Does Israel’s Blue and White party need to change leaders?

Ahead of the new Sept. 17 elections, the Blue and White party must decide which leadership configuration is most likely to bring victory.

al-monitor Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, prepares to huddle with his party candidates Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya'alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters, Tel Aviv, Israel, April 10, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Jun 5, 2019

On the outside, it’s "business as usual" for the leadership of the Blue and White party. The party announced on June 2 that despite various rumors and statements, the rotation agreement between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid will be upheld because “agreements must be honored.” According to this agreement, if the party wins the elections, Gantz will serve as prime minister until the beginning of 2022, to be replaced later by Lapid. The party’s announcement did not include statements like “this is the right thing to do,” and none of the party’s top brass really believe that a continuation of the rotation between the two will improve the party’s electoral outcome — except for Lapid, of course. The decision to continue the rotation — which is probably not final — nonetheless illustrates Lapid’s political power. He is the only senior member of the party who is backed up by an experienced political body with logistical systems and an army of devoted volunteers and activists throughout the country.

The question is what will happen on the ups and downs leading to election day on Sept. 17. “We’ve received a second chance,” Lapid said after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to assemble a government and the Knesset dissolved itself on May 30. Lapid was right. The problem is that at this stage the opportunity does not include new instruments or tie-breaking tools that would enable Blue and White to succeed in the very same place it failed last April: to beat Netanyahu. Perhaps even the contrary is true. It is altogether possible that the next Labor party chairman (primaries will be held this July) will be stronger and more effective than Avi Gabbay was and will succeed in returning some of the voters it had lost to Blue and White. And this is even before expressly mentioning the name Ehud Barak, the former Labor chair and former prime minister, who is seriously considering returning to the party and running for chairman. Blue and White would then be operating in a more complicated and dangerous arena than they had faced in April — and without any improvement in the means it has at its disposal. As aforesaid, things might even be worse this time around.

At the moment, early public opinion polls show that Blue and White retains its strength, more or less, while the Likud party continues to strengthen. However, Blue and White is lucky in that chances are low that the popular former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked will be able to transfer from her New Right party to the Likud. This is due to the categorical opposition of the first lady, the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu. Shaked’s popularity crosses parties and sectors and was supposed to create new woes for Blue and White. But even without her, the situation is not encouraging.

As aforementioned, Blue and White officials are outwardly trying to project business as usual and the image of a fraternity of military warriors, which they developed in the course of the last campaign. On the other hand, no one tries anymore to pretend that the party is a united one. The party’s elites have decided to stop wasting efforts on hushing up internal disagreements, but have instead adopted the opposite tactic: Yes, we have a variety of opinions and don’t always agree on everything, but we’ll all walk the path together to the very end. And that’s what is important.

The question is what will happen in the coming weeks as the election date nears and their fate will be decided. In this campaign, Netanyahu’s fate will be decided not only in the political realm but also on the legal-criminal level. In these elections, Israel will decide which way to turn: toward a “state of Jewish-religious law” in the style of King David-King Solomon — according to Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich from the United Right? Or for the old, democratic, liberal Jewish state that the country’s founders had dreamed of and the right-wing is now trying to undermine?

What will happen to Blue and White if the polls, which had been so favorable to them in the previous campaign, will now give the party the cold shoulder? What will happen if Netanyahu opens a gap and the neighboring parties, mainly Labor, gnaw a larger portion of its electorate than last time (35 mandates)? Under such circumstances, the chiefs of staff — Blue and White seniors Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — together with Lapid will face truly painful decisions. It won’t be a walk in the park. Army higher-ups like Gantz, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi are used to giving orders and heading a giant military pyramid in which everyone else is subordinate to them. Lapid became accustomed to the same kind of system in Yesh Atid with its quasi-military atmosphere in which everyone obeyed him. Now they need to shake up the system and try to decide what is the best thing to do in order to secure victory. This time, they don’t have all of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) behind them.

The first thing to return to the party’s agenda would be the rotation deal. If the polls prove that rotation is bad for Blue and White, then Lapid will find himself under siege. Lapid is a stubborn and determined person. These characteristics were mentioned before on the backdrop of the prevailing assessment at the time that he would not give up the first spot in order to merge with Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party. Not ever. Still, the fact is that he did agree to the rotation deal placing him as No. 2 on the Blue and White list. On the legal level, canceling the rotation deal does not require the party to change its election list. It would be enough to announce as such two days before elections, as did Zionist Camp leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni in March 2015. So what will Lapid do at the moment of truth if he faces an ultimatum posed by his party partners?

There is another, even more sensitive question: What will these gentlemen do if, in a few weeks, it emerges in the polls that Ashkenazi heading the Blue and White list would draw significantly more votes than would Gantz? Ashkenazi has one prominent advantage over Gantz: He knows how to talk to Likud supporters. Ashkenazi, the IDF’s 19th chief of staff, is viewed as the sole high-placed Blue and White member capable of bringing in voters from the other side of the political spectrum — the right wing — without harming the traditional center-left electoral base that is ready to donate their kidneys to get rid of Netanyahu. Ashkenazi is equipped with a bit more charisma than Gantz, who has a pleasant, relaxed personality but doesn’t create electricity around him or carry people away with his rhetoric. In addition to all of this, Ashkenazi isn’t really happy about his relatively low position — No. 4 — on the high list. Ashkenazi committed himself to do what was needed to unite Lapid, Gantz and Ya’alon, and is viewed as the main matchmaker of this Blue and White union. He also said he won’t insist on a place among the higher-ups and is ready to do the work but waive the glory. But that’s all history; the campaign of the 21st Knesset is behind us, and now we face a new campaign. Is Ashkenazi’s commitment still valid today?

All of these questions will erupt into the agenda in the coming weeks on the assumption that Blue and White will receive lukewarm ratings in the polls or, conversely, Netanyahu takes off. But if Blue and White leads, then peace and quiet will reign. The odds of this happening are somewhat lower.

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