Running in circles: 6 things to know for January 17
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Israel media review

Running in circles: 6 things to know for January 17

Logic dictates that taking a right, a left and a u-turn will land you right back where you started, but don’t expect Israeli politics to stop its treadmill of tears

Attorney Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a court hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on October 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a court hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on October 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Same stuff, different election: A threesome of polls published Thursday night show the left-right deadlock persisting after March elections, to absolutely nobody’s surprise.

  • Polls published by Kan, and Channels 12 and 13 all showed Blue and White leading Likud by several votes, but neither side able to muster a majority without the help of Avigdor Liberman.
  • Both Channel 13 and Kan show the left-center-Arab bloc leading, while Channel 12 shows the right in the lead, but all three show a gap of only 2-3 seats between them.
  • The polls are the first published since the announcement that Yamina — made up of the New Right, Jewish Home and National Union parties — will be sticking together, but show no major gains from that move or the decision to on the left to unite Labor-Gesher and Meretz.
  • As always, news consumers would do well to take the polls with a grain of salt, especially the miniscule movements of one or two seats in either direction. Not only are the polls done hastily and mostly online with relatively small sample sizes, but they also don’t account for the most important rubric, which is how committed the voter is to their choice. March 2 is still over 45 days away. A lot can happen.

2. Right outliers or outright lies? The biggest takeaway from the vote for many is the fact that the Channel 13 news poll shows the Kahanist-inspired Otzma Yehudit squeezing across the 3.25 percent threshold.

  • The other polls show it getting between 2.1 and 2.5 percent, which is about what it got in September.
  • It’s an outlier to be sure, reminiscent of some polls before September’s elections that showed the party crossing the threshold. One clue as to why its results were vastly different than the other may be hidden in a bias inherent in the poll, given that Channel 13’s poll also asked respondents a question about whether Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu should have given Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir a spot in his slate instead of pressuring New Right to allow him in.
  • The answer to that question by the way is 22% of respondents thought Netanyahu should have given Ben Gvir a spot on the Likud list, 40% said he should not have and 38% didn’t have an opinion.
  • Channel 12 news is also an outlier, giving Yamina 10 seats, while the other polls gave the party only 7. But the channel notes that the most surprising thing is that its last poll showed a joint run with Otzma Yehudit and Yamina together would net the amalgamation 10 seats, i.e. no big change even if Otzma Yehudit leader Ben Gvir steals some 60,000 votes.

3. Out, damn Otzma: Despite that, now that Otzma Yehudit has been left out of the Yamina alliance, Likud is wasting no time in trying to get it to bow out of the race and keep from funneling votes away from right-wing parties that have a better chance of making it across.

  • “Quit for the sake of right-wing rule,” reads a large headline on the front page of Likud-parroting Israel Hayom.
  • The paper’s Nadav Shragai writes that Otzma Yehudit dropping out is one of the only ways the right will have a chance of reaching 61 seats, though he says Likud should offer Ben Gvir something to sweeten the deal, like “an ‘ideological conciliation package’ which will be sweet enough, significant and wide-ranging, on issues that are close to Otzma’s heart, but which most Likud people can live with.”
  • Why it’s so important to get Ben Gvir out and not just campaign against him is because his hard-line voters are committed to him no matter what, notes Shragai.
  • Haaretz’s Joshua Breiner writes that these voters are becoming even more stubbornly committed thanks to the pressure campaign against him. “It’s clear to me that there’s a good chance we’ll burn votes here and I know it would be a miracle for us to get into the Knesset,” one voter is quoted telling him. “But more important to me than Otzma Yehudit getting into the Knesset, I’d be very happy if New Right or whatever they call them today, would fail.”
  • Netanyahu isn’t the only one opposed to Ben Gvir, though most others are for ideological reasons, like the pranksters who dressed up an iconic cutout of Theodor Herzl in Herzliya in Kach gear. A member of the group tells Channel 12 news that they did it because “we could not sit silent while the education minister is abandoning our children and the inheritors of Kahane are holding the keys to the leadership of the country.”

4. The right is not all right: Also seemingly ripe for backfiring are appeals to Ben Gvir based on the fact that Democratic Camp MK Stav Shaffir decided not to run and split left-wing votes after being left out of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz, yet they are still being made.

  • Yedioth calls the use of Shaffir as a model for Ben Gvir to emulate “another strange twist.”
  • Yet many pundits as well see the right-wing as a hotbed of dysfunction when compared to the left.
  • The merger efforts were “more frantic, more messy and — with a center-left grand union filing their own slate sans the drama — its failure potentially more damaging to the entire right-wing bloc,” writes ToI’s Raoul Wootliff, comparing it to wrangling ahead of the September vote.
  • “One can only look in wonder at the frenzied rollercoaster the right-wing has undergone,” marvels Ynet’s Odelia Carmon.
  • “Religious Zionist politics has never looked as miserable as it has this past week,” writes Yossi Verter in Haaretz. 

5. Walk-backs are the way forward: A large part of the right-wing being seen as the wild west of politics is thanks to Jewish Home head Rafi Peretz’s decision to renege on his agreement with Ben Gvir and join up with Yamina instead.

  • In Yedioth, former Mafdal minister Rabbi Yitzhak Levi praises Peretz for sacrificing his reputation on the altar of “the larger matter of a right-wing government, and perhaps through his sacrifice it will be done.”
  • The about-face came a day after New Right also backpedaled on its decision to run alone. ToI’s Jacob Magid hails the emergence of the era of promise breaking, which he says is needed to make a coalition omelet.
  • “While each of these political decisions have the power to cause significant damage to the images of the lawmakers who made them, they were also made based on a recognition that at the end of the day, sometimes there are things more important than one’s word,” he writes. “Because if there is any hope of breaking Israel’s undying political deadlock, it will almost certainly require lawmakers to break a promise first.”
  • The trust issues, though, do allow opponents to get in some jabs, like Likud, which is now spreading around rumors about the Yamina promise-breakers forging a deal with Blue and White.
  • The party’s Bezalel Smotrich denies any such thing but in Yedioth, political columnist Amit Segal, sometimes viewed as a shill for the right-wing, reports that Blue and White’s Yoaz Handel and Zvi Hauser had indeed met with New Right’s Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked to feel out the possibility of setting up a joint secular-religious right-wing slate. But he also notes that Bennett and Shaked’s refusal to recommend anyone but Netanyahu was a big part of that trial balloon’s failure.

6. One day in the life of Naama Issachar: There is also plenty of possible spin surrounding efforts to free Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar from a Russian prison.

  • After Netanyahu’s people sent out a statement saying he had talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the matter and was “optimistic,” the Russian daily Kommersant reports that the Kremlin is considering the matter as a humanitarian gesture before Putin visits Israel next week.
  • The report is quickly picked up and blasted across the Israeli press, which has followed the case as unofficial cheerleaders for her cause.
  • Channel 13 news, whose reporter Barak Ravid previously chided Netanyahu for getting the family’s hopes up, now reports that unnamed Israeli officials saw talks are progressing and there is a chance she will be freed soon.
  • Zvi Magen, Israel’s former envoy to Russia, tells Army Radio that he is also optimistic. “If there were not understandings with Putin, he would not be coming.”
  • The fact that the mostly Israeli-American girl’s jailing has become a cause celebre in Israel is thanks in large part to Issachar’s family’s commitment to keep pushing for her release against all odds, not unlike the Gilad Shalit case, writes Allison Kaplan Sommer in Haaretz, in an excellent wrap of the case.
  • Issachar’s mother has moved to Russia full-time, and her sister Liad Goldberg says she has also put her life on hold for the case: “This is a 24-hour cause. How can I commit to work when I have no idea what is going on with my sister? I don’t know how to continue living my life normally when my sister is rotting in a Russian prison. And I don’t really care about my own life right now. I care about my sister’s life and my mother’s life – they are the priority.”
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