Four Days to Deadline: Israeli Parties Scramble to Merge, Set Election Strategy

Once we know the final lineups on Thursday morning, the picture will become clearer

Hayamin Hehadash’s Naftali Bennett at a government meeting, November 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

The parties running in the March 2 election have until Wednesday to submit their final rosters. This election season is shorter than the previous two and the political campaigns – with the exception of those of Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman and Hayamin Hehadash’s Naftali Bennett – have barely begun.

Once we know the final lineups on Thursday morning, the picture will become clearer. Here are five things we should watch for in the coming week:

1. The right-wing union. In the April election Bennett and Ayelet Shaked ran separately from the Habayit Hayehudi-National Union slate; in September they ran together with them. As the parties finalize their tickets, no one is quite sure how the political map of the right will look.

Bennett is very unsure whether to try to unite the right-wing parties. As he sees it, if he runs alone as co-leader of HaYamin Hehadash (along with Shaked), he’ll get five to six seats; together with the other right-wing parties, he’ll bring in seven to eight. On one hand, Bennett thinks that this added power will help him keep his defense minister post, but on the other, he fears that the stain of running with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party will come back to haunt him. If Bennett were able to run with Habayit Hayehudi and Bezalel Smotrich without Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, it would be his best-case scenario, but that isn’t an option.

Smotrich, who represents the Union of Right-Wing Parties, has no current political home. Ayelet Shaked tried in vain to play matchmaker for him and Bennett. After a long-standing rift with Habayit Hayehudi leader Rafi Peretz, they met on Thursday, but didn’t make any real headway.

Bezalel Smotrich and Ayelet Shaked, November 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Smotrich has an ego the size of the hole in the ozone layer. It’ll be tough for him to answer to Peretz, whom he despises. Smotrich tried to rally support in the primaries through a door-knocking campaign among the religious Zionist communities, but Peretz didn’t fall by the wayside.

As of now, Smotrich has no cards to play, but is not emotionally prepared to fold. He who works miracles, Benjamin Netanyahu, was busy fighting for his immunity. He tried to invite the sides for a meeting and even tweeted, but he’s low on energy and ineffective at this point.

2. The left-wing union. There are not enough pages in Haaretz to recount all the twists and turns in the withered left-wing bloc’s bewildering negotiations. This weekend it emerged that Labor and Meretz may run as a “technical bloc” and separate immediately after the election; senior officials in the two parties said there would be a decision by Monday. The pressure applied to Labor leader Amir Peretz appears to be doing its job. The abhorrence of Stav Shaffir that both sides share makes it highly probable that she will observe the next Knesset alongside Greta Thunberg.

3. The Likud campaign. Until now, Likud didn’t have a campaign. Netanyahu works with his associates on Balfour Street from morning until night on ways to prevent a battle over his immunity. Netanyahu understands that all the legal options are bad: stand trial, request immunity and lose at the polls, or push off the discussion on immunity to the next Knesset, but the last option is the least bad. Likud knows that every day in which immunity is discussed is bad for them, but as of now, they have no choice.

The American consultants that Netanyahu brought in set the tone for the campaign, led by President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. His plan is to talk about the positive and set up major events on the ground to drum up excitement. Netanyahu doesn’t believe that he can convince centrist voters to support him; he’s pinning his hopes on the right. He’s been frustrated for years that the voting rate among cities with a rightward trend is lower than that of cities that lean left. Netanyahu believes that an active field campaign will bring those right-wing voters to the polls.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a conference in Jerusalem January 8, 2020
RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The party roster he’ll present on Wednesday won’t include Moshe Kahlon. Kahlon will continue to hold his Knesset post until the next government is sworn in, and then retire from politics. Netanyahu urged Kahlon to support him in his bid for immunity, but he hasn’t received an answer, and it looks like he won’t get one at all.

4. The Kahol Lavan campaign. After polls and in-depth studies, Kahol Lavan decided to announce that they will not sit in a government with the Arab-majority Joint List. They’ve identified a right-wing audience that is revolted by the behavior of the prime minister and various other Likud figures, but the Joint List is a red line for them.

Their demographic profile is Ashkenazi, educated, and urban. Some have already left Likud in the past and some still see themselves as members of the right. This is the greatest battle of this election, because as in the season playoffs in soccer, every vote that comes in from a former Likud voter is worth two votes. Kahol Lavan’s campaign will focus on Netanyahu’s bid for immunity from prosecution and stress the danger of turning the Knesset into a sanctuary for criminals. For this demographic, the subject of immunity is the most important, and Kahol Lavan sees it as the most promising path to victory.

5. Polls. After the parties submit their slates, the polling map will be more accurate. At this point, it looks like neither side will get the 61 seats it needs to form a government, and Yisrael Beiteinu chief Lieberman will continue to be the kingmaker. But to build a government, you need to focus on the Jewish community alone. If the Gantz-Lieberman-Labor bloc can bring in more votes than the Netanyahu-Ultra-Orthodox-right-wing bloc, they’ll be able to form a government without Joint List support.

If the opposite occurs, the tie-breaker won’t be Lieberman, but Bennett. Those around Bennett are having fun with the idea of announcing in advance that if Netanyahu doesn’t succeed in forming a government, they’ll accept the nation’s judgement and go with Gantz in the hopes of courting the soft right. The idea has been shelved for now, but will pop up after the election, if and when that scenario unfolds.