After last-minute lineup tinkering, elections begin in earnest
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Campaign notebook: January 30

After last-minute lineup tinkering, elections begin in earnest

Thursday’s deadline for submitting Knesset slates sparked fierce battle for the center, and shed light on the campaigns and their strategies

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

The Knesset voting to dissolve itself on December 8, 2014. (Courtesy Knesset spokesperson)
The Knesset voting to dissolve itself on December 8, 2014. (Courtesy Knesset spokesperson)

January 29, the deadline for submitting the final Knesset candidate lists for each party to the Central Elections Committee, came and went.

After Thursday night, parties can no longer merge or separate, or add celebrities or ex-generals to their slates. It’s now a straightforward (albeit 12- or 13-way) race to Election Day on March 17.

Keenly aware of this political event horizon, Thursday saw a flurry of political maneuvering as parties jockeyed for the last shred of advantage before the sealing of the lists. Their choices in those momentous final hours reveal much about the campaign to come.

For Kulanu, a Russian gambit

Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, whose name means “all of us” in Hebrew, prides itself on the inclusion of women alongside men, immigrants alongside native-born Israelis, business executives alongside poverty activists. But this diversity, the party’s calling card, was hampered on Monday when Central Elections Committee chairman and Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran ruled that the party’s No. 3, Ethiopia-born journalist Tsega Melaku, had not served the required waiting period between her job in journalism and her candidacy for the Knesset. Melaku was disqualified and Kulanu went in search of a candidate who might offer a similar contribution to the party list’s diversity.

Kulanu party representatives register for the March 2015 elections, January 29, 2015. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Kulanu party representatives register for the March 2015 elections, January 29, 2015. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It found that candidate in the person of Arad Mayor Tali Ploskov, an immigrant from Moldova who worked her way from cleaning hotel rooms to running the mayor’s office.

Melaku had an unmistakable appeal for Israelis who immigrated from Ethiopia. Ploskov is believed to hold the same appeal to those who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union — a group that outnumbers Ethiopian immigrants 10:1.

The decision was also affected by the latest polls, which give the Russian-majority party Yisrael Beytenu as few as four seats in the coming election, though an average of the six most recent polls gives it five seats, and Project 61 uses past polling error data to correct the likely figure upward to seven.

Even seven seats would mark a steep drop from the 13 Yisrael Beytenu enjoys in the outgoing Knesset or the 15 it won in 2009.

As Yisrael Beytenu has plummeted in recent days, Kahlon used the last hours in which his list remained flexible to steal away one of the party’s rising stars. Yisrael Beytenu campaigned heavily for Ploskov in Arad — and complained bitterly on Thursday over her decision to switch to Kulanu.

Ploskov joined Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu said in a startlingly angry statement Thursday, only after “her request to be part of the Yisrael Beytenu list for the Knesset was turned down.” Ploskov was “abandoning the city of Arad in the midst of a serious crisis, something which Yisrael Beytenu’s leaders saw as irresponsible, and therefore rejected her candidacy.”

The criticism is hardly serious. As the blogger Tal Schneider quipped Thursday, “Will Yisrael Beytenu put out a statement about Safed Mayor Ilan Shochat’s decision to abandon his city in order to take up the number-four slot on the Yisrael Beytenu list?”

Jewish Home’s last-minute losses

Naftali Bennett led an all-out assault on the center-right in recent weeks, pushing his Jewish Home party and its nationalist-religious base to display an unprecedented level of openness to secular or less-observant Israelis.

Naftali Bennett addresses supporters of his Jewish Home party in Ramat Gan on Thursday, January 15, 2015 (photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Naftali Bennett addresses supporters of his Jewish Home party in Ramat Gan on January 15, 2015. (photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Bennett does not view himself as a career politician. His political career is devoted to effecting a single overarching shift in the Israeli public consciousness. Israelis must “wake up,” Bennett often says, from the Oslo process, with its land-for-peace assumptions and goal of Palestinian statehood.

“Jewish Home will be a ruling party,” he vows at every opportunity, replacing the Likud, which has a long history of territorial withdrawal, including in the West Bank and Gaza.

This week, Bennett appointed former soccer star and ex-Likud supporter Eli Ohana to the Jewish Home list, leading to a full-fledged rebellion among party activists and lawmakers. Ohana resigned from the list on Thursday, delivering the most significant blow to Bennett within Jewish Home since his takeover of the party more than three years ago.

Bennett’s rationale in the appointment was tactically sound. Ohana is a centrist. As he acknowledged in Jewish Home videos produced in recent days, he supported Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. But then he “wised up,” he said this week.

Bennett sees the mission of Jewish Home as leading a national process of “wising up” from the impulse to seek accommodation with Israel’s enemies through territorial withdrawal. Ohana’s story — a poor immigrant child who made good, a centrist who learned to distrust withdrawal — fit Bennett’s new vision for his party perfectly.

But the Jewish Home party rank and file disagreed. Jewish Home is still at its core a religious party. Soccer games are played on the Sabbath and Ohana himself is not observant. The entire idea felt to many national-religious rabbis and their many students in that community as a compromise of the party’s founding ideals for the sake of political gain.

What Bennett lost with Ohana’s withdrawal was not merely a celebrity. He had taken the boldest step in his efforts to appeal to the political center-right — and been rebuffed. Jewish Home’s path to the mainstream was blocked, at least for now.

Jewish Home's Ayelet Shaked shakes hands with Justice Salim Joubran as she registers her party for the March 2015 elections, January 29, 2015. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked shakes hands with Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran as she registers her party for the March 2015 elections, January 29, 2015. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As a side note, Jewish Home also lost the ex-Likudnik and former settler movement leader Dani Dayan, who left the party in anger over his poor showing in the primaries and Bennett’s refusal to advance him on the list.

As Dayan left, Jewish Home pulled a Yisrael Beytenu. “Dani Dayan gave notice in writing a few days ago that he would leave to another party after he was not elected” to a realistic slot in the primaries, a Jewish Home statement read Thursday. “After he was turned down [by the other parties], he asked to return to Jewish Home at a higher place on the list, but was only offered slot 17.”

Likud’s last-minute gains

The net result of Yisrael’s Beytenu’s steady decline in the polls, Kulanu’s final-hour push into the Russian-speaking electorate and Jewish Home’s loss of its most famous lapsed Likudnik (Ohana) and his slightly less famous colleague (Dayan) all spelled good news for Likud.

In fact, the news was good enough that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt he could abandon the plans to appoint two women to the male-dominated party list. Dr. Anat Berko still made the list at number 23. But at 11, the prime minister placed his own close confidant, advisor and former cabinet minister Benny Begin.

Begin’s failure to make the party list in the last primaries ahead of the 2013 elections is often cited as evidence the Likud rank and file were moving rightward. A moderate of the center-right, the son of the Likud’s venerated founder Menachem Begin, Benny’s appointment sends an unmistakable message from Netanyahu’s perspective: he was no longer campaigning against Jewish Home to his right, but focusing on battling the Labor-led Zionist camp for centrist voters on his left.

The mundane, successful left

There was less news generated by the left-wing parties of the Zionist Camp list (Labor and Hatnua) or by Meretz on Thursday for the simple reason that both finished their primaries and list appointments before Thursday. In general, when it came to managing the logistics of their primaries and, thus far at least, their campaigns, the left has simply done a better job. That, at least, is the unanimous opinion of political campaign staff on the right.

While Likud saw the battle for the 20th slot between Avi Dichter and Tzipi Hotovely stretch into Thursday, forcing last-minute recounts and reaching as high as the High Court of Justice, Zionist Camp actually managed to submit its list to the Central Elections Committee a day early. In fact, the center-left slate submitted its names at 11 a.m. Wednesday, the very minute that the committee began accepting lists in its Knesset headquarters.

Labor Party secretary general Hilik Bar, who formally submitted the Zionist Camp slate Wednesday, couldn’t resist pointing out the difference between his party and the right. “On a personal level,” he quipped sarcastically in a press statement, “I want to wish Likud much success in concluding all its internal issues by the deadline for submission tomorrow at 10 p.m. Let’s hope they don’t have to come turn in the list accompanied by the High Court judges.”

“Good luck to everyone,” he concluded.

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