As dawn broke in Israel this morning, some big news was breaking as well. Benny Gantz’s Hosen Leyisrael and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid had reached an agreement to run together in a unified list for the Knesset, with the added bonus of former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi joining their team. With former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon already on board, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s most formidable challenge now comes from a party that includes one of Israel’s savviest politicians and three former chiefs of staff. The Gantz and Lapid merger always made political sense, which is why many – myself included– have been expecting it for weeks, but the way it went down yields a number of key takeaways.
First, the reason that the Gantz and Lapid partnership was not consummated until the last day that parties running for the Knesset were required to submit their lists is because both Gantz and Lapid believe that each is better suited to be prime minister than the other. Gantz is polling ahead of Lapid and has generated an enormous amount of buzz, and was reluctant to yield the spotlight to someone who is less popular with voters in the polls. Lapid has spent seven years preparing to replace Netanyahu, building an impressive political operation and accumulating experience as a minister and an MK, and was reluctant to take a backseat to a political neophyte. That the two were willing to set their differences aside and agree to a prime ministerial rotation in an effort to replace Netanyahu is a heartening sign of putting larger political and policy considerations over personal ones, and stands in stark contrast to Netanyahu, who has literally made a career of stomping on internal rivals by any means necessary, whether it be Silvan Shalom or Gideon Sa’ar.
Second, what makes the Gantz-Lapid merger smart is not only the tantalizing appeal of creating a list that may gain the most seats in the Knesset and get the first shot at forming the government. This is a case that goes beyond mere seat-counting because of the way the two complement each other. Gantz has the popularity of a new and exciting entrant to politics and has the sterling security credentials that only a former chief of staff can claim, but because he created a party that is little more than a vehicle for a prime ministerial run, he has no real organization of which to speak and has no political experience. Lapid, in contrast, has built a serious party in Yesh Atid, with thousands of activists, experienced MKs, and municipal branches with mayors and elected officials around the country. Lapid also has served as a government minister and as an opposition MK so knows the Knesset ropes, but has a glaring hole in his security resume. In one stroke, Gantz gets an experienced political organization and Lapid gets security credibility, thereby filling the biggest gap for each of them and making this more than an exercise in Knesset arithmetic.
Third, the Ashkenazi factor may end up being the most salient of all. Ashkenazi is not only another popular general, but someone who is popular with Likud voters. He is Mizrahi, viewed as a Golani brigade working class man of the people, and has spent his post-IDF career focused on social issues. There is a reason that parties across the spectrum have tried to recruit him for years, and the fact that he only agreed to join a party that now appears to be Israel’s biggest tent gives him an added credibility factor. Gantz and Lapid have mostly cannibalized votes from parties on the left, but Ashkenazi is going to bring in a non-trivial number of votes from the right, which is precisely what is needed if this new list wants to alter the fundamental Israeli political math that has returned Likud-led coalitions to power.
Finally, amidst all of the euphoria that this merger has set off among the anti-Netanyahu set, there are some potentially threatening storm clouds on the horizon. While Gantz and Lapid were able to swallow their pride for now, a party with one of Israel’s most ambitious politicians and three former chiefs of staff is a recipe for ego clashes the likes of which Israeli politics has never seen. Ashkenazi has a reputation for being lower key but Ya’alon certainly does not, and how the four men at the top navigate their relationships, sharing power, and the decision making process is going to be tricky at best and seismically unstable at worst. While the current platform is replacing Netanyahu come hell or high water, the party is going to have to flesh out some positions on issues where agreement between these four will be difficult. There are lots of cooks in this kitchen, and while they may be able to pull off an electoral victory, governing is going to be a messy affair.
But for now, the indelible image is of Gantz, Lapid, Ashkenazi, and Ya’alon joining hands at the same time that Netanyahu was working to bring the racist, neo-fascist, terrorist designates in Otzma Yehudit into the polite company of the rest of the Israeli right and ultimately into his own potential future coalition. Not only is the Gantz-Lapid sundae with an Ashkenazi cherry on top Netanyahu’s worst political nightmare come to pass, it comes at a time when the contrast between Netanyahu’s vision and the alternative vision could not be starker.