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How Blue and White must challenge Netanyahu on democracy principles

Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman has positioned himself as a man of principles, so it is high time that, with a bit of creativity, Blue and White reminded theirs and presented the Likud with a list of ideological demands, each based on broad public agreement and on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared positions.
Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White, and party member Yair Lapid chat during their party faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RC19B4385D20

Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman was undoubtedly the biggest winner of the September elections. Within six months, his niche Yisrael Beitenu party almost doubled its support, from 173,000 votes in the April elections to over 310,000. According to an analysis by the financial newspaper Globes, many of the new voters were disappointed supporters of the young Blue and White party that ran for the first time in April. For example, Yisrael Beitenu surged in Tel Aviv from 1.4% of the vote in April to 4.4% in September, while Blue and White dropped from 46% to less than 43%. In the neighboring town of Givatayim, a Labor party bastion, Liberman’s party soared 452%. In the town of Ra’anana, its support grew 318%, in neighboring Hod Hasharon 285% and in nearby Herzliya the number of Yisrael Beitenu voters grew 195%.

What made comfortable citizens from the greater Tel Aviv area and nearby Sharon district wander from the centrist Blue and White party, the center-left Labor and even left-wing Meretz to a party whose former leaders were embroiled in criminal wrongdoing, and their replacements are obscure Liberman soldiers? Presumably, most of the new voters did not undergo an ideological conversion within a few short months from being law-abiding, peace-loving liberals to acolytes of a West Bank settler (Liberman lives in the Nokdim settlement) who excels at inciting to hatred of the Arab minority and maligning the legal system. They were likely aware of the stories about Michal Liberman, Avigdor Liberman’s 20-year-old daughter who became rich overnight and the witnesses who turned away and ran or turned mum.

Knesset member Oded Forer of Yisrael Beitenu attributes the secret of the party’s success to identification with its messages on the issue of religion and state, such as its demands for public transportation on the Sabbath, for liberalizing conversions to Judaism and for imposing the country’s compulsory military draft on ultra-Orthodox men. Liberman has now added demands to scrap the Supermarket Law that obliges food shops and convenience stores to close on the Sabbath, to reevaluate the ongoing attempts to reach a deal with Hamas on the Gaza Strip and to rethink plans for across-the-board budget cuts and tax hikes. He is also demanding that the prime minister “dismantle his bloc of ultra-Orthodox, messianic” supporters. Apropos messianic, on Oct. 13, the outspoken, anti-clerical Liberman posted on his Facebook page a photo of himself with the rabbi who comes to his house every year on the eve of the Sukkoth holiday to confer a blessing on him and his family. The rabbi is a member of the Orthodox Hassidic Chabad movement, known for its messianic leanings.

Liberman has positioned himself as a militant politician willing to give up the trappings of power in order to fight for his principles. He has won the admiration of tens of thousands of Israelis who are grateful to him for refusing to provide Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the 61-seat Knesset majority he needs to stay in power.

Meanwhile, Blue and White has made a cause celebre of its demand to be first in line for the premiership in case of a unity government and power-sharing deal with Netanyahu’s Likud party. Whether the ongoing coalition negotiations result in agreement on a unity government, or whether Israelis will be dragged kicking and screaming to new elections in the coming months, every passing day boosts the perception of Liberman as a “man of principle,” compared with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and his associates seen as a bunch of spineless opportunists.

With a bit of creativity, Blue and White could present the Likud with a list of ideological demands, basing each and every one on broad public support. Not only that, all of them would be rooted in the declared positions of none other than Likud leader Netanyahu.

Following are five principles, for which Netanyahu expressed public support over the years.

The first principle: A prime minister under criminal suspicion is not authorized to make decisions on crucial issues.

As leader of the opposition, Netanyahu spoke in December 2008 about incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who was under suspicion of corruption. “A prime minister up to his neck in investigations … does not have a public or moral mandate to determine such fateful matters for the State of Israel,” he said. Netanyahu cited “the fear, and I have to say it is real and not without basis, that he will make decisions based on his personal interest in political survival and not based on the national interest because he is in this special and very deep trouble.”

The second principle: Preserving the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers, and scrapping legislative initiatives designed to weaken the country’s top court.

In November 2011, Netanyahu told a conference of jurists: “Democracy is not only the rule of the majority, but defense of the freedoms and rights of the individual, … We will continue to defend the court’s independence. … It is no less important than the defense or the economy; it is a fundamental element of our national existence. … True, there are such models in the US, but we do not have to imitate everything, and we must preserve the principle of separation of powers and an independent court.”

The third principle: Equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, including their participation in the leadership of the state.

“For hundreds of years, Jews lived in Muslim countries, flourished there, prospered and felt protected,” Netanyahu confidant Natan Eshel said in June 2019. “Now that the situation is reversed and the Jews are the majority, there is no reason why the Muslim minority can’t live here in comfort and with full cooperation, including a partnership in leading the country.”

The fourth principle: Support for the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. A total halt of land appropriations and establishment of new settlements. There will be no territorial changes, including land annexations.

In his landmark 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, Netanyahu said the following: “Within this homeland lives a large Palestinian community. We do not want to rule over them, we do not want to govern their lives, we do not want to impose either our flag or our culture on them. In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. … The territorial issue will be discussed in the permanent agreement. In the meantime, we have no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements.”

The fifth principle: Equal status for all streams of Judaism. An end to discrimination against prayers by women, Reform and conservative Jews at the Western Wall.

“Israel must be the home of all the Jewish people, including Reform Jews. … Reform and conservative Jews are an inseparable part of the Jewish people and must be treated with dignity. … The Western Wall will continue to be the source of inspiration for all the Jewish people. … All the Jews will feel at home at the wall,” Netanyahu said at various times in recent years.

There are two options. If Netanyahu accepts these demands, he will naturally have to take his leave of his so-called natural partners — the ultra-Orthodox parties and the right-wing Yamina (Rightward) alliance, and perhaps even of some of the Likud hawks. On the other hand, if he rejects them, at best, he will be depicted as a consummate flip-flopper, at worst, as a serial liar. There is no third option.

Presenting these five demands would demonstrate that Gantz is a man of principles. It will prove that the leader of Blue and White does not sideline the public that supported Netanyahu. On the contrary, it will show that he is the true champion of those same values supposedly so dear to the ruling prime minister of Israel.

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