The rebels’ election

As polls crown Likud and Netanyahu while the rest of the system splinters and boils, the 2019 election’s unsung joker is set to be the attorney general.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen through an open door as he convenes a recent cabinet meeting (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen through an open door as he convenes a recent cabinet meeting
“It’s not rebels that make trouble, it’s trouble that makes rebels,” American politician Ruth Messinger once said.
That certainly goes for three rebellions at play as Israel prepares for its 21st general election, a contest in which the clear superiors – Benjamin Netanyahu among candidates, Likud among parties – face a collection of rebels, outcasts, and discontents.
Politically, the Netanyahu era seems set to embark on its second decade. Legally, however, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit may indict Netanyahu before the April 9th election, a move that could set off unpredictable political dynamics.
This is the backdrop of this election’s overarching spirit of rebellion, underscored by Netanyahu’s unfolding attempts to maneuver and defy the judiciary.
Meanwhile, it took less than a week since the sudden announcement of the election on December 24 for an assortment of parties to teeter, split, or sprout amid two major rebellions – one on the Right, one on the Left – all of which promises an election far more lively, and unpredictable, than originally assumed.
The announcement that the election will be held seven months early caught the media and also much of the political system unprepared, as most expected the government to fall later in the winter, in the wake of ultra-Orthodox opposition to the Conscription Bill.
Conventional wisdom also has it that Netanyahu wanted the election held as late as possible, and thus possibly delay his prospective indictment, hoping the AG would be deterred from pressing charges at a timing that might influence the election’s result.
Instead, Netanyahu assembled the coalition’s leaders and had them jointly agree on the date, which falls the week before Passover, thus leaving hardly three months for campaigning, a snap election by Israeli standards.
Netanyahu’s rationale in this move is debatable. It may have been designed to reach the election at his own initiative rather than passively, as a result of ultra-Orthodox politicians bolting his coalition.
Then again, pundits suspect Netanyahu wanted to force the AG to face a reelected Netanyahu while still deliberating whether to indict him.
Conversely, a reelected and yet unindicted Netanyahu might then pass the so-called French Law, which will make it illegal to indict an incumbent prime minister. Moreover, a reelected Netanyahu might claim the voters judged him innocent despite police recommendations to indict him in two separate bribery cases.
However, despite the shortened schedule Netanyahu imposed, the AG might still summon Netanyahu for a fateful hearing prior to the election, following police recommendations to indict him on three bribery charges involving, separately, former Bezeq chairman Shaul Alovich, Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, and film producer Arnon Milchan.
Realizing a hearing might take place sooner rather than later, Netanyahu told reporters while in Brazil for President Jiar Bolsonaro’s inauguration, “I will not resign.” Israel, he added, is ruled by the law, and the law does not demand the prime minister’s resignation while undergoing a hearing.
Since the law also does not demand that the prime minister resign until faced with an unappealable conviction, it is clear that Netanyahu intends to run no matter where the legal process might have arrived by Election Day on April 9. As Netanyahu says in a video on his Facebook page: “You can’t start a hearing before the election that will end after it.”
For now, Netanyahu’s voters seem unimpressed, as polls indicate he remains the preferred candidate for prime minister while Likud retains its 30 Knesset seats, surrounded by a plethora of competitors, the largest of which garners in polls hardly half that yield.
Even so, the early election threw the entire political system into a tizzy, dramatized by two seismic tremors and one meteoric boom.
THE MINI EARTHQUAKES happened almost simultaneously on the political playing field’s opposite ends, where rebels challenged the outgoing Knesset’s two largest parties.
On the Left, Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay stunned Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni by disbanding their parties’ alliance, the Zionist Union, during a televised faction meeting on January 1st, with an astonished Livni at his side.
On the Right, the duo heading Bayit Yehudi, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, startled their colleagues by announcing on December 29 their abandonment of their own party and the creation of a new party, Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right), challenging Netanyahu’s leadership of the Right.
Gabbay’s move was both personal and strategic.
Personally, Gabbay felt Livni was working behind his back to assemble a center-left formation where he would be marginalized. Strategically, Gabbay thought Livni obstructed his efforts to distance Labor from its legacy as the sponsor of the Oslo Accords, and to steer its agenda from foreign to social affairs.
As Gabbay sees it, Livni is a major cause of Labor’s plunge in the polls to barely 10 seats, after having garnered 24 in 2015, when it formed the Zionist Union with Livin’s Hatenuah. Whatever the validity of these arguments, Gabbay’s brutality is seen by Labor’s old guard as a recent arrival’s attack on them.
What Gabbay saw in Livni and Labor’s old guard, Bennett saw in Bayit Yehudi’s rabbis, yet more crucially, his rebellion constitutes a spectacular charge on Netanyahu’s unwilled estate.
“The national camp should not be held captive by one leader,” said Bennett, with Shaked at his side, while announcing their departure from the party with which they were identified more than anyone else.
Already immensely popular among the West Bank’s settlers, the modern-Orthodox Bennett and the secular Shaked appear eager to storm Likud’s hardcore constituency by championing a hard line on Palestinian issues while avoiding issues of religion and state. This aim was reflected in their recruitment of Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, a secular neoconservative who lives in the West Bank town of Efrat.
The rest of Bayit Yehudi’s faction thus returns to its political origin, the historic National Religious Party whose agenda included issues like the Sabbath, matrimony, conversion, and kashruth supervision.
Bennett’s move is one of the biggest gambles ever made by an Israeli politician. Until now, Israeli leaders who broke away from their own parties were on the scale of Ariel Sharon and David Ben-Gurion.
Sharon’s move, when he left the Likud in 2005 to establish Kadima, worked well, though he fell ill before it matured. Ben-Gurion’s move, when he established Rafi in 1965, was a resounding failure, having won a mere 10 Knesset seats as opposed to Labor’s 45.
Another such move, Ehud Barak’s splitting of Labor in 2011, was such a flop that the faction he created, Atzmaut (Independence) didn’t even bother running in 2013.
Bennett’s prospects are a mystery. Polls the morning after his announcement ranged from 14 seats to hardly six. For his part, Bennett is building on Shaked’s popularity among right-wingers, who appreciate her introduction of conservative justices to a Supreme Court which that electorate considers overly liberal.
Indeed, the 42-year-old Shaked seemed well-positioned to join the competition for Likud’s leadership the day after Netanyahu. Now her chances of being welcomed in the future by the Likud have been hurt, because the party she and Bennet established is seen there as a betrayal of Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, the splintering on both right and left is raising fears that the victories some in both camps may celebrate as glorious will be lamented by the rest as Pyrrhic.
LABOR’S DEPARTING voters are not vanishing. Polls claim they are going to Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael (Resilience for Israel), which as of this writing has no membership, candidate list, or platform, but whose emergence out of the blue may rearrange the political center.
Pollsters say Gantz will win some 15 Knesset seats. The main contributor to this theoretical windfall is Labor, followed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, whose 12 Knesset seats seemed ready to grow by 50 percent before Gantz and his political start-up came along.
On the center’s right end, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and his newly introduced Telem (Hebrew acronym for The Movement for Apolitical Leadership) are widely rumored to join Gantz, making some call it “the generals’ list,” as both are former IDF Chiefs of General Staff.
Meanwhile, on the social flank of the same center-right electorate, MK Orly Levy-Abekasis – a lawyer and the daughter of former Likud foreign minister David Levy – is fielding her own party, Gesher (Bridge), while pundits suggest she might join Gantz’s formation, and grant it the civic angle it has yet to assume.
To Gantz’s left, Labor is also a candidate for a joint ticket.
All told, these dynamics challenge Lapid, who will be pressured to join a federated centrist ticket that will storm the legally embattled Netanyahu. Absent such a federation, no matter who leads it, Netanyahu’s victory is as inevitable as Richard Nixon’s was when he faced George McGovern.
Then again, the cracks across the political partition may prove no less self-defeating, maybe more.
“It might shatter the right,” said Netanyahu of Bayit Yehudi’s breakup, recalling the 1992 election, when right-wing votes wasted on parties that didn’t get elected contributed to Yitzhak Rabin’s victory, which resulted in the Oslo Accords.
Netanyahu’s concern is that the breakup in Bayit Yehudi will leave its remaining portion stranded under the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the voters, which means parties must effectively win a minimum of four seats to enter the Knesset. Since an unelected party’s votes are not counted, such splinters can waste entire Knesset seats that the Right will later fatefully miss.
Not only Bayit Yehudi’s schism may cause such self-defeat. In Shas, current party leader, Arye Deri, and his predecessor, Eli Yishai, may bleed each other electorally, as they already did four years ago, when Yishai failed to pass the threshold, but won enough votes to leave Shas with a meager seven seats.
Debacle may also await Yisrael Beytenu and its hard-talking leader, Avigdor Liberman, whose secular electorate is a natural target for Bennett and Shaked.
Finally, as if all this is not chaotic enough, the molecular United Torah Judaism may see its Hasidic and anti-Hasidic atoms part ways, as the latter feels the party’s current formula for apportioning its candidates no longer reflects the two communities’ demographics.
Faced with all this mayhem, the Likud will present itself as a turbulent political system’s center of gravity, a status that will still demand consolidation.
Likud’s task will be to make at least one of its satellite parties join its ticket. There are two candidates for this role: Avigdor Liberman, whose resignation as defense minister triggered the early election; and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu faction is poised, according to polls, to lose at least a third of its 10 lawmakers, some to Levy-Abekasis and some to Gantz.
Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu won six seats in the last election, but went down to five following Levy-Abekasis’s resignation in 2016 and creation of her own faction.
Liberman may indeed opt for a joint ticket with Likud, of the sort the two parties fielded in 2013. Kahlon also has reason to return to the Likud, his original and natural home. However, Kahlon demands that Netanyahu, if indicted, resign.
Whatever transpires on the Right, Likud will have to brave Bennett’s sniping from its right while fighting Gantz and Lapid to its left.
Such, then, are the alignments at play following the 20th Knesset’s dissolution. Less dramatic, but no less intriguing, will be the next Knesset’s new faces.
THE 21ST Knesset’s personal makeup will be easier to predict on February 22, the deadline for submitting the candidate lists, but some changes are already apparent.
Yesh Atid’s list will include Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy head of the Mossad, and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Orna Barbivai, the former head of the IDF’s Human Resources Division, and the highest-ranking woman who ever served in the Israeli army.
In the Likud, former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, who took a break from politics in 2014, is running again in the Likud’s primaries. If he performs well, the 52-year-old lawyer will position himself as a potential successor for Netanyahu.
Among the smaller parties, Housing Minister Yoav Galant has resigned from the Kulanu faction and joined the Likud, in order to run in its primaries.
Among the Arab parties, outspoken lawmakers Hanin Zouabi and Jamal Zahalka of the secular Balad (National Democratic Assembly) faction will not run for reelection, nor will the United List’s only Jewish lawmaker, Dov Khenin, of the Hadash faction.
These are but early birds in what will become a crop of some 40 new lawmakers come Passover, judging by what happened in this century’s five general elections. While the new faces have yet to fully emerge, the agenda will not be about any regional or domestic issue but about one man: Netanyahu.
The center and the left will tarnish him for his legal entanglements, and for what they will portray as a dismal economic record, underscored by persistent housing shortages and a growing budget deficit.
On the right, Bennett and Shaked will nominally defend Netanyahu’s legal flank, but in the same breath say his time is up.
In between these, a critical mass of voters will defend Netanyahu in defiance of the judiciary, which they perceive as his enemy, and theirs. Just where all this will lead the Jewish state itself will be for the next Knesset to decide – and for history to judge.