Kafe Knesset: The tick-tock behind the creation of Blue and White | Bibi defends Jewish Power play | AIPAC enters the fray

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Inside the Creation of Blue and White: This time last week the leaders of the two major centrist parties — Benny Gantz (Hosen Le’Israel) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) — were planning to approach this general election independently. Fast forward a few days: in a deal closed early last Thursday morning, Gantz and Lapid agreed to combine forces to form the Blue and White super-party. Its stated purpose? Toppling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and replacing the Likud as Israel’s ruling party.

On Monday night Lapid unveiled his party’s list, with Gantz taking the stage the following night to do the same. While both leaders name-checked the option of uniting, the prospects seemed remote: the deadline for party registrations was looming in forty-eight hours and it seemed that egos and policy positions (depending on who you believed) would scuttle the bid. Rumors swirled that Gantz had cut an alternate deal with a smaller centrist party (Orly Levy-Abuksis’ Gesher party) yet nothing was announced. Instead, Gantz in his Tuesday night speech said he’d reach out to Lapid, which he did. As one source in Blue and White shared with Kafe Knesset, Gantz and Lapid spoke on the phone that night and met in person the following day.

While the two leaders discussed broad-stroke substantive issues, teams of aides worked frantically to negotiate the technical terms of a possible merger: how many seats each faction would receive on a joint slate, who would get which ministerial choice, etc. Yet the tipping point, according to the source, “was the realization that Bibi was bringing in judeo-fascists [Jewish Power party] into the Knesset. This was a red-line for all of us and more important than anything else.”

As gaps closed, the two other future leaders of Blue and White — Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi — were also brought to the negotiating venue, the villa of a Lapid advisor in the posh town of Savyon. Ashkenazi (himself a former IDF chief of staff, like Gantz and Yaalon) was a key driving force behind the merger, the source said. Under the terms of the deal Gantz would lead the new party and be the candidate for prime minister, with Lapid theoretically rotating in after 2.5 years. Ashkenazi, a very popular public figure, would be number four on the joint list. Per the source, “Ashkenazi took a step back just as much as Lapid, but really stepped up for the good of the country.”

The deal was finalized at 4:30am early Thursday, the four men took a picture together, and shortly thereafter it was made public. At least on paper the “big bang” of this election was complete — now it was time to begin translating it, physically, into the field.

Throughout the day a joint team of “creatives” rushed to find a name (Blue and White) and a new logo. Coordinated speeches by all four men for that evening’s primetime unveiling were written. About 100 activists were recruited to attend, with senior representatives from both Hosen Le’Israel and Yesh Atid meeting ahead of time to work out the chants they were going to use during the event.

The actual press statement, when it came, was a major media event. All three TV networks ran live studios from the cramped hall in the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. Gantz, Lapid, Yaalon and Ashkenazi (in that order) all read from prepared remarks and divided the messaging. Gantz called it a “formative evening in Israeli history” — the creation of a new ruling “movement,” not just a party. Lapid stressed that he had complete belief in Benny Gantz, adding: “Netanyahu chose Kahanists as partners. We chose each other.”

Smiles abounded. Gantz highlighted the unknown story that his mother and Lapid’s father lived in the same building in the Budapest ghetto, drawing audible “awws” from the crowd (even from some journalists, the barometer of universal cynicism).

The journey is just beginning for Blue and White. The policy details of the merger will only become apparent in the next two weeks. A team of senior officials representing Gantz, Lapid and Yaalon (Chili Tropper, Ofer Shelach, and Yoaz Hendel, respectively) are set to issue a common manifesto in two weeks time. The source stressed that “most of the big things” have already been worked out; the time would be used to publish the party’s new (shared) positions in a more organized manner. This won’t be easy given the wide range of views within Blue and White. Yet on the main policy that brought them all together — and on which their fortunes will rise or fall — they already clearly agree: beating Netanyahu.

Bibi Hits Back — And Defends Jewish Power Play: Netanyahu issued his own public statement on Thursday night too, right after the Blue and White appearance. The PM hit back forcefully, defending his security and economic achievements over the past decade but not before calling his new opponents a “weak leftist” government-in-waiting that would lean on the Arab political parties….

Referring obliquely to his recent efforts to unite the far-right parties — including the extremist Jewish Power — Netanyahu added sarcastically: “A right wing Zionist [parliamentary majority bloc] isn’t allowed, but a left-wing [version] with Arab parties that work to eliminate the State of Israel is legitimate?”.…

Netanyahu doubled down on this line of attack Saturday night, again deflecting widespread criticism of his pandering to Kahanists by calling it an absurd “hypocrisy” and “double standard by the left” — “they’re condemning [the formation of] a right-wing majority bloc with right-wing parties, while the left acted to bring extreme Islamists into the Knesset to create a majority bloc”….

Such allegations, it has to be mentioned, are false. Blue and White has rejected a coalition (even informally) with the Arab parties and hasn’t worked to ensure the electoral survival of any Arab faction….

AIPAC Enters the Fray: The big news over the weekend was the debate over Netanyahu’s Jewish Power gambit and with that the criticism from many quarters of American Jewry — especially AIPAC’s carefully-worded (yet unprecedented) statement as well as Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake’s scathing take-down of Netanyahu. Most commentators highlighted the fact that both AIPAC and Lake (as well as the AJC and other organizations) were not only historically strong supporters of Israel but of Netanyahu as well….

For its part, the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom — owned by Sheldon Adelson — had a screaming headline calling AIPAC “irresponsible” for getting involved in domestic politics. Itamar Ben-Gvir, a Jewish Power leader, issued a short video clip blasting AIPAC and calling for them to “first move to Israel” and “pay the price” before they opine about its politics. “It’s clear that AIPAC wants to elevate the left to power,” he added….

Despite its criticism AIPAC still intends to host Netanyahu at its annual policy conference next month in Washington (March 24-26). Yet reports over the weekend added that Gantz and Lapid would also be invited to address the pro-Israel lobby….

Dissent From Inside Religious-Zionist Camp: Not all voices from the right were monolithic in their defense of Jewish Power — far from it. Yifat Erlich, number six in the Jewish Home-National Union (the party that took in Jewish Power) last Thursday resigned in protest at the deal….

In his sermon Shabbat morning in Jerusalem, Rabbi Benny Lau equated the ideology of Jewish Power with that of Nazism. “A vote for [Jewish Home] is a vote for the racism of Kahane,” the Jerusalem Post reported the rabbi telling his congregation.

The Week Ahead: As one political operative told Kafe Knesset, this past weekend was a chance for everyone to (somewhat) catch their breath before all the newly formed alignments set off on the mad dash to election day — now 44 days away….

There is growing speculation that with the party registration deadline now passed, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will issue his long-awaited decision on Netanyahu’s corruption cases by the end of the week or early next week. The consensus had it that the AG’s decision would come in late February or early/mid March (at the latest). A nation awaits with bated breath….

Amid the all the political maneuverings at home, Netanyahu will fly to Moscow on Wednesday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The summit had originally been scheduled for last week but was delayed by Bibi on account of the Jewish Power deal. On the agenda: Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.