The big questions of the 2019 Israeli election campaign

What kind of campaigns will the Israeli parties run?

THE KNESSET, as members voted Wednesday night to dissolve it. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE KNESSET, as members voted Wednesday night to dissolve it.
Former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said in 2002: “There are known unknowns.... But there are also unknown unknowns.” Rumsfeld was mocked at the time, but he was making a point that is relevant to the upcoming early election. There are a lot of questions that have yet to be answered – known unknowns – and there are sure to be surprises – unknown unknowns – on the way.
Here are some of the questions that will be answered in the next few months:
When will Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit decide whether to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and what will he decide?
These are key questions that will cloud this entire election. The consensus in the political field is that Netanyahu chose to hold an election in April because he thought he could get reelected before Mandelblit will make a decision. Netanyahu hopes that if he is reelected, Mandelblit will be more hesitant to take a step that could depose a leader that the Israeli people just chose. But Mandelblit is not beholden to Netanyahu, and he really could make any decision at any time.
If it happens before the election, the question will be what Mandelblit decides. At this point, few think the attorney-general won’t indict Netanyahu at all, but will the charges be fraud and breach of trust, or the more serious charge of bribery?
Regardless of what happens, the probes will continue to be on the agenda. They could tip the scales away from Netanyahu to his opposition, or it could strengthen Netanyahu’s victimhood narrative, in which he says the police are biased and out to get him.
What kinds of campaigns will the parties run?
There’s a lot of talk about this election possibly being the dirtiest in a long time. But going too dirty turns the public off, studies have shown. The parties will have to find the right balance between negative and positive campaigning.
If the Left once again focuses on “anyone but Bibi,” it may, once again, serve only to strengthen Netanyahu. What policies are they bringing to the table?
Parties on the Right seem to be listing their achievements – which is easier for them, since they were in power. But at a meeting with settler leaders this week, Netanyahu already started relaying messages that the Left would be a disaster for the country, and he has no problem delegitimizing the law enforcement authorities that are on his case.
Whither Benny Gantz?
This is a very open question because we really don’t know much about the former IDF chief of staff’s politics. He hasn’t spoken to the media, so we don’t know what he stands for or what his plans are. Despite this, he has consistently polled well, often better than Yesh Atid or the Zionist Union. And when he’s matched up with those parties in the polls, they soar into second place – but the Likud is still always in first with around 30 seats.
In any case, his party is called Hosen L’Yisrael or Strength for Israel, but we don’t know its platform. We don’t know if it will merge with an existing party. We also don’t know who else will be in his party.
This week, Channel 2 reported that he plans on teaming up with former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon – who also says he’s founding a party – to found an ex-chiefs of staff party focusing on security. That would be a party of a general who doesn’t talk and a general who doesn’t stop talking.
There’s another centrist mystery party, and that’s Gesher, led by MK Orly Levy-Abecassis. We learned that Levy-Abecassis was adopting the party name used by her father, David Levy, in the ’90s. She’s only spoken in platitudes about her party being a bridge – the meaning of “gesher” – for social gaps, and she’s long focused on helping the poorest Israelis as an MK, but we don’t know much by way of a solid platform. And we don’t know who will be in her party, except that half the list will be female.
Will center-left parties merge to form a bloc?
In the previous election, the merger between Labor and the Tzipi Livni Party to form the Zionist Union made the race against the Likud much tighter than it had been before. In the end, the Likud won by six seats, but there is a logic to Livni’s daily calls for the Center and Left to unite. Their bloc is so fragmented at the moment that no party even comes close to the Likud on its own.
This is a case of too many chiefs. Too many people want to be in charge, whether it’s Labor leader Avi Gabbay, or Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, or Gantz. Will they be able to put their egos aside for their shared goal of bringing Netanyahu down? Or will this be an easy win for the Likud?
Will Zionist Union MKs break away from the party?
While some want the Left to set aside its differences and work together, the talk in the Knesset on Wednesday was the exact opposite of that. Everyone was whispering about whether a group of rebels within the Zionist Union will successfully break away from the party.
However, it’s not as easy as just saying they want to leave. By law, they can take funding with them, as return MKs, only if a third of the faction breaks away. And after breaking away, they can go wherever they want.
So far, they have Yossi Yonah, Ksenia Svetlova and Miki Rosenthal in talks with Meretz, and Robert Tivaiev, who made a deal with Yisrael Beytenu. The persistent rumors were that Eitan Cabel, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin and Nachman Shai – who used to be in Kadima – were looking for a centrist party that will take them, but they all deny it. And anyway, that brings us to seven, not eight.
This could be the final nail in the Zionist Union’s coffin. It’s not that these MKs are such big shots – though Cabel is a longtime Labor MK and Shai has been a household name for decades – but they will give the perception that they’re fleeing a sinking ship. And that image could turn into a reality.
Who by primaries and who by rabbis and who by party leaders?
About a third of MKs do not come back after each Knesset. The question is who won’t be back, and why.
In the departing Knesset, 18 of the original 30 Likud seats went to veteran MKs, and 12 went to newbies. The Likud is structured in such a way that the current 30 MKs will be competing for the first 15 or so seats on the party list. After that come spots to which the party’s different regions elect representatives, and there’s also a seat for an immigrant and for youth, which is how we got Oren Hazan in this Knesset. It looks like this Likud primary will be a bloodbath.
Zionist Union will be no better, since the party has 24 seats and is polling with half of that – on a good day. And if the bloc stays together, then two-thirds will be voted in by the Labor Party and the other third will be chosen by Tzipi Livni.
There are other party leaders who will handpick their lists. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid didn’t have any serious rebels on his slate, but he’ll still surely have some new stars that will bump some MKs out of the realm of the realistic.
Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon is expected to slash some of his high-profile MKs, such as Yoav Gallant and Michael Oren, in favor of figures who are more strongly associated with his core socioeconomic issues.
And then there are the religious parties. The tops of the UTJ and Shas slates will probably remain unchanged, but there’s a real fight over the seventh seat in the former, and there are some newer faces in Shas that may not be back.
The Joint List is also going to be refreshed. Balad leader Jamal Zahalka not coming back, firebrand MK Haneen Zoabi is unlikely to make it back in, and UAL’s Masud Gnaim reached his party’s term limit.
ASIDE FROM these questions, there are total mysteries and surprises that will crop up over the coming months.
Could one of the tiny parties that aren’t showing up on polls – like Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut or the far-right Otzma or the pro-cannabis Green Leaf Party – have a strong enough campaign to be a real contender? Or could they serve as spoilers for one side or the other? Maybe there’s a party we haven’t even heard about yet that could shake things up.
Or someone could make a racist comment onstage at a Labor rally that impacts their numbers, like in 2015 and 1981.
Maybe Netanyahu will come up with a new last-minute trick that will baffle commentators and pollsters alike, as he did on the last week of the 2015 campaign, running to practically every newspaper and studio in the country while his strategists sent out hundreds of thousands of text messages to voters.
Between now and April 9, a lot of these questions will be addressed, and there will probably be new unknowns cropping up. No matter how these questions end up being answered, it’ll be an interesting ride.