The Tag Team Striving to Unseat Bibi … and Take Turns as Israel’s PM

Newly allied Israeli politicians Benny Gantz (left) and Yair Lapid.

Source JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

The pair trying to unseat the longstanding Israeli prime minister is gaining in the polls — and the world is watching.

Two flustered Israeli parents button up their shirts and tussle their hair, speaking hurriedly in Hebrew about what time the babysitter is supposed to arrive. A knock on the door reveals Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “You ordered a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter!” he says with a grin. 

Last time there was an election, Netanyahu won in no small part because he positioned himself as the leader who would care for the safety of Israeli children, as in the 2015 advertisement. But as the nation’s legislative election on April 9 draws closer, recent polls show that voters might be ready to release the babysitter — who would become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister if he wins — and welcome a new authority into the house. Or, rather, authorities.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid have merged in a pre-election coalition called the Blue and White Party, announcing in February that they’d take turns as prime minister if elected. The latest opinion polls show the Blue and White Party edging ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud Party following months with Netanyahu in a clear lead. The election — previously scheduled for November 2019 — was moved up to early April by Netanyahu’s government after political fighting led to a dissolution of the Knesset (Israel’s legislative body) late last year.

The men who could share the top spot bring very different qualifications to the table. Gantz, 59, was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from 2011-2015, known for leading the ground operation of the Solomon Airlift — the largest aerial expedition in Israel’s history — which brought 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He only started his political career in December, when he formed the Israel Resilience Party. Gantz was raised by his Hungarian mother, a Holocaust survivor, and his Romanian father, both of whom helped start a cooperative agricultural community in south-central Israel. 

Taken together, Gantz and Lapid make for a yin and yang style — each filling in the other’s gaps in experience.

Lapid, 55, brings a background in media, where he has worn many hats as an author, TV presenter, news anchor and actor. In 2012, he founded the centrist Yesh Atid party, which took some by surprise after winning 19 seats in the Knesset just a year later. Lapid served as minister of finance between 2013 and 2014 and currently serves on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Lapid grew up in Tel Aviv and London; his mother was a novelist and playwright, while his father was a journalist and politician. Lapid’s path to success was winding — he struggled with learning disabilities during childhood and never earned his high school diploma. During mandatory military service, he suffered an asthma attack and was pulled from the Armored Corps, leading him to become a military correspondent for the IDF’s weekly newspaper, Bamahane. A man of varied talents, he also had a stint as an amateur boxer. 

 

The duo’s rise has come as Netanyahu finds himself on increasingly shaky ground. Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, last week announced he would indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, in cases relating to favorable tax treatment and press coverage. “We believe there’s a selective enforcement against Netanyahu,” says Eli Hazan, foreign affairs director of the Likud Party, calling the charges politically motivated.

But Netanyahu is not the only contender who comes with controversy. In February, Gantz was accused on Facebook of exposing his body to a 14-year-old when he was a senior in high school 40 years ago, according to The Jerusalem Post. Gantz denied the allegations — calling them “blood libel” — and has sued the accuser for defamation. Gantz also was the board chairman of the Fifth Dimension, an artificial intelligence and law-enforcement tech company that shut down in December after a Russian investor was tied into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and sanctioned by the U.S.

Taken together, Gantz and Lapid serve as yin and yang — each filling in the other’s gaps in experience. While campaigning, both discussed issues like hospital overcrowding, roads and housing, according to The New York Times. If the Blue and White party does claim victory, Gantz and Lapid wouldn’t be the first to share power: Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir alternated as prime minister from 1984 to 1988, while Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni tried a similar approach as part of the Zionist Union’s 2015 campaign against Netanyahu.

Once again, Netanyahu’s party is trying to paint his opposition as far left in an attempt to claim the center — even as he’s tacked right. In late February, he brokered a pact with an ultra-right-wing faction, the Jewish Power Party, which has been known to espouse racist and hateful rhetoric. The move sparked outcry from America’s most prominent pro-Israel lobbying group, AIPAC. Hazan says the party disagrees with Jewish Power’s ideology but made the deal to prevent a left-wing government.

The indicted Bibi-sitter is facing his toughest challenge yet after a decade in power. A formidable duo is knocking on the door. We’ll find out soon whether Israel will let them in.

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