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Analysis

The two ambitious mayors who may save Netanyahu and doom the left

Will a run by Tel Aviv’s Ron Huldai drive Meretz out of the Knesset? Will Modiin’s Haim Bibas, an outspoken Netanyahu critic, be his lifeline?

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas (left) and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (composite image: Flash90)
Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas (left) and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (composite image: Flash90)

A Channel 12 television poll on Sunday offered some worrying news for the Israeli left: Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai would win six Knesset seats in an election.

In the process, the poll showed, he would pull enough votes from the progressive Meretz party to push it dangerously close to the 3.25 percent (or four-seat) vote threshold below which a party is ousted from the Knesset.

Huldai, 76, is a former fighter pilot and retired IDF brigadier general who has served as mayor of Tel Aviv for the past 22 years. He grew up in the Labor party, and to many on the left represents the last vestige of the old Labor guard who can still muster election wins — even if only in the secular left-wing bastion of Tel Aviv.

He announced in May that he plans to leave municipal politics and run in the next national election. “What is happening in Israel terrifies me. I can’t stand by,” he said at the time.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (Photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

He reiterated those aspirations earlier this month, saying he was even willing to play second fiddle to a new left-wing leader if it meant ousting Netanyahu. “If my being number 2 to someone will contribute to ousting this government, I’ll be there,” he told Channel 12 on October 4.

No wonder Channel 12 included his name as a distinct party in its Sunday poll — and found him threatening the rest of the Zionist left with political extinction, even as he drew frustrated centrist voters leftward.

Satellite

Huldai isn’t the only mayor considering a national run.

Haim Bibas, the mayor of Modiin for the past 12 years and head of the national mayors union, has been talked about for months as the head of a new center-right party focused on social issues.

Haim Bibas, chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities, speaks at the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 14, 2018. (Flash90)

A lifelong Likudnik who served several times as the head of Benjamin Netanyahu’s primary campaigns, Bibas has nevertheless been an outspoken critic of the government’s pandemic response in recent months. As head of the association of local government heads, he has led calls to devolve decision-making to local councils.

“The second wave is being run terribly,” he said in a Channel 12 interview on October 7. “The model has to be differential [that is, with different levels of lockdown for different areas depending on local infection rates]. If you’re a red city [with high infection rates] then you’re in lockdown; if orange, with restrictions; if yellow, then fewer restrictions; and if you’re green, you can open businesses, school systems, and cultural venues.”

The criticism isn’t minor: a major figure in Israeli politics who is, on paper at least, close to the prime minister, has been telling Israelis that much of the lockdown is unnecessary — a function of bad, distracted management.

“Last time [in reopening too quickly after the first lockdown], there were political considerations. I warned about that,” Bibas said in the interview. “The first wave was handled very well, the second wave terribly.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video calling on Israelis to obey coronavirus lockdown rules, October 4, 2020. (Twitter screen capture)

Bibas hasn’t denied plans to run in national elections, but he has denied that it would happen in a new party. He’s “always been a Likudnik,” he told reporters this month.

Yet the rumors persist, including within Likud, that he plans such a run on a separate slate.

And observers couldn’t fail to notice that Netanyahu appointed this outspoken critic an observer in the cabinet’s coronavirus committee — on the very day, October 7, that Bibas delivered the biting interview.

Perhaps it has something to do with the way his criticism — and this is the crucial point — has simultaneously blamed Netanyahu and defended him. The interview cited above, for example, ended with the sentence: “And I think now that this is understood — by the prime minister, the cabinet, everybody.”

Political strategists are asking a simple question: Is Bibas a critic of the government, or an aspiring “satellite?”

Orbiting Likud

Likud has a long history of encouraging “satellite” parties that draw votes away from the center and left, often by criticizing the government, and then join Likud as close coalition partners after election day. The tradition began with Ariel Sharon, who formed the Shlomzion party in 1976, ahead of the 1977 election for the 9th Knesset. Sharon won two seats and joined the Likud-led government as its minister of agriculture.

When Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu’s most trusted aide and political manager during his rise to the premiership in the first half of the 1990s, founded the Yisrael Beytenu party in 1999, he planned to draw newly arrived Russian-speaking voters, and then merge the political vehicle that attracted them into Likud.

It was only when his repeated efforts to merge his faction with Likud were rebuffed over the years — partly due to resistance from Netanyahu, who feared he would enter the party with a ready-made base of support that could threaten the longtime party leader — that Liberman transformed into a bitter foe of both the prime minister and his party.

It’s a similar story with Kulanu, the party founded ahead of the 2015 election by former Likud cabinet minister Moshe Kahlon. Kulanu proved to have little staying power at the ballot box, dropping from 10 seats in 2015 to four in 2019 — but that weakness made it more palatable for absorption by Likud.

Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, who now chairs the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, is technically still a member of the Kulanu party list, and so can split from Likud’s Knesset faction or rejoin it at will. Neither she nor Likud are in a rush to merge her fully into the party. Such flexibility has its uses.

MK Yifat Shasha Biton. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Shasha-Biton, too, has criticized the government’s handling of the virus, and a handful of polls in recent weeks showed her winning as many as half a dozen seats leading her own satellite party.

Such polls spark the imagination of Likud political planners, who now speak of a Bibas-Shasha-Biton party, perhaps also including Gesher chief Orly Levy-Abekasis, mounting a run for disillusioned center-right voters who have been abandoning Likud in droves… and then partnering with the Likud mothership once the votes are in.

Tilting the scales

Netanyahu didn’t quite win the last three races, in the end holding onto his seat only with a rotation promise he has no intention of keeping. That’s not a trick you can play twice.

Bibas denies he’s a “satellite,” but faces a wall of disbelief rooted in the simple fact that polls show such a run by a popular right-wing mayor could rescue Netanyahu’s prospects.

Huldai, who has repeatedly confirmed his intention to run, ironically faces the opposite concern on the left. He may inadvertently decimate what little remains of that political camp.

Israeli elections have become close-fought contests over the past two years. The next race may hinge on the mayors.

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