Fifteen words into his fiery resignation speech two weeks ago, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon was already outlining his political comeback.
“I have no intention of leaving public and political life, and in the future I will return to compete for Israel’s national leadership,” he declared at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, adopting a phrase used to refer to the right-wing camp.
Within hours, the veteran Likud minister, who stepped down when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his job to Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and left office railing against “extremism” in his party, was being courted by the Zionist Union.
When Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay (a Kulanu minister, but not an MK) quit Friday, citing Ya’alon’s dismissal and the “extremist” government he said was leading Israel to ruin, the former defense minister backed him up. “Full respect to Avi Gabbay, who proves that there is another way,” wrote Ya’alon on Twitter. “We mustn’t give up,” he said, in a statement that felt like a nascent political campaign.
Ya’alon has yet to make an announcement on whether he will leave Likud and form a new party or challenge Netanyahu in the internal party primaries. And while talk of the next election may seem premature, it didn’t take long for Israelis to chatter over whether the disgruntled Ya’alon — along with former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, who has been thought to be the only right-wing politician who could take on Netanyahu – could disrupt Netanyahu’s leadership in the next election.
A look at Israeli polls (which were notoriously unreliable in the last election) suggests that any effort to knock Likud out of the running would require rare unity among Israel’s political center, and likely hinge on the cooperation of Kulanu leader and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon or Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
There’s only one problem for figures like Ya’alon and Sa’ar: Lapid appears to be kicking off his own campaign, and unlike the Zionist Union, the Yesh Atid leader — self-styled shadow foreign minister and wannabe prime minister — doesn’t appear to be extending any invitations to Ya’alon. And Kahlon, for now, is sticking loyally by Netanyahu.
The story the polls tell
On Friday, Israel Radio ran a poll that indicated that a (purely speculative) Kahlon-Sa’ar-Ya’alon party would gain the most seats in the Knesset — 25 — if elections were held today, while Likud would drop to 21 and Yesh Atid would rise slightly, to 13.
But contrast that with a Knesset poll last week, in which 58% of respondents said they would not consider voting for a party led by Ya’alon (16% yes, 9% didn’t know). Adding Sa’ar into the equation, 61% said they wouldn’t consider voting for a party led by Ya’alon with Sa’ar second on the ticket, and 60% wouldn’t consider a party headed by Sa’ar and second-chaired by Ya’alon.
Some 45% said Ya’alon was not a worthy candidate for prime minister, 38% said he is, and 17% weren’t sure. If the numbers appear less than encouraging for the two ex-Likud ministers, particularly since it came days after Ya’alon went down, guns blazing, in staunch support of the IDF’s morality, note this: The respondents were not asked to commit to voting for a Sa’ar-Ya’alon party, only whether they would consider it. The Knesset channel poll did not throw Kahlon into the mix, but the exclusion of the finance minister in the party does not appear to be sufficient to account for the huge disparities between the two surveys.
Past polls on Sa’ar have indicated he is a popular choice for prime minister, but would still fall short of Netanyahu.
Polls conducted in March marking the one-year anniversary of elections have suggested that Yesh Atid would soar in a new election, bringing it up to as many as 18-21 seats, largely at the expense of the Zionist Union. Kahlon’s Kulanu would fall down to seven or even four, and Likud support would dip slightly (24-26), though it would remain the largest party. (The figures are based on Channel 2, Israel Radio, and Maariv polls from March).
The Israel Radio poll on Friday suggested that without the Sa’ar-Ya’alon-Kahlon party, Yesh Atid would become the second-largest party with 19 seats, Likud would remain the largest with 28, and Kahlon’s Kulanu would fall to six — consistent overall with the March surveys. In short, if politicians were to rely on the surveys, Lapid has reason to be confident, Kahlon concerned, and Ya’alon and Sa’ar uncertain of where they stand.
From the left, there are two other wild cards that could shake up the race if they threw their hats in the ring: former IDF chiefs Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. While neither of the candidates has announced a political run (and Gantz is not allowed to run until March 2018 under regulations requiring a break between military and political careers), that hasn’t stopped polls from speculating how they would do. Thus, a March poll found that a unified Kahlon-Sa’ar-Ashkenazi party would get 23 seats to Likud’s 22. (However, the party with the most seats does not necessarily guarantee the prime ministership, which depends on the party’s nominations and whether it can cobble together a coalition, the classic example of this being Tzipi Livni’s Kadima beating out Likud in 2009).
Gantz, though he couldn’t run at the time, was found in November to be a more popular choice than Netanyahu for prime minister by a wide 44% to 32% margin. With their military chops and general popularity, the two center-left candidates running against a center-right list could pose a threat not only to Ya’alon and Sa’ar but to Likud as well. Running with the secular ex-Likud hawks, however far-fetched, they could become Kadima 2.0. and would likely be unstoppable.
Israel’s increasingly splintered center
According to a March Pew Research Center poll, the majority of Israelis – 55 percent – identify as political centrists, followed by 37% who say they are right-wing and 8% left-wing. Theoretically at least, a center-right party would be best positioned to snatch up votes.
New centrist parties in Israeli have historically succeeded in their first election — beginning with Ariel Sharon’s Likud-spinoff Kadima in 2005 (now defunct), to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which became the second-largest party in the 19th Knesset with 19 seats (and in 2015 dropped to 11 seats in the 120-seat parliament). Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu, which ran on a social-economic platform which promised to lower the cost of living and housing prices, snagged just 10 seats in the 2015 election, but became a key partner in Netanyahu’s slim 61-MK coalition (now up to 66 MKs with Liberman).
The Zionist Union under Isaac Herzog has also positioned itself as a center-left party, in an attempt to shed the Labor party’s traditionally dovish image, and Likud has traditionally sought center-right voters as well (though in the 2015 election it appealed heavily to the right and to Jewish Home voters).
While in 2013, Yesh Atid had only to vie with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah (a break-off of Kadima), Kadima and Likud to win over centrist voters, a new center-right party in a future election (assuming there are no mergers) must compete with Kulanu, Yesh Atid, Likud, and the Zionist Union.
To tackle the governing party, the increasingly splintered center would have to unify and rally around a leader, or divide the centrist vote among their various parties, leading Likud to a prospective win. But Sa’ar and Lapid have not concealed their aspirations for the premiership, and Ya’alon has the experience to back it up but perhaps lacks the charisma.
Kahlon — loyal to PM, but seeks stability
After the 2015 election, with his ten Knesset seats, Kahlon had the ability to entirely hamper Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition and ally itself with the Zionist Union. But he chose Netanyahu. The finance minister has also been staunchly opposed to a two-year budget. But he ultimately gave in to Netanyahu.
As Kulanu leader, Kahlon may have discovered that leading a small-to-medium-sized party in the coalition gives him more power and room for negotiation than occupying a slot on the slate of a center-right party.
But the former Likud minister has also long advocated for a wide coalition and stable government. On Sunday, amid a crisis with Jewish Home, Kahlon urged coalition stability, saying “you can’t have elections every year” or no reforms would ever be implemented.
When push comes to shove, if Kahlon is offered a role in a new center-right party the question will be which of these various factors win out — his desire for stability to implement reform or his effective veto power in a thin coalition and his loyalty to the prime minister.
Lapid and ‘new politics’
With all the hullabaloo over the coalition talks, the Yesh Atid leader has been uncharacteristically silent. But slowly the one-time finance minister appears to be shifting into campaign mode. On May 20, at the height of the coalition talks between Yisrael Beytenu, Likud and Zionist Union, he wrote on Facebook: “Four years ago, we started talking about ‘new politics.’ We need new politics… the old politics has gone bankrupt. It did that a while ago, but in the past week, it simply did it in front of the cameras. It was a shameful sight, and I believe that all of Israel’s citizens were ashamed for them. For everyone. We don’t deserve this. No one deserves a political system that they’re ashamed of. It must be different, and we won’t rest until it is different.”
When Ya’alon resigned, Lapid wrote on Facebook that he saluted him, but unlike the Zionist Union was not making public overtures to the defense chief to join its party. On Friday, he played nice with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett over his demands for security cabinet reform. On Sunday, he announced the police’s former top anti-corruption figure was going into politics and joining the Yesh Atid party and held a press conference to introduce Yoav Segalovitz. Positioning himself in contrast to what he describes as corrupt “old politics,” the Yesh Atid leader may not be inclined to team up with Ya’alon and Sa’ar, who although they left the Likud party, are still figures associated with the old politics of Likud. While acting like a new election is nigh, Lapid has given no indication that he will do anything but try to make a comeback solo.
There is another way, says Ya’alon. It must be different, says Lapid. But can the center unify? Right now, it seems it isn’t trying.
How will it play out?
Much can change before another election – depending under what conditions the government is dissolved or whether it completes the term, whether Israel sees another war, how defense minister Liberman fares in his new role, whether the Zionist Union hold primaries and another figure takes the helm, whether a new round of peace talks begins, not to mention the effects of political campaigning and the ramifications of who ultimately decides to run, with whom, and on what platform.
But if Netanyahu’s recent coalition zigzagging – courting the Zionist Union, signing with Liberman, continuing to court the Zionist Union, undergoing a coalition crisis with the Jewish Home that had a low-key resolution – is any indication, Israeli political alliances can abruptly be severed. Enemies become friends when expedient, and friends are undercut, becoming enemies. Blink and you’ll miss it.