Illustration. Amos Biderman

Analysis Israel Is Entering an Election Year. Here's How It Will Play Out

Netanyahu has reached the peak in political, leadership and global terms – just when he’s on the brink of a personal abyss

The Hebrew year is ending without Israel being mired in an election campaign. That situation defies many forecasts that held that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a clear interest in holding an election before the attorney general makes the final decisions about the investigations underway against him. The white smoke that’s supposed to rise over the Justice Ministry is being held back, and the election date is behaving accordingly.

The incoming Jewish year will not, however, escape an election. The earliest date it could be held is the end of January 2019; the latest, as stipulated by law, would be early November (which is actually one step into the following Hebrew year). The situation will be clarified one way or another when the Knesset’s winter session begins, on October 15.

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For now, all the political combatants have deployed to their battle stations. They’re like the student who’s about to take the math matriculation exam: on the one hand, scared to death; on the other, yearning for it to be over. The coalition finds itself in an interesting predicament. With the exception of Likud, all the parties that have been in the government over the past four years (or more) are in political distress. In some cases, the polls show that they are dangerously close to the minimal threshold of support needed to enter the Knesset. Other parties are expected – again, according to public opinion today – to lose seats or to maintain their present number, plus/minus statistical error.

There’s no doubt that the coming year will be a dramatic one, possibly with a capital D. The investigations of the prime minister will conclude. The three cases will coalesce into some sort of a bottom line. Israel may be thrust into an unprecedented constitutional-political crisis. The shock waves will be felt across the political arena, from coast to coast.

Rosh Hashanah eve is an appropriate time – as is any other, actually – to examine the state of the parties and their leaders, as they contemplate their fate in the year ahead.

Existential distress

Netanyahu has one eye on the office of the attorney general on Saladin Street in East Jerusalem; the other is trained on his voters. The acrobat from Balfour Street is walking a narrow line. At this moment, the verdict the voter is rendering about the premier looks a lot more positive than the decision that’s shaping up, according to the leaks, in the office of Avichai Mendelblit.

Unlike his associates, Netanyahu’s distress is not electoral – it’s existential. If he’s indicted, he could find himself treading a long and agonizing road that ends in prison. He has reached the peak in political, leadership and global terms – just when he’s on the brink of a personal abyss. It remains to be seen how, if at all, his popularity will affect his legal plight.

There are people willing to swear that Netanyahu’s lawyers are in discussions with Mendelblit about a plea bargain that would rescue him from possible incarceration. In return, Netanyahu would have to accept some kind of responsibility and retire from political life. In reality, there are no signs of this happening. On the contrary: His legal advisers think it would be best for him to pursue such a scenario as a re-elected, serving prime minister. Hence comes the ambitious number of Knesset seats Netanyahu predicted two weeks ago for Likud: “35 is possible, 40 is the goal.” The greater his popular support, he believes, the more difficult it will be for the “elites” in the court system and Justice Ministry to oust him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. \ Ilan Assayag

In real life, Netanyahu’s head is already deep into party bookkeeping. He’s appalled by the thought that Likud’s slate for the next Knesset will feature the likes of MKs Oren Hazan, Miki Zohar, Yaron Mazuz and their ilk, who can be expected to win the primary in their respective districts; they need only a few thousand votes to accomplish that. Which is why Netanyahu is trying to pave the way to the sanest and most representative party slate possible.

To that end he’s asking the heads of Likud’s central committee and its secretariat – cabinet ministers Haim Katz and Yisrael Katz – to allow him to revive a directive from the previous election, whereby the premier gets to enshrine one candidate of his choice in each group of 10 names in the primary groupings. In the meantime, the two upright paragons of virtue who share a surname are against this, although they may not persist in their opposition. Netanyahu knows from pressure: He’s a master both at applying it and at succumbing to it.

It’s not surprising that those who are showing signs of – justified – pressure are the leaders of the satellite party to the right: Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

The battle for the votes of the right-wing “base” started with Netanyahu’s declaration about getting 40 seats at a meeting of Likud candidates for next month’s countrywide municipal elections. Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party shot back with the most efficient weapon it has: stepped-up public harassment of the Supreme Court. If it earns votes, all the better, if not, at least we enjoyed ourselves.

The brutal threat made by Shaked toward the justices of the Supreme Court – that they shouldn’t even think about overturning or amending the nation-state law – converses directly with the line in the sand Netanyahu has drawn for his party. In the past, Shaked declared that the justices had forgotten what Zionism is; now she says they are assaulting democracy. True, that’s nothing Yariv Levin hasn’t said already, but one would expect the justice minister to protect the institution that falls under her ministerial responsibility.

Despite the dulcet tones, articulate language and reference to legal precedents, Shaked’s threat was heard loud and clear: “the people vs. the judges.” She has decided that the court is prohibited from touching the nation-state law. As though it was promulgated by a phalanx of heavenly angels under the supervision of the Lord himself and not by the Israeli parliament, which in the past has spewed out an inglorious amount of racist, inegalitarian, discriminatory and exclusionary legislation. This is how the next election campaign in Israel will play out: The premier and Likud will sic the masses on the media, the police and the state prosecution. The justice minister, with the help of the Smotriches, will castigate the Supreme Court. It’ll be a blast.

Bennett and Shaked’s problem is that they are not succeeding in coming across as more right-wing than Netanyahu, and their party is not perceived as more right-wing than his Likud. You need a microscope to detect the differences; they’re mostly stylistic. On the other hand, the duo is failing in their endeavor to breach their natural electoral boundaries. Bennett has not managed to make inroads in the secular bastions, the mainstream he’s set his sights on. But at the same time, he is also no longer magnetizing settlers and the national-religious public. In the 2015 election we saw how a few video clips and a speech and a half by Netanyahu induced tens of thousands of settlers to change their minds, flock to the polling stations and vote Likud/Netanyahu, instead of Bennett/Habayit Hayehudi.

During this Knesset term Bennett has faced a new problem in the person of his sidekick, Shaked. She’s ahead of him in popularity polls conducted among both right-wingers and the general public. Talk of her as a future potential prime minister can be heard across political camps and parties. More people are talking about her in that context than about Bennett. And that’s a blow he brought on himself.

At the very last minute during negotiations about the current coalition, Bennett presented an ultimatum: the Justice Ministry to Shaked or Habayit Hayehudi is out of there. Netanyahu was pressured (see above) by what was actually an empty threat, capitulated and delivered. Bennett himself created a monster. There’s no interview in which he’s not asked the kind of question party leaders hate most: Isn’t he afraid that Shaked will succeed him during his lifetime, long before he hit his prime.

Above all, it’s the polls that should be upsetting him. In the two last elections, Habayit Hayehudi started off well, soared during the campaign – and shrank at the polling stations. In 2013, the first time they ran, Bennett and Shaked were young, new, fresh and even innovative. Two years later, less so.

Ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting, January 2018. Alex Kolomoisky

The next election campaign will be held under the most difficult conditions for these two. When Netanyahu portrays himself as persecuted and victimized – a latter-day Dreyfus fighting against the blood libels fomented by the left, the media, the police and the judicial elite – only God will be able to help Habayit Hayehudi. And God, as we have seen, is on the side of the winners.

Musical chairs

All of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, then, have seen better days. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party are not managing, in any of the recent polls, to reprise the 10 seats they garnered in the 2015 election. The average is seven-eight seats on a good day.

It’s a paradox. Kahlon will certainly not be remembered as a bad treasury minister. He did things. He curbed the chronic rise in housing costs, advanced reforms and fulfilled many of his election promises. To that end, he had a full term at his disposal, a rare privilege, and he was given a toolbox full to bursting.

But voters are a naturally fickle group. The one third of Kahlon’s voters who have meanwhile abandoned him didn’t do so because they’re angry. He didn’t disappoint them; he didn’t betray them. That’s just the way they are. Shifting sands. Last time he was the “it boy” – now, a little less. Some of those voters are telling pollsters that they will support Orly Levi-Abekasis, an independent. A few of them, equivalent to mere fractions of Knesset seats, are flitting between Likud and Yesh Atid. They could return home, however.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party are in an even more difficult situation. They’re living on the edge. Their electoral base, veteran immigrants from the former Soviet Union, is shrinking as aging takes its toll.

Lieberman reached the absolute pinnacle from his point of view – minister of defense – while his political standing dipped to a nadir. Yet another paradox that political life sometimes creates. In the 2009 election, Yisrael Beiteinu won 15 seats after being in the opposition. Today, after more than two years with its leader serving as defense minister, and as someone who is considered no less judicious and responsible than Moshe Ya’alon was before him, the party is barely showing six seats in public opinion surveys.

Besides the loyal immigrants, Lieberman has no public that’s solidly identified with him. The general right is mostly with Likud, the religious-Zionist right votes for Bennett, and the soft right likes Kahlon. For Lieberman, who takes pride in representing the “responsible, pragmatic” right, there’s no available seat in this game of musical chairs.

That’s not to say that he won’t return to the Defense Ministry after the next election. In a scenario in which Netanyahu is reelected and creates a government similar to the present one, it’s likely that the finance minister and defense minister will retain their portfolios.

But that can’t be said about Arye Dery and Shas. The interior minister’s woes are electoral and personal-legal as well. Under his leadership, Shas melted down to seven seats in 2015 (from 11, two years earlier), and the surveys are now predicting four to five seats the next time around – almost back to the level of 1984, when the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party first ran for the Knesset.

Interior Minister Arye Dery and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset, 2017. Olivier Fitoussi

So, its status is not what it once was. Shas was always the senior and most influential Haredi party. Now it’s languishing in the shadow of United Torah Judaism. The latter has become more dominant, notably because of the hyperactive and dominant Gur Hasidim and its agent Yaakov Litzman, the deputy health minister and senior representative of Agudat Israel, which together with Degel Hatorah constitutes UTJ.

Dery is struggling not only with his personal demons – the return of police investigations against him – but also with his legendary predecessor: Eli Yishai is still around, still plotting a return, still looking for revenge. Like a ghost wandering restlessly through the hallways of a haunted house and shattering the nerves of its current occupants.

For Dery too, the coming year is likely to be the time of judicial decision with regard to the latest investigations he’s subject to concerning suspicions of corruption. The next election will place Shas in a critical test for its existence. And there’s no Rabbi Ovadia Yosef around from whom a Shas leader can draw comfort, encouragement and loving slaps on the face. The Council of Torah Sages without Rabbi Ovadia is a joke. Now, everything rests on Dery’s shoulders.

Too many cobwebs

Fading innovation and withering freshness have also affected MK Yair Lapid. From 19 seats in 2013, his Yesh Atid party dropped to 11 two years later, and now the polls are saying 18 or 19 seats. Not bad, but a far cry from his record – 25-27 seats projected in the polls nine months ago – and certainly not enough to form a government.

Lapid has totally failed to achieve his strategic goal: to break through the walls of the right wing, to snatch the “soft” voters and add the four or five precious Knesset seats without which the premiership is just a dream. He’s not accepted by the right, which sees him as a leftist in disguise. He’s not accepted by the leftists, who see him as a latent rightist. He’s undoubtedly the natural choice of those who define themselves as center, but there aren’t enough of them.

An in-depth survey commissioned by a political player examined the degree of voters’ identification with Lapid, based on their own self-description (very right-wing, right, center, center-right, center-left, left, very left-wing, etc.). The results are fascinating. Those calling themselves center-right, whom Lapid needs desperately, are farther from him than they are from Netanyahu. The center-left voters, whom Lapid needs as a foundation for any breakthrough, also don’t see him as one of their own. In their eyes he’s “fake news,” in the words of Communications Minister Ayoub Kara.

After the next election, Netanyahu, who wants a broad coalition for policy, political and also personal reasons, might offer Lapid the foreign affairs portfolio. This time for real. The temptation to accept it will be great, but Lapid, for now, is telling interlocutors that he doesn’t intend to be seduced. He’s out to serve as leader of the opposition, to be the only alternative when the investigations end up in an indictment and the prime minister might be forced to resign.

Note, however, that Lapid is not declaring publicly that he will refuse to be part of a Netanyahu government. He’s being careful not to paint himself into a corner. In contrast, Avi Gabbay, the leader of the Labor Party and Zionist Union, which includes MK Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, is saying that out loud. But what difference does that make when such a scenario isn’t realistic in any case, as with Gabbay?

Gabbay would love to change places with Lapid at any given moment. Not only because of the grim forecast for Zionist Union – 14 or 15 seats – but because of the fallout it presages, the growing resistance to Gabbay’s leadership, the frequent bickering and the outward displays of anger. Those are things a dictatorial party like Yesh Atid doesn’t have to contend with, even if it’s going bankrupt.

The great danger facing Gabbay, even before the election, is a split in the party. Many MKs from Zionist Union, including almost everyone who’s in the second and third groups of 10 on the slate, are pondering their looming political demise. Even according to the most optimistic forecasts, most of them will not return to the Knesset.

Accordingly, these people are meeting in secret and weaving dense cobwebs. First they need eight MKs – one-third of Zionist Union’s Knesset delegation – to carry out a preliminary move aimed at breaking with their party. Afterward they can go on splitting like a hyperactive amoeba. A few will go to Meretz, others to Yesh Atid, one or two to Levi-Abekasis, one possibly to Kahlon.

Netanyahu and Gantz in 2015. Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

A serving MK brings with him a hefty sum of money that any party would be happy to deposit in its treasury during an election year. For example, the group of MKs who would leave Zionist Union and offer itself to Lapid in return for being installed from the 15th slot in the slate and lower, could find themselves welcome.

Game-changer Gantz

Only one thing will douse the internal flames in Zionist Union: a decision to join the party by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, the big prize, the holiday gift that e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e wants. Gantz is the only game-changer – theoretically, of course – in sight. He could be for Avi Gabbay what Tzipi Livni was for Isaac Herzog in 2015, when the two of them established Zionist Union.

Gantz has already decided, in principle, to enter politics. We might hear from him immediately after the High Holy Days later this month. Ideologically, he’s in the same area code as Zionist Union and Yesh Atid. Any other choice, such as joining Likud in return for the foreign affairs portfolio, would be seen as a cynical, opportunistic move – and he isn’t like that, until proven otherwise. That portfolio was in fact offered to him, though Likud denies it. The beneficiary of Gantz turning down Likud is Minister Yoav Galant, currently of Kulanu but expected to jump to Likud before the next election. His chances of attaining a realistic place on that party’s slate, as the only reserve army general, improve if Gantz isn’t in the picture.

By the way, in private conversations, Gantz is saying that he is interested in the education portfolio. He will run as a security expert, that goes without saying and needs no proof, but apparently he isn’t fixated on being defense minister. If in the coalition uproar that arises after the election, Gantz does opt for education over defense, by choice and not by necessity – that would be a small step for Gantz but a giant leap for Israeli politics.

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