Fratricide in Full Bloom as Israeli Election Campaign Heats Up

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JERUSALEM — With elections a few months away, it is political fratricide season in Israel: From left to right, candidates are sticking knives in the ribs of their natural allies in hopes of elevating their own chances of succeeding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This week, the Zionist Union, a four-year-old liberal alliance, blew itself up as the Labor Party chief, Avi Gabbay, humiliated the veteran politician Tzipi Livni by abruptly breaking with her and her boutique party Hatnuah (The Movement) while television cameras rolled.

The popular ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked abandoned their right-wing party, the Jewish Home, to form a new one — the New Right — that they vowed would be less beholden to religious leaders but would still push to settle the West Bank and oppose a Palestinian state.

And a former army chief of staff, Benny Gantz, barged into the political center with a vague-sounding new party — Israel Resilience — and a still-to-be-announced set of ideas. It instantly threatened to siphon off support from more established moderate contenders like Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, as well as another former chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon.

For the moment, the biggest beneficiary of the infighting appears to be Mr. Netanyahu, whose conservative Likud party stands like a giant in Lilliput. But the atomizing parties could come back to haunt him in the April 9 election, said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute. A comfortable Likud lead could encourage voters to get behind smaller alternatives — but if too many small parties compete, some could fail to enter Parliament and so could not join a governing coalition.

“People can say, ‘Netanyahu will win anyway, so maybe I’ll vote for so-and-so,’ ” Mr. Rahat said. “For the Likud, it’s not good.”

Mr. Netanyahu has a more immediate reason to fear: Waiting just offstage with the equivalent of a broadax in hand is the Israeli attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, who is expected to decide in the coming months whether to heed police recommendations that he indict Mr. Netanyahu on bribery or other charges arising from three major corruption investigations.

Israeli politics is notoriously turbulent, but the drama-a-day tumult and the suspense over Mr. Netanyahu’s legal predicament left one columnist comparing the campaign to a television series and wishing only that it could be binge-watched. Here, for the moment at least, is a look at the starring characters:

With movie-star good looks and “good hair,” as a fair number of analysts have noted, Mr. Gantz, a familiar face during his long army career, managed to shake the political center merely by offering himself up as a candidate.

He is the latest in a string of retired generals to make that leap, one that worked for Yitzhak Rabin and, briefly, Ehud Barak, but has also ended in some spectacular belly-flops.

The taciturn Mr. Gantz has divulged nothing so far about his positions, apparently heeding the advice of those who say that he can only harm himself by taking any.

But that strategic ambiguity — as Israel calls its nuclear policy — cannot last. And there is pressure from the dump-Netanyahu crowd for Mr. Gantz to help coalesce a larger and more viable center-left bloc.

He wears a skullcap. She wears the pants.

A former commando turned high-tech millionaire, the religious Mr. Bennett has been hawkish on national security, frequently lambasting his own coalition for being too soft on Hamas. The secular Ms. Shaked, who set about curbing the judicial branch and engineering a rightward shift in the Supreme Court’s makeup, may have overtaken Mr. Bennett in popularity.

But their partnership remains intact, and after leading the Jewish Home’s amalgam of religious Zionists and Orthodox Jews since 2012, they felt increasingly hemmed in by their radical, rabbinically guided partners, who have been accused of racism, messianism and homophobia.

On Saturday, they announced a “New Right” party to appeal to a broader Israeli public, with religious and nonreligious Jews as equal partners. They said they supported Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election, but clearly have their eyes on his office once he has left.

This partnership was always a ticking time bomb. On Tuesday it went off.

Mr. Gabbay, who had floundered since taking over Labor in 2017, was convinced that Ms. Livni — in publicly calling for the center-left to unite, but not necessarily behind Mr. Gabbay — had been undermining him.

He got his revenge by inviting reporters into a meeting and then wishing Ms. Livni success “in any party you are in.” Some likened it to a beheading, and Mr. Gabbay to Jihadi John. His loyalists said it showed he possessed the steel that Israelis expect in their leaders.

But critics said he would never have treated a man the same way. “Avi Gabbay and the Labor Party just lost the vote of every woman who has been dumped by a guy in a humiliating fashion,” Allison K. Sommer, a Haaretz columnist, wrote on Twitter. “And that’s a lot of women.”

By Thursday, quickie polls gave Labor just seven or eight Knesset seats, down from the Zionist Union’s 24 in the 2015 election, and Mr. Gabbay was facing public calls and a petition drive from Labor members demanding his resignation.

For all her flaws as a politician, Ms. Livni could still wind up forming part of a liberal bloc.

The prime minister for a decade, Mr. Netanyahu is the favorite to win another term. But the attorney general has indicated he will try to decide whether to indict Mr. Netanyahu before the April election.

That leaves Mr. Netanyahu sounding more like a defendant than a candidate: He would still be entitled to a last hearing before being criminally charged, so he is now demanding Mr. Mandelblit do nothing ahead of the election because there wouldn’t be time for a hearing before the voters go to the polls.

Preparing for life after Bibi, meanwhile, younger Likud leaders are jostling for position, perhaps the most formidable among them Gideon Saar, a former Likud minister who took a timeout from politics in 2014 and announced his comeback last year.

That so rattled Mr. Netanyahu that he clamored for a special law to be enacted requiring a party leader to be chosen to form the next government, rather than the lawmaker with the best chance to form a coalition. Dubbed the “Gideon Saar Law,” it could have protected Mr. Netanyahu, but he had to abandon it when he called early elections.

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