In Israeli politics, you can’t find a closer pair than Arye Dery and Avigdor Lieberman. The two have been cooperating since Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in 1996, bringing in his right-hand man Lieberman to run the Prime Minister’s Office. Dery was then (as he is now) leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
For 23 years now, the bond between the men has remained strong. They share benefactors, swap advisers and understand each other implicitly. And since Lieberman also became a party leader when he split with Netanyahu to form Yisrael Beiteinu in 1999, they have a little game they play when the election comes around.
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Lieberman and Dery find issues to fight about, rile their supporters and boost their figures with their respective communities in a very convenient electoral battle. Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu are not fighting for votes. There is no overlap between Lieberman’s overwhelmingly secular and Russian-speaking constituency and Shas’ base of Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern descent — traditional and religious voters. Dery and Lieberman can go 12 rounds without risking a knockout. It’s the perfect win-win scenario.
Once an election is over, they go back to sitting together in government. Lieberman may refuse to sit with Benny Gantz in the next coalition and Dery has ruled out ever serving with Yair Lapid — but neither of them will ever veto each other. Their personal interests are perfectly aligned, even if those of their voters are not.
But while they won’t take votes away from each other, their individual reservoirs are dwindling. This time around, the fake fracas between the two parties may not be enough, especially for Lieberman.
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Going by the latest polls, there will be at most 14 parties in the next Knesset. But that is just the potential number. It is likely to be much lower. Half of the parties currently in the running are hovering below or perilously close to the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the total vote.
Shas is probably in the best position of the seven. Polls predict that it will get between four and six seats, and none have put it beneath the threshold that would mean political wipeout.
But Shas is suffering from terminal decline, which has seen it sink from 17 seats in 1999 to only seven in 2015. Twenty years ago, Shas had a universally admired spiritual leader in Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the blessings of the popular Rabbi Yosef Kaduri and Dery, a dynamic, young firebrand who the Shasniks were convinced had been wrongly accused of graft because he was Mizrahi.
Yosef and Kaduri are now dead, and none of the rabbis who endorse Shas have a shred of their peers’ stature or popularity. And Dery, no longer young, is still entangled in corruption allegations.
The party’s voters come from three shrinking groups. There is the relatively small Haredi-Mizrahi community, many of whom are tempted to vote for United Torah Judaism, which can still muster rabbinical heavy-hitters; then there are a few remaining Dery die-hards; and traditional Likudniks who will consider voting Shas (since the party will support Netanyahu anyway, why not get some blessings as well?). Together, they should be enough to keep the party afloat.
Shas’ dwindling fortune was symbolized by a video the party released a few days ago, showing Rabbi Ovadia’s empty library, his robe and turban draped on his chair. He’s been dead for five and a half years and the party still hasn’t found anyone to replace him in election campaigns.
While Shas’ problems are long-term, Lieberman is facing immediate oblivion on April 9. Yisrael Beiteinu has only crossed the electorial threshold in two of the 10 media polls published in the last 10 days. There is a wonderful irony in this, as raising the threshold to 3.25 percent in 2014 was an amendment to the election law proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu to try to keep Arab parties out of the Knesset.
Yisrael Beiteinu has two constituencies. The main group, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, is an aging one. Many of the party’s voters arrived in Israel as pensioners and have since passed away. Younger Russian immigrants are much better integrated and less likely to vote for a “Russian” party. The other, smaller group is right-wing voters who don’t think Netanyahu’s Likud is right-wing enough. Yisrael Beiteinu has stiff competition for that vote now from Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash.
In an attempt to appeal to the younger Russian voters, Lieberman has retired the 69-year-old Sofa Landver from his roster and moved the younger generation of the Russian immigrants — all in their late thirties or early forties — to the prominent spots. But so far, the fresh faces have not revived the party’s fortunes.
Another party that hasn’t been invigorated by a young face at the top is Meretz. Under the leadership of Tamar Zandberg, who is 21 years younger than her predecessor Zehava Galon, Meretz has yet to bring back the left-wing voters.
The party’s research shows that while it only received five seats in the last election, its potential support is three times that. And that is probably right. Left-wing liberalism is a minority persuasion in today’s Israel, but there are still enough of them to keep Meretz above water.
While Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu have survived — and may survive this time as well — by maximizing their potential base, Meretz is down because it hasn’t found a way to connect with younger voters who share its views but have a hard time stomaching its aloof, elitist image.
The polls are showing that the party’s supporters are toying with the idea of voting for the more centrist Kahol Lavan in the hope of bringing down Netanyahu, just as they did when they voted Kadima in 1999 and Zionist Union in 2015.
Over the previous four elections, Meretz did best when there was no strong centrist party, offering a viable alternative to the right wing. Which means that this time around, with the Gantz juggernaut threatening Netanyahu, it is once again in danger. Polls show Meretz still above the threshold, with anything between four and eight seats. But we can expect the party to once again press the “Save Meretz!” panic button before April 9.
Of the other parties on the brink, centrist-right Kulanu is, like Shas, trying to use the memory of a dead leader to attract voters, with pictures of Likud’s first prime minister, Menachem Begin, standing behind Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon.
These are, sadly for Kahlon, photoshopped, as Begin left public life in 1983 when Kahlon was still a driving instructor in the army. This attempt at attracting Likudniks again points to how little the finance minister has to show for his last four years in office. Kulanu is polling between four and five seats and its trajectory is downward.
Along with United Arab List-Balad, which is teetering after splitting off from the Joint List, Orli Levi-Abekasis’ centrist Gesher, which a couple of months ago was doing great with six or seven seats, has now sunk below the threshold. Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut — a bizarre far-right/libertarian party calling for annexation of the West Bank and legalization of cannabis — is the latest polling sensation, but is still close to the threshold.
Together, these seven parties could end up receiving 20 percent of the entire vote. They are all at risk of electoral obliteration, and as many as 800,000 votes could end up wasted.
For Netanyahu and Gantz, it means that winning will not be enough. If, for instance, UAL-Balad or Meretz fail to cross the threshold, the chances of a center-left bloc winning the 61 seats necessary to stop Netanyahu from forming another governing coalition will be significantly reduced. If both fail, it will be impossible.
Netanyahu has got even more worries, as it’s hard to see both Zehut and Yisrael Beiteinu crossing the line — and it’s very possible that neither of them will. He knew exactly what he was doing when he pressured Habayit Hayehudi to join the supremacists from Otzma Yehudit in a joint roster.
This election could be decided not by whether Likud or Kahol Lavan wins more votes, but by which of the blocs waste less.