Israel’s intense electoral season, which will culminate in a vote April 9, started in earnest on Thursday, when the man most polls show to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top rival finally spoke.
After weeks of silence, Benny Gantz, 59, a former army chief of staff who announced months ago he would challenge Netanyahu, stood before a video camera — and uttered a total of 17 words, six of which were “I think I spoke too much.”
Gantz is largely unknown to Israelis, who observed from afar his bemedaled military career. He has no known policy positions and has tried to cultivate the mystique of a successful, competent and disinterested officer who led Israel’s army from 2011 and 2015.
He is also a political neophyte stepping into a raucous, some say merciless, political arena.
“Israel’s wildly proliferating and popular center parties are, as yet, distinguished only by their leaders’ dashing military records, blue eyes and banal self-help cliches,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer, a political analyst for the daily Haaretz, as the former paratrooper stepped into the fray.
Netanyahu, who has been in power for almost a decade, faces indictments on a series of corruption charges.
On Monday, Navot Tel-Zur, Netanyahu’s attorney, sent Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit an eight-page letter requesting a delay in all legal proceedings until after election day.
Netanyahu, who has repeatedly said he will not step down even if indicted, recently declared that any announcement about his possible indictment, which he would have the right to counter in a hearing, amounts to “stealing the elections.”
On Thursday, an aide to Mandelblit replied that his office’s work “is unaffected by the electoral schedule.”
Netanyahu is not the only figure afflicted by legal problems. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who recently formed a new, hard-line right-wing political party with Education Minister Naftali Bennett, has found herself embroiled in a tawdry and still unfolding saga involving a close ally, Effi Nave.
Nave, who resigned as president of the politically powerful Israel Bar Assn. on Thursday, is accused of trading sexual relations with at least four women for judgeships for conservative jurists backed by Shaked. In one case, Nave is accused of promoting a male judge in exchange for sexual favors from the man’s wife. Nave was arrested and questioned but has not been formally charged.
Israeli political analysts spent much of Thursday debating whether the convoluted scandal has helped Netanyahu, who continues to lead in the polls and says the judiciary, the police and the media have conspired to “topple the right-wing government I lead.”
As details of the police investigation leak out, it remains unclear to what extent the fallout has harmed Shaked, a popular politician whose new political movement has made gains among the right-wing base that Netanyahu needs in order to hold on to power.
Israel’s left, meanwhile, is floundering in the polls.
A spate of resignations has emptied the Labor Party’s ranks since its leader, Avi Gabbay, unceremoniously dismissed Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who served as his parliamentary opposition chief, live on television on Jan. 1.
The Joint List, a party representing most Israeli Arabs, who make up 20% of the country’s nearly 9 million residents, is also losing marquee names, including Ahmad Tibi, a veteran legislator and one of Israel’s best known politicians, whose hopes to be named party leader were dashed.
Jewish Home, the party abandoned by Bennett and Shaked, whose new movement is called the New Right, elected as its new leader Bezalel Smotrich, a provocative activist on the extreme right. Smotrich has declared that Jewish women should not have to deliver children in the same wards as Arab women and defines himself as “a proud homophobe.”
Yair Lapid, a former finance minister running as head of the centrist party Yesh Atid (There’s a Future), has said he will not join any coalition government led by Netanyahu and has urged others vying for power to make the same commitment.
Enter the laconic Gantz, who has yet to declare a position on the indictments that Netanyahu is facing.
On the morning he announced his new Israel Resilience Party’s slogan, “Israel Before Everything,” it was ridiculed on social media and compared to the infamous Nazi mantra “Deutschland Uber Alles” (Germany above all).
According to his spokesperson, the motto is “clearly intended” as a dart aimed at Netanyahu’s corruption scandals.
As the clatter of Israeli politics erupted around him, Netanyahu used a triad of electoral cards — his concurrent roles as Israel’s prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister — to underscore his dominant position as Israel’s long-serving head of government.
In quick succession, his office made three announcements.
Netanyahu will be skipping the Davos World Economic Forum, from which President Trump, with whom Netanyahu is closely identified, will be absent because of the U.S. government shutdown.
“No Trump meeting makes it rather meh for Bibi,” Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said on Twitter, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Separately, Netanyahu’s office revealed he will visit Chad on Sunday to celebrate the resumption of diplomatic relations with a Muslim-majority African nation that severed ties to Israel in 1972.
The trip will underscore Netanyahu’s contention that the deteriorating connection with the Palestinian Authority is no impediment to a growing acceptance of Israel among nations that previously shunned it.
Finally, the prime minister’s office announced he had held his first working meeting with Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the Israeli army’s newly installed chief of staff, who was seen in uniform, smiling at Netanyahu from across an empty desk in a photograph released without additional information.