Gantz’s loud and bombastic speeches overshadow his notable lack of political experience. In sum, April 9th is proving to be an important date for the tumultuous future of Middle East geopolitics.
[i] Kodova, Shoshana. (2019) Everything You Need to Know About Elections in Israel but Were Afraid to Ask. Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/.premium-israel-s-elections-all-you-need-to-know-1.5335544
[ii] Hoffman, Gil. (2019) Gantz-Ya’alon On PM’s Tail, Polls Show. The Jerusalem Post. https://www.jpost.com/Israel-Elections/Netanyahu-can-be-beaten-by-Gantz-Yaalon-political-bond-polls-find-579202
[iii] Haaretz News. (2019) Gantz Closes Gap on Netanyahu: Dramatic Rise in Polls After Debut Speech. Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/gantz-closes-gap-on-netanyahu-dramatic-rise-in-polls-after-debut-speech-1.6895527
[iv] Gorenberg, Gershom. (2019) Benny Gantz and the hollowness of Israel’s election season. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/01/27/benny-gantz-hollowness-israels-election-season/?utm_term=.3358b6ad7b25
[v] Underwood, Alexia. (2019) Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu could be indicted. Here’s what you need to know. Vox. https://www.vox.com/world/2019/1/2/18125575/israel-pm-benjamin-netanyahu-corruption-charges
[vi] Gorenberg, Gershom. (2019) Benny Gantz and the hollowness of Israel’s election season. The Washington Post.
[vii] SABC News. (2019) Netanyahu pledges ‘lethal’ response to Gaza violence after blocking aid. SABC News. http://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/netanyahu-pledges-lethal-response-to-gaza-violence-after-blocking-aid/
[viii] Sasley, Brent. (2019) Israel’s upcoming election could produce even more political parties. Here’s why. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2019/01/04/with-israeli-elections-coming-up-heres-what-you-should-know-about-the-party-system/?utm_term=.0026c3cf6df0
[ix] Pfeffer, Anshel. (2019). Gantz’s Message: Vote for Me – I’m Meaner Than Netanyahu, but Clean. Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/.premium-vote-for-me-i-m-meaner-than-bibi-but-clean-1.6892523
[xi] Bassam, Laila and Suleiman Al-Khalidi. (2019) Hezbollah could ‘for years’ enter Israel, group’s leader says after tunnels found. Reuters. https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1PK0S3
[xii] Landau, Noa and Yaniv Kubovich. (2018) From Gaza to Israeli Elections: Seven Insights Into Operation Against Hezbollah Tunnels. Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-from-gaza-to-elections-seven-insights-into-operation-against-hezbollah-tunnels-1.6718879
[xiii] Anskaityte, Indre. (2019) Snap Election in Israel: Just in Time to Save Netanyahu’s Seat? The Globe Post. https://theglobepost.com/2019/01/15/israel-snap-election-netanyahu/
[xiv] Kershner, Isabel. (2019) Israel Confirms Attacks on Iranian Targets in Syria. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/20/world/middleeast/israel-attack-syria-iran.html
[xv] Kershner, Isabel. (2019) Israel, in Rare Admission, Confirms Strike on Iranian Targets in Syria. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/13/world/middleeast/israel-iran-strike-syria-tunnels.html?module=inline
[xvi] Asharq Al-Awsat. (2019) Damascus Threatens to Strike Tel Aviv Airport in Retaliation to Israeli Strikes. Asharq Al-Awsat. https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1558861/damascus-threatens-strike-tel-aviv-airport-retaliation-israeli-strikes
[xvii] Makovsky, David, and Dennis Ross. (2019) Foreign Policy Should Not Get Lost in Israel’s Election Campaign. The Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/foreign-policy-should-not-get-lost-in-israels-election-campaign
[xix] Bar’el, Zvi. (2019) Hezbollah Caught Between Desire to Strengthen Iran and Need to Reinforce Its Domestic Power. Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/.premium-hezbollah-might-let-lebanon-sleep-peacefully-if-israel-doesn-t-keep-it-up-at-night-1.6876411
[xx] Makovsky, David, and Dennis Ross. (2019) Foreign Policy Should Not Get Lost in Israel’s Election Campaign. The Washington Institute.