Betrayals, Defections and Fewer Women: The Losers and Winners of Israel's New Political Map

Stav Shaffir, Rafi Peretz, Moshe Kahlon and female representation are among the most high-profile victims after Israel's political parties finalized their slates

Stav Shaffir wiping her eye during her announcement that she will not be standing in the next Knesset election, Tel Aviv, January 15, 2020.
Meged Gozani

Be careful what you wish for. That’s the hard lesson for Stav Shaffir, who was one of the biggest losers when Israel’s parties finalized their slates Wednesday for the third national election in less than a year.

In the run-up to last September’s do-over election, Shaffir left the Labor Party to help form the Democratic Union – together with left-wing Meretz and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel – in the service of her goal: Getting the parties to the left of Kahol Lavan to run together on a single ticket.

On Wednesday, the one-time rising star of Israeli politics faced a harsh new reality: Her longed-for vision has been realized – but without her.

As the final party slates closed at 10 P.M., the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance made a decisive move: Keep former Democratic Union politician Yair Golan on its slate, but send Shaffir into the political wilderness.

For a moment Shaffir hesitated, mulling whether to run solo with the Green Party on March 2. Ultimately, though, she realized that being seen as the person who split the left would make a future comeback impossible. So instead, she preserved her political capital by playing the role of sacrificial lamb, saying only that she was “proud this merger eventually happened. It’s far more important than I am.”

Shaffir wasn’t the only Israeli politician for whom Wednesday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Until the evening, Itamar Ben-Gvir of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party believed he had a firm electoral pact to run with the religious Zionist party, Habayit Hayehudi. However, that party’s leader, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, succumbed to pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to unite with the Hayamin Hehadash party led by Naftali Bennett. Bennett bucked Netanyahu, refusing to head a party that included a Kahanist like Ben-Gvir.

The last-minute drama also put Peretz on the losers’ bench as he was seen to have betrayed Ben-Gvir, who took to the airwaves to bemoan the fact he had been “stabbed in the back.” Clear evidence that Peretz’s leadership had taken a hit came after midnight when Peretz’s number two in Habayit Hayehudi, Moti Yogev, announced that he was quitting the party following Peretz’s “betrayal” of Ben-Gvir.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir during a press conference in Jerusalem, January 15, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Unlike Shaffir, Ben-Gvir was unwilling to sacrifice himself on the altar of right-wing unity. He immediately filed papers for Otzma Yehudit to run separately, despite the fact that the party fell well short of passing the 3.25 percent electoral threshold last September.

There was also unexpected drama in the two biggest parties, Kahol Lavan and Likud, as Gadi Yevarkan was unceremoniously booted from the former on Wednesday morning. Yevarkan had joined Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem Party (which is part of Kahol Lavan) last year. He was elected to the Knesset last April and then placed 33rd on the party’s slate in September. This time around, in an attempt to woo him back, Likud offered him the 20th spot on its ticket. Yevarkan then reportedly tried to parlay this into a better position on the Kahol Lavan slate, threatening to jump ship if he wasn’t placed higher than 33rd this time around.

Gadi Yevarkan, left, posing for a selfie in Jerusalem after an eventful day in which he was booted from Kahol Lavan and was placed 20th on the Likud slate, January 15, 2020.
Emil Salman

Instead of accepting his demand, Kahol Lavan punished Yevarkan for his disloyalty and he was shown the door. Unlike Shaffir and Ben-Gvir, Yevarkan was rescued from membership in the loser’s club as Likud decided to honor its promise to give him the 20th spot – a move the party hopes will strengthen its standing with Ethiopian-Israeli voters.

The highest-profile exit from Likud, meanwhile, was self-propelled: Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, once viewed as possible prime minister material, slunk silently off the political stage, making no public announcements about his departure. The man whom Netanyahu once extolled for his success in cutting Israelis’ cellphone bills was reportedly “exhausted” by the rigors of Israeli politics, calling time on his own political career at the grand young age of 59.

Moshe Kahon, left, next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Katz in the Knesset, November 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Another unhappy former lawmaker on Wednesday: Meretz’s Esawi Freige, who dropped to 11th spot on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate – leaving the left-wing alliance without an Arab representative in an electable position (based on current predictions). But what is bad news for Freige may be good news for the Joint List. Not only are Arab voters who previously voted for Meretz now predicted to vote for the predominantly Arab party, but far-left Israelis looking for a ticket that includes both Jews and Arabs now only have one address.

Freige’s indignation, allied with the fact that left-wingers will have to vote for a slate headed by Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz and former “Likud princess” and Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Orli Levi-Abekasis, could give an extra seat or two to the Joint List and boost overall Arab representation.

However, there is little hope for improvement when it comes to female representation in the next Knesset. In April 2019, following the first election of this cycle, the number of female lawmakers slid from 35 in 2015 to 30, placing Israel 69th internationally in terms of female representation (compared to 54th in 2015).

In September’s election, several parties led by male lawmakers forged alliances, which made the tops of their slates male-dominated. This, combined with the continued strength of the women-free ultra-Orthodox parties, meant that the number of female lawmakers dropped to 28. After the slates closed on Wednesday, and if current polling forecasts remain accurate, the situation is not going to get much better – and will probably get worse.

“It’s really unsettling and disturbing – we are seriously regressing,” said Michal Gera Margaliot, director of the Israel Women’s Network, in a radio interview Wednesday afternoon. The head of the nonprofit that works for gender equality in Israel said she feared less than a quarter of the next Knesset would be female. “We are swimming against the tide of the rest of the world,” she noted.

Miki Haimovich, one of only two women featuring among the top 10 places on Kahol Lavan's slate.
Tomer Appelbaum

She said the efforts of Kahol Lavan, which had promised to place more women higher on its slate, were particularly disappointing. As with Likud, there are only two women among Kahol Lavan’s top 10 candidates.

Even worse, Margaliot said, women have now completely disappeared from the top of any major party’s slate – after five elections in which a woman headed at least one of the top parties. Shaffir now joins previous party leaders like Zehava Galon, Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich on the political scrap heap.

Political blogger Tal Schneider tweeted that, for the first time in Israel’s history, the party with the most female candidates atop its slate was a religious right-wing party – the Yamina right-wing alliance of Hayamin Hehadash, Habayit Hayehudi and National Union. Schneider noted that with six women in its first 12 spots, Yamina has a 50/50 gender divide, while Meretz-Labor-Democratic Union has only four women in its top 12 places, breaking with its tradition of having at least 40 percent female representation.

It is a sad commentary on the state of female leadership that the most prominent party registered with a woman in charge is a fringe phenomenon: Larissa Trimbobler-Amir. The wife of Yigal Amir, who assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, has formed Mishpat Tzedek (which means “Fair Trial” in Hebrew), aimed at getting a retrial for her husband – who is serving a life sentence – along with “all other innocent people unjustly imprisoned.”

Larissa Trimbobler-Amir filing her new political party, Mishpat Tzedek, with the Central Elections Committee in Jerusalem, January 14, 2020.
Emil Salman

Of course, not every politician was unhappy on Wednesday. Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz let out a sigh of relief after removing fears about his party not passing the electoral threshold. This was also good news for Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz, who will presumably need the left-wing alliance if he has any chance of reaching the magic number of 61 lawmakers to form a governing coalition.

It was also a good night for Bennett, who found himself once again heading the religious/right-wing bloc, returned to the position of strength he enjoyed when he headed Habayit Hayehudi until the end of 2018.

Unlike Peretz, he also successfully resisted pressure from Netanyahu – who is no doubt hoping that the party slates finalized Wednesday will edge him closer to an election result on March 2 in which he won’t be counted among the losers.