Third Time's a Charm? Why This Israeli Election Could Be Different

These are the five main questions that could shape the race this time around

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Kahol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz, center, talks during a Knesset session in Jerusalem, December 11, 2019.
Kahol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz, center, talks during a Knesset session in Jerusalem, December 11, 2019. Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Well before the 22nd Knesset dissolved itself on Wednesday night and voted for a new election to be held on March 2, the parties were already deep into their campaigns for the 23rd Knesset. The first shot in the campaign was Yair Lapid’s agreement to forgo the prime ministerial rotation with Benny Gantz.

This election campaign will be very short: 82 days from the dissolution of the Knesset until Election Day, compared to 111 days for the September election and 104 days for the election last April. In 2015, the campaign lasted 98 days from the vote on holding an election until Election Day.

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Such a short time will keep new parties from entering the race, and it will also cut down on the time for parties to merge because they need to present their final slates for the Knesset by January 15.

These are the five pressing questions that arise as Israelis head to the ballot boxes for a third time in one year.

1. Will the Union of Right-Wing Parties pass the electoral threshold and reenter the Knesset?

Defence Minister Naftali Bennett visits an army base in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019. Credit: ATEF SAFADI / AFP

It seems that Nafatli Bennett and Ayelet Shaked's Hayamin Hehadash will run on its own in the next election. The tripartite combined slate with Habayit Hayehudi and National Union did not work out well. Bennett now believes that he will succeed this time in making the jump from the Defense Ministry to the Knesset independently.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants this too: He has reached the realization that because of the indictments hanging over him, he could lose the votes of educated Ashkenazi voters, and prefers for them to vote for Hayamin Hehadash rather than Kahol Lavan.

To the right of Bennett and Shaked, the Union of Right-Wing Parties of Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich will run along with Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit. In retrospect, the smartest move of the last election campaign was Ben-Gvir's party running on its own: He may have remained outside the Knesset for a short time, but he proved his party was capable of winning 84,000 votes all on its own.

In the April election for the 21st Knesset, the Union of Right-Wing Parties won five seats, just 19,000 votes over the electoral threshold. But a clear and large drift toward Netanyahu's Likud can be seen among the religious Zionist movement and the deep right, who wish to strengthen the leader of the bloc in his fight against the media and legal system. The Union of Right-Wing Parties, even with Ben-Gvir’s Kahanist reinforcements, is in real danger of not making it back into the Knesset.

2. Will center-left parties Democratic Union and Labor-Gesher survive?

Orli Levi-Abekasis (left) and Amir Peretz (right) at the Knesset, Jerusalem, November 25, 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The battle between Netanyahu and Gantz has caused collateral damage to their satellite parties. The Democratic Union, which saw Ehud Barak, Stav Shaffir and Meretz joining forces, was not a success in the last election. It looks like the party is in real danger of not passing the electoral threshold in the next election.

Labor-Gesher, too, feels the need for a major change. Kahol Lavan would actually be happy to run on a joint slate, a “technical bloc” with Labor, so left-wing votes will go to Meretz. It is still unclear what Amir Peretz’s objectives are and what will be the fate of Gesher leader Orli Levi-Abekasis, but Peretz also understands that it is too risky for Labor to run alone.

3. What will kingmaker Lieberman promise his voters?

Yisrael Beitenu's party head Avigdor Lieberman delivers a statement to the press on November 20, 2019.Credit: Menahem KAHANA / AFP

Anyone who has spoken with the Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman over the past few days describes a man in distress, who doesn’t know what to do in the campaign. His trump card from the last election – when he declared he was the only one capable of bringing about the formation of a unity government – won him three more Knesset seats, but in spite of his efforts no such government was formed.

Now Netanyahu will try to pick off his voters from the former Soviet Union, while Gantz will play the same anti-Haredi card and try to win over Lieberman’s younger voters – who make up a large share of Yisrael Beiteinu’s votes. Lieberman understands his situation quite well and is looking for a strategic solution. It is possible that this time he will not lock himself into a promise to only join a unity government.

4. How high will Arab voter turnout be?

Joint List lawmakers Ahmad Tibi (right) and Ayman Odeh (left), at President Reuven Rivlin's residence in Jerusalem September 22, 2019. Credit: Menachen Kahana/ REUTERS

The Joint List is feeling good about the new election. Participation in the political arena – which was expressed by the party’s recommendation to the president that Benny Gantz form the new government, and addressing the plague of violence in the Arab community – has sparked enthusiasm among its voters. Their target for the next election is 500,000 votes, which would translate into an increase of two Knesset seats from 13 to 15.

5. Will the election results be decisive?

This is the main question in the upcoming March election. In his dreams, Netanyahu hopes the voter turnout in the strongholds of the right will be 100 percent. Ben-Gvir’s 84,000 votes will put him in the Knesset, Bennett will bring back the voters of the soft right who had turned to Kahol Lavan in the previous election, and some of Lieberman’s voters will vote Likud this time. He hopes that this will cause the right-wing bloc to inflate from 55 seats to 61.

Gantz, in comparison, needs only to add another four seats for the center-left bloc to become prime minister. He believes Netanyahu’s strength will grow – but at the expense of the small right-wing parties, however, he will still lose two or three Knesset seats because of the indictments against him. Gantz also believes that Lieberman will lose votes and the Joint List will gain. If Gantz has 61 seats in the Knesset without Lieberman, he can do whatever he wants.

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