With party lists submitted, Israel's real election begins - analysis

Those who have ignored the polls until now can start paying attention.

Israel's Knesset (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israel's Knesset
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
It was cold and rainy outside the Knesset on Thursday, when the last parties submitted their lists of candidates to the Central Elections Committee.
But it was what is known in baseball as spring training.
Exhibition games are played, and efforts are made by players to make each team. But then all the teams’ rosters are set, records are erased and the real season finally begins.
The exhibition standings are like the polls taken until now. Their results don’t really matter, because they were about teams that were not playing at full force, so they get thrown away with the first pitch on Opening Day.
Opening Day is today, 46 days before the March 23 election – and from now on, everything counts. Those who have ignored the polls until now can start paying attention.
The Likud, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, remains the team to beat. Several of his fiercest critics – Avi Nissenkorn, Moshe Ya’alon, Ron Huldai and Ofer Shelah – are out of politics. Two of the three IDF chiefs of staff who joined together to bring him down for three elections have gone home, and the one who is left, Benny Gantz, appears – at least according to polling – to be a has-been.
The Joint List split, which could leave tens of thousands of Arab voters at home on Election Day and take their votes away from the individual parties that remain, possibly bringing them below the 3.25% electoral threshold.
The nightmare scenario for Netanyahu of Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett uniting did not happen. Instead, the Likud leader’s two potential rivals on the Right are tearing each other apart. Neither Sa’ar nor Bennett brought in a last-minute star, and their lists were submitted without fanfare.
The rival Netanyahu wanted to run against, Yair Lapid, has distanced himself from the pack, as the prime minister’s primary alternative. Netanyahu’s plan will be to disparage him as a Leftist, like he did with all of his other past rivals, which he could not have done with Sa’ar or Bennett.
Lapid emerged as a winner, outlasting five party heads in his camp who quit in recent weeks. Yesh Atid has kept growing in support, despite not merging or making any significant editions.
But Lapid’s efforts behind the scenes to bring about mergers inside his Center-Left camp failed. The similarity of Labor and Meretz and their leaders Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz could lead to one or the other not crossing the threshold, which could be disastrous for the camp. Voters on the Center-Left now have a choice of three parties led by former journalists of Ashkenazi descent who live in Tel Aviv.
The anti-Netanyahu camp could still have an easier time building a coalition than Netanyahu. But there is no guarantee that either camp will be able to do it.
Which is why, if neither side gets the magic number of 61 on Election Day, Israelis could end up having to endure yet another rematch.