Shortly after this election season began in December, an event reminiscent of the 2012-2013 campaign took place: A major party merged with one if its satellite parties, resulting in a surge in the polls. Then it was Likud and Yisrael Beytenu; this time it was Labor, led by Isaac Herzog, with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua.
The major difference, though, is that last time, it made Likud Beytenu, as the merger was called, the clear front-runner. This time, the formation of the Zionist Union – the name Labor-Hatnua decided upon after much deliberation – ensured that the Likud is no longer the front-runner; but rather than almost guaranteeing a Herzog- Livni rotation at the helm of the new government, it polarized the political field.
“It’s us or him,” the Zionist Union slogan read, not “it’s us or Meretz or Yesh Atid.”
“It’s us or them,” was Likud’s version, not “it’s us or Bayit Yehudi or Kulanu or Yisrael Beytenu.”
This polarity had the effect of leaving nearly every other party to eat the Likud’s and the Zionist Union’s dust. The two lists have been nearly tied for months, taking turns at the top of the polls, and other parties remained eight or more seats behind.
Meanwhile, each of the two big parties is trying to push ahead of the other at the expense of its own satellites, by saying it needs to be the biggest to form the next coalition.
For the record, that’s not true.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the beginning of the election that he would like to pass a law to that effect, but he still hasn’t, and probably regrets suggesting it, since in the most recent polls the Likud is trailing behind the Zionist Union. At the moment, the president is supposed to task the party leader most likely to be able to form a coalition with doing so, even if that means making the head of the fifth-largest party the prime minister, as unlikely as that would be.
Still, voters seem to be rallying around the major party in their bloc, and the effects on each side of the political map are similar but with some key differences.
For one, people may as well start calling Livni “the Meretz Killer.” In 2009, the election was as polarized as it is today, as left-wing voters flocked to Kadima, which Livni led at the time. (If you’re not keeping score at home, here’s a summary: She’s been in Likud, Kadima and Hatnua, which is now part of Zionist Union.) Livni’s Kadima got one more Knesset seat than the Likud, and she and Netanyahu both gave victory speeches on election night. In the end, the Likud formed the government.
One effect of the Left seeing the vote as “it’s us or him” in 2009 was that Meretz dropped to three seats. In 2013, when there was no major leader of the left-wing bloc, Meretz jumped up to six. Now, in 2015, Meretz is worried it won’t pass the 3.25 percent threshold, which in most cases will mean four seats.
Meretz is the left bloc’s only true satellite party, and the appearance of a candidate with a real shot at being prime minister in the bloc may kill Meretz, throwing away tens of thousands of left-wing votes and Herzog’s chances of clinching the premiership.
Meanwhile, on the right, Bayit Yehudi is sending out as many distress signs as Meretz, though it has no chance of slipping below the threshold. Still, the party was polling at 14-16 seats in the beginning of the election season, slipped to 11.8 on average last week, and has internal polls showing it in the single digits this week.
Now, Bayit Yehudi’s decline cannot be blamed totally on the Likud. Its first nosedive came after party chairman Naftali Bennett appointed and then un-appointed soccer player Eli Ohana as a candidate, amid accusations that he did so only because Ohana is Sephardi.
However, Netanyahu has been repeatedly driving home the point that a strong Likud is necessary in order to form a right-wing government, and it’s been working, despite Bennett’s incessant protestations and civics lessons. Bennett may be right from a legal standpoint, but he doesn’t seem to be convincing his voters.
Another Likud satellite, Yisrael Beytenu, has not been doing well either, unrelated to any sense of a need on the part of its supporters to bolster Netanyahu. As in the case of Bayit Yehudi, there are other reasons keeping Yisrael Beytenu down – namely, a corruption investigation involving a top party official, the failure of the party to create a distinct identity for itself while it was merged with Likud, and what seemed like an effort to reach out to the Left by party chairman Avigdor Liberman, which he gave up fairly quickly.
There is not a major difference in the haredi and Arab parties’ respective combined showings in the polls compared to the previous election, despite their different permutations in this election, so they are clearly not affected by the polarization.
The Center – Yesh Atid and Kulanu – is worth a little over 20 seats. Given Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon’s political history – he was one of the Likud rebels who voted against the 2005 disengagement – it would be fair to call it a rightwing party, but Kulanu refuses to be pigeonholed and won’t commit on who it will recommend as prime minister.
Here, of course, the vote is for a party and not for a prime minister. And yet, with the political map organized in clear blocs with clear leadership, it seems that more and more voters are voting for who they want as prime minister, and not on the building blocs of the next coalition.