Israel's Personality Parties Have Lost Their Charm

Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz
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From top left, clockwise: Moshe Ya'alon, Ofer Shelah, Ron Huldai and Benny Gantz.
Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz

The failure of Moshe Ya’alon, Ofer Shelah and Ron Huldai to form new parties heralds the end of the personality parties, created ad hoc and built around one person with the rest of the slate cobbled together and the expectation that hundreds of thousands will follow.

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This panned out very well for Yair Lapid, who founded Yesh Atid a decade ago, but he managed to put together a real party with local headquarters and grassroots activists, and to portray himself as being in it for the long haul. Lapid is a consistent politician, a genuine leader.

For a time this was also true of Moshe Kahlon, who leveraged his great popularity as a result of his telecom reforms to found his Kulanu party. But he failed where Lapid succeeded. Everything relied on his personal charm, which was gradually eroded during his time as finance minister. Charisma or political accomplishments are a necessity for the success of a personality party, but they aren’t enough.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to understand why Shelah thought he could found a party and attract enough votes for a few Knesset seats. Shelah is a fine person, someone who belongs in the legislature and maybe even in the cabinet, but to do that he doesn’t have to slap together a slate composed of random contacts in his address book.

The case of Ya’alon is even more extreme. He founded Telem as a right-wing ideological party, the antithesis of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, relying on his reputation as a former military chief of staff and defense minister. He brought in Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, but they fled at the earliest opportunity. They refused to cooperate with the Joint List of Arab parties to block the formation of a Netanyahu-led government – to which they defected, despite their promise they wouldn’t.

Ya’alon kept his word, but the defection reinforced the feeling that there was no point voting for him: If he can’t control two people, how can we let him control an entire country?

Huldai is also losing his assets at a dizzying pace. When the Tel Aviv mayor threw his hat into the ring of national politics in late December, the polls gave him eight Knesset seats, but since then his numbers have headed steadily south, and the most recent surveys show him missing the 3.25 percent electoral threshold.

Huldai is a serious man, with a record of accomplishments as well as charisma, and he certainly appeals to a significant audience, but his party, The Israelis, hasn’t taken off. The most senior politician to join him, former Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, has already abandoned him – an admission of failure and more evidence that the slapdash party built around one person, however popular and qualified, no longer works.

Gideon Sa’ar received 18 or 19 Knesset seats in the opinion polls right after he founded New Hope in December, but all subsequent polls have given the party 13 or 14 seats. That’s more than respectable, but it’s possible that New Hope is seen not as a personality party but as a non-”Bibi-ist” branch of Likud. It was created to siphon off Likudniks who are fed up with “Bibi-ism,” and that’s its sole raison d’etre. When Bibi goes, so will New Hope.

Why did it stop working? The main culprit is Kahol Lavan under Benny Gantz. So many hopes and expectations were pinned on that project that rested entirely on personalities, not ideas. The three former chiefs of staff, Lapid, the dirty bargain made (the voterless Ya’alon got his four buddies into the Knesset, Nissenkorn brought in his Histadrut labor federation crony Einav Kabla) and above all the shattering into fragments of parties and people – all this eliminated all trust in parties engineered out of thin air by strategic consultants.

Of course, to put one good person in the Knesset there’s no need to give a free ride to a few of his or her friends who might bail after the election. It took time, but eventually voters learned the lesson.

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