The generals who challenged Netanyahu ran a campaign largely devoid of substance

The close results of the April 9 Israeli elections, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the apparent winner, represents a missed opportunity for his centrist rivals.

As a foreign policy scholar who researches Israeli politics, I believe that perhaps the greatest irony of the election was the failure of Netanyahu’s challengers, the newly formed “generals’ party” to contest his approach to security.

Security has long been the central issue in Israeli politics. It’s the one area in which this unique party would presumably have had the most to say. Former Israeli generals and retired intelligence chiefs have traditionally been the nation’s most outspoken critics of Netanyahu’s security policies.

Yet, the generals did not capitalize on their security credentials by offering a real alternative to the government’s policies, especially the government’s hard-line policies towards the Palestinians. Instead, their “Blue and White” ticket chose to turn this election into one more referendum on Netanyahu’s character.

In doing so, they failed in their effort to create a new centrist, non-ideological bloc that would replace Netanyahu’s ruling right-wing bloc.

Control of Israel’s government, the Knesset, seen here, is at stake in the election. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Military at home in politics

The participation of retired generals in Israeli politics is nothing new. The Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, has always been the country’s most revered institution, and it has been common practice for generals to enter the political arena upon retirement.

Three of Israel’s 12 prime ministers – Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon – were retired generals, and numerous other military veterans have entered the political fray over the years, some more successfully than others.

But the unified list of three former IDF chiefs – Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – who teamed up in February to unseat the prime minister was without precedent.

The generals’ Blue and White ticket was co-led by the popular centrist politician Yair Lapid, whose enigmatic views on security issues mirrored the vague centrism of the three generals. The party tried to attract both right-of-center and left-of-center voters by running a campaign that was largely devoid of substance.

It studiously avoided engaging in key issues, such as the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Blue and White offered only banal policy pronouncements and a Trump-like “Israel First” slogan.

Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White party, holds hands with his party candidates Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, as they react to exit polls in Tel Aviv, Israel on election day. REUTERS/Corinna Kern

Netanyahu’s agenda lives

Netanyahu received bad news in the midst of his election campaign. In February, Israel’s attorney general announced his intention to indict him on three separate corruption cases.

By focusing on Netanyahu’s flawed character and homing in on his corruption scandals, the Blue and White candidates convinced center-left voters to abandon the traditionally left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties.

But they did not convince right-of-center voters to abandon Netanyahu.

I believe that by failing to offer a coherent alternative to the right’s hard-line national security approach, the leadership of Blue and White failed to sway voters from Netanyahu’s camp over to their centrist slate.

Instead, they took votes from the left-bloc parties. Indeed, Tuesday’s results show that both Labor and Meretz suffered stinging defeats, with Labor falling to historic lows – their voters shifted over to Blue and White.