Drama Starts Early in Israeli Elections

Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett (Roman Yanushevsky via Shutterstock)

by Mitchell Plitnick

Israeli elections always feature a lot of political drama. But when the Knesset was dissolved on December 24, it set off a flurry of action that was furious even by Israeli standards. The drama is likely to increase between now and election day on April 9 even though the winner is almost certainly a foregone conclusion.

Soon after the new elections were announced, political bombshells went off in parties on the right and in the center. It started with Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked bolting their party, HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home). Soon after, the head of the Labor party, Avi Gabbay, publicly humiliated former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, thereby eliminating the Zionist Union coalition his party had formed with Livni’s Hatnuah party.

From the point of view of all Israeli politicians—except Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—this election is really about positioning for the next one. Netanyahu is going to win, but it’s very likely to be his final term as prime minister. A fight is now taking place over the succession, amid the ongoing collapse of the center and center-left of Israeli politics.

Netanyahu’s corruption is certainly going to be a major issue in this election. The economy and the social tensions over religion and nationalism will also be high on the agenda, as usual. But, as has become the norm in recent Israeli elections, the issue of the occupation is not going to feature in the race to any significant degree. There may be some discussion of “defending” Israel against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, and perhaps some minor hand-wringing about the mythical “Trump peace plan.” But the discussion of foreign affairs will much more likely focus on Iran, first and foremost, and building on Israel’s recent success in reaching out to authoritarian governments around the world, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Brazil and Chad. Hezbollah and Syria will also be part of the discussion.

The Palestinians don’t rank high on the Israeli list of security concerns anymore. To the extent that Hamas and Gaza are an issue, it will be raised by Netanyahu’s right-wing rivals, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. But there will be no talk of resolutions, much less of peace. Although Israelis continue to support a two-state solution in theory, there is no enthusiasm for actually pursuing it. That attitude is the result of despair at the prospects of reaching an agreement and a comparatively high level of material comfort for most Israelis.

Why Elections Now?

The next election in Israel was to have been held in November 2019. But as investigations into Netanyahu came closer to indictments, few expected that the government would be the first since 1988 to complete its full four-year term. In early December, the police recommended indicting Netanyahu on bribery charges. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has not yet indicted the prime minister, but it is now a matter of when, not if.

Netanyahu’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, Our Home) party, resigned and bolted the government in November, leaving Netanyahu with both the defense portfolio and a razor-thin 61-59 majority in the 120-seat Knesset. A vote on a new bill that would mean more ultra-Orthodox men drafted into the army was on the horizon. The ultra-Orthodox parties were threatening to bolt the government if it passed, as it likely would have.

These were also factors for early elections. But the main reason is that Netanyahu wants to win another election so that he can argue that his victory, under the shadow of a looming or actual indictment, demonstrates that the public supports him despite the corruption charges.

Barring an event so unlikely that it would probably be mistaken for divine intervention, no one can beat Netanyahu. That’s not going to change even if Mandelblit does indict the prime minister before the election. Unless there is substance in those indictments that goes far beyond what is already known—which is extremely unlikely—Netanyahu’s voters have proven quite conclusively that they simply don’t care about his corruption, at least not enough to change their vote.

Current polls suggest that Likud, Netanyahu’s party, will get between 25 and 30 seats in April. No other party is even close to 20.

But it’s more than Likud’s advantage as a party. Other parties would find it almost impossible to form a government even if they could somehow overcome Likud’s advantage. Secular parties like Yesh Atid would not be able to attract religious parties. Parties like Labor would find that there were not enough seats in the Knesset to form a center-left coalition because they would not be able to include the dozen or so seats captured by the Joint List,  a coalition of Arab parties, both religious and secular, along with the communist Jewish-Arab party, Hadash. No Zionist party will invite Arab parties into the government. Because of this tradition of racism, the center and center-left would have to win over 70 seats, including the Joint List, to form a governing coalition.

Bennett and Shaked Make Their Move

Jewish Home had been formed by the coalition of Mafdal (the National Religious Party) and Tkuma, a far-right, ultra-Orthodox party. Bennett and Shaked wanted to get out of the coalition and form a party based more on nationalist ideology than religion. But they still wanted to attract both secular and religious nationalists, presumably drawing voters not only from their former party but also from the other right-wing parties.

Part of their thinking was a desire to distance themselves from figures in Jewish Home like Betzalel Smotrich, a young, religious ideologue who many even on the right see as racist and extremist. Smotrich and Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel are with the Tkuma party and had been pressing the Jewish Home leadership for greater prominence in the coalition. Bennett and Shaked also felt that a party so strongly associated with the religious right (Shaked, a secular woman, had staked out a unique position in the party) could not hope to win enough seats to claim the prime minister’s office for itself.

They have no illusions about beating Netanyahu in April. This is all about the post-Netanyahu era. Both Bennett and Shaked have made names for themselves in Israeli politics and they have a significant support base. They hope that in a party of their own making—HaYamin HeHadash or The New Right—their leadership will flourish, and they will be the faces of the future of the mainstream Israeli right.

On Wednesday, Bennett announced that right-wing Israeli-American columnist Caroline Glick would be joining the New Right party. Glick is a senior contributing editor of The Jerusalem Post and the director of the Israel Security Project at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says gives “anti-Muslim voices and radical ideologies a platform to project hate and misinformation.” She is also an adjunct fellow at notorious Islamophobe Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy.

Glick will expand the New Right’s profile significantly in the United States. Her association with Breitbart News will be particularly useful for tapping into reactionary U.S. forces that support Israel’s worst policies. If the New Right becomes a significant party in the next Knesset, it will certainly be a major contender in the post-Netanyahu era for the top spot.

Zionist Union Implodes

Avi Gabbay, the head of the Labor Party, has had ongoing conflicts with opposition leader and head of the Hatnuah party, Tzipi Livni. Although their two parties make up the Zionist Union coalition, theirs has been an uneasy alliance at best, and in recent months it has taken a turn for the worse. Livni has been agitating against Gabbay, culminating last month with the rumored defection of a number of Zionist Union Knesset members. Gabbay was convinced that Livni was at the root of the dissent—and he was probably right—so he decided to cut her legs out from under her.

At a faction meeting, and apparently without consulting other party members, Gabbay surprised everyone by announcing that he was dissolving the partnership with Livni. The Hatnuah leader sat there, obviously stunned and humiliated, which was just what Gabbay wanted. It was payback for her efforts to undermine him and potentially unseat him as the head of the Zionist Union. Those efforts were hardly without merit. Gabbay’s tenure has been marked by rhetoric on the issue of the occupation that sounded much more like Likud than Labor. That is one factor in the Zionist Union’s freefall in the polls.

Gabbay was particularly resentful of Livni’s efforts to promote partnership agreements between the Zionist Union on the one hand and the center-right Yesh Atid and the new party headed by former chief of staff Bennie Gantz on the other. Neither party seemed particularly enthusiastic about connecting with Livni, and Gabbay, while publicly open to such partnerships, has been reluctant to cede any of his authority.

But the move seems to have backfired. It played very badly with the public, and Gabbay is now facing calls from within Labor to resign. This is likely more a reflection on Gabbay’s leadership than of any love for Livni, who is not a particularly popular person in the Knesset. This episode very likely marks the end of her political career, at least for the time being. Hatnuah is very unlikely to win enough votes to pass the minimal threshold for Knesset seats, even if Livni decides to run.

X Factors?

Right now, the Joint List and Yesh Atid are polling the best, but the Joint List simply doesn’t figure into any coalition calculations. Gantz’s Hosen Yisrael, or Israel Resilience party, is right there with those two, all of them polling between 12 and 14 seats.

But Gantz is a truly unknown quantity. He has built his following on the strength of his military experience but has remained tight-lipped about his political positions. As the campaign rolls on, he will have to take positions on issues, both foreign and domestic. Although his few public statements and tenure as chief of staff hint at a hawkish tilt on security, with more liberal social and economic positions, it’s not clear where that leaves his election prospects.

If Gantz should team up with Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, they could potentially win enough seats to defeat Likud. They represent the only chance of beating Netanyahu. And Lapid certainly leans sufficiently rightward to bring together a number of right-wing and centrist parties if he partners with Gantz. But the numbers look just as grim for forming a secular coalition behind that union as a more liberal one led by Labor does, and religious parties are unlikely to warm to Gantz and Lapid.

Netanyahu will emerge victorious. Like Americans with Donald Trump, Israelis await the results of the investigations into their head of state.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.