The prime minister and his predecessor are at loggerheads over the emerging nuclear deal with Iran, accusing each other of misdeeds and failures, and their parties’ videos and messages are devoted to mutual mudslinging about leadership capabilities and skills.
By virtue of his one-on-one confrontation with Netanyahu, Lapid is steadily gaining ground in the polls, narrowing the gap between their respective parties to nine seats in the latest Channel 12 poll published late this week. However, as the common knowledge from previous elections teaches, it’s not about the party, it’s about the bloc.
Netanyahu and Lapid’s battle for the top could very well be decided on the sidelines by small parties to their Left and their Right, parties with scattered political interests and egos. Both leaders face a jigsaw puzzle of scattered parties and egos, inflated and bruised, which they need to merge and consolidate in order to maximize the parties’ electoral potential and avert the danger of their votes going down the drain because they failed to cross the 3.25% electoral threshold.
The number of parties in each bloc is crucial not only for Election Day itself, but even more so for designing and defining the campaign in the upcoming weeks. If Lapid and Netanyahu wish to dedicate themselves and go all in on a two-headed battle, they need to be free of the fear of draining votes from the small parties. Any one of them that sinks below the threshold brings victory closer to the other side.
At the moment, Netanyahu is in a stronger position. He is a much more seasoned and experienced player than Lapid, with a history of splitting up parties on the Left, and his construction skills with players on his Right have only improved over the course of the last four elections.
After the first round in March 2019, in which Naftali Bennett missed the threshold by 1,400 votes and more than 200,000 right-wing votes went down the drain, the Likud was traumatized. Since then, Netanyahu has enhanced his control over the National-Religious players and upgraded his manipulation of his allies in the right-wing bloc.
Netanyahu and his right-wing allies Smotrich and Ben-Gvir
Last Friday, he successfully mediated a deal between Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, even without having them both in the same room, signing an agreement by WhatsApp. Their joint run was in the cards, and the only surprise was how early it occurred, three weeks before the September 15 deadline for submitting lists and for merges and unifications.
Smotrich and Ben-Gvir had been bickering for weeks over the power division of the seats in their renewed alliance, with the latter gaining popularity in the polls. Netanyahu feared success would boost Ben-Gvir’s ego and complicate negotiations, and leave him with two small parties to his Right and no place to maneuver. So he speeded up his interference, breaking a tradition of waiting for the last minute.
No photo was sent out from the not so dramatic moment. Netanyahu prefers to visually distance himself from the radicalism, racism and Jewish supremacy promoted by Ben-Gvir. Nevertheless, he once again legitimized Ben-Gvir’s political presence, promising him he would be part of his future government. Netanyahu is not well known for keeping political commitments, but even if eventually he breaks the promise, it’s mere existence contributes to Ben-Gvir’s whitewashing of his criminal past and involvement with Jewish terrorism, and his rebranding as the legitimate emerging star of the far Right.
In the past, Netanyahu publicly stated that Ben-Gvir is not suitable to serve as a minister. Not much has changed, besides a constant rise in his public attention and attraction, as well as the Likud losing power and moving to the opposition, which makes the whole difference. In order to consolidate his bloc and secure his run to regain the premiership, the promise to Ben-Gvir was a price Netanyahu was willing to pay. Will he actually keep it? That’s a whole different story.
Meanwhile, the promise united Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in a technical bloc and left Netanyahu to deal with another headache – divisions and power struggles among the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox streams and rabbinates in United Torah Judaism.
So far, the rabbis haven’t been enthusiastic about Netanyahu’s attempts to intervene, but if their squabbling lingers until the September 15 deadline, he is likely to weigh in and exert his pressure.
Lapid and the Left's Labor and Meretz
LAPID’S PUZZLE, on the other hand, is much more complicated. While Netanyahu’s allies fully accept his leadership and totally abide by his directives, parties in the center-left bloc are not disciplined by or obedient to Lapid’s wishes and aspirations and do not necessarily recognize him as leader of the bloc to begin with.
Labor and Meretz are both polling very close to the threshold, with four to five seats each and, on a bad day, could easily fall under it. Last week, Lapid publicly warned that a split run is dangerous because “it could return Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir to power.” His call was followed by an anonymous widespread ad, published this week in all of the newspapers, calling on the “two leaders to make one brave decision.”
So far, Labor leader Merav Michaeli has been adamantly rejecting public pressure for a lefty union, citing nuanced ideological differences with her neighbor on the Left. She even threatened to sue the sponsors of the advertisement – all well-known and respected left-wing activists – for the anonymous publication, which is against the law.
Michaeli’s refusenik status enables Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On to play the part of the good guy in a possible future blame game and present generous offers to Michaeli through the media.
History, as well as current polls, shows that in a joint run, Labor and Meretz tend to achieve two to three seats fewer than if they run separately, but as both of them are endangered by the threshold, it can secure their survival and prevent a colossal loss to Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc.
Lapid intends to increase his pressure until the final deadline, and might offer a seat or two on the Yesh Atid list to compensate the parties for the unification.
But Michaeli doesn’t appear to be budging, and is not inclined to fulfill Lapid’s strategic plans. If the parties run separately, Lapid will have to alter his campaign and refrain from luring voters in his direction. Unlike Netanyahu, who has solved his puzzle almost ideally, he will operate under a constant tension between the party and the bloc.
Lapid has limited influence over the Arab side of the puzzle, as well.
The Arab parties: Ra'am and the Joint List
The three parties that compose the Joint List are yet to agree on the terms and principles of the reunion, and Ra’am is close to the threshold with only four seats. With opinion polls currently predicting an extremely low Arab voter turnout, under 40%, both parties are slated to struggle to survive, let alone if they are divided by three. If one of them fails to cross the threshold, Netanyahu’s 61-seat majority will be close to inevitable.
Lapid is trying to help Ra’am’s Mansour Abbas’s campaign, and has advised him to showcase the achievements of his partnership with the Bennett-Lapid government, hoping it will prompt the Joint List to react and attack him, and awaken the Arab electorate with a vivid ideological debate.
Below the threshold
ALREADY BELOW the threshold await singular pieces that do not fit into the puzzles – first and foremost, Ayelet Shaked and Yoaz Hendel’s Zionist Spirit, which reaches 2.5%-3% of the vote, on the brink of being part of the game.
If it crosses the threshold, it will tilt the scale to Netanyahu’s advantage. Shaked is likely to prefer a government with Netanyahu over reviving her cooperation with Lapid and the Center-Left.
Another loner is Eli Avidar, formerly of Yisrael Beytenu, who founded his own party, and is desperately seeking partnerships, even offering one to 20-year-old Hadar Muchtar, a social media star and founder of the Fiery Youth Party, only to be rejected.
Shaked, Hendel and Avidar all insist they will run until the end, but being left out of the jigsaw puzzles might signal the end is closer than they think.