Gevalt after gevalt.
So went the final few days before Israeli elections, which is why, in the end, it was christened the “Gevalt Campaign” by many in the Israeli media.
Gevalt? A Yiddish term, expressing shock or fear.
In the final days of the campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was everywhere—beaches, markets, billboards, television, and radio—focusing his attacks on his main rival: a party that hadn’t even existed three months earlier.
The Blue and White party was a convenient merger of interests compelling several smaller interests to coalesce, sharing the overriding motivation to depose King Bibi, who has been prime minister for 13 years, ten of those consecutively.
And, after ten years in power in the particularly down and dirty mosh pit that passes for Israeli politics, Bibi had accumulated more than a few enemies.
Among them? Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White, flanked by Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon, also former IDF Chiefs of Staff with Ya’alon having served several years under Bibi as Minister of Defense as well.
Yair Lapid, leader of the liberal/centrist “Yesh Atid” party, which commanded 19 of 120 Knesset seats in its electoral debut in 2013, really had no choice but to join forces with the three generals. His party has been consistently tough on ultra-orthodox draft avoidance and promoted a socially progressive, fiscally conservative platform that most North Americans in Israel intuitively support. What he lacked was hardcore defense credibility, which the troika of generals delivered.
Blue and White was a true melange of diverse political interests with a singular goal: unseat Bibi. In his launch speech on February 21, when he announced the much anticipated coming together of the various centrist parties, Gantz delivered a saccharine spiel that God herself could not deliver. But it didn’t matter because people projected impossible hopes and dreams on the tall, easygoing, blue-eyed Benny. Fortune smiled on Gantz, fitting him with a halo that is bestowed once, if at all, in a political career. It never lasts, and it didn’t with Blue and White. Gantz made some zinger gaffes, but he was let off easily by the media and public.
His party performed spectacularly well on election night, taking 35 seats, nipping at Likud’s heels with 36. Embarrassingly, Gantz and company seemed to take (notoriously unreliable) early exit polls at face value and delivered a victory speech shortly after the polls closed on Tuesday night, which he must surely regret now.
A few hours later, at 2 am following voting day, Bibi took to the stage at his headquarters to celebrate a victory he called particularly sweet and gratifying. Uncharacteristically giddy, the prime minister giggled and gloated to the wild room: “Thirty-five mandates!” he noted, deservedly celebrating the expansion of his party’s mandate in the Knesset.
What Netanyahu failed to mention, of course, was that such a strong showing from Blue and White was an equally, if not more, profound expression of electoral will and mood. None of the Blue and White generals had been planning on warming their seats in the opposition. The following morning, Lapid said what they were all thinking: “We’re getting ready for the next election in 2020!”
The final results took more than 48 hours from the closing of the polls to ascertain. Among the cliff hangers that remained unresolved was the political fate of the Ministers of Education and Justice, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. In December, they broke away from their Jewish Home party to form the “New Right.” The intention was to slough off the hard right religious-nationalist base of Jewish Home and present a twist that they expected, and miscalculated fatally, would appeal to a broader demographic. They tried to rebrand as a hard-right party for religious and secular Israelis. Their message fell flat, causing the pair to try to pivot back to a more mainstream modern orthodox position.
The Bennet-Shaked flameout was unforeseen. They were consistently polling between five and eight seats. On election night, they failed to meet the threshold of 3.25 percent to enter the Knesset by a hair, and nail-biting recounts and late ballots from soldiers and diplomats failed to deliver the 1,400 votes they needed to scrape through.
Their demise is yet another gevalt moment that no one saw coming.
Oy. And more gevalts! Labour. The current iteration of the socialist party once led by Israel’s founding father David Ben Gurion is a nearly spent political force. Labour sputtered in the final count with a humiliating six mandates, down from 24 in the previous election. That the once mighty Labour party, which effectively controlled every aspect of Israeli society, should collapse, is shattering to many.
The miscalculations will be parsed, the successes lauded, and in the end, Israel will have a government very similar to what has been in place for the last ten years. Bibi keeps the message simple, clear, relevant, direct. His brand is power, fearlessness, strength, security, diplomatic brilliance.
Whether he delivers that impressive inventory is debatable, but his genius is in convincing enough voters that he does.
With his signature brilliance, Prime Minister Netanyahu deployed his unrivaled political acuity to fire up his voting base in the final days of the election campaign in Israel.
And, as always, it worked.