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Five Key Questions in the Early Weeks of Israel's New Election

It's the 'transfer season' stage of the Israeli election, as political parties have six weeks to assemble what they hope will be winning slates of candidates for November

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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The Knesset in Jerusalem. Which current lawmakers will be returning there after November's election?
The Knesset in Jerusalem. Which current lawmakers will be returning there after November's election?Credit: Photo: Clema12/Wiki Commons. Artwork: Anastasia Shub
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The summer transfer window in European soccer and NBA free agency coincide this year with a comparable period in Israeli politics. Now that the electoral timetable has been finalized, the parties have just under six weeks to work out their slate of candidates before the deadline for filing them with the Central Elections Committee on August 15.

Before the tickets are in, we don’t even know for sure which parties will be running independently, which will merge or split, and which will decide that their chances of crossing the electoral threshold are too precarious to even merit running. Then there will be primaries in some of the parties, and the arrival of debutant and star candidates hoping for a high enough place on a ticket to have a good chance of becoming a lawmaker.

Multiple storylines will evolve across the political spectrum during this period. Here are five of the main ones emerging in the electoral “off-season”:

Yamina’s orphans

With Naftali Bennett’s announcement that he is taking a break from politics, the former prime minister’s party is under the leadership of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. Polls say Yamina will cross the electoral threshold, but its potential voters have yet to get used to the new leader – and that is unlikely to change.

Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked in May. Will her party run in November?Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Yamina’s problem is that while its current supporters obviously were in favor of Bennett’s government and do not want to see Benjamin Netanyahu return to power, throughout the last year Shaked was very openly reluctant to be a part of a coalition with left-wingers and Arabs. At the same time, she was a member of the government reviled by the Netanyahu camp.

Shaked has her admirers, but will there be enough of them who trust her judgment on which coalition to join after the election? And does she even still have a party behind her? Bennett loyalist and former Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana is likely to join another anti-Netanyahu party, while Idit Silman and Nir Orbach are hoping for good spots on the Likud slate. Of the parties in the current Knesset, Yamina seems least likely to run in the November 1 election.

General superstar

Of all the potential new arrivals on the political scene, the name at the top of various parties’ wish list is that of former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. Every ex-army chief is political hot property, at least initially. The quietly spoken and thoughtful Eisenkot is widely seen as one of the more popular generals to hold that post in recent decades – and he ticks other boxes too. He’s an “authentic Mizrahi” candidate who grew up in working-class neighborhoods and built his career in the tough Golani Brigade rather than as a high-flying paratrooper.

Eisenkot, who is a fierce critic of Netanyahu’s policies, would give a major boost to struggling parties like New Hope, Kahol Lavan and Labor, and has been in talks with all of them. The speculation, however, is that he’s headed for Yesh Atid, where he will be Yair Lapid’s number two, giving the new prime minister some much-needed security establishment approval.

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaking at an economic conference in 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

But Eisenkot’s terms are unclear. Will he want assurances of a ministerial role should the party he joins be part of the next government? And does he expect to bring some of “his” own candidates together with him?

Newly arrived generals often find it difficult to acclimatize in a much less deferential environment and turn out to be not as charismatic out of uniform. Multiple parties are betting that Eisenkot will buck that trend.

Likud hopefuls

The most raucous of primaries is always in Israel’s largest party. The last one took place in early 2019, and in the three subsequent elections Likud stuck to the same slate. This time, the list is being opened and all of Likud’s current lawmakers are up for reelection. It is not just their survival in the Knesset that is at stake: the position they achieve on the slate is an indication of their standing and leadership potential.

They and the new candidates are all scrambling for the attention of Likud’s 130,000 members, traveling across the country to weddings and bar mitzvahs, and competing to make their most outrageous statements in the media. Behind the scenes, they are trying to get on the secret lists being endorsed by the main camps in the party – those of the main power brokers Haim Katz, David Bitan and, of course, Netanyahu.

The primary will be held in early August and whatever one thinks of Likud, it will be, as always, the most entertaining and exuberant festival of direct democracy.

Lapid’s Arab Candidate

Yesh Atid has never fielded an Arab candidate in a high-enough spot on its candidate slate to get elected. This is expected to change in the coming election. Lapid wants to both broaden his party’s appeal and emphasize that the cooperation with an Arab party in the outgoing government was not a one-off experiment.

Yesh Atid has no primaries and Lapid decides the party’s slate. His team is searching for an Arab candidate without a history of “anti-Zionist” statements and who can be trusted to vote in the next Knesset for whatever law the party wants to pass, as difficult it may be for a non-Jewish citizen.

One of their preferred candidates is Meretz minister Esawi Freige, who seemed primed to defect. However, Freige announced this week that he’s taking a break from politics and will be sitting this election out.

Another potential name is Ghadeer Mreeh, who was originally a candidate on Benny Gantz’s 2019 Hosen slate (before the Kahol Lavan meger), and then moved to Yesh Atid after Gantz joined Netanyahu’s government in 2020. Mreeh didn’t run in the last election, but may be considering a return to politics. However, as a Druze woman, there is concern that she is less relatable to the broader Arab-Israeli community.

New left leader?

Besides Yamina, the only other party that may replace its leader before the election is Meretz. (Labor is holding a leadership primary, but so far no serious candidate has come forward to challenge Merav Michaeli.) Nitzan Horowitz is under fire for “losing control” of Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi – the Meretz lawmaker who played a starring role in bringing down the government – and for what many see as an otherwise less-than-stellar performance during the party’s rare stint in government. Former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan has already announced his candidacy to replace Horowitz, and others are likely to join.

Former Meretz leader Zehava Galon in 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Despondency in Meretz is so deep that some are calling for Zehava Galon, who left politics four years ago, to come out of retirement and resume the leadership. For now, Horowitz is trying to hold on. But whoever does emerge as leader, their main role will probably be to try to negotiate the terms of a merged slate with Labor, which will ensure the party passes the threshold on November 1.

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