Israel's Election Campaign Begins With Netanyahu in Prime Position

We're used to seeing President Rivlin hand the mandate to Netanyahu to form a government, but this time we may encounter a scenario we've never experienced before

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

Between 2009 and 2015, the elections in Israel went like that sports cliché: Soccer is played for 90 minutes and in the end Germany wins. Three times in a row, the president gave Benjamin Netanyahu the mandate to form a government, as a near formality. The tradition was truncated in April 2019, when Avigdor Lieberman broke the chorus line and thwarted another ensured term in office for Netanyahu. And that is how we came to be where we are today.

The election procedure in Israel can be divided into three parts: In the first, the political map reshapes itself. Parties rise and fall apart, politicians are ejected and born, frameworks and blocs crystallize. Many careers end in anguish, sometimes disgrace. Others are born in optimism and hope. This is also the most fascinating stage. It ended Thursday night, in the offices of the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset.

Israeli election campaign finally begins: Who's up? Who's down? Who's in? Who's Out? LISTEN

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Chapter II begins today, Friday, February 5 and ends on Election Day, March 23. These are the boring campaigns, with the interviews in which the same questions are asked and the same answers are given. With the tedious speeches. With the hollow promises, the hackneyed spin, the bombastic/hallucinatory/violent and rarely creative social media posts, and of course the confusing public opinion polls. If only it were possible to skip the 46 days that remain and wake up on the morning of the vote, we wouldn’t miss out on anything except for headache and profound nausea.

The third chapter begins with the ceremonies at the President’s Residence. In most cases, this is largely a ritual, the outcome of which is foreknown from the outset. But this time, we are liable to encounter a scenario we have never yet experienced. Here is a sketch of the overall outline, on the basis of the average of the public opinion polls: Benjamin Netanyahu will be recommended as the person to form the next government by between 45 and 49 Knesset members from Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism. Gideon Sa’ar, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett will each recommend himself. Avigdor Lieberman, if he sticks to his position, will say that the mandate should be given to the head of the largest party in the bloc for change, which at the moment means Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Meretz, Labor, Kahol Lavan and Yaron Zelekha’s  Economic Party – whichever of them wins enough votes to pass the threshold into the Knesset – will support Lapid/Sa’ar.

The bottom line from the first round of consultations: None of the party heads will be able to establish a government. Sounds familiar. President Reuven Rivlin, in his despair, will address a follow-up question to them: Are you ruling out cooperation with any of the candidates? And if so, whom?

This is the moment into which the entire election race will funnel. Or rather, all four of them. This moment will distill the mythological debate that is tearing Israel apart, between the “Only Bibi” camp and the “Anyone But Bibi” camp. If the party heads who aren’t Netanyahu, Moshe Gafni of the Degel Hatorah faction of United Torah Judaism, Arye Dery of Shas, Yaakov Litzman of the Agudat Yisrael faction in UTJ and Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism do manage to establish a joint infrastructure for a future coalition and agree on a candidate who will form a new government, then the Netanyahu era will come to an end. It’s so simple, and so complicated.

The key person is still Naftali Bennett. If his Yamina party gives Netanyahu his 61st Knesset seat, presumably Bennett will join him. Bennett has been saying that Netanyahu has to go. That he and Transportation Minister Miri Regev are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis because of the failure to shut down Ben-Gurion International Airport. Very grave. Horrifying. However, he isn’t drawing the obvious conclusion that Lapid, Benny Gantz, Sa’ar and Lieberman are articulating: We will not be part of a government with him.

Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett may hold the balance of power in the March 23 electionCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked has an interesting argument in this context that only reinforces the above suspicion: When asked why Yamina will join Netanyahu, she refuses to answer, on the grounds that before the last election others sat in the television studios and lied when they swore that they wouldn’t be in a government with Bibi. We don’t lie, she says. Her subtext is clear.

Netanyahu, who for now is having difficulty nailing down the 61 Knesset seats he wants, could win them easily if United Arab List and/or Kahol Lavan and/or Labor and/or Meretz and/or Economics don’t manage to cross the threshold of 3.25 percent of the total votes cast. The emergency plan he has been sharing is to embark immediately after the election on a headhunt in other parties, and to poach defectors from them in return for attractive jobs.

The law sets a minimum of one-third of a caucus or seven lawmakers (the infamous “Mofaz law”), his interlocutors are whispering into his ear. What’s the problem? he replies. With the help of those defectors we will change the law, right after the Knesset is sworn in. Don’t forget, he adds with a smile, the Knesset speaker is one of ours. Yariv Levin will make it all legally kosher for his master.

If that happens, and the desired majority is obtained, the president will face a crucial moral question: Is he able to grant the mandate to an individual who is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and receiving bribes? Shortly before completing his term of office in July of this year, Rivlin will not be able (and apparently will also not want) to evade dealing with the moral challenge. So simple, and so complicated.

A month and a half before the decisive day, not only does the public-opinion-poll picture resemble that of the 2013 election – one big Likud and a string of mid-sized or small parties behind it, but the process is also similar to what happened in that election. It is happening after a great deal of calculated, shifty work by Benjamin Netanyahu. In the year prior to the 2013 election, he lured the largest caucus, Kadima, into his government and then chewed it up and spat it out as contemptible remnants of a political force. This is what organized that political map. (Incidentally, Kahol Lavan has chosen the letters “kaf-nun,” which spell “yes” in Hebrew, for its ballot slips, the same letters that sent Kadima down the slippery slope to its crash.)

This time around, after having dismantled Kahol Lavan with extravagant promises and wholesale trampling of Basic Laws, Netanyahu subjected the center-left bloc to a similar indecent act.

After the last election, when this bloc faced off with him in optimal shape, the closing of the slates of candidates presented a very different picture. The splits, the defections, the delusions of grandeur on the parts of some of the players and innumerable mistakes and bad gambles have afforded Netanyahu the best possible starting position. A veritable dream. It’s not that “the stars lined up for him”; Netanyahu is simply a skilled poker player, and also a highly qualified cheat, who arranges the cards for himself before the game.

His reconciliation campaign that is dripping with honey, his ostensible “move to the center,” his emotional call for unity in the nation and his charm offensive in the Arab sector all flow into a single, predestined point. This is the picture of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich bumping elbows; two men whose fists are horribly reminiscent of the disgusting logo of the Kach movement, on which a person destined to be a lawmaker, and perhaps a cabinet minister, arose.

Ultimately, Netanyahu is the same Netanyahu, the sea is the same sea and his most desired partners are the ones who want to throw the Arabs, LGBTQ people, the Reform Jews and anyone who does not find favor in their benighted eyes into the briny deep.

In recent weeks, Smotrich promised the whole world that he would not step under the wedding canopy with Ben-Gvir. After garnering praise for his functioning as transportation minister, he was trying to model maturity and responsibility. When (in quite a calculated move) he abandoned the partnership with Bennett and Shaked, he immediately announced new branding for his racist, extremist party: “Religious Zionism.” It goes without saying that most of the knitted kippa sector is revolted and repulsed by Smotrich’s positions, but there are enough people who love them. His base is ultra-religious and includes quite a number of ultra-Orthodox voters who are not affiliated with any of the known rabbinical courts.

Otzma Yehudit Party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir is slated to partner with right-wing National Union Party Credit: Emil Salman

Under pressure from Netanyahu and the rabbis, Smotrich caved. The former set before him and Ben-Gvir and the baffling head of Habayit Hayehudi, Hagit Moshe, and a mountain of offerings and promises. Guaranteed slots on the Likud list and force multipliers in ministerial positions and in the Knesset. Up to half the fanatical and benighted Kingdom of Judea.

Ben-Gvir is bringing with him a terrifying dowry from a few days ago, the agreement with the Noam – meaning “pleasantness,” which is an oxymoron. This party looks at the political extreme from the furthest point on the right-wing scale. They are the ones who flooded the country with campaigns against LGBTQ people. Among their rabbis are the stars of the most repulsive and outrageous statements in recent years.

None of this is being said to give any liberal credit to Messrs. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. What, in fact, are the major differences among the three forces? Where are the differences of opinion? Over when to impose rule by rabbinical law and build a Temple in place of the Al Aqsa Mosque? Whether to call LGBTQ people “beasts” or only “perverts?” Whether to exclude Arabs from swimming pools and public parks in locales with a Jewish majority, or only from shared delivery rooms in hospitals? Whether to institute the death sentence by stoning, or only by hanging?

The rabbis of Noam’s racist hilltops have been promised that if a right-wing government is formed, and the slate brings in fewer than six lawmakers, Minister Smotrich will resign from the Knesset under the “Norwegian law” and their representative, who is No. 6 on the slate, will move up into the Knesset.

This is Netanyahu’s wet dream. A pure right-wing government. And a Knesset of immunity from prosecution, termination of the legal proceedings against him and the spreading of even greater fear than in the past, with Ministers Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, one of whom will most certainly join up with the hate-filled Bibi-ists Miri Regev and MK Osnat Mark on the committee for selecting judges.

At the other extreme, Netanyahu has succeeded in dismantling the Joint List. He is creating a win-win situation for himself. If his friend MK Mansour Abbas (United Arab List) does not cross the threshold into the Knesset, two seats will be added to his immunity bloc. If Abbas does pass the threshold, Netanyahu might be able to make deals with the Islamist lawmaker. Yes, there is a realistic scenario of a coalition that relies on Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and Abbas. And come to think of it, here too there is a similarity. The first two are benighted religious people, haters of LGBTQ people and aficionados of power, as is the latter. Sometimes extremes meet. And the wolf shall dwell with the wolf, and darkness over the face of the waters, and the spirit of God is not there.

Three Likuds

On Wednesday, Bennett rushed to submit his Yamina slate to the election committee, lest anyone think about returning to Smotrich or hooking up with Sa’ar, which was Netanyahu’s greatest fear. The prime minister’s mission, as commanded by his political calculations and his household, will be to destroy Yamina and Bennett himself.

The Likud campaign will push Bennett into Lapid’s arms; from the other side, Sa’ar’s campaign will push him into Netanyahu’s arms. Sa’ar, too, is facing two fronts: versus Lapid and Gantz for centrist voters and versus Netanyahu and Bennett for right-wing voters. As Lapid’s Yesh Atid seems to be putting a lock on second-largest party, the battle on the right remains the most intriguing. This is a battle among three Likuds.

The Likudiyahu (Netanyahu’s Likud) will talk about coming home. Sa’ar will present Likud B, on the correct grounds that Likud A is a fun-house mirror of a glorious past. Bennett will represent “New Likud,” the party he always wanted to build where religious Zionists sit alongside secular people, politicians alongside businesspeople. The lineup he has put together isn’t exactly his dream team, but to a certain extent it reflects his aspirations.

To the left, the contacts failed between Merav Michaeli and two losers this time around: Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and Yesh Atid refugee Ofer Shelah. Shelah, an excellent legislator but an arrogant and stubborn type, demanded a party primary from Lapid. Well, something in Shelah’s computer went wrong. It’s not serious to resign over a primary and demand a choice spot on another ticket.

Huldai’s story is even sadder. For a decade or more the left-wing camp longed for him to arrive. Time and again he hesitated until this time around he leapt on the bull, with all his skills, achievements and experience. Oy, what a mauling.

Gantz isn’t doing too much better; Kahol Lavan went alone to the election committee and submitted a modest slate. Its situation is confusing. In some polls it crosses the line into the Knesset, in others it doesn’t. These oscillations jibe with Gantz’s coronavirus wars in the cabinet. It’s not clear that those will be relevant a month and a half from now.

In the meantime, alongside acknowledging the original sin of entering a governing coalition under Netanyahu, Gantz is marketing his same message ever since he signed the agreement. He’s here to protect us, from inside the government.

On Thursday, Gantz convened the remnants of his caucus and told the legislators: “If we hadn’t protected the justice system from within this warped government, Bibi would already have immunity for his whole life.”

Maybe, but if they hadn’t signed on with Netanyahu, Bibi wouldn’t have had a government. The history of the numbers is far clearer than hypothetical games and revolving doors.

The lefty twins

Michaeli is completing her first week as Labor Party chief, with the euphoria at its peak, even though a genome sequencing by the Weizmann Institute wouldn’t spot any difference between her slate and Meretz’s. (And if truth be told, it isn’t clear which is more leftist.)

She’s promising to restore Labor’s status as a “ruling party” and bring it back to “Rabin’s path.” If he were alive, Yitzhak Rabin would probably take one look at this ticket and found a centrist party.

Labor Party chief Merav Michaeli in Tel Aviv this week.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Even for a dream, modesty is becoming. For most of its years, Labor was either in the government or an alternative to the government when it flew a diplomacy-security banner. In 2015, under Shelly Yacimovich, it donned social democratic overalls. After that it experienced another diplomacy-with-the-Palestinians episode with Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.

Now it’s in its new, feminist incarnation with its leader committing acts of abuse on the Hebrew language by insisting on gendering way too much in the feminine – “people and peoplesses,” “We have to make peace with the Palestinians and the Palestinianesses,” and so on.

Michaeli has a respectable number of years of experience on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee; she’s among the most diligent and thorough people there. Before she sets out to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, she should consider making peace with Hebrew grammar and syntax. These phrasings she insists on distract attention from the serious things she has to say.

The first five names on the Labor slate could switch places with those on the Meretz ticket and we wouldn’t notice the difference. A bit beyond the opening five, judging by her statements, Ibtisam Mara’ana could be a member of Balad. Labor No. 3 Emilie Moatti was once Balad’s media adviser.

These labels are of importance in an election campaign. Michaeli can’t depict herself as a “center-left” party and in the same breath outflank Meretz’s Yair Golan on the left. He says he’ll support Sa’ar if that will topple Netanyahu; she says she’d prefer to be in the opposition.

There is no sense in two identical slates on the left running separately when both are teetering on the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. On the contrary: This could be a recipe for disaster for the Israeli left.

But neither side is interested in that. Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz carries with him the traumas of Democratic Union in the September 2019 election and Labor-Gesher-Meretz in March 2020. Michaeli, who doesn’t want to be identified with Meretz, rejected outright any attempt to convince her to launch talks.

Lapid, who’s worried about the bloc’s future, asked Ehud Barak to go to Michaeli (she and Lapid don’t speak to each other) and promise her two ministers in any government containing Yesh Atid. Elated by the five extra Knesset seats that one poll showed after Michaeli won the Labor leadership primary, she refused.

She might regret this. Party primaries are very often mirages. A week or two later the numbers tend to balance out, and Labor doesn’t have a sufficient margin of error for playing around.

After unsuccessfully trying to distinguish themselves from each other, Labor and Meretz will head to the final stretch with at least one of them running a pity-inducing “Save us!” campaign and with a real chance of being wiped off the political map – to Netanyahu’s whoops of joy.

Poor picks for parliament

Three guys and one gal have said no to Lapid: Ofer Shelah, Moshe Ya’alon, Avi Nissenkorn and Pnina Tamano-Shata. The three men have fled politics pretty embarrassed. The lady has received a prize:  Gantz has made her No. 2 on the Kahol Lavan slate.

If the ticket somehow makes it into the Knesset, and the polls say it’s teetering, Tamano-Shata, who skipped out of Yesh Atid into a ministerial job, will be in the Knesset at the expense of some who have marched with Gantz since his entry into politics. These loyalists include Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Alon Schuster and Eitan Ginzburg.

There is no edifying message in Gantz’s move, or any loyalty to speak of. Let’s suppose he considers Tamano-Shata an electoral asset, someone who represents Ethiopian Israelis. He should have remembered that she swore loyalty to Lapid since 2013 and when the opportunity arose she swore loyalty to opportunism, not to Gantz. Lapid gave her everything he could. Gantz offered her a government ministry. The lady didn’t blink an eye and jumped for it.

Someone who took the opposite path, from a sure cabinet slot to the opposition, was Yesh Atid’s Gadeer Mreeh, who refused a ministerial appointment. She has chosen not to be in the next Knesset for Yesh Atid. Too bad. There is no surplus of men and women of honesty, integrity and values in our parliament.

Which brings us to Likud and a new Knesset member in its ranks. At the last moment, after countless backflips, Netanyahu was persuaded to give a decent spot on the slate to the all-time princess of opportunism, fraudulence and hypocrisy, Orli Levi-Abekasis.

Orli Levi-Abekasis speaking at the Knesset in May.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

Yes, at No. 26 she’ll have a hard time getting appointed as a minister if Netanyahu forms the next government. But she’ll still have a nice job, a good salary and benefits, a staff and a microphone in the Knesset for her empty self-righteousness and vaporous flattery for Netanyahu, which she has been plying with an amazing lack of charm.

In recent years the saga of the prime minister’s picks for Likud has always begun with great expectations and ended with feeble flatulence. It’s always the same: At the start of the campaign, Netanyahu demands slots for embedding stars, public figures and generals in the reserves.

In 2015, these two slots were No. 10 and No. 22. At the last moment he brought Benny Begin back in from the cold and put him at 10. At 22 went the unknown Anat Berko, supposedly to strengthen the academic wing. Her persona and parliamentary weight – how shall I put this? – weren’t the most splendid in the chronicles of the Knesset.

This time too Netanyahu waged a world war over slots for his picks. He still envies the absolute rulers – Lapid, Lieberman, Gantz, Dery and the others – who appoint yes-men and yes-women and with the flick of a text message dispatch anyone who falls out of favor or deviates from the party line.

Again, Netanyahu got what he wanted for his slot: 5 or 10, 26 or 28. For many weeks he sought the diamond who would be in the first group of 10. He started high: Federation of Local Authorities head Haim Bibas, Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov. Even a major general in the reserves, a scion of an old right-wing family, refused him.

All of them refused without hesitating. They don’t consider his rule a pleasant thing, nor their neighbors if they agreed to be in the caucus. They’re not going to be part of the chorus of sycophants and flatterers. There are probably others whose names haven’t been leaked yet.

Galit Distal Atbaryan is one of the biggest Bibi-ists out there, tussling with anyone Balfour Street doesn’t like, controlling real estate of her own in the right-wing media and someone whose posts are diligently echoed by Yair Netanyahu and his father. She’s a prevaricating, raucous and obsequious woman, who hacked herself a path in the usual way (boundless flattery) to the family on Balfour Street.

“I’m thrilled .... The choice of me is a choice that gives hope to very many people,” she said modestly Thursday, and concluded: “I am the people.” It’s uncertain that this is what Netanyahu dreamed of when he demanded his picks, but getting an Osnat Mark with a decent vocabulary and knowledge of grammar and syntax isn’t something to be sneezed at these days.

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