If the polls are borne out, Itamar Ben Gvir will be in pole position after the elections
The hakafos shniyos event in Kfar Chabad has become something of an annual tradition, with thousands of Israelis of all denominations pouring in to dance with sifrei Torah. The celebrations were originally meant to match the excitement of Simchas Torah at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Chabad world headquarters— but in time the event has become a phenomenon in its own right, attracting a media spotlight.
But this year, falling two weeks before Election Day, this Motzaei Simchas Torah event became a means of cobbling votes. Leading politicians showed up to be seen and photographed. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, chair of the National Unity Party, appeared onstage flanked by his ally, Justice Minister Gideon Saar. In the face of unflattering polls, the pair continue floating the “plan B” of a Gantz government supported by the chareidim.
Despite the chorus of jeers and hisses that greeted them at Kfar Chabad, the pair can’t stop circling the chareidi community. Two days after the hakafos shniyos, Gantz would be photographed with Degel HaTorah chairman Moshe Gafni, who continues to give right-wing leaders a headache, harboring his own agenda and extending a hand to the opposing camp.
But Gantz’s appearance at Kfar Chabad was only an appetizer for what came later in the evening. Moments after the Blue and White chair left, attendees picked up on an internecine battle within the right wing.
Despite the deafening celebrations, sensitive microphones managed to pick up snatches of a surreal conversation. A cluster of sirtucks (frocks, in colloquial Litvish) gathered around the right’s star of 2022, MK Itamar Ben Gvir. Chabad organizers were demanding — no less — that he vacate the stage for the other politicians invited.
The proximate cause of the kerfuffle soon became clear: Binyamin Netanyahu was refusing to take the stage until Ben Gvir came down.
“I will not be photographed on the same stage with him,” Netanyahu announced at the foot of the stage, surrounded by his bodyguards.
Netanyahu had come to Kfar Chabad straight from Netanya. In that Likud-voting city, as at the hakafos shniyos, Netanyahu’s message was crystal clear: “It’s not enough to vote for another right-wing party — I need you to vote Machal [Likud’s election initials].”
The scene on the stage on Motzaei Simchas Torah sums up the story of the campaign even more lucidly than Bibi’s autobiography. The right-wing base’s love for Bibi runs deep, but after a month of campaigning up and down the country, Netanyahu has noticed that wherever he goes, he can’t stop hearing Ben Gvir’s name.
Sometimes it’s like a big joke. “What’s going on here?” he queries his aides, wondering how Ben Gvir went from a harmless curiosity to an electoral tiger threatening to surge into the double digits, at the expense of the Likud’s 30-plus seats.
Netanyahu’s first action to corral the votes drifting to Ben Gvir’s faction came before the chag, with a campaign targeting the core of the religious Zionist base.
Flanked by kippah-wearing Likud candidates, Bibi gave speeches in dati-leumi strongholds, making his intentions clear by announcing “we are religious Zionism.”
In his internal polling, Bibi is seeing a significant breakthrough for Ben Gvir’s Religious Zionist Party, which has already crossed the lucky number of 14 seats, two more than the record for the movement set by Naftali Bennett in 2012. Every additional vote for the Religious Zionist party comes at the Likud’s expense.
Bibi doesn’t need warnings from senior Democratic Party officials in Washington about the danger — though for him it’s more political than diplomatic. If the polls are borne out, Itamar Ben Gvir will be in pole position after the elections. Once considered a persona non grata in the right-wing camp — he garnered a mere 20,000 votes in 2021 — he’s now a popular street-corner orator and this year’s rising star.
Netanyahu is focused on securing the elusive 61st seat —not an easy task, to go by the polls. But he also knows that even if he reaches that coveted goal, the game will only have started. His current troubles with Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir are kids’ stuff compared to what they’ll put him through as part of a narrow government. From demands for key portfolios such as defense and public security to the international scene, the two won’t give him an easy time.
AS in America’s looming midterm elections, the judiciary has become a political battleground in Israel. And this is another area where the Religious Zionist Party is stealing Bibi’s thunder.
One of the party’s leading lights is MK Simcha Rothman, a young date-leumi attorney who began his political career in the legal field, waging a war against the “High Court Party.” That’s the title of his book, in which he accuses Israel’s High Court of politicizing the justice system. With this agenda, Rothman was later chosen as a member of the Judicial Selection Committee, where he became a sort of Trojan horse for the right-wing camp.
If there’s one thing that unites the bloc’s voters, it’s the wall-to-wall criticism of the Israeli justice system. From the chareidim to the masorati, from religious Zionists to Mizrachim, the feeling in the right-wing tribe is that radical reorganization of the justice system is the call of the hour. But while Likud spokespeople have to tone down the message, to avoid been seen as seeking to terminate Netanyahu’s trial, the Religious Zionist Party faces no such constraint.
Smotrich and Rothman’s plan for curtailing the justice system, titled “Law and Order,” is the most far-reaching such proposal ever made by an Israeli politician. The plan calls for, inter alia, splitting the responsibilities of the attorney general’s position. But the most eye-catching demand is to eliminate the offense of “fraud and breach of trust.”
If the right wins a majority and this plan is implemented, one immediate consequence would be the complete nullification of Netanyahu’s Cases 2000 and 4000. (Many legal analysts believe Netanyahu will survive the bribery clause in Case 4000 without outside help, thanks to brilliant cross-examinations of prosecution witnesses by his attorney Boaz Ben Zur.)
When Smotrich and Rothman come out with a justice reform plan, they send a twofold message to the right-wing public. First of all, they’re the only ones who can realistically stop Netanyahu’s trial — which right-wing voters perceive as a witch hunt. Second, the reform program is an indirect reminder of who served as prime minister for most of the past decade and blocked all attempts at justice reform.
The 2022 election will be decided in two weeks, on points rather than by knockout. If the right falls short of 61 yet again, the blame will go to those who cannibalized votes within the pro-Bibi bloc.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 933)
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