Gantz’s Next Play: Court The Orthodox?


A humiliated Benjamin Netanyahu has admitted defeat in his attempt to build a government. “The time for Blue and White has arrived,” declared his opponent Benny Gantz, who now gets to try — but faces the same miserable math. If he fails, there is a high chance of a third election.

Prime Minister Netanyahu couldn’t muster a Knesset majority, and Gantz doesn’t have an obvious route to one either. His centrist Blue and White party can enlist Labor and the Democratic Camp, but it will still be 17 seats short.

Netanyahu really is in crisis, in public opinion terms as well as in the political arena. Some 53.5 percent of Israelis think he should resign now in view of corruption cases, pollsters from the Israel Democracy Institute just concluded.

His opponents are gleeful. “Tonight, Netanyahu’s role as prime minister ended, and his failure is the new hope of Israeli citizens,” said Labor leader Amir Peretz shortly after Bibi announced he was not able to form a coalition. But Bibi’s bad fortune doesn’t necessarily mean that things are rosy for Gantz, or for the many Israeli liberals who hope he will steer Israel to the center with a more moderate government.

If he is to avoid a third election, Gantz desperately needs the eight seats that Avigdor Lieberman, the so-called kingmaker of Israeli politics, controls. Lieberman and his Israel Beiteinu party are playing hardball, and won’t give allegiance to Gantz easily.

Equally problematic for Gantz is his own campaign platform. He sent out a strong message that he will form a government that excludes Orthodox parties. It seemed like a good idea at the time — and may well have won him votes. But such stands have a way of coming back to bite us, and Gantz is now feeling the pain.

The charedi party Shas could propel him into power. It has the nine seats needed to supplement Lieberman’s. And ideologically, it could fit into a Gantz government, in a way that the other two Orthodox parties couldn’t.

Shas doesn’t have the zealous pro-settler ethos of the religious-Zionist Yamina party. And religiously speaking, its voters are, on average, much more moderate than the other charedi party, United Torah Judaism, on big issues that will come up in coalition talks, such as the extent of secular studies in religious schools and whether more yeshiva students should serve in the army.

UTJ’s spiritual leader, Shalom Cohen, is already sending out conciliatory messages to Blue and White after aggressive campaigning. Blue and White leaders stand to gain a place in “the World to Come” if they sit with charedim, he said. Yes, offering a place in heaven like a reward coupon is an odd way to build bridges, but this is the language of Shas.

If you play back the rhetoric of recent months, you would think that it’s impossible to get the secularist Israel Beiteinu and Shas in the same government. Lieberman’s party won public support by forcing a second election, but the public could punish it for forcing a third, so it has incentive to compromise. Shas has the flexibility to let Beiteinu save face, by cutting a compromise on religious issues that Lieberman’s voters could accept.

The Shas political leader, Aryeh Deri, has spoken in recent days about the need for “stable government” and his support for “broad government.” Will Gantz seize the opportunity?

The Blue and White leader will do well to remember that Shas has shown itself in the past to be astutely pragmatic.

Established in 1984, one of the party’s big fights has been to address the socioeconomic level of the Sephardic communities and what it considered institutionalized disadvantages facing them and others in Israel who struggle financially. It is also keen to secure funding for Sephardi religious establishments and schools. Beyond these agendas, its political stance has varied greatly.

Back in 1992 it joined the government of Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin, which negotiated with the Palestinians and launched the Oslo peace process. Over recent years it has taken a right-ward turn. But don’t mistake this for a deeply felt change of heart; it reflects a party that follows the mood of the country and accurately understands where potential voters are holding, and how to win votes.

If Gantz drops his insistence on excluding charedim and coaxes Shas into the coalition, it will enable him to build a centrist-government, and achieve his aim of replacing Bibi. It would also avoid a third election, which, according to the latest polling, could well result in the same deadlock, with Likud and the Blue and White party virtually tied.

What’s more, if Gantz gives Shas a chance to shine on progressive issues like combating poverty, which he cares deeply about, he will challenge the assumption that religious is synonymous with right-wing. This could actually inject some nuance into the discussion about religion and politics, and get Israelis rethinking political battle lines that seem to be set in stone.

Most Israelis fail to see an irony in the fact that there is so much talk of a “unity” government that excludes the third largest party, the Joint List, which represents Arab Israelis. It’s bad enough that this faction will stay outside of a unity government, due to stubbornness of both Jewish and Arab politicians. It’s hard to call any government a “unity” coalition if it also excludes Israel’s other big distinctive minority, charedim.

Gantz and his supporters need Shas, not just for a Knesset majority, but to give a centrist-led “unity” government credibility as doing its best to represent a fractured nation.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.