Kahanists, Arabs, Gantz could help Netanyahu, in Israel’s least ideological vote

This is no familiar right-vs-left election. It’s Netanyahu versus the rest. But though ‘the rest,’ this time, includes potent challengers from his own camp, the PM is far from done

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019. Netanyahu forced the dissolution of the Knesset that night, after it became clear that he was unable to win the support of Avigdor Liberman and thus could not form a majority coalition. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019. Netanyahu forced the dissolution of the Knesset that night, after it became clear that he was unable to win the support of Avigdor Liberman and thus could not form a majority coalition. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For decades, when trying to simplify the presentation of survey data for Israel’s baffling array of parties during election campaigns, our pollsters would divide the competing forces into two blocs — right-wing and left-wing. On one side, you’d have Likud and its satellite parties, which latterly included the ultra-Orthodox. On the other, you’d have Labor and its allies, including the Arab-dominated parties, which might be set off in a slightly different shade to show they wouldn’t actually be invited into the government.

That right/left, two-bloc chart fell apart after the elections in April 2019, however, when Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party shatteringly prevented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming the coalition he thought he had sewn up, and thus sentenced Israel to the second of what have turned out to be four (so far) quickfire election campaigns.

Liberman was and is emphatically a man of the political right — a settler, a proponent of redrawing Israel’s boundaries to exclude some of its Arab citizens, a former Netanyahu aide and a minister in multiple Likud-led coalitions. There had been no doubt that Yisrael Beytenu belonged in that right-wing bloc. Except that, since its leader had deprived Israel and Netanyahu of a right-wing government, with devastating political consequences that reverberate to this day, it manifestly didn’t.

A survey published by Channel 12, showing the “distribution (of seats) into blocs,” a month before the March 2020 elections. It predicted 56 seats for the “right and the ultra-Orthodox,” 56 for the “left, center and Joint List (of Arab-dominated parties),” and 8 for Yisrael Beytenu (Channel 12)

Unfazed, the pollsters soldiered on with their two-bloc summations. In the last two elections, they produced their familiar graphic, but with minor modifications — right-wing/ultra Orthodox parties on one side; center, left and Arab parties on the other; and that curious beast, Liberman’s right-wing, anti-Netanyahu, anti-ultra-Orthodox Yisrael Beytenu, afforded a place of its own in the middle.

Now, though, in the run-up to election number four on March 23, the whole easy-to-follow two-bloc solution has melted down altogether. The cacophony of competing parties in elections less than 50 days from now is certainly marked by the familiar left-right ideological differences. But the next Israeli government is unlikely to be assembled on the basis of affinity between similar-minded parties.

For these are shaping up to be the least ideological elections in Israeli history.

Israel’s big issues haven’t evaporated. Iran is closing in on the bomb. The army constantly faces threats on numerous other fronts. The Palestinians aren’t going anywhere. The settlement enterprise remains divisive. We have a relationship to nurture with a new US administration. A need to build better bridges with Diaspora Jewry. Domestic inequalities are widening. The gulf between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest is yawning. And overshadowing everything right now is COVID-19.

There is no shortage of parties old and new competing for our support with policies on all these and other familiar issues; it’s just that they do not line up in potential coalitions on that basis. The question of right or left is, more than ever before, subservient to the only 2021 electoral divide that really matters: for- or anti-Netanyahu. Never mind whether a party’s ideology is similar to Likud’s on some or other key matters. It’s a matter, almost solely, of are you with him or against him.

Netanyahu versus the rest

This isn’t the fault of the pollsters, of course. And, undeterred, rather than ditching their familiar two-bloc system, they have thus far merely changed the labels. On one side, nowadays, they place Netanyahu’s Likud and its two dependable partners, the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. And on the other side, they group all the anti-Netanyahu parties, irrespective of their ideology, thus creating a graphic alliance of extraordinarily improbable political bedfellows, from ex-Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party on the right, via Liberman, across to Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz’s shriveling Blue and White, and on to the reviving Labor party of Merav Michaeli, and thence to left-wing Meretz and finally the Arab parties.

What they’re quite sensibly showing us, in other words, is Netanyahu versus the rest. And in the middle slot that was invented for Liberman in 2019, we now have the Yamina party — a firmly right-wing entity but one, nonetheless, whose leader Naftali Bennett is neither promising to serve alongside Netanyahu nor promising not to, and instead is declaring that he has his eyes firmly set on the premiership himself.

Channel 13’s February 2 survey results: Grouped to the right is the “Netanyahu bloc” of parties: Likud, Shas and UTJ. Grouped to the left is the “replace Netanyahu bloc”: Yesh Atid, New Hope, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, Joint List (of Arab-dominated parties), Blue and White and Meretz. Between the blocs is Naftali Bennett’s Yamina. (Channel 13 news)

The trouble with this latest graphic representation is that it still doesn’t quite capture what’s going on. Bennett might indeed turn out to hold the balance of power between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu forces when all the votes are in — but only if Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Yamina can muster at least 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats between. And that is something that our (rather unreliable) polls currently suggest is far from certain.

If, by contrast, the other bloc, the bloc whose only common denominator is the declared goal of ousting Netanyahu, has 61 or more seats, the pollsters’ graphic could prove highly misleading, in part because Netanyahu’s ostensible “natural allies,” the ultra-Orthodox parties that have stuck with him these past three elections, cannot be relied upon to stick with him again. If a Netanyahu-led alliance cannot win a Knesset majority, they have intimated that other permutations might be viable — including membership in a coalition alongside the likes of New Hope, Yamina and Yesh Atid.

Numerous other permutations could also come into play, including the very real possibility that, yet again, there’s no viable, stable coalition at all, and we are condemned to yet another… (Sorry, I cannot bring myself to complete that sentence.)

Bringing the Kahanists into the mainstream

Hours before the parties must wrap up any mergers and present their final slates to the Central Elections Committee, and with polling day seven weeks away, Israel’s fourth election in two years is quite impossible to call.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli seen during a first meeting of the Labor party’s newly elected Knesset slate after party primaries, in Tel Aviv on February 2, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In the last few days alone, we’ve seen Labor rise from the political graveyard to clear the 3.25% Knesset threshold after the election of a new leader, Merav Michaeli, and then rise again to eight seats in the latest opinion poll Tuesday night. We’ve seen Yesh Atid grow a little, and Likud slip a little — presumably because of widening anger at ultra-Orthodox defiance of COVID regulations, notably at Sunday’s two mass Haredi funerals, and at Netanyahu for ostensibly keeping all of Israel in ongoing lockdown rather than backing the police in enforcing the restrictions in high-contagion Haredi areas.

But Netanyahu has not been idle.

Tuesday night’s poll suggested that the anyone-but-Netanyahu parties could build a coalition, but the prime minister is working effectively to try to head off that prospect.

In an unscrupulous gambit similar to one he essayed two years ago, he has brokered an agreement on the far-right of the spectrum that will give Otzma Yehudit, the disciples of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, its best chance to date of entering the Knesset, and that also includes an obsessively anti-LBGT group called Noam.

Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the killing of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In doing so, Netanyahu was again undeterred by Otzma Yehudit’s policies encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and the expulsion of Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and to accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state; undeterred by mainstream pro-Israel US organizations AIPAC and the AJC having denounced Otzma Yehudit as a “racist and reprehensible” party; undeterred by the fact that Otzma leader Itamar Ben Gvir first made headlines in Israel in 1995 when he held up the stolen Cadillac symbol from prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car and crowed to a TV camera, “Just as we got to this symbol, we can get to Rabin.” (I wrote at greater length about the dangers of Netanyahu’s cynical championing of Kahane’s political disciples when the prime minister first sought to bring racists into the Israeli political mainstream two years ago. All that has changed, abysmally, is that Ben Gvir, a wily and incendiary provocateur, is more likely now than he was then to make it into the Knesset.)

The better this latest far-right alliance fares at the polls, the worse Bennett’s Yamina is likely to do — hence the benefit to Netanyahu, and hence his readiness to do what ought to be the ideologically unthinkable. But again, these elections are not about ideology, though there will certainly be ideological repercussions. They are about our prime minister’s battle for political survival, and the radically disparate array of forces bent on ousting him.

Netanyahu will also benefit from his wooing of the Islamist Ra’am party and its leader Mansour Abbas in recent weeks. This helped catalyze a split Thursday in the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, with Ra’am announcing that it will run separately from the other three Joint List parties — a shift almost certain to reduce Arab representation in the next Knesset.

Netanyahu could also be helped one last time by his rival-ally-rival Benny Gantz, who submitted his party’s Knesset slate on Wednesday even though Blue and White is polling barely above the threshold and may well slip below. If Gantz remains in the election race all the way through to March 23, as he keeps saying he will, that would mean tens of thousands of anti-Netanyahu votes would go to waste.

And finally…

Seven weeks is an eternity in Israeli politics at any time, but especially when we’re grappling with a pandemic whose potential political impact is constantly mutating.

Will we be voting as a nation of vaccination champs or contagion chumps? If the former, don’t bet against Netanyahu. If the latter, start wondering which of the ideologically misaligned would-be successors will emerge from the anyone-but-Bibi pack.

And don’t pay too much heed to those two-bloc graphics.

Oh, and finally, also pity our maligned, lied-to, over-voted electorate, trying to figure out not only whose campaign promises most closely reflect our views and needs, but whether any of those promises are worth the social media platforms and campaign leaflets they’re written on.

** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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