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On the Israeli Left, Tussling Twins Are Locked in a Death Match

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

As if the remains of the Israeli left didn’t have enough problems, Meretz’s fall into the danger zone of missing the threshold of votes needed for a party to enter the legislature has ignited tension with the Labor Party, which has strengthened at its expense. They had always been considered sister parties; after MK Merav Michaeli’s election to head Labor followed by the election of a slate of a definitely leftist hue, they became not simply siblings, but twins.

Combining the two parties into a single slate, which would have maximized the potential, was what reality required. It did not happen because the leaders of both the parties had reservations: MK Nitzan Horowitz due to the trauma of the farce of Labor-Gesher-Meretz, which ran as a single slate in the last election and then suffered an ugly breakup, and Michaeli because of her interest in Labor pulling towards the center and once again becoming a potential ruling party. True, Labor is experiencing a resurrection of the dead but it will take the Messiah to get from there to being a ruling party, and it is not at all clear that she or he will come.

The not-so-mysterious death of the Israeli left, six weeks to the election. LISTEN

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There are at most enough voters for 11 or 12 Knesset seats floating between the two parties. All of them feel equally at home in either one. The hard core of former voters for the Labor Party is now resident mainly in Yesh Atid. Another few crumbs are in Kahol Lavan. The steady rise there of opposition leader MK Yair Lapid, which is not because of a particularly successful campaign but rather because reality and natural momentum are working in his favor, is not giving the Labor defectors reason to consider returning home. If any thoughts of repentance do occur to them, Lapid will know what to do. At the moment, he is refraining from dealing with Labor, because he sees no reason to do so.

The veteran bastions of the Labor Party, which in the past brought in the so-called grass roots on Election Day, are no longer there. The respective heads of both the Kibbitz Movement and the Moshav Movement, Nir Meir and Amit Ifrach, showed up this week at the conference to establish the rural section of Yesh Atid and declared loyalty to the party and to the leader. What had been the home bases of the precursor of the Labor Party, Mapai, the breeding grounds for its leaders and its voters alike, have gone to the heir of the General Zionists, the party of the bourgeois middle class. It’s another sign of the eradication of the symbols of the past, ideological divisions and political affiliations.

After her election, Michaeli took a patriarchal – sorry, matriarchal – tone towards Meretz. “It is an important party,” she insisted. “We will ensure that it gets into the Knesset” and suchlike. This concern, be it real or hypocritical, has led to an opposite result. Hence the public opinion polls. In Meretz, they worried from the outset that ulterior motives lurked behind the demonstrative compassion. Horowitz, on the brink of the abyss, drew an immediate conclusion: to veer sharply leftwards, and then even further left.

“We will talk about what you aren’t hearing from Labor: about the occupation, the apartheid regime in the territories, the asylum seekers, the refugees. You also aren’t hearing about religious coercion. All the issues that the other parties, including Labor, are fleeing from,” he told me. “Ultimately, that is our domain.”

I asked him whether withdrawing on the eve of the election is an option. He replied, stunned as though a sharp pain was cutting through his abdomen. “We are really not there. I am sure we will get in,” he said.

There is a good chance he was right. Fortunately, the warning siren was sounded 40 days before the election. This leaves him a fairly sufficient amount of time to fight for his life. The worn turn of phrase “gevalt campaign” that in the past decade has been identified mostly with Meretz on this side of the map will continue to pursue it. Such is its fate.

The dilemma as to whether to pull out of the race is already engaging and will continue to engage Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz. Kahol Lavan looks stable, garnering four Knesset seats, five on the rare good days in the polls. Two or three of them are fragile. Gantz has good friends who are worried about the fate of the bloc. They are saying to their interlocutors: Benny needs to pull out now, while he still has his head above the water. It would be a fatal mistake to wait for the public opinion polls in the final stretch, when they bring him down into the depths from which former candidates Ron Huldai, Moshe Ya’alon Ofer Shelah did not return. Withdraw now, they say, depict it as acting responsibly, even nobly. If he waits too long, he will end his career for lack of a choice, as someone who was sent home because the disappointed public was fed up with him. He, too, is hearing these voices.

Kahol Lavan’s four Knesset seats are an illusion. Accumulated experience shows that a new party for which the public opinion polls predict even seven or eight Knesset seats is liable to crash in an instant. This moment could come weeks before the election or it could come in the twilight zone during which the media do not conduct opinion polls in the four days immediately preceding Election Day. It happened to Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked with their New Right party (when six Knesset seats in the final opinion polls became just under four in the ballot boxes, missing the minimum threshold), to Moshe Feiglin, to MK Orli Levi-Abekasis’s Gesher. In this context, Kahol Lavan is a new party. It is something that is reminiscent of Shaul Mofaz’s rump of Kadima in the 2013 election. There was the name, there was the chairman, there was the sympathy and there were a few members, the leftovers.

Merav Michaeli votes in the Labor Party primary election, January 24, 2021.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Kadima then, like Kahol Lavan now, was a depleted model of a large former party begging for some kindness, grace and mercy only in order to scrape by into the Knesset with the barest minimum.

By the skin of his teeth, Mofaz made it across the two-seat threshold (which has since been doubled) after a passive-aggressive campaign that aroused mostly pity. With the narrowing of choices that characterizes the final stretch of an election, there is a high probability that the fate of Kahol Lavan will leave it below the threshold. Its satirical campaign slogan, “Enough with the manipulators” could be copied and pasted by Yair Lapid for his own campaign.

Rotation in the air

Naftali Bennnett is maintaining a stability in the polls that is not particularly impressive but is not to be sneezed at either. He has not enjoyed the luxury of polling in the 20s for some time now. However, he is holding steady at 12 Knesset seats in most of the opinion polls, and has done so for an extended period. As noted, this performance in the polls is not at all a bad achievement, all things considered. The potential to syphon votes away from Bennett exists in almost every possible direction. There are voters who could head for the Hills of Darkness, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir; there are some who are dithering between him and Gideon Sa’ar. And, of course, there is always Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of whose greatest pleasures in life is taking votes away from Bennett. Netanyahu has already started working on that; Likud on Thursday released a video in which he threatened that a vote for Bennett (or for “Gideon”) would make Lapid prime minister.

The public dialogue now between Bennett, the media and the voters is like a dialogue of the semi-deaf. The author of the book “How to Defeat the Coronavirus” wants to talk only about the pandemic and the economy. The people who are trying to figure him out want to understand whether he will anoint his abusive political father, Netanyahu, as prime minister for the sixth time.

Bennett wants to be the heir to the king’s throne, but not to murder him. He is treading delicately, like a tightrope walker beneath whom is a river infested with alligators. The content of the message he and Ayelet Shaked voiced this week, with the resumption of the prime minister’s criminal trial, was unambiguous: no to a renewed request for immunity, no to a retroactive “French law” that would make it impossible to try a sitting prime minister, no to any maneuver that will halt the proceedings. The trial has begun – and it will continue.

In effect, if they are to be believed, Netanyahu has lost control of all the levers to stop the trial, even if some of them were completely theoretical. The only option he has is to retake control of the Justice Ministry, bring back to it his fawning minister Amir Ohana (whose disgraceful decisions were nullified subsequently by the High Court of Justice), mobilize him to delay the trial, move to appoint a submissive replacement for Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and hope that the new AG will order a delay in the proceedings. However, even these moves will not stop the train driven by Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, which has already left the station. The attorney general will be completing his term of office a whole year from now, in February 2022. Will his successor try to stop the proceedings from the prosecution’s side, at such an advanced stage? That would be no less than a putsch. Not that anyone here would fall off his chair if it would happen.

The content of his message on the process is half the balancing act. The other half is his position on Netanyahu’s guilt. Here Bennett is careful not to annoy the voters on the religious right. Therefore, even when pressed, he claims a lack of knowledge as to whether the charges against Netanyahu are “fabricated.” I have no idea. He is clueless. That is, he does have an idea, it is clear to him that they aren’t fabricated, even Shaked has said they aren’t, but why annoy voters who could bring him two or three Knesset seats?

An Otzma Yehudit poster from last year featuring far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the slogan: 'Only Ben Gvir can save Bibi'Credit: Ofer Vaknin

With his column of Knesset seats on the graphs, Bennett is becoming the one who will be able to tip the scales on March 24, the kingmaker of the next election. In his plan, if he brings in a dozen Knesset seats, even 10 or 11, he will demand a second rotation in the position of prime minister. Netanyahu will give him that (or rather, he will promise and not give). Lapid or Sa’ar will also give (that is, will really give) if they can. We don’t need a jury to decide who is more reliable for a deal like this. Two politicians who have never broken their word in any significant situation or a used car salesman who sells dreams of a Ferrari and sends you out with a jalopy to nowhere but the political junkyard.

Bennett still aims to start climbing again. In a situation in which the number of his projected Knesset seats is heading toward 15 or 16, as far as he is concerned, he could demand the first turn at being prime minister in any rotation. In a situation like this, Gideon Sa’ar’s dream of being first in any rotation recedes. The bleeding in Sa’ar’s camp stopped after a steep and rapid drop over the course of about a month and a half. However, he is still not bringing in new voters.

Despite the rising tones between the two parties, including real insults, the two of them will be happy to collaborate and end the Netanyahu era. Readers should be reminded that Yamina and New Hope signed the first surplus-votes agreement in this election race. That move was a clear signal to Netanyahu, or rather not so much of a signal as much as two drivers giving him the finger as they try to overtake him on the road to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Yair Lapid has a mantra he regularly recites to his interlocutors: Ultimately, it will all end in a phone call between me and Gideon at 2:00 A.M. on the night after the election. Who knows? It could be a conference call with a third, or even a fourth participant.

Bringing back lost loves

On Thursday evening, moments before the Central  Elections Committee locked the gates of the Knesset to representatives of the party slates, the Likud representative walked in to the room holding the list of candidates. Sympathetic eyes followed MK David Bitan, the darling of many in the building. For many long weeks he was hospitalized in the coronavirus ward at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. More than once he was hooked up to a heart-lung bypass machine and there was real fear for his life. 

Bitan recovered and was discharged to rest at home. His visit to the Knesset for the purpose of submitting the list of names was his first appearance before the media cameras that were crowded into the caucus floor of the building. The journalists, for whom Bitan was their bread and butter for many years, were invited, one by one, to sit next to him on the armchair.

Empathetic, embracing interviews were broadcast on all the news programs. It has been a long time since Likud was wrapped in such warmth. The party that is accustomed to sending its brawlers in the name of its persecuted leader won a moment of tenderness in a series of human, if saccharine, items. 

MK David Bitan at a cabinet meeting in 2020, before contracting the coronavirus. Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset Spokesperson

The rejoicing at Bitan’s return distracted attention from those who weren’t there that night: party whip MK Miki Zohar and the party’s representative on the Elections Committee, MK Shlomo Karhi. These two officeholders are the ones who in the nature of things submit the list of candidates in Knesset elections. That is their role, that is the tradition.

But Zohar and Karhi are toxic. They are in the yesterday department. There is a strict prohibition on them showing their faces in public, lest the voters remember who – crudely, combatively and drunk with power – runs the Knesset in ordinary times, and who will be running it once again if Netanyahu retains his office.  

Along with them, nearly all the Likud backbenchers were distanced and silenced immediately after the Knesset disbanded: Osnat Mark, May Golan, Ariel Kallner, Amit Halevi and of course the honorable Minister for Cyber and National Digital Matters David (Dudu) Amsalem.

This is a precedent: a cabinet minister is not allowed to give interviews, so as not to chase away the electorate. (We first noted this phenomenon here three weeks ago. On Channel 12 News they followed up on the story and reported data from the Ifat Media Information company, which showed in numbers the near total disappearance of the dwellers on the Isle of the Media Dead.)

Before he was hospitalized, and for a long period Bitan, we nearly managed to forget, became a bitter enemy of Netanyahu. He got into quarrels with him on a number of issues. Netanyahu also fudged and procrastinated on his promise to make him a minister and really sighed with relief when Bitan’s criminal entanglement more or less absolved him of that promise he didn’t want to keep.

The relations between the two were cut off. Bitan boycotted caucus meetings and said things that weren’t nice about the movement and the prime minister. Sending him to the front was aimed at achieving two connected goals: causing the vote-killers to disappear and getting positive coverage, which, as noted, is rare.

Presumably the request to Bitan was made on the prime minister’s behalf. This was a brilliant maneuver. Here is someone recovering from the coronavirus who has also recovered from the beatings by the chairman of his movement, coming back to huddle with his comrades and bear the leader aloft to win. 

In the interviews, Bitan spoke frankly about his condition, talked about his physical weakness and announced that in the coming period he will mainly be recovering at home. There is reliable medical information here, no doubt. 

But Bitan also seems to be saying: Don’t bank on me coming again in the near future to go before the cameras and exalt the man who walked all over me. 

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