Inside baseball: Staying on base in Israeli politics

The political developments of the past two weeks underscore how seriously the leaders of Israel’s political parties take the concept of maintaining their base.

September 17, 2017 18:24
3 minute read.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Avi Gabbay,  Arye Deri, Yair Lapid, and Naftali Bennett

Benjamin Netanyahu, Avi Gabbay, Arye Deri, Yair Lapid, and Naftali Bennett.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

As the Major League Baseball season comes to a close, what the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Benjamin Netanyahu, Avi Gabbay,  Arye Deri, Yair Lapid, and Naftali Bennett have in common is that they are all running to their bases.

The best teams in baseball will be intensifying their efforts when the playoffs soon begin. But their runners know that it is dangerous to veer too far away from their base or they could get thrown out.

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Similarly, Israeli politicians know that the key to prevent them from getting thrown out is to keep to their base. In politics, that means shoring up their most reliable political supporters before venturing out to sectors that are harder to get.

The political developments of the past two weeks underscore how seriously the leaders of Israel’s political parties take the concept of maintaining their base.

One of the main reasons the Likud has been so successful lately is that its political base of Center-Right working-class Israelis is growing and Netanyahu is an expert at speaking to them and rallying them. Whenever times get tough for Netanyahu, he moves back to the Right and makes sure his base is intact. The more his criminal investigations intensify, the more he will speak about the dangers from Iran.

By contrast, the Labor Party’s traditional base is the Center-Left and agricultural communities are dying, so Avi Gabbay has had no choice but to try to appeal to new sectors. That explains why he is going on a tour of Sephardi synagogues’ slihot services in Jerusalem’s Old City Monday night.

Perhaps Gabbay believes he can woo traditional Sephardi voters away from Shas. There are plenty of Shas voters who are not ultra-Orthodox and could be turned off by the way the party’s Council of Torah Sages has shunned MK Avi Gueta and forced him to quit for attending the wedding of his gay nephew.

But one cannot blame Shas for insisting on its platform being maintained. After all, it has been 18 years since Deri led Shas to 17 seats thanks to traditional Sephardi voters who drive to soccer games on Shabbat after attending services. Shas now has only seven seats that come primarily from the party’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) base, which Deri must maintain.

That is why Deri will insist on leading the parliamentary struggle ahead to prevent the drafting of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, alongside the heads of United Torah Judaism (UTJ). An emergency meeting of UTJ and Shas MKs at the Knesset last week following a Supreme Court ruling requiring haredi conscription started half an hour late, while UTJ MKs waited for Deri to lead the meeting.

Last week also saw the renaissance of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who looked unnatural putting on a kippa at the Western Wall as his wife Lihi performed the ritual of hafrashat chala (separating bread). Now Lapid is back in his element, threatening to fill the streets with protesters if yeshiva students are permitted to avoid army service. Lapid tried outreach to Likud voters, but when he fell in the polls, he realized he had to return to his political base that is not fond of the haredim.

On the issue of haredi service, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett has been careful not to ruffle feathers, because his religious Zionist base has a wide range of opinion. Such a sensitive issue could lead to some of his voters leaving for Yesh Atid and others leaving for Shas or UTJ.

Bennett needed to refocus the public’s attention on an issue that unites his camp: The Supreme Court overstepping its bounds and taking power away from the Knesset and the people the parliament represents. Bennett smartly announced his counter-revolution plan to limit the power of the Court on a Thursday night at 9 p.m. on a slow news day, guaranteeing him lead headlines in well-read Friday papers.

Chances are the plan will not pass, at least not in its current form, but the headlines are already an achievement. Not only did those headlines shore up Bennett’s political base, it appealed to those of Netanyahu, Deri, and UTJ as well, making the plan the political equivalent of a home run.

Now the other heavy hitters in the Israeli political game are at bat and swinging for the fences.

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