What are questions that remain for Israel's political parties - analysis

With the primary season over, which questions remain for Israel's political parties?

 A voting box in the last Israeli election in 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A voting box in the last Israeli election in 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)

With the primary elections officially over for those parties that held them – the Likud, Labor, Meretz and the Religious Zionist Party (RZP) – what are some of the central political questions that remain ahead of the 10 p.m., September 15 deadline, when they must hand in their final lists?

The Likud

The most important question left for Israel’s largest political party is who party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu will choose to fill the spots on the list reserved for him – 14,16, 27, 37 and 43. Current polls have the Likud winning 30 to 35 seats, so only the first three reserved spots have a realistic chance of making it into the next Knesset.

Obvious candidates are the three Yamina renegade MKs, Amichai Chikli, Idit Silman and Nir Orbach. Other names such as former Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and Brig.-Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch were also mentioned as options earlier on in the campaign.

Another possibility was that Netanyahu would agree to use one of his spots for an MK from RZP or Otzma Yehudit in order to help the two parties reach a merger agreement. This was the arrangement in the previous election, when Ofir Sofer of RZP was placed in the number 28 spot on the Likud list. On Friday, however, the sides announced that a merger agreement had been reached without the Likud having to give up one of its spots.

 Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote at the Likud primaries, August 10, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote at the Likud primaries, August 10, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Another factor succeeded in complicating Netanyahu’s choice: Only six women were chosen in the party’s top 35 spots. This has led to internal pressure on the Likud’s leader to choose women for his reserved spots.

Meanwhile, a fight broke out between MKs May Golan, Eti Atiah and Keti Shitrit, who currently fill spots number 32, 35 and 39, respectively. Shitrit petitioned the Likud’s election committee over what she claimed were irregularities in certain ballots, and claimed that she should have won the 35th spot despite 317 votes separating Atiah from Shitrit, while only 102 separated Atiah and Golan.

Netanyahu reportedly could solve the quarrel between the three by using up his 27th spot for Gila Gamliel, who currently occupies the 30th spot. Golan would then move up to the 30th spot, Atiah would move up to 32nd and Shitrit would move up to 35th, thus also adding a seventh woman to the mix.

National Unity

With the addition of former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and ex-Yamina MKs Matan Kahana and Shirley Pinto, the National Unity Party seems set to officially launch its campaign. Indeed, the party announced on Sunday that it will be holding a campaign launch event on September 6 in Tel Aviv.

 Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot joining the State Camp party run by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot joining the State Camp party run by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

However, the expected jump in the party’s popularity after Eisenkot’s decision was not as substantial as the party had hoped. In a poll published by Maariv on Friday, the party received 13 seats – just one more than Blue and White and New Hope (minus Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and MK Zvi Hauser) currently have in the Knesset.

When Eisenkot joined, other than his spot on the list (3) and Kahana’s (9), he agreed to take spots 16,18 and 21 for his three supporters, presumably with the hope that at least the first would enter the Knesset, as some polls had the party reaching as high as 17 mandates.

Eisenkot announced last week that he had chosen two women with proven social-welfare achievements – lawyer Inbar Yehezkeli Blilius and social entrepreneur Inbar Harush Giti – to occupy the 16th and 18th spots. But this also did not make headlines and the party has not taken off.

Another issue that may affect the party’s standing is the impasse on talks on a new salary agreement between the Finance Ministry and the Teachers Union.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who is part of the National Unity Party and is expected to occupy its fifth spot, chose to back the teachers. If the talks fail and the school year does not begin on time because of a teachers’ strike, Shasha-Biton and indirectly, her party, will suffer.

National Unity has not begun its official campaign, until now engaged in forming its list and bringing in free agents. With that over, the party will soon begin to campaign in earnest, but it faces an uphill battle if it wants to establish itself as the clear third place finisher.

Religious Zionism Party

In the Maariv poll taken before RZP and Otzma Yehudit announced their merger agreement on Friday afternoon, the two parties received four and eight seats, respectively, and 13 in a joint run. That was at the expense of the Likud, which finished with 30, one of the lowest marks in a poll since the election was announced.

Netanyahu orchestrated the merger by inviting both RZP chairman Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben-Gvir to his home in Caesarea, reportedly separately. Netanyahu, within a few hours, managed to bring the two to agree on a deal that they were not able to reach alone after some six weeks of on-and-off negotiations. Netanyahu noticeably did not release a picture from his meetings with either of the two.

Though the united RZP-Otzma Yehudit party will certainly pass the electoral threshold, it will need to fight Netanyahu to keep up its polling numbers, as he will try to regain mandates lost to Ben-Gvir. Ben-Gvir, however, is a media magnet, and if his unexpected success continues or even grows, Netanyahu may see the Likud drop to the high 20s, which will not bode well for him. Smotrich, and especially Ben-Gvir, will need to block the flow of votes to its much-larger ally.

United Torah Judaism

UTJ is facing a serious crisis as its two factions, the Lithuanian-haredi Degel Hatorah and the Hassidic Agudat Yisrael have not been able to come to an agreement on two central issues and both are threatening to run alone.

The first issue is who the joint party’s leader will be. According to an agreement signed before the previous election, Degel leader Moshe Gafni was to receive the lead for the 24th Knesset and Agudat Yisrael for the upcoming 25th.

In the meantime, however, experienced Agudah chairman Ya’acov Litzman was forced to resign from the Knesset as part of a plea bargain and was replaced by newcomer Yitzhak Goldknopf.

Gafni is taking advantage of his rival’s inexperience and demanding that Degel retain the party leadership. He argues that since UTJ was in the opposition in the previous Knesset, his leadership of the party did not have any real significance, and thus he deserves to lead it again.

The second issue, which has remained largely under the radar of mainstream media, is a deal reached recently between the government and Hassidut Belz. The hassidic group, which is part of Agudat Yisrael, agreed to open up its schools to a state core curriculum – including math and English studies – in exchange for funding and subsidies. Degel is vehemently against the agreement and is unwilling to align with a party willing to make such a move.

The two parties will either need to arrive at a compromise by September 15 or run independently, with both facing the risk of falling beneath the electoral threshold.  

Zionist Spirit

Maariv’s poll on Friday had the party led by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked again falling beneath the electoral threshold, as it has in nearly every poll since its inception.

The party inched closer to the threshold of 3.25% of the general vote, finishing at 2.8%, but it also suffered a blow on Friday when MK Abir Kara announced he was leaving the party, citing “ideological differences.”

Kara, a free-market hardliner who fought in the previous Knesset against a number of lobbies and special interest groups, was reportedly angered by Shaked’s decision to bring on Amitai Porat to fill the party’s number three spot, as Porat has expressed support for the farmer’s lobby in the past. Shaked, however, claimed that Kara left because he insisted on being fourth on the list – a spot reserved for MK Zvika Hauser.

 Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at The Jerusalem Post's London conference on March 31, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at The Jerusalem Post's London conference on March 31, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In any case, after former Yamina chairman and Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced he was not running; Chikli, Silman and Orbach crossing over to the opposition; and Kahana and Pinto defecting to National Unity, Shaked’s party has a completely new makeup and needs to rebuild itself. One way it could bolster its strength is to merge with Bayit Hayehudi and its new chairman Yossi Brodny, but Brodny insists that his party will run alone.

Shaked’s campaign until now, arguing in favor of forming a broad government and remaining noncommittal on which bloc her party will join, is falling on deaf ears, as voters from each side have reason to suspect that she may join the other.

Shaked has until the election on November 1 to decide if she will be pulling out of the race, but needs to generate momentum soon if she wishes to remain relevant.

The Joint List

The Joint List is facing a breakaway threat of its own. The list is a merger of three Israeli-Arab parties – Hadash led by MK Ayman Odeh, Ta’al led by MK Ahmad Tibi and Balad led by MK Sami Abou Shahadeh.

Shahadeh announced last week that his party was insisting on a new “political program” from its partners in order for the union to survive.

The program includes a return to a “national” and not just a “civil” agenda, and a flat refusal to support or to recommend any Jewish parties to lead the next coalition. Balad reportedly met with an additional faction called Mada in order to discuss a joint run, and according to unconfirmed reports, Ta’al was considering joining Balad and leaving Odeh’s Hadash out to dry.

However, according to Dr. Muhammad Khalaila of the University of Haifa and the Israel Democracy Institute, Abou Shahadeh’s move is purely political, intended to portray him as an ideologue and his partners as self-interested. Balad has very little support and its chairman is merely trying to gain some leverage in renewed negotiations with the Joint List. In reality Balad will most likely rejoin the Joint List without any significant changes, and if it runs alone, it will only receive 20,000-30,000 votes, Khalaila predicted.  

No matter the constellation, if the Joint List splits in two, one of the factions may not cross the electoral threshold. This could lead to votes being wasted, which will benefit the Right. Hadash, Ta’al and especially Balad will need to decide on the matter by September 15 and then focus on raising the percentage of voters from the Arab-Israeli sector, which according to a recent IDI poll may reach historic lows in the upcoming election.

Meretz and Labor

With Zehava Galon taking over Meretz again after defeating Deputy Economy Minister MK Yair Golan in the party leadership primary on Tuesday, the party is expected to gain strength at the expense of Labor. Galon, a feminist and firebrand, is expected to earn back some women voters who switched from Meretz to Labor in the previous election. Meretz, which earlier polls showed was fighting to pass the electoral threshold, now appears to be on track to win five seats, the same, or perhaps even more than Interior Minister Merav Michaeli’s Labor.

Although Labor now has its back to the wall, Michaeli is still adamantly refusing to consider a merger with Meretz, and at this point it looks like they will run independently. This means both parties will need to share the nine to 10 mandates between them pretty much equally if both are to pass the threshold. If one loses too much to the other and falls below it, they will tip the ship toward the Netanyahu bloc.