This must be one the most fateful and fascinating periods in Israeli politics. Everywhere you look on the political spectrum, groundbreaking discussions are taking place.
Likud, which has been in power for 34 of the past 43 years, and has never acted to change the legal status of the occupied Palestinian territories, is seriously considering annexing parts of the West Bank.
The two main parties on the left, Labor and Meretz, are in an existential crisis following their near-decimation in the two elections of 2019. Are they more devoted to reaching peace with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries, or should they instead campaign with a strong social platform? Which of these agendas would make them relevant again?
Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu and ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism are at a face-off over the question of religion and state. Campaigns have generated inflammatory statements from both sides, and have even threatened the status of immigrants from the former Soviet Union as a legitimate part of the Jewish people.
Israeli Arabs are clamoring for their seat around the table as equal citizens with a say in the administration, even if it is Zionist. They seem prepared to put aside their nationalist objections, and are being met with spirited opposition from the right and indifference from the center.
The religious Zionists are no longer sure they are one community. And if they are, does this community include neo-Kahanists like Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben-Gvir, and can it be led by homophobes like Education Minister Rafi Peretz?
All these issues have the potential to effect revolutionary change in Israeli society. And all are set to disappear almost completely this week, as the political landscape reverts to the form it has known for the past six years, coalescing into just two camps: pro and anti-Benjamin Netanyahu.
On Wednesday, by the midnight deadline, the parties will have submitted their candidate lists. There will be between eight and 10 parties with a realistic prospect of making it into the Knesset.
Left-wing parties Meretz and Labor-Gesher will likely run together, now that Labor leader Amir Peretz has publicly announced he agrees in principle to joining forces. The two parties will continue to argue for the next few days over who gets which spot on the list, but it will probably be resolved by Wednesday. They have little choice, seeing as polls indicate they are both in danger of dropping below the electoral threshold.
The situation on the far-right is more complex. Habayit Hayehudi leader Rafi Peretz struck a deal with Kahanist Ben-Gvir last month, but failed to coordinate with his parter in the previous election – National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich. Meanwhile, Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash is currently refusing to join any list that includes Ben-Gvir and wants to run separately. Smotrich may end up joining him by Wednesday night.
The intra-party machinations may have some influence on the ultimate results, but they won’t change the campaign’s dynamics. Once the party slates are locked, Israel will settle back into the old and depressing dichotomy of being either for Bibi or against him. Netanyahu knows this, and is already tailoring his message accordingly. He is accusing his opponent, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, of only caring about removing him from power and ignoring his governments' many wonderful achievements.
This is Likud’s new idea of a “positive campaign” – accuse your rivals of having no achievements. And what achievements could a party that did not exist a year ago boast of, or a center-left opposition that hasn’t been in power in 11 years?
Netanyahu’s “positive” message won't last, because old habits die hard, and as the March 2 ballot approaches he will almost certainly be back in smear mode. He is fully aware of how damaging his frantic bid for immunity from prosecution in corruption cases is, and that Gantz's Kahol Lavan will naturally make full use of it in their campaign. Israel is just doomed to a third election campaign with Netanyahu at its center.
Ever since Netanyahu fired his ministers Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid at the end of 2014, bringing an election three years before it was due just to save the slavishly pro-Bibi free newspaper Israel Hayom from regulatory legislation, all elections have been about him. Not about policies. Not about his rival Isaac Herzog. Not about his rival Benny Gantz, who has become gradually distinguishable only by virtue of being not Netanyahu.
Gantz, in his year in politics, has not spoken out against any of Netanyahu’s policies, nor has he sought to highlight his own. All his speeches are focused on how he is different from Netanyahu in that he is not trying to evade justice and divide the nation. Even the smaller, ostensibly more “ideological” parties have mainly just stressed how they will either bolster or topple a future Netanyahu coalition.
The four opposition parties will run variations on the same theme. Kahol Lavan will tell us that only a vote for them will replace a corrupt Netanyahu government. Labor-Meretz will say that only a vote for them will ensure a left-leaning coalition in place of a corrupt Netanyahu government. Yisrael Beiteinu will promise that only they can prevent a Netanyahu/ultra-Orthodox government. And the Joint List will charge that a vote for them is a show that Israeli Arabs brought down the racist Netanyahu government.
It’s a dismal but unavoidable state of affairs. Netanyahu has not only transformed Likud, a once proud and principled party, into his personal platform. He has also forced right-wing and religious parties into serving his own narrow agenda, rather than their constituencies.
The effect also hollowed out the opposition. Kahol Lavan is an artificial party with nothing keeping it together besides the burning desire to see Netanyahu leave. Yisrael Beiteinu, which represents a rapidly vanishing base of Russian speakers who have not integrated into wider Israeli society, has been gifted a temporary lifeline to end Netanyahu’s alliance with the Haredim. Labor and Meretz both urgently need to rediscover their raison d’être in order to survive, but cannot do so while there is nothing to do but remove the prime minister.
For six years now, Israeli politics has been gripped by Bibimania. This will last for another seven weeks, at the very least.
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