The next seven days could turn out to be the most critical period in this election. By 10 P.M. on January 29, the parties will have to hand in their candidate lists and after that all that remains are seven weeks of intensive campaigning.
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Nearly all the parties have all but completed their selection processes, with the exception of the Haredi parties where the rabbis always make up their minds at the last moment, and Yesh Atid, where Yair Lapid has sole control over the list. But they are expected to run with the MKs they already have, bar a few minor changes anyway. Of course there will be some tinkering - Benjamin Netanyahu still has to find a way of solving the voting irregularities which may keep former Shin Bet Chief Avi Dichter and one of his only moderates on the list and perhaps even find a popular female candidate to offset Miri Regev. Naftali Bennett is also looking for a relatively moderate woman who will push the stridently homophobic Yehudit Shilat down the list and keep her out of the next Knesset. But these are minor changes which will do little to shift the allegiances of many voters - the rankings are set, stars have been signed and unveiled, and the public already has a good idea of what it will be getting with each party. This is still crunch week however and the developments of the next few days could change the picture.
The one mantra which Netanyahu keeps repeating in every election speech and interview is "Israel needs a large Likud, don't vote for atmospheric (as in changing trends) parties." He knows that the right-wing-religious coalition is larger than the center-left and that on paper he still has the best chance of forming the next coalition but the nightmare of once again leading a government in which Likud has less than a third of the seats and even worse, is not the largest party in the Knesset is very real. If Likud comes second to Labor, he fears Reuven Rivlin, who he fought tooth and nail to keep out of the president's residence, unsuccessfully, will use the opportunity for revenge and give Isaac Herzog the first chance to form a coalition. Then the "everyone but Bibi" chorus will be deafening and the parties, even those who he believes should be in his camp will gang together to boot him out of office.
In the last elections Netanyahu's insurance against such an outcome was the electoral alliance with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu which failed to deliver the forty-plus Knesset seats they hoped for but guaranteed that the joint party was the largest. Netanyahu and Lieberman have now fallen out and Yisrael Beitenu is languishing in the polls. But what about a link-up between Likud and HaBayit Hayehudi which is set to become the third-largest party in the next Knesset?
Procedurally it would be very difficult for Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett to get either one of their parties to sign off on a joint list in the time that's left. Members of both parties are expected to object, fearing loss of seats, ministerial positions, and the blurring of the distinction between them; not that Likud in its current incarnation is noticeably more moderate or liberal than the rebranded National Religious Party. Besides, polls conducted so far haven't detected a Likud-Habayit Hayehudi list doing any better together than the two parties would do apart.
But both leaders have a clear interest in running together. Netanyahu will be the largest party leader and in his mind at least, ensuring him a fourth term. Bennett will have come a step closer to fulfilling his ambition of being the next leader of the Israeli right and quite likely the prime minister once Netanyahu finally steps off the stage. The obstacles are still major but the possibility of such a move is being feverishly discussed, particularly in Netanyahu's circle, and could change the dynamics of this campaign.
And if Netanyahu can do it, why not the other side? The Herzog-Livni deal has already put Labor or as we are to call it now for the next few weeks, The Zionist Camp, on an equal footing with the Likud, even with a slight advantage in most recent polls. A further link-up with Yesh Atid would probably open up a double-digit gap. There is little ideological difference between the parties and above all they're united by a hatred of Netanyahu. Yair Lapid would have no problem pushing this through his party and if Herzog succeeded in getting Labor members to swallow the "rotation" deal with Livni, he can get them to absorb Lapid. Why should the two leaders do it? For Lapid there is still a burning need to revenge his humiliating firing by Netanyahu and probably the last chance to redeem his tarnished political promise. For Herzog, there is not only the prospect of leading the largest party but it may also make it easier for the Haredi parties to join a Labor coalition, which will need both them and Lapid's minions to gain a majority. With ultra-secular Yesh Atid in its current form, there's very little chance of that happening but if Lapid was subsumed into Labor, it may make the prospect more palatable.
Meanwhile, on the margins of the political spectrum, two other alliances could affect the wider picture. The three Israeli-Arab parties are expected on Thursday to announce they are forming a joint list in order to ensure they all cross the new higher electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. The prospects of one big Arab list are a statistical unknown. Potentially, it could spur the Arab electorate, where for decade turnout was around 20 percent lower than the general population, to the polls. A larger share of Knesset seats for the non-Zionist parties won't bring them into government for the first time in Israeli history but it could change the mathematics of coalition-building, making matters more difficult for either Netanyahu or Herzog.
At the other end there is Ha'am Itanu, Eli Yishai's Shas breakaway. Most polls are predicting the party won't make it past the electoral threshold, but Yishai is an experienced and popular politician, and won't give up easily. He is still looking for non-Haredi allies, such as Rabbi Moshe Hager-Lau, a settler, educator, and former IDF Colonel, who joined this week, to broaden the appeal of what could be the far-right option for those for whom Habayit Hayehudi isn't hardline enough. These elections could still hinge on the shift of a few thousand settlers to Yishai's new party. That may be enough to get it in to the next Knesset, the right-bloc will be four or five MKs stronger and Netanyahu's majority will be assured.