What’s a liberal, progressive Israeli Jew to do (about the elections)?

March 2nd is approaching, the (3rd) day of decision, and I know that many liberal, progressive Israeli Jews are trying to decide whether to vote for Gantz (Blue and White), Labor-Gesher Meretz or the Joint List.

First of all, VOTE!  It’s absolutely essential. To save Israeli democracy, to create a chance for initiatives for peace, for social justice and against a corrupt and megalomaniacal prime minister who appears to be losing his innate instincts for cautious behavior and who may potentially endanger all of us with rash acts of annexation if reelected.

Then the question is for whom?

Gantz and the “Blue and White” phenomenon

Back in 2015, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni came close to ousting Netanyahu, and I remember sitting in the Tel Aviv neighborhood cafe “parliament”, where the consensus was that Herzog was not a strong enough personality to counter Bibi.  “What we need perhaps is Benny Gantz” we all said, who had just retired as IDF Chief of Staff and who was known to have grown up in a labor movement home.

So now we’ve got Gantz, Blue and White’s candidate for PM.  During the first two rounds, the odd Blue and White amalgam that Gantz leads has managed to prevent Netanyahu from being reelected but have not managed to replace him.  He is still the realistic alternative PM this 3rd round.  Unfortunately, the new brand charm of the fresh face that helped him and the party in the first two rounds appears to worn off, and Bibi’s undeniable campaigning skills, energy and dirty tricks compared to Gantz’s public awkwardness have eaten away at his luster. Yet he is still the realistic alternative.

My sense is that we really don’t know what Gantz and his colleague former IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi’s positions really are.  They have been very (too) discreet about what their policy positions would be in most areas, particularly the diplomatic sphere.  To appeal to right-wing voters, Gantz declared that Blue and White welcomes and supports the Trump Plan, which includes the annexation of 30% of the West Bank and all of the settlements, and even threatened to bring it to a Knesset vote, knowing that much of the right would have difficulty accepting the fact that the plan also calls for a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem, leading Meir Kahane follower  Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party to drag out an old anti-Peres slogan from 1996, converting into “Bibi will divide Jerusalem”(!).  He also reassured the left-wing members of his party like MK Ofer Shelach and MK Yael German that he is against unilateral annexation, and would only support it “in coordination with the internal community”, particularly with Egypt and Jordan, which of course means no annexation.  Unfortunately, he has not had the courage to counter Bibi’s claim that a Gantz government would rely on the support of the Joint List that “supports terrorists and enemies of the state”, by declaring that they represent 20% of the Israeli citizens and should be a legitimate partner to any future coalition.  While he talks with the leaders of the Joint List and other Palestinian Israelis behind the scenes, he has relied on the claim that his government will be built around the Jewish-Zionist parties.  Blue and White also has some honest but extremely right-wing MKs like MK Yoaz Hendel and MK Zvi Hauser, and to a lesser extent former Chief of Staff MK Moshe Ya’alon.  And perhaps Gaby Ashkenazi would have been a more effective leader of the party (which is what may happen if there is a 4th round), but Gantz is what we’ve got for now.

Therefore, I hope that Gantz will be able to form the next government, but that doesn’t mean that we have to vote for Blue and White.  The key to forming a government is not the size of the largest party, but the size of the bloc, which is where the other two lists come into the picture.

The Joint List

One of the achievements of the 2nd round was that the 4 parties that compose the Joint List came together again, after splitting into two in the first round because of egotistical power struggles.  That enabled them to increase their strength from 10 to 13 seats.  And their very bright and formidable leader, MK Ayman Odeh, was wise enough to declare that they would recommend Gantz for PM, despite the fact the Balad faction was opposed to the move, signaling a Palestinian-Israeli readiness to be involved in the running of state affairs.  This, along with support for the Joint List’s outspoken criticism of the occupation (even if it’s not the focus of their campaign), and the desire to support a genuine Jewish-Arab partnership with Israel, has led a number of my friends and colleagues in the Israeli peace movement to say that they will vote this time for the Joint List. And the fact is that the Joint List is also going out of its way to appeal to Jewish Israelis, with targeting campaigns towards the Ethiopians, the Russians and even the Haredim in Yiddish!  And my central Tel Aviv neighborhood is filled with posters saying “Yallah Mshutefet!” (“Forward the Joint List!).

However, although I support a Jewish-Arab partnership, and consider that to be one of the keys to the future of Israel, I will not be voting for the Joint List.  I believe that the key to the Joint List’s success lies in increasing the percentage of voting from the Arab sector of Israeli society from 59% to 70%, or even 80%.  That could be a real game changer.  Not getting votes from progressive Jews who in the past voted for Meretz or Labor.

And it should be noted that when Meretz Palestinian-Israeli MK approached MK Ayman Odeh about the possibility of Meretz and Hadash running together in a joint Jewish-Arab list, Odeh responded that he preferred to work with the other three Arab parties, Balad, Ta’al and the Islamists, rather than joining with Meretz.

I also regret that former Meretz MKs Mossi Raz and Issawi Freij considered but then decided not to run jointly for the leadership of Meretz, which could have been a genuine foundation for Jewish-Arab partnership.


That leads me to the Labor-Gesher-Meretz combination.  Labor and list leader MK Amir Peretz is not former leader and ex-Likud member Avi Gabay.  He’s a genuine people’s leader, who comes from what’s known today as “the periphery”, the Gaza border town of Sderot, where he served as mayor.  A former head of the Histadrut Federation of Labor and Defense Minister, he was an early and consistent Peace Now activist and supporter, very atypical of his fellow Moroccan-born Israelis. And today, unlike previous Labor leaders Gabay, Herzog and Shelly Yachimovitz, he doesn’t run away from the word peace, saying clearly that Labor-Gesher-Meretz is raising two flags – peace and social justice, actually continuing the path of former Meretz leaders MK Tamar Zandberg and Zehava Galon. He says clearly that the solution for peace and calm for the Israelis living near the Gaza border is not another military operation against Hamas, but a negotiated settlement with Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO and PA leader.  I am particularly impressed by his recent announcement, that the condition for Labor-Gesher-Meretz participation in a future government is the appointment of an Arab minister, and he has also announced a candidate for that role, Prof. Alean Al-Krenawi , from the Social Work Department of Ben-Gurion University, former President of the Achva Academic College, who would be the first Bedouin minister.

The 3 party combination also has a group of very good MKs: Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, the first gay party leader, who is slated to be Education Minister, who would be a tremendous improvement over current religious right-wing Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz, and his predecessor Naftali Bennet; MK Tamar Zandberg when she returns to action after having given birth; social protest activist MK Itzik Shmuli; social activist MK Ilan Gilon; feminist activist MK Merav Michaeli; and two security experts – MK Yair Golan, former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff who lost his chance to become Chief of Staff when he courageously pointed out the similarities between anti-democratic trends within Israeli society and the situation in Germany in the 30s and MK Omri Barlev, the counterpoint to Bibi who also served as the head of the elite Sayeret Matcal unit.

As for MK Orli-Levy Abekassis, head of the Gesher faction, who came from the right, the union with Labor and Peretz in the last round may have brought one or two seats from the right, though this time around those voters may be scared off by the addition of Meretz to the combination.  She has centrist positions on peace and security issues, but accepts the party’s peace and social justice platform. Levy is an authentic and effective social activist, and at the launching of the joint party’s campaign, expressed her appreciation for working with Meretz MKs Ilan Gilon, Nitzan Horowitz and particularly veteran leader Ron Cohen who she worked with to promote public housing.  Her father David Levy, who founded the original Gesher Party, also left the right to become a partner with Ehud Barak to defeat Netanyahu in1999.

I wish that a place could also have been found for social protest leader MK Stav Shaffir on the list, but she is not there, apparently partly due to her own personality issues.  However, she will hopefully return, chastened and more mature.

And I wish that former MK Issawi Freij would have been higher up on the list, not just number 11.  The current polls say that Labor-Gesher-Meretz is hovering around 9-10 seats.  One more seat and Esawi, the very personification of Jewish-Arab cooperation, will be in the Knesset as well

In 1992, when Meretz was formed, Yossi Sarid said that Meretz’s goal was to part of a coalition with Labor led by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, using the slogan “l’hamreetz et Rabin”, a play on words, meaning that Meretz would influence Rabin’s policies.  That is the goal today of Labor-Gesher-Meretz, “l’hamreetz et Gantz”.

Of course, when all is said and done, given another possible inconclusive result, everything will depend on MK Avigdor Lieberman and his secular right “Yisrael Beiteinu”  (Israel Our Home) party keeping his word to refuse to support Netanyahu, and creative coalition building.








About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv