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Israel's Center-left Has One Last Week to Come Together

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

As the political arena enters the decisive week of finalizing the slates of candidates, it’s as scattered and crumbling as a biscuit that eluded Sara Netanyahu’s baking pan. The puzzle on the far right is relatively easy to put together. It involves creating one slate on the basis of three small parties: Bezalel Smotrich’s Ihud Leumi, Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and Hagit Moshe’s Habayit Hayehudi. So why don’t the pieces fit together?

Smotrich loathes Ben Gvir and wants nothing to do with him. Moshe, it’s said, is displaying symptoms of megalomania. The lady, who controls just a few thousand votes amid her glorious anonymity, is putting forward far-reaching demands. Well, that doesn’t come as a complete surprise. After all, she believes we’re casting two ballots, one for prime minister and one for a party, so this must be 1996 and the National Religious Party has nine seats. Elementary.

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In the meantime, undoubtedly to the delight of Naftali Bennett (Yamina), she’s doing to Smotrich what he did to Bennett before absconding from Yamina. Smotrich’s move, and the major risk he’s taking, is intended to get him to the finish line as the leader of the religious Zionist movement. That title is his fondest wish. Accordingly, he demanded that Bennett boycott Habayit Hayehudi as a condition for running together in the election. Bennett told him nyet and Smotrich is stuck with Hagit Moshe.

The situation in the center-left is far more complicated and perilous. A despair-inducing number of candidates and slates, like confetti strewn on the floor. Except without the big bash beforehand. If no solution is found to the ridiculous quantum of abundance there by February 4, the deadline for submitting party slates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will delightedly leap over tens of thousands of wasted votes all the way to another term of office.

History has taught us that responsibility and wisdom in that political sector usually prevail; but even in particularly fateful hours, the personalities in this camp sometimes make particularly dumb mistakes.

Let’s start with the newest development. Just before it was buried and the mourners went their different ways, the Labor Party gasped, coughed up a few clods and was pulled from the grave. Merav Michaeli, is attracting the predictable mini-hype. There’s no need to overdo the cries of amazement at her achievement. She played on an empty field, scored a goal in an abandoned net and was elected thanks to a few thousand party members who took the trouble to come to Labor’s polling stations. No other scenario existed; self-adulation is not called for.

As long as Labor is above the electoral threshold in the polls (four seats at the moment), Michaeli is the most reasonable candidate to lead the merger that the situation calls for between Labor and The Israelis, led by Ron Huldai. That’s not what Huldai had in mind when he embarked on this foray. But that’s what there is. Huldai is a responsible fellow. He’ll do the right thing. His No. 2, Avi Nissenkorn, is already there. Mentally, he’s ready to run under Michaeli and try to create an Israel “New Labor.” Once it was known as “One Israel,” once as “Zionist Union.” Usually it has the expiry date of unrefrigerated yogurt.

It would be interesting to know whether the former justice minister isn’t tearing out what little hair he has for not having acceded a while back to the super-generous offer made by Yair Lapid: No. 2 in Yesh Atid, a commitment to get him the justice portfolio in any coalition, and a campaign under his name and his leadership for preserving the rule of law. Nissenkorn “followed his heart.” Now he’s having palpitations. Sometimes risks fail.

Every politician has his own shul that he visits on weekends and from the worshippers – the “milieu” in contemporary jargon – he’s nourished, acts and is acted upon. For Michaeli it’s the feminist shul. If she agrees to take refuge under the wings of an ancient general like Huldai, the women and men who attend that shul will excommunicate her.

I met with Huldai Monday morning in his office in Tel Aviv City Hall. He was still breathing the heady air of four seats from a poll the previous evening. The next day, in the shadow of Michaeli’s election, The Israelis found themselves below the electoral threshold. Huldai was in a good mood. We talked about Gideon Sa’ar (“I believe him when he says he won’t serve under Netanyahu”); about Yaron Zelekha (“He has absolutely no social-economic worldview”); and Yair Lapid (“He’s a lot smarter than people make him out to be”).

Ron Huldai in Tel Aviv, January 2021. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Contemplations of the electoral threshold and a possible disgraceful failure, combined with the mention of Lapid, brought a story to Huldai’s mind. When he first ran for mayor of Tel Aviv, in 1998, Lapid, then a young columnist, wrote about him in the newspaper Ma’ariv: “Huldai will not be elected mayor of Tel Aviv even if [then-mayor] Roni Milo dances naked in the square with a feather stuffed in his bottom.” Both Huldai and Lapid laugh at the memory of that line today. For the former it’s harder.

Connected to life

Lapid returned this week from the United States, where he held critical working meetings with his pollster and veteran adviser Mark Mellman. While he was abroad and didn’t give interviews and didn’t run a campaign, his party, Yesh Atid, grew by two seats. Send the bouquets to the Haredim.

The newscasts are devoting much of their time, and rightly so, to the anarchy that’s rampant on the Haredi street, and, no less, to the irresponsibility, disingenousness and mudslinging by a few MKs in United Torah Judaism. As long as this is the talk of the town, Lapid (and Avigdor Lieberman) have the status of righteous men whose work is done by the media. A news campaign is a thousand times more credible than the most perfectly-crafted advertising video.

What did Lapid discover? That the phenomenon which is most distressful to Israelis is not the coronavirus or the corruption but what Mellman termed the “sense of chaos.” The feeling that everything is coming apart and collapsing on our head. Hence Yesh Atid’s “A sane government” campaign; hence also the campaign of Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope: “We’ll stop the chaos.”

Yesh Atid will run on its own. The recruitment of a strong supporting player is not being ruled out. Tzipi Livni, for example, is still an option. Almost the only one.

On to Kahol Lavan. Benny Gantz is managing to maintain a bunker of four to four-and-a-half seats. The explanation for the signs of stability lies in the party’s defiant stand on the issues of the coronavirus, the fines for violating the lockdown and the lockdown itself. That’s not surprising; evidently Gantz’s pollsters are telling him: clash with Netanyahu, show some backbone. Your membership in the government damaged you until today? Now it’s actually giving you an advantage concerning the major issue on the agenda.

Gantz and his crew may ultimately pass the electoral threshold. That will call for a campaign of pity, like the one waged by Shaul Mofaz years ago. However, Kahol Lavan is deathly afraid of a merger in the Michaeli-Huldai sector.

Meretz, meanwhile, is in the grip of genuine hysteria. Its four to five seats will come under clear and present danger if something new and promising is born between them and Yesh Atid.

Continuing with the journey in the killing fields of the left: The dismantling of the Joint List looks like a certainty, unless the bad boy of the group, Mansour Abbas (United Arab List), wants to come back. If so, it will be under the terms to be set by the remaining threesome: Ayman Odeh (Hadash), Ahmad Tibi (Ta’al) and Sami Abu Shehadeh (elected this week to lead Balad). If Abbas insists on running alone and fails to get four seats, the right-wing bloc will grow considerably. One way or the other, he has Netanyahu’s blessing.

Carrying on: The two breakaways, Moshe Ya’alon (Telem) and Ofer Shelah (Tnufa), have about 40,000 to 50,000 votes between them, equivalent to one seat and a little. In April 2019, Netanyahu’s rightist-Haredi bloc was deprived of a parliamentary majority because of 1,400 seats that were lacking for Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

Ya’alon has collected a group of respected people around him (Prof. Hagai Levine, Izhar Shay), but if he doesn’t find a home, he’ll have to take off his army boots. Shelah is in the same situation: Merge or purge. Like Nissenkorn, he gambled and emerged – as the old saying had it – without his pants. We’ll add one more security specialist, Danny Yatom (Pensioners). There, too, another few thousand votes are lurking, which could turn out to be very valuable.

That leaves Prof. Yaron Zelekha, who is claiming the finance portfolio in the next government by dint of his modest, measured contention that only he can save the Israeli economy. In most of the polls his party is on the brink of the electoral threshold. Potentially, he could make it in with four seats. (The other three are also distinguished professors: Osnat Akirav, Yoram Yovell and Alean al-Krenawi.)

Prof. Yaron Zelekha speaking at a left-wing protest outside Attorney General's house in Petah Tikva, January 2021. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s not by chance that a Bedouin academic was given the fourth slot on the party’s list. Zelekha is signaling the 120,000 eligible voters among Israel’s Bedouin: Do you want a representative in the Knesset? If so, then make a point of moving in massive numbers to the polling stations on March 23. I have three seats in the polls. Bring me another seat and a half, and your man is in.

By the way, the leading party among the Bedouin is traditionally the United Arab List. It’s far from certain that this small, clan-dominated community can boost two small parties above the electoral threshold.

And apropos the finance minister, there’s another pretender to that throne: Avigdor Lieberman. Of all the leaders of the “Just Not Bibi” bloc, he is today sounding the most judicious, mature and logical voice (which places its feasibility in doubt). We will come together after the election, he’s proposing, from Meretz (!) to Yamina, and form a government without the Haredim and without Netanyahu. The leader of the largest party in the bloc will be No. 1. That is, prime minister. The head of the second party will be No. 2, and so on down the slope of seats.

The government will focus primarily on eliminating the coronavirus crisis, which, with its wealth of variants, looks to be here for the long term, and on economic recovery, Lieberman continues. Each party will forgo something. We’ll rehabilitate the economy, heal the system, and, if it comes to that, in two or three years we’ll hold another election. Lieberman’s thesis is captivating in its simplicity, in its necessity. The wonders of politics: He of all people has become the “responsible adult.”

One people, one song

After the tumult of peacemaking, discovering the Arab citizens’ existence and making promises of a terrific post-coronavirus future, Netanyahu this week took another step toward breaking the all-time record for cynicism. He posted on the web a saccharine video whose theme is “unity.” The recurring motif is “as one people.” Against a backdrop of kitschy music, the person who will go down in history as the greatest of all schismatics, factionalists and inciters, is narrating a text that singes the ears of everyone who has lived here in recent years.

As one people we fought, we absorbed immigrants, we built, we celebrated, we were pained, we were thrilled, gushes inciter No. 1. “Our might is in our unity,” almost sobs the politician whose name has come to stand for a violator of agreements, a con man and a pathological liar.

“Only together shall we continue to triumph,” proudly promises the leader who until a moment ago abused whole populations in he country, vilified and slandered them, accused them of anarchism and of spreading diseases, branded them sourpusses and quietly or with the wink of an eye encouraged his cohorts to brutalize them.

Relying on the one people’s short memory, he has good things to say in the video about the peace treaties signed by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, with Egypt and Jordan (as a foreword to the agreements registered in his name). A few months ago, it was the same Netanyahu who mocked and derided the peace with Egypt, highlighted the grief and the tears, the return of territories and the demolition of settlements, in contrast to his peace, which is a perfect bonbonniere. Resplendent with glittering towers and prestigious brands.

Netanyahu promoting unity is like Yisrael Katz posting a clip about fiscal responsibility; like David Amsalem and Osnat Mark appearing together in a video about polite manners; like Miki Zohar starring in a campaign to boost modesty and a statesmanlike demeanor; like Amir Ohana delivering a lecture on personal integrity.

In the past two weeks this column has taken note of the emperor’s new clothes that Netanyahu is donning: centralized, statesmanlike, optimistic. He continues to visit vaccination sites and unleash dozens of posts on the subject. (You can of course forget about visits to the starved hospitals, which are groaning, on account of him, under an economic and logistical yoke. He only shows at festivities.)

His attacks on the judicial system have been toned down. (No worries: They’ll get fierce again.) The slanders against the media (“the ‘propaganda’ and ‘Al-Jazeera’ channels”) have disappeared from the repertoire. He has silenced the phalanx of militants from the Likud Knesset faction, his slave soldiers in days of battle. They are absolutely banned from appearing on television or radio, not even on the community channel in Afula.

Of that whole bunch, only Transportation Minister Miri Regev is still exempt, by virtue of her seniority and ministerial role. But her style has become more refined. It’s worth enjoying every minute of the welcome tranquility. They all be back on the night of March 23: Zohar, Amsalem, Mark, Shlomo Karhi, May Golan. And Regev will return to her pugnacious self.

The exclusion of the pests (as various Likud circles call them) from the screens and the studios is electorally useful to Likud. But their spiritual father and political patron has remained almost without effective mouthpieces to rant his lies and distortions from morning to night with the roar of a generator and the whoosh of a bellows.

For a long time he’s been looking for a fresh new propagandist whose tongue is clean and whose performance is articulate. Gilad Erdan was exiled across the seas. Zeev Elkin is with Sa’ar. Thus we have recently become acquainted with the cabinet secretary and acting director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Tzachi Braverman. In his four years with Netanyahu he hadn’t emerged from behind the scenes. This week he gave a few interviews. With his perfectly polished exterior, suit-and-tied and mummified, he looks like a concierge in a luxury hotel. He too declaims from the Balfour Street residence’s message sheet, but with sophistication.

Occasionally his discipline grows lax and he lets slip a word of propaganda. He praises the prime minister for the vaccines and for saving the economy (in 2003!), jabs at the Kahol Lavan ministers (he’s their cabinet secretary, too, yes?) or scolds jurists. Braverman is a public servant in his two positions, the permanent and the temporary. He is subject to all the strict rules of behavior. Especially in a time of election campaigning.

The systematic, ongoing trampling of the norms in the highest ministry in the land has now reached the office of the cabinet secretary. FYI Daniel Hershkowitz, the smug civil service commissioner, who obviously won’t lift a finger.

The bots are gathering

MK Aida Touma-Sliman speaks at the Knesset Plenum, June 2020. Credit: Adina Walman / Knesset Spokesperson

MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash – Joint List) is not a Facebook hit. She herself admits that. As a citizen, she is not fond of the social network; as a politician, she is compelled to place posts in her account from time to time.

Two weeks ago, in the wake of Netanyahu’s speech in which he referred to the Arab public and his activity on its behalf, she responded with a counter-post in which she presented opposing facts. To her surprise, her account was filled with comments, the vast majority of them furious and derogatory.

How dare you criticize Netanyahu! Just what have you done for the Arab public? Don’t you understand that he wants to save us? The only thing that interests you people is the Palestinians. And so forth. No fewer than 343 comments, a personal high, which poured into her account in rapid succession.

“I’ve never had so many responses to a political text,” Touma-Sliman told me this week. “In our society people don’t comment about politics. Sometimes you get a “like,” and that’s it. People in our society respond mainly when I write about life and death, murder, bereaved families. I find it really odd. It also got very wide exposure – 35,000 people saw it.”

Her sudden popularity made her suspicious. She checked the comments one by one. “Straight off I realized that many were fake accounts. Bots, or whatever you call it. Accounts that were opened only very recently, without prior posts, random photos. There were also keywords that recurred. The next day I added a new post. I wrote that we must not believe Netanyahu. I used an Arab proverb: ‘Don’t believe the young man who emigrated, or the old man whose generation has died.’ I wrote that Netanyahu thinks his generation has died and there’s no one left who will remember what he said and did.”

Once again, she continues, she was flooded with comments. Some were authentic – by people from the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, members of Abbas Mansour’s United Arab List who call her a “tahini lover.” (She’s a well-known supporter of the LGBT community and of Al-Arz, the Arab tahini manufacturer that made a donation to help set up a hotline for Arab LGBTs and was boycotted for it).

The rest of the comments were of the other type, which again made her suspicious that Netanyahu is waging what she calls a “cyber war”: Christian (not Muslim) names, recurring key sentences and the like. She finds it amusing: Here’s another area in which the United Arab List and Likud, Abbas and Bibi, find themselves together in a common front.