How it really is! Even the prophets give up….

Let’s just begin with the conventional: “Polls predict.” Yes they do, but not very well in Israel.

Italy’s then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a news conference with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, at Villa Madama in Rome, in 2011 (photo credit: STEFANO RELLANDINI/REUTERS)
Italy’s then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a news conference with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, at Villa Madama in Rome, in 2011
Here’s a question that the prophets could not answer and Maimonides would need to write quickly to publish an accurate Guide to the Elections 2019. The question, posed by a son visiting for Shabbat from Herzliya: “So how will the Israeli elections turn out?”
The unusual reply will appear later in this column. But let’s just begin with the conventional: “Polls predict.” Yes they do, but not very well in Israel. The polls were dead wrong at the last elections, and predicted a win for the Herzog-Livni list, combining Labor with Hatnuah (the Movement) in a list called the Zionist Union. And that was a day before the actual votes were cast. Unbeatable Bibi won again!
To return to the upcoming elections, one recent poll (a week old at the time of this writing) had a margin of error of 4.3 percent and interviewed fewer than 600 people. Since my understanding of mathematics is simple and straightforward, therefore, if, for example,  there are 10 parties, does the margin of error equal 43.7 percent? How do you apply the margin of error otherwise? Please, someone tell me!
Well, the Bible has five dramatic Hebrew words to raise suspense when events occur breathtakingly quickly. The messengers run bringing news to Job. “While this one was still speaking, the next one arrived.” These past few days have been exactly like that. (Though in Job the messengers bring tidings of catastrophe, in this column, this is being used as a breathless example of how swiftly things unfold.)
In mid-November, the prime minister said that because of the serious security situation, we should not go to elections.
Then, the word drifted out that the PM faces at least one and possibly/probably three indictments.
Realizing that the indictments might come sooner rather than later, in mid-December he called in the coalition heads and announced that elections will be held on April 9, before Passover. This unleashed the dash to form new parties and accommodate many egos.
Moving the camera from the PM to the party scenario:
Former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz came out of the rumor factory to announce the formation of a new party, the Israel Resilience party. The polls went crazy!
Along came former defense minister and also a previous chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon and announced he too would form a party. This was later named Telem [Furrow], which is an acronym for the National Statesmanlike Movement.
(I cannot refrain from wishing that Messrs. Gantz and Ya’alon had consulted me for better English translations.)
Each party, Gantz’s Resilience and Yaalon’s Statesmanship, will run separately, and then they will likely sit as one group in the Knesset. This is an electoral ploy, probably designed to determine which general gets more votes, thus avoiding a preelection power struggle over who would be No. 1 if they ran together.
Meanwhile, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked appeared as co-leaders of a new party called Hayamin Hehadash, the New Right. In doing so, they broke with the Bayit Yehudi, or Jewish Home party, the home they themselves had led, because they could not live with their own Orthodox religious right wing. Confused? You should be! So, step by step:
Bennett took over the Jewish Home party, which itself evolved from the National Religious Party and a number of groups further to the right of the NRP. That part was itself a spinoff from the moderate left Hapoel Hamizrachi in the early years of statehood, which moved steadily rightwards, mainly representing the mainstream settlers or inhabitants of Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank) and their supporters. A few splinter groups and other far-right parties merged with the NRP to create the Jewish Home party.
When Bennett took over the Jewish Home, his No. 2 was Ayelet Shaked, whose brains match her charisma. Bennett, himself modern Orthodox, if not particularly learned, teamed up with Shaked in an effort to bring together Orthodox and secular Jews. Shaked, who is secular, has pursued a relentless right-wing line: weakening the role of the courts and trying to bring the attorney general to intervene less in governance by allowing ministers to appoint their own legal advisers. This in my opinion is an invitation to let ministers run rampant over the law.
Apparently, ditching their old party to create the New Right is an honest attempt to enlist Orthodox and secular Jews for a rightist position, which outflanks the Likud. There are built-in problems such as how to relate to the non-Orthodox streams: Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist, and certainly Bennett in his Diaspora dabblings has not shown much courage in that key area of Israel’s relations with these groups.
Compared to the Gantz-Ya’alon lists, which are straightforward and probably moderate right-wing and easier to describe, the Jewish Home-New Right split (desertion in the eyes of those who stayed with the Jewish Home) required me to allocate almost three times as much space to explain.
The left (so-called) Zionist Union became a non-union as well. The former Labor party had merged with Hatnuah before the 2015 elections. The leader of Labor-Hatnuah has been, since April 2017, Avi Gabbay. He had previously been a minister on behalf of Kulanu, led by Moshe Kahlon. He jumped ship, joined Labor and succeeded in his drive to take over. Gabbay is a political inept, unable to bring his MKs to work with him. In an abrupt, public and humiliating way, Gabbay dissolved the partnership with Livni on live TV. He did not have the courtesy even to notify her by phone of his move.
The truth is that Gabbay, who created a stir as a new face, has simply not taken off, not led Labor in a meaningful way nor created any crowd appeal. By the time this article reaches the readers, Labor may have split, dissolved, rebelled, or all of the above. An experienced political observer and pro-Laborite sighed to me, “This is the end of a dream.”
Also by the time you read this, new mergers or “combined lists” of party candidates may appear, and other parties may rear their heads. There is one idealistic group called Pure Love. I warned some of its initiators that they will lose their deposit, a technique designed to prevent hapless groups from wasting a ballot.
Now, one may ask, in this welter of wounded and aspiring egos, who is minding the shop? Benjamin Netanyahu has been on a speeding treadmill of photo ops outside of Israel, like an avid collector of frequent flyer mileage. While holding the three main portfolios: he is prime minister, minister of defense, minister of foreign affairs (and titular minister of health, among others), the country is actually being run by a dedicated cadre of civil servants and heads of the police, army and security services.
All these travel and photo ops have occurred while Mrs. Netanyahu is already under indictment and while Mr. Netanyahu unleashes Jovian bolts of lightning indiscriminately at the “plotters” against him: the “left,” the media, the police, the prosecutors. (Note to history buffs: I have christened this the “Berlusconi defense,” almost word for word what the embattled Silvio B., the media tycoon who served four times as prime minister of Italy, claimed as he fired off salvo after salvo to the bitter end.)
With regard to the question posed to me at the beginning of this column, the answer is: “Ask me a week or two after the elections, when we see what coalition evolves.”
The good news: The electorate showed increasing maturity in the recent local elections demonstrating that voters are more and more judging on issues and/or character. Whether that will carry over to the national scene is a question. And another good sign: our much deservedly maligned Knesset passed a number of enlightened laws in a joint effort by normal and respectful coalition and opposition MKs.
Furthermore, behind the ego masks, stand women and men who really want a secure, blossoming and economically strong Israel. We may all differ on ways and means, and sometimes despair of having a majority see it our way, but we are eternal optimists.
How can we not be? My youngest grandson has just completed his long process of training in one of our very specialized units in the army. I trust the common sense of my children and grandchildren to be able to see their way through the clouds and dangers facing Israel and Jews elsewhere. And to do this well.
Avraham Avi-hai has served in important roles in the early governments of Israel, in the Jewish Agency and as World Chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, and is a founding dean of the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. You can contact him at This column is written in honor of Asaf Reiner.