Analysis |

Israel's Political Map Has Shifted Rightward – and That’s Bad News for Netanyahu

Israeli politics is further to the right than in 2015, yet instead of adding votes for a right-wing governing coalition it is actually broadening the opposition to it

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exiting stage right after blasting the Kahol Lavan alliance at a press conference, February 21, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exiting stage right after blasting the Kahol Lavan alliance at a press conference, February 21, 2019.Credit: \ Moti Milrod
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

With six weeks to go until the April 9 election, the balance between the governing coalition and opposition parties seems very similar to the polls in the final weeks leading up to the 2015 election.

Two opposition parties have joined up to challenge Likud and enjoy a small lead in the polls. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still has a better chance of forming a coalition as his right-wing and religious bloc still has a small overall majority in most polls.

A closer look, though, shows one significant change: Across the board, everything has shifted rightward.

Israel's political map: A rightward shiftCredit: Haaretz

Let’s begin with the main opposition challenger. In 2015 it was Zionist Union, the alliance between Labor and Hatnuah. Led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, respectively, these parties didn’t shy away from talking about a future compromise with the Palestinians and could have been defined as soft left or center left.

Today’s main opposition party is Kahol Lavan, which not only includes prominent right-wingers like Moshe Ya’alon, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, but is doing everything possible to shed any connections with the left.

Hosen L'Yisrael leader Benny Gantz at the launch of his Kahol Lavan alliance with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, February 21, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Four years ago, the second-fiddle opposition party was Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid – now part of Kahol Lavan together with Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael. This time around it is Labor (now without Livni’s Hatnuah) in the junior position. But Labor under Avi Gabbay has also moved rightward. It is barely mentioning security and diplomacy issues, focusing instead on the economy, bureaucracy and society while lambasting Netanyahu.

There’s even been a shift to the left of Labor. Meretz under the leadership of Tamar Zandberg is not as staunchly ideological as it was four years ago under Zehava Galon. And the shattering of the predominantly Arab Joint List, under which four parties ran together in 2015, has now created two slates: one features Arab nationalist Balad and Islamist Ra’am; the other a slightly more moderate ticket consisting of Arab-Jewish party Hadash and Ta’al, led by Ahmad Tibi. Both Hadash leader Ayman Odeh and Tibi have said recently that while they don’t envisage joining any coalition in the foreseeable future, they are open to coordination with a center-left government.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the rightward shift of the right-wing parties is even more marked.

Likud has lost the last of its moderate fig leaves after Benny Begin’s departure. Senior Likudniks have been busy in recent days explaining why Otzma Yehudit – the racist spawn of Kach, a party Likud used to boycott in the 1980s – is now a legitimate part of their political camp.

The anti-Arab rhetoric that in 2015 was heard only at the very end of the campaign is already featuring daily this time around. With Otzma Yehudit joining Habayit Hayehudi in an electoral pact, the venerable national religious party is now firmly on the furthest extremes of nationalism. Naftali Bennett’s new party, Hayamin Hehadash, is basing its entire campaign on promising to be more radical than Likud, as is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

Members of the public walking past a billboard for Hayamin Hehadash, featuring leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. Credit: Emil Salman

The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, haven’t changed their ideologies noticeably. However, they are making it very clear that this time around they will support Netanyahu to the hilt.

Surely the entire political map realigning itself to the right is good for Netanyahu? Not exactly. Fewer left-wing parties does not necessarily equal more people voting for parties that will support a Netanyahu coalition. Actually, it’s beginning to look like more votes for the opposition parties.

An election billboard for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. "Bibi needs a strong Arye," it says, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas head Arye Dery, a governing coalition mainstay.Credit: Meged Gozani

One party we haven’t mentioned yet is the Moshe Kahlon-led Kulanu (the former minister quit Likud after becoming estranged from Netanyahu). In 2015 it ran as a center-right party, with Kahlon making it clear he would have no problem joining a Herzog-Livni government. It was the party for soft-right voters who no longer wanted Netanyahu as prime minister and were fine with a party that leaned to the right but could join a center-left coalition.

Kulanu did well in its debut election, winning 10 seats, but Likud confounded the polls and won 30. Kahlon had little choice but to rejoin Netanyahu’s government as finance minister.

Just like the other parties, Kulanu has also moved to the right in 2019. Kahlon is making it clear to voters that he is a right-winger and will support Netanyahu after the election. But his voters seem to be vanishing, whether due to Kahlon’s lackluster performance as finance minister or simply because Kulanu is no longer a destination for soft-right voters looking for an alternative. In six of the polls conducted since Thursday, Kulanu is down to only four seats. In the other three it is below the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent and won’t even be in the next Knesset.

Some 315,000 Israelis voted for Kulanu in 2015. Where are they going now? If the polls are to be believed, they’re splitting between Likud, Hayamin Hehadash and Kahol Lavan.

Party chairman Moshe Kahlon, second left, talking at a Kulanu press conference in Tel Aviv, February 13, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Another trend we’re beginning to see is a few voters leaving Likud for Kahol Lavan. If over a third of former Kulanu voters move to Kahol Lavan, with a smattering of Likudniks suffering from Bibi fatigue as well, it will mean Netanyahu has no coalition. It’s much too early to predict whether these trends will persist, but they are there.

The center of gravity of the opposition shifting from center-left Zionist Union to centrist Kahol Lavan has made a vote for an opposition party easier for soft-right voters. Netanyahu is trying to brand Gantz as “weak left,” but it will be a much tougher sell than with Herzog and Livni four years ago.

Israeli politics is now further to the right than it was in 2015. But instead of adding votes for a right-wing coalition, it is actually broadening the opposition to it.

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