As Election Looms, Israel’s Politicians Woo Voters in Public Confabs
Tel Aviv conference sees production line of pols touting their greatest hits, while Benny Gantz finds warm welcome at intimate evening with young voters
With Israel’s fifth election in less than four years just days away, Israel’s current Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday joined political allies and rivals at the Jerusalem Post Leaders’ Conference in Tel Aviv, as each made their case for the country’s top job.
Israeli voters will go to the polls on November 1, where they will decide whether to stay with Lapid’s centrist coalition or go back to a right-wing-religious government headed by Likud party leader and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. With that in mind, almost all party leaders were in attendance, and each was anxious to display the positions that they believe make them and their parties electable.
“Our job is not just to ensure that Israel is strong and safe but also that it is a good country, benevolent, advanced and democratic,” Lapid told the crowd.
“These elections are not about Netanyahu … these elections are not about me. These elections are about the State of Israel, our ability to act together to cope with the challenges ahead of us,” Lapid also said.
The prime minister acknowledged the difficulties of forming his government coalition last year with such a broad spectrum of parties, from the predominantly Arab Joint List to the right-wing Yamina, saying that most had little faith it would happen at all.
“Not many people believed that our government would be established. Most of the analysts were eulogizing it before it was created and some explained that there was no chance, and it would not happen. But there were some who did believe,” he said. “There were those who sat on the phone and called everyone they knew and said that they believed there it was possible to make a change.”
These elections are not about Netanyahu … these elections are not about me. These elections are about the State of Israel, our ability to act together to cope with the challenges ahead of us.
Aside from listing his own coalition’s achievements over the past year, which he said included significant social advancements, the prime minister warned that it could all be undone if the right-wing bloc, which includes the extremist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, were to join the government.
“There is one thing that we must not forget,” Lapid said. “Everything we have done in the past year, all the change that began here, can be wiped out in one day. If the party of [Bezalel] Smotrich and [Itamar] Ben-Gvir is part of the government, LGBT people can forget about their rights. If Netanyahu succeeds in putting together a coalition, you can forget about women’s rights or seeing women in senior positions.”
Gantz, who is also the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, focused on his military credentials, highlighting the issue of Iran, which he called one of Israel’s greatest “strategic security challenges” whose importance would only become more and more relevant in the coming year.
The Islamic Republic, he said, is drawing closer to becoming a nuclear threshold state, something that demands an urgent international response.
Israel, Gantz warned, must be “prepared for an extreme scenario in which [it] might be forced to take preemptive measures against Iran.”
“If this does happen it won’t be a quick affair,” he said. “The operation will be partly military in nature, partly defensive and partly revolving around policy in the entire Middle East.”
The appearance that caused the most stir, however, was that of Ben-Gvir, who used his allotted time to insist that he is not racist, despite the controversial campaign his party has run – including a massive billboard in central Israel that includes images of Arab political leaders accompanied by the phrase “expel our enemies.”
“I have no problem with Arabs,” Ben-Gvir said. “Those who want to live here are welcome to do so. I have a problem with those who want to kill me and everyone in this room. I want the death penalty to be instituted for terrorists and for the rules of engagement to be changed. Not all Arabs are bad, but those that throw stones and Molotov cocktails are.”
Many of the politicians were on double duty, appearing at both the Jerusalem Post conference and a parallel gathering by a rival publication on the same day. But noticeable in his absence at either event was the man whose name came up repeatedly – Binyamin Netanyahu.
Given the impressive number of party leaders who turned up, the whole event began to take on a production-line feel, with headline name after headline name appearing and disappearing in quick succession.
It was a different scene at a different location in Tel Aviv on Monday evening, when scores of young people crowded into a hall at ZOA (Zionist Organization of America) House to hear a more relaxed and informal Gantz speak again – this time in English.
With Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz performing his second moderating gig of the day, Gantz answered questions from the audience touching on everything from Israeli aid to Ukraine to his determination to break the cycle of expensive yet inconclusive elections.
The defense minister was welcomed onstage in a move that appeared more akin to an American election rally, complete with clapping cheerleaders clad in party T-shirts whipping up the crowd.
With a wry smile, Gantz asked if he could remove his tie as he was the only person present wearing one. And when he did so, it was to rapturous applause.
Gantz said that while “Israel is on the Ukrainian side,” it is “supportive of Ukraine without excluding our considerations, which are more regional and local considerations.”
The defense minister likely was referring to Russia’s involvement in Syria, which Iran uses as a way station for transporting weapons to its proxy Hizbullah in Lebanon, and to the growing alliance between Moscow and Tehran over Russia’s invasion of its neighbor in February.
“I had a very good conversation today with the minister of defense of Ukraine,” he said. “This is not the first discussion we have [had] and he totally understood where we stand.”
Gantz also denied that there was bad blood between him and Lapid, whose partnership he infamously ditched after the April 2020 ballot to form what turned out to be a short-lived coalition with Netanyahu. It was a government whose acrimonious collapse less than a year later led to the fourth round of elections in Israel since April 2019.
I’ve already proved that if someone else – who doesn’t answer to the name Netanyahu – can build a government, I will never be the obstacle to that.
“Security-wise there are no problems and even personally speaking you know we joke with one another – I can show you my WhatsApp,” he said with a smile about his relationship with Lapid. “So, it’s not as bad as it looks.”
“I think I bring in lots of defense experience, state experience, leadership experience. I have a great party with left, center and right [politicians],” he said, in his clearest pitch for votes of the night.
But his mild tone disappeared as he spoke of Netanyahu, vowing that he would never again join a coalition led by the former Likud prime minister.
“I’ve already proved that if someone else – who doesn’t answer to the name Netanyahu – can build a government, I will never be the obstacle to that,” he said.
Video production: Dario Sanchez