(June 11, 2019 / JNS) Formed just months before Israel’s April 9 elections and headlined by several former generals, the Blue and White Party made a strong showing, matching Likud with 35 seats.
Yet, due to the overwhelming victory by the right-wing or religious parties over those to the left, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a government. He failed to do so, sending the country to new elections on Sept. 17.
For those who seek to end Netanyahu’s 10-year reign as prime minister, the question is whether the fall election provides a new opportunity for Blue and White to defeat Netanyahu and the Likud, and be given the opportunity to form the next government. Blue and White, led by former Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, think the answer is yes.
Party officials told JNS that the working assumption is that if they receive a few more seats than Likud, then the president will ask Gantz to form the next government instead of Netanyahu. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, No. 3 on the Blue and White list, said the party was “working on a campaign strategy to win more mandates than the Likud, which will lead to the president asking MK Benny Gantz to form the new government.”
Which leads to the question: How will Blue and White increase the 35 seats they won in April?
One potential source of votes is Labor Party voters. Labor’s leader in April was Knesset member Avi Gabbay, who comes from a more right-wing, traditional background, having served as a government minister for the center-right Kulanu in the previous government. But on Tuesday, he announced that he will not be running for the party leadership again.
Labor is holding its primaries on July 2, and a victory for the party’s young, staunchly left-wing stars—Knesset members Stav Shaffir (who has already announced that she is running) or Itzik Shmuli (who has not yet announced his intentions)—could leave centrist Labor voters without a political home. They could shift to Blue and White as a result.
But a young, strong left-wing Labor leader could also pull votes away from the moderate-left flank within Blue and White, which didn’t view Labor as an option in the April election and voted Blue and White as an “anti-Netanyahu” vote.
However, winning more votes from the center-left will not secure a victory for Blue and White. They need to be able to come to the president with a larger political bloc than the Likud, and to accomplish this, right-wing voters would need to shift from the Likud camp to the Blue and White camp.
‘One message a thousand times’
So what can Blue and White do to bring votes over from the right?
One potential source could be former voters for Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party.
Kahlon had portrayed himself as the “moderate right,” which would uphold the rule of law and government institutions against attempts by Netanyahu and others on the right to limit the powers of the court and challenge some of the institutions of law as part of the struggle to protect Netanyahu from criminal prosecution.
But Kahlon chose to join Likud for the upcoming elections, essentially leaving many of his voters without a political home.
Still, even those votes likely won’t be enough to put Blue and White over the top.
Former Knesset member Ronen Hoffman, currently a professor of government and politics at IDC Herzliya, told JNS that Blue and White has no chance to win in September if it continues simply to be the “anti-Netanyahu” party without defining itself politically.
“They must come out and declare that they are the ‘liberal right’ in Israel,” he said of its leaders. “This is actually who they are—right on security issues and liberal on social issues, such as human rights and religion and state. But they are not saying it.”
Hoffman noted that “instead of saying a thousand messages one time, they must shift to saying one message a thousand times. And that message must be that they are the liberal right.”
The challenge for Blue and White, however, will be to raise this flag of social liberalism without distancing themselves from the ultra-Orthodox.
Ronen Tzur, a campaign strategist for Blue and White in the April election, told IDF Radio that among the many mistakes the party made during the previous campaign was allowing Knesset member Yair Lapid—No. 2 on the party list—to attack the ultra-Orthodox. Such attacks, he said, must stop.
“Lapid must tone down his rhetoric against the ultra-Orthodox … [such rhetoric] is foolish because it is essentially a statement from the outset that [Blue and White] cannot form a government. They are automatically pushing 17 mandates to the right,” he explained.
One indication that Blue and White may be taking the reins from Lapid is last week’s removal of longtime Lapid/Yesh Atid strategist Mark Mellman from the September elections campaign.
It’s clear that Blue and White must do something differently than it did in the lead-up to April in order not just to win more seats than the Likud, but to win by enough of a margin to be given the mandate from the president to form a government.
How they choose to do so remains to be seen.