Israel Elections: Political road map begins to clear up

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: A number of important developments occurred, and some pieces of the political puzzle are beginning to fall into place.

 JUSTICE MINISTER and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar and Defense Minister and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz announce the merger of their parties ahead of the upcoming election, in Ramat Gan, earlier this week. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
JUSTICE MINISTER and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar and Defense Minister and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz announce the merger of their parties ahead of the upcoming election, in Ramat Gan, earlier this week.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Israel’s upcoming election was largely out of the limelight this week, with the country occupied with US President Joe Biden’s visit. Nonetheless, a number of important developments occurred, and some pieces of the political puzzle are beginning to fall into place.

First and foremost was Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s announcement on Sunday evening that their two parties will run together in the election. The two left out Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, who is now negotiating with Interior Minister and Yamina chairwoman Ayelet Shaked about entering her party.

On Tuesday, Meretz head Nitzan Horowitz announced that he would not compete again for the position of Meretz chairman, leaving Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan as the only current candidate.

The Likud finalized the rules for its primary election, which will be held on August 3. The party decided that the traditional “special” spot reserved for a member of a “minority” would be in the unrealistic No. 44, angering Druze MK Fateen Mulla, who currently holds that position.

MK Itamar Ben-Gvir convened a press conference on Tuesday and challenged Religious Zionism Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich to launch a large research project so as to find the best possible list for a union of the far-right parties.

 ITAMAR BEN-GVIR speaks to the media in Sheikh Jarrah last month. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) ITAMAR BEN-GVIR speaks to the media in Sheikh Jarrah last month. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, who is still officially part of Yamina, said that he would not be part of a narrow right-wing government. This put him at odds with Shaked, and he is reportedly searching for a new political home.

Finally, former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, the hottest free agent on the market, continues to heat up on the sidelines. He is expected to join either Blue and White-New Hope (we’ll call it BWNH from now on) or Yesh Atid, but it is not clear when he will make his decision. The deadline for parties to submit their final lists is September 15 at 10 p.m.

THE GANTZ-SA’AR merger was by far the major development. But what are its consequences?

The polls published after its announcement had the new party receiving 13-14 seats. Gantz currently has eight seats in the Knesset and Sa’ar has six. In mergers such as this one, the polls are usually the highest immediately after the merger is announced. If BWNH at its high point did not add to the sum of its current seats, could the move have been a mistake?

Sa’ar is being attacked from the Right. Why, critics are asking, did he decide at such an early stage to put all his eggs into the basket of a man who has met repeatedly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and allowed Palestinian construction in Area C under his watch as defense minister?

Indeed, neither Sa’ar nor Gantz mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the West Bank in their speeches on Sunday evening or statements to the press prior to their first joint party meeting on Monday afternoon.

Instead, they focused on their shared goal of creating a stable, broad government that will bring together moderates from all sides and leave out extremists.

But their choice to ignore the Palestinians was especially telling this week, since they figured prominently in the media for two reasons.

The first was the holiday of Eid al-Adha, which Muslims celebrated between Friday and Tuesday. Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Gantz made a flurry of calls to Arab leaders to wish them a happy holiday – including to Mahmoud Abbas. This was the first direct phone conversation between an Israeli prime minister and the PA president in five years. Lapid and Gantz are now bringing Abbas back into the picture, after the Likud and the Right made him “irrelevant,” opposition MKs charged. Sa’ar was presumably not happy.

The second was the Biden visit. A US presidential visit always brings with it discussion about the Palestinians. Granted, this visit is about regional defense and technological cooperation against Iran, but in his opening speech Biden reiterated his support for the two-state solution. The pro-settler movement Regavim also criticized Lapid for considering to approve a large swath of building permits in strategic areas around Jerusalem and in other places in the West Bank as a gesture to the visiting president, with Gantz’s approval. As defense minister under Lapid during this election campaign, the Palestinian issue may be a thorn in the side for the new BWNH – and may push away disgruntled right-wing former New Hope voters.

Where will these voters go?

The obvious answer is Yamina, especially if Shaked agrees to bring Hendel and his political ally MK Zvi Hauser on board.

The addition of Hendel would signal to these voters that Shaked is maintaining the “mamlachti,” or statesmanlike, attitude of her predecessor and current alternate prime minister, Naftali Bennett.

Unlike Bennett, Shaked rarely speaks about “mamlachtiyut,” and it is not a secret that she has preferred a narrow right-wing government all along over the past year, even if led by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

In any case, if Shaked decides to bring in Hendel and Hauser, the two will need to dissolve their separate two-man faction, Derech Eretz, and fully join the party, a source from Yamina said.

Hendel held a rally this week in Shoham, filling an auditorium, an event attended by a number of MKs, including Yamina’s Abir Kara. Hendel explained that he stands behind all of his decisions so far – to leave Blue and White in the second election cycle over its agreement to cooperate with the Joint List, and to push through the “kosher cellphone” reform, despite heavy pressure from the haredi parties. He is currently in a peak bargaining position and is pressuring Shaked to bring him on board as soon as possible, the source said.

Yamina so far is also polling far below the election threshold, and Hendel may be attempting to use this as leverage to pressure her into a deal.

But Hendel does not really have anywhere else to go, so his bargaining position is limited. Shaked will wait for the outcome of an expensive in-depth poll she ordered, before deciding on her next move. This could take until the end of July, the source said.

In addition, Shaked’s budget is around NIS 8 million, since party funding is based on the size of the current faction in the Knesset. Other than MK Amichai Chikli, no other MKs from Yamina have legally deserted the party, so her spending cap is far above what her current situation indicates, according to political analyst and pollster Mitchell Barak. Barak is head of KEEVOON Research, Strategy & Communications, a global survey research and strategic communications firm based in Israel.

In general, the polls that have been published in recent weeks should be taken with a grain of salt, Barak said. This is because the sample sizes are often so small that while the election threshold is 3.25% of all votes, the polls often have an over 4% margin of error. This means that while Shaked is currently polling at 1.9%, her actual strength could be far higher and perhaps even above the threshold. The opposite could be true for other parties as well, according to Barak’s explanation.

In addition, not all moderate right-wing voters see Gantz’s meetings with Mahmoud Abbas as a problem, Barak said regarding the Gantz-Sa’ar merger. Many may in fact support Gantz’s efforts to increase security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and therefore stick with BWNH.

Furthermore, the merger makes the new party better rounded and better suited to be a “governing party,” should Gantz become prime minister, Barak said.

This is important because the past year, with Bennett serving as prime minister with only six Knesset seats, showed that a prime minister from a small party is problematic and should be avoided. The joint party also has a number of relatively well-known politicians, and this makes it more attractive, Barak said.

In any case, the picture on the Center-Right will become much clearer once Hendel and Shaked announce their intentions. Providing that this will not happen for a couple weeks, watching the Biden parade will probably provide more excitement.

GOLAN, THE deputy economy minister and a former IDF deputy chief of staff, is the only person who has announced his candidacy so far in the race for Meretz Party lead.

However, Channel 12 reported on Wednesday that former Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On ordered a poll and found that if the election were held today, Meretz would win six seats under her leadership and Labor only four.

Many figures in Meretz, including Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej and MK Michal Rozin, have been calling on Gal-On to return. If the polls are accurate, this would mean that the tables would turn on the Left, and Meretz would gain far more leverage in negotiations for a potential merger with Labor.

Labor under Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli has so far opposed such a merger, arguing that the two parties are ideologically and organizationally different. But if Gal-On takes over Meretz, Labor will find itself with its back to the electoral threshold wall, and may change its tune. It remains to be seen whether in such a scenario Meretz will stick to its support of a merger, and if so under what conditions.

If Gal-On declines, however, the party will most likely be left in the hands of Golan. The idea of a former general in a party that actively supports a two-state solution is not a bad idea, as it gives the party a national security aspect that it otherwise lacks. But Golan leading the party may be detrimental to its success, according to Mitchell Barak.

Meretz is more vocal in its criticism of the IDF’s actions in the West Bank than any other Zionist party currently in the Knesset. And while Golan expressed some of his views while still in uniform, he still spent his entire professional career within the system that some Meretz MKs claim systematically oppresses the Palestinians. Having him as head of the party could be too much for its voters to swallow, Barak said.

With Biden off to Saudi Arabia on Friday, the election will slowly return to the national limelight, whether most of the country wants it or not.