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Israel’s New Politics. A Quick Guide

The Likud

The Challenge

Binyamin Netanyahu approaches the election campaign on April 9 with the threat of indictment hanging over his head. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to recommend charging Netanyahu as early as February in three out of four criminal cases that have been brought against him.

Netanyahu is fighting back, taking a page from Donald Trump’s playbook. Last Motzaei Shabbos, the prime minister posted a video in which he compares his situation to a man charged with theft in a nameless Middle Eastern country. In accordance with the law of the land, his arm is amputated. But then on appeal, he is acquitted, so his arm is reattached.

“Can anyone give him back his arm?” Netanyahu asks, looking directly into the camera. And in what can only be a direct appeal to Mandelblit, whom he appointed, Netanyahu says: “You don’t begin with a hearing before elections if you don’t end the hearing until the start of elections.”

Truth be told, Netanyahu doesn’t have much to worry about. Even this week, his standing among the voting public is excellent, with various polls indicating Likud will win anywhere from 26 to 31 seats in the next election. Likud held 30 seats in the last government.

Opportunity Knocks

For Netanyahu, an election campaign that takes place in the midst of a hunt by the attorney general and the media might just be the best thing that ever happened to him. Under such circumstances, the opposition will be hard put to cobble together a majority to impeach him if and when he’s indicted. Netanyahu will remain in his position as prime minister to the last, and only then will he embark on the battle of his life to clear his name. In any case, the coming term will likely be his final one.

The Labor Party

The Challenge

For a long time, Labor was one of the biggest, most influential parties in Israel. Today, polls give the party anywhere from eight to twelve seats in the next Knesset, the representation of a small splinter party.

Avi Gabbay, Labor’s leader, recently performed a public defenestration of his onetime ally Tzipi Livni on live television. In the last Knesset, Livni’s party, Hatnuah, joined Labor to form Hamachaneh Hatzioni (the Zionist Camp). Perhaps thinking his toughness would endear him to voters, Gabbay publicly humiliated Livni, surprising her with his plan to bolt from the partnership. It may have had the opposite effect. Gabbay was widely criticized for his cruel treatment of a former working partner.

Opportunity Knocks

Gabbay is trying to sell a story that Labor will not be a central party right now, but rather will lay low and gear up for the forthcoming election, similar to what happened to Likud in 2002 and 2006. Gabbay further believes his divorce from Livni will not come at a political price. To the contrary, he sees Hatnuah as a political mirage, a one-woman party, without branches, headquarters, or activists. Gabbay read the polls and discovered that Livni is a liability, not an asset.

The New Right — Bayit Yehudi

The Challenge

The resignation of Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett from Bayit Yehudi and the formation of the New Right party took many on the right by surprise. In a post-split interview with Israeli journalists, Bennett revealed why he and Bayit Yehudi were not a perfect fit.

“I was born secular, I grew up in a secular home, I’m married to a secular woman,” Bennett said. “The battles for Shabbos are not me, closed stores on Shabbos are not me. The party members demanded to know, ‘Why aren’t you fighting on behalf of Shabbos?’ I kept letting them down. But I’m not a religious inspector. I wanted to bring secular people to Bayit Yehudi, to open the party to the general public. I didn’t succeed in bringing in any secular [voters]. I understood there was a problem.”

The founders of the New Right aspire to double-digit popularity, from among both religious and secular Israelis. The party’s platform vis-à-vis religion and state is still unclear, and is still being hammered out by founders Shaked and Bennett. The New Right is faced with a complex dilemma. If the party assumes the same religious stance as Bayit Yehudi, it will send “soft” right voters into the waiting arms of Benny Gantz (Hosen L’Yisrael, “Resilience for Israel”) or even to Yair Lapid. Yet if they cut themselves off from any religious affiliation and make do with traditional definitions, that won’t be enough to satisfy the hard-core religious Zionists.

Opportunity Kocks

Bennet is banking on his new party garnering approximately eight seats, and Bayit Yehudi plans to contest every single one.

Bayit Yehudi Minister Uri Ariel told Mishpacha that national-religious rabbanim were harshly critical of Shaked and Bennett’s move. Rabbi Chaim Drukman, the most veteran of national-religious rabbis, said he felt misled.

I asked Ariel if there was a chance that the two parties would reunite after the elections, but he rejected that possibility. “That’s a completely impossible scenario. I don’t think that after such conduct, we can connect. It’s impossible to trust them anymore. Who can promise us that they won’t leave us after that and cause us damage, as they’ve done now?”

Kulanu — Kachlon

The Challenge

Kulanu, under the leadership of Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon, is in the process of total dissolution. A new party that was formed to fight for voters’ economic rights, Kulanu is now in a tailspin, with polls predicting it will win as few as four seats, a steep drop from its current ten. For Netanyahu, that would mean the elimination of a bitter rival.

Party members sense the nosedive and are beginning to bail out fast. Most prominently, Housing Minister Yoav Galant announced that he would run in the Likud primaries. Former Israel ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has also left the party, as has Rachel Azaria, an ambitious young player in Israeli politics.

Opportunity Knocks

Kulanu’s appeal is based on Kachlon controlling the Finance Ministry, but polls indicate he may have trouble reaching the electoral threshold. In contrast to the 2015 campaign, whoever votes Kulanu this time around will be voting Kachlon. The list has no significance. In the last term, Kachlon learned that, as party leader, he’s held responsible for everything; therefore, he prefers “soldiers” who will do his bidding.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 743)

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