Will seven politicians 'Unite4Israel'?

An election campaign to unite seven Israeli public figures to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates reflects the current distress of the liberal peace camp.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogizes former Defense Minister Moshe Arens in Tel Aviv, Jan. 8, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Jan 24, 2019

“Those voting for the political center are not stupid,” declared veteran advertising executive Udi Pridan, whose agency coined “Without unity, your vote is lost,” the slogan opening a campaign to encourage a group of seven Israeli public figures to unite under one political umbrella. Unite4Israel, launched Jan. 20, urges them to “set aside their egos” and join forces to win the “war for the state.” A poll commissioned by the campaign showed that 79% of the supporters of the seven — more than 1 million adult Israelis — want them to join forces.

Admittedly, most center-left Israelis are not stupid, but they are undoubtedly confused and embarrassed, having lost their way. The deep yearning to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates, among them Culture Minister Miri Regev, appears to have become their be all and end all, blocking the political and moral field of vision of wise and principled people. In other words, the dream of toppling Netanyahu and company in the April 9 elections has distorted the thinking of Israel's best and brightest when it comes to the tremendous diplomatic, political and social challenges facing Israel.

This elite political commando unit consists of four men whose most obvious common denominator is the number of stars that adorned their shoulders when they led the Israel Defense Forces. Giant portraits of Lt. Generals Ehud Barak (formerly of the Labor Party), Benny Gantz (head of the newly formed Israel Resilience), Gabi Ashkenazi (unaffiliated) and Moshe Ya’alon (Telem) grace billboards and newspapers alongside photos of Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Tzipi Livni (Hatenua) and Avi Gabbay (Labor Party).

The campaign is being sponsored by the businessman and advertising executive Ilan Shiloah, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Moshe Kaplinsky, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Giora Inbar, social entrepreneur Noa Eliasaf-Shoham and Yonatan Ben-Artzi, grandson of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Borrowing from military jargon, this group is calling on the seven to “get together under the stretcher; this is our state that’s bleeding up there.” The answer they propose to the question of who will lead is “Fuck it, the state will lead” — yet another symptom of Israel's stultified public discourse.

Truth be told, a “state” is a group of citizens. It is not a road map, and it does not lead anywhere. Citizens are the ones who must pick a leader whose values and policies are in tune with their views and needs. It seems that over the course of recent years, however, rational consideration has receded from the public arena in Israel, making way for two strong, opposing sentiments — hatred and disgust on one side and love and fear on the other.

Ya’alon regards the establishment of a Palestinian state as an existential threat to Israel, while Livni argues that the status quo is an existential threat to Zionism. What could they possibly have in common? What do Lapid, Gabbay, Barak and Ashkenazi have in common? Does anyone know what Ashkenazi thinks about civil marriage, an anti-clerical position advocated by Lapid?

Gantz surged in the polls in recent weeks without revealing a hint of his political identity or a scintilla of the values he holds. The only statement he has issued was a vague promise on Jan. 14 to “fix” the controversial Nationality Law to grant the Druze minority full equality. On Jan. 20, the eve of the unity campaign's launch, Gantz’s party unveiled its slogan: “Only the Strong Win.”

In a series of videos posted to Facebook by Israel Resilience, Gantz boasts of the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, a leader of Hamas' military wing, the bombing of terror-related targets in Gaza and the killing of 1,364 Palestinian terrorists in Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 campaign against Gaza. The clip about the Gaza campaign, during which Gantz served as IDF chief of staff, features photos of bombed out neighborhoods next to a caption that reads, “6,231 targets were destroyed – Parts of Gaza have reverted to the Stone Age. In a sop to centrist voters leaning slightly to the left, Gantz mouths a few general words about peace, including, “There’s no shame in striving for peace.”

In a Jan. 21 Haaretz op-ed, the writer Orian Morris revealed that for all his adult life he had voted for the Labor Party but is now planning to vote for Gantz. “We are in an unprecedented situation,” Morris explained. “A criminal movement led by an angel of destruction (as Netanyahu was once dubbed by the last decent leader of the Herut Party, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir) is demolishing the very institutions of statehood.”

According to Morris, voting for Gantz is the only way to win, regardless of what he may think about the occupation, the siege of Gaza, the evacuation of settlements and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Morris is guided by only one idea: “There is no choice in these elections but to win if you want your sons and grandsons to have a place to live.”

The public sphere in Israel is being taken over by two rival camps. On one side is the “anyone but Netanyahu” camp, reflected in the “Without unity, your vote is lost,” which in Hebrew is a play on words meaning not only that the vote is lost, but all is lost. On the other side are the Likud billboards attacking leading journalists, captioned, “They will not decide. You will decide. Only Netanyahu.”

A million Israelis are willing to gamble on a vague hodgepodge of defense, diplomacy and socioeconomic ideas. These superficially expressed values and principles reflect the distress of the liberal peace camp. A union erected on rocky foundations might be necessary to take up residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, but it is unlikely to enable the construction of an effective and stable government.

To borrow from a misspoken claim by Regev — “I was behind some incredible revolutions that even two ministers after me will not be enough to fix” — Israel’s next prime minister will have to work hard to fix what Regev’s boss has damaged over the past decade. In fact, among the biggest challenges the next Israeli leader faces are bringing principles back to the public discourse and rehabilitating the status of values in the public agenda.

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