It’s the blocs, stupid

It’s the blocs, stupid

Such drama! Livni comes back, Barak leaves and the Likud lurches rightwards. But the devil isn't in the details, and Netanyahu's right-wing bloc still easily trumps the center-left

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Tzipi Livni (photo credit: Ben David/Flash90)
Tzipi Livni (photo credit: Ben David/Flash90)

For an outsider looking in, or even an insider looking out, Israel’s political arena looks to be becoming ever more diverse, complicated, varied.

What with Tzipi Livni’s announcement of her new party Tuesday, the  Likud’s sharp turn right a day before — which left several political strongmen in the cold — and Ehud Barak’s retirement and abandonment of his political allies, the race to the Knesset can look like an every man for himself-type battle.

But the fact remains that it’s the political blocs, right and left, that will determine the face of Israel after the January 22 elections, and not the individual dramas that may look like bombshells today.

While the rest of the world stopped caring about Israel once the bombs stopped dropping in Gaza and Israel’s south, local journalists here have had a field day this week covering all the political news — and it’s only Tuesday.

Mere days after Operation Pillar of Defense ended with a much discussed (and much derided) ceasefire, Defense Minister Barak announced his retirement. Likud, Israel’s ruling party, elected a new Knesset slate that is so far to the right that it no longer has space for “moderates” such as Benny Begin and Dan Meridor. Former Kadima chief and foreign minister Tzipi Livni announced the creation of a new party, The Movement, which was slammed by all sides: the left, the right and even the center, the political camp to which she supposedly belongs.

Later this week, on Thursday, the Labor party will hold its primaries, which will undoubtedly catapult some fresh faces into realistic spots on the list of what will likely be the Knesset’s second-largest party.

But the devil is not always in the details. Amid all the discussion of whether this party can steal a few mandates away from that party, or whether these two candidates should run together because they are dividing a unified camp, it is easy to overlook the big picture. There are two main camps in Israel: a right-wing bloc and a center-left bloc. And poll after poll after poll shows that the former will have the upper hand come Election Day.

Let’s start with Likud. The election of a thoroughly far-right Knesset list, which includes hardliners like Moshe Feiglin — whom Netanyahu successfully booted from a high spot on the party slate last time around — can certainly be described as a political earthquake.

Having too many hardliners on his list does not bode well for Netanyahu, who has tried to appear as a relative moderate willing to engage in realpolitik. In the 18th Knesset, he several times had to rein in rightist MKs who supported an annexation of the West Bank. The Tzipi Hotovelys, Danny Danons and Ze’ev Elkins are likely to push this and other controversial legislation in the 19th Knesset, and it remains to be seen how Netanyahu will deal with such pressures.

Begin, Meridor and Michael Eitan were all punished by the Likud membership for their “moderate” positions, despite their veteran statuses. Netanyahu will try his utmost to get at least Begin back into his next cabinet. Channel 2 reported on Tuesday that the prime minister had already promised Begin a ministerial position, in the likely case that Likud wins the elections.

Some analysts believe a Likud tilting so heavily to the right may snatch a few Knesset seats from the far-right Jewish Home and National Union parties, which are running on a joint ticket. But what matters more than one or two seats going to the right is whether any Likud voters jump ship into the arms of Livni, Yair Lapid or any of the other center-leftists.

Much the same is true for the center-left bloc. Labor chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich attacked Livni on Tuesday for creating yet another party in that bloc — a fifth! — that already includes Labor, Kadima, Barak’s now impotent Independence and Lapid’s Yesh Atid. But Livni defended herself by saying the she joined the race not to divide, but to enlarge the center-left camp.

“I decided to give an answer to people who don’t have anyone to vote for,” Livni said, implying that she would hope to attract voters who ideologically belong in the center-left corner but do not contemplate voting for either Labor, Yesh Atid or, less likely, Independence or Kadima.

But the polls suggest she is wrong. According to a handful of surveys published since it has become apparent that Livni would run with a new party, she would get nine or 10 Knesset seats. But it’s not clear that she wouldn’t just be stealing seats from her ideological brethren — thus creating movement, but not pushing the center-left bloc (which includes the far-left Meretz party and the Arab lists) forward.

Two handfuls of Knesset mandates is impressive, given the fact that Livni has yet to present her team or convincingly explain what she has that other centrist candidates don’t have, and that, during the last Knesset, she headed the largest party, with 28 mandates, but was still unable to build a government.

Yet the fact is that, even in the polls that predict Livni’s awkwardly named Movement will win nine or 10 seats, the center-left bloc still lags far behind the right-wing bloc which includes Likud-Beytenu (the joint list of Netanyahu’s Likud and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu parties), Shas, Jewish Home/National Union, United Torah Judaism and Am Shalem, a new party led by Shas breakaway Rabbi Haim Amsellem. In virtually all recent polls — taken before, during and after Operation Pillar of Defense — the right-wingers get about 66-70 seats, while the opposing camp gets about 50-54 seats.

Some analysts have argued that former prime minister Ehud Olmert would be the only person who could significantly shake up Israel’s left-right structure. But he is reportedly not running, so we may never know. In the meantime, the divide between the two camps seems deep and unbridgeable, which means that, on January 22, Netanyahu is likely to cruise to an easy reelection, even with a relatively weak plurality.

It will be interesting to see how the so-called Feiglins will change the face of a Likud almost bereft of moderating counterweights. Or whether the leaders of the various centrist parties can somehow manage to put their egos aside and combine forces.

But in the big scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if Livni runs alone or as Yachimovich’s number two. Nothing short of a real political earthquake — one that would unsettle the gridlocked tectonics of Israel’s two-camp system — will endanger the right-wing’s victory.

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