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Israeli political parties shuffle the deck ahead of election season

Aug 19, 2022 | Ahron Shapiro

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Ahead of Israel’s next national election on November 1, Israeli political parties have been holding primaries to determine their allocation of seats depending on how many votes they receive on Election Day, and discussing or implementing party mergers or splits ahead of the September 15 deadline for submitting lists for the election. The following is a brief overview of Israel’s current political landscape with a focus on the selection process for the various party lists as we approach the last days of August. For the parties that are not holding primaries and are expected to only finalise their lists next month, I’ll touch on the campaign messaging they are promoting in the meantime.

 

Primaries

Some, but not all, Israeli parties determine their lists for Knesset by way of a primary vote within the party – either by popular vote among all the members or from a smaller group of party functionaries.

Likud: With most election polls showing Likud remaining Israel’s largest party at well over 30 projected seats, all eyes were on its primary on August 10. The results saw a major reorganisation of the Likud list, with candidates loyal to leader Binyamin Netanyahu vaulting to high positions on the party slate, and most internal rivals and critics losing influence. Broadly speaking, newer Likud MKs fared better than experienced MKs, moderates lost ground to the right-wing within the party, while female candidates lagged in the vote compared to earlier recent Likud primaries.

Winners: Yariv Levin, Eli Cohen, Yoav Gallant, David Amsalem, Amir Ohana and Miri Regev

Losers: Yuli Edelstein, David Bitan, Haim Katz

Who’s out: Current MKs out of contention for a Knesset seat include longtime MK Tzachi Hanegbi, as well as Orly Levy-Abecassis, Fateen Mula and Keren Barak.

Labor: Merav Michaeli, who became the first Labor leader in years to be chosen to lead the party in consecutive elections, will lead a new-look Labor list to the Knesset, with an emphasis on social justice, following the results of the party primary on August 9. For the first time ever, Labor’s list of likely MKs includes no candidates with experience in the defence establishment. A party rule demanding gender parity has boosted its female candidates.

Winners: MKs Naama Lazimi, Gilad Kariv, Efrat Rayten, Ram Shefa and Emilie Moatti, Yaya Fink and MK Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin.

Losers: Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev, falling to ninth on the list, would need Labor to significantly outperform its polling numbers to return to the Knesset.

Who’s out: Longtime MK Nahman Shai was knocked down to 17th – an unrealistic spot.

Ra’am: In a limited primary on August 6, party leader Mansour Abbas’ loyalists MKs Walid Taha and Iman Khatib Yassin were re-selected to run in the second and fourth spots on the party’s list. This result ensures that Abbas will have the confidence of his party after the election to join the next Israeli governing coalition, which is his stated intent.

A two-man race for the party’s third spot – reserved for a candidate serving the interests of the Arabs of the Negev – saw the party’s parliamentary bloc director, Walid Al-Hawashla beat out Rahat mayor Faiz Abu Sahiben. The rest of the party’s Knesset list will be determined at a later date.

Balad: On August 6, the radical Arab Balad re-elected its leader MK Sami Abu Shehadeh, while the rest of its list was not readily available.

Hadash: On August 13, the party committee of Hadash, the Israeli communist party,  re-elected Ayman Odeh to lead to its list, followed once again by Aida Touma-Sliman and Ofer Cassif. The fourth spot went to Youssef Atauna, who had previously served as an MK for the party briefly in late 2017 and early 2018.

In any event, Arab political analyst Jalal Bana commented in Israel Hayom on July 13 that with few exceptions, the primaries in Israeli Arab parties in Israel are generally formalities that rubber-stamp pre-determined lists selected by a political machine that favours incumbents.

Meretz: The left-wing party’s head in the past Knesset, Nitzan Horowitz, announced on July 12 that he would not contest for party leadership in November, but would still run for a Knesset seat. Meretz is headed for primaries on August 23, with a campaign to be launched after that. In a two-person leadership race, former Meretz leader Zehava Galon is widely expected to complete her political comeback by beating challenger Yair Golan.

Religious Zionism: The right-wing party led by Betzalel Smotrich will hold primaries online on August 23 and has been seeking to recruit new party members from the ranks of former Yamina supporters who felt betrayed by the party’s involvement in the unity government over the past year.

 

Still up in the air

In Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, Knesset lists are chosen by small committees. As such, it is expected the order of the party lists won’t be released until closer to the September 15 cutoff.

For now, these parties are focusing instead on staking their claim on campaign issues and shaping their messaging.

Yesh Atid: Prime Minister Yair Lapid launched his campaign on August 3, promising to heal Israel’s internal divisions and address rising inflation and cost of living pressures, crime and other issues. Most commentators agree that at this stage, Lapid remains the underdog against Likud leader and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In the aftermath of the IDF’s brief and successful limited military campaign against Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza earlier this month, Lapid’s polling improved against Netanyahu in terms of preferred prime minister. However, according to one survey on August 8, he still trailed Netanyahu on this benchmark 42% to 31%.

Yisrael Beitenu: At the Yisrael Beitenu campaign launch on August 14, party leader Avigdor Lieberman said resolving chronic Israeli government instability is top of his agenda. He called for: New laws to require a supermajority of 90 out of the Knesset’s 120 members in order to bring down a government within the first two years of its existence; a new requirement for budgets to span two years instead of one; term limits on prime ministers; and restrictions to prevent someone under indictment from running for either prime minister or president.

Shas: The party has, so far, been campaigning on two issues: the high cost of living, and preserving the country’s Jewish character. Party leader Aryeh Deri was forced to resign from the Knesset in February 2022 as part of a plea deal on tax offences, but the deal does not preclude him from rejoining the list, and Deri has said he will run again in the upcoming election.

United Torah Judaism (UTJ): Back in late July, Moshe Gafni, leader of UTJ, threatened to split the Ashkenazi Haredi party, running his Degel Hatorah (non-Hasidic) faction separate from the Agudat Yisrael (Hasidic) faction over internal policy disputes. However, this was likely a bluff. From Gafni’s previous statements, UTJ has also been interpreted to be more open than Shas to consider coalition scenarios led by leaders and parties other than Netanyahu and the Likud. Backlash from this speculation led Gafni to reaffirm in a television interview on August 8 that UTJ is still committed to forming a government under Netanyahu, although the interview probably didn’t put the rumours to rest.

 

Mergers

Blue and White merges with New Hope: Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar’ – leaders of the Blue and White and New Hope parties – had announced in July they would be merging for November’s election. On August 14, popular former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot ended months of political fence-sitting by announcing he would run together with Gantz and Sa’ar in a new centre-right list, Hamachane Hamamlachi, which will be known as the “National Unity Party” in English. According to reports, one of Eisenkot’s requirements for joining the party was to open its party list up for a primary system – after the election.

As of this writing, Labor has resisted calls to run together with the left-wing Meretz party to help both parties avoid falling under the electoral threshold of 3.25%, or four seats, although the possibility still exists should polls push them in that direction.

 

Splits

Otzma Yehudit splits from Religious Zionism: On the far-right, buoyed by favourable polls, Itamar Ben-Gvir announced on August 15 that he would split his extreme right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party from Betzalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism. Ben-Gvir’s arrangement with Smotrich had enabled them to cross the electoral threshold together in the last election. On August 18, the Israeli news broadcaster Kan reported that Likud leader Netanyahu was pressuring Ben-Gvir to change his mind and restore his party’s alliance with Religious Zionism, lest either party fail to cross the electoral threshold and waste its votes towards forming a Netanyahu government.

Meanwhile, on the far-left, the predominantly Arab Joint List, a long-standing electoral alliance between Hadash, Ta’al and Balad was reportedly in jeopardy over internal squabbles, with reports in Israeli media on August 18 that Balad was considering running alone.

 

Part split, part merger

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked of Yamina – left without her longtime political running-mate, outgoing PM Naftali Bennett,  since he announced he would sit out the next election (see below) – found a political ally in the form of Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel of the political faction Derech Eretz. Together they have formed the right-wing party Haruach Hatzioni “Zionist Spirit”. Derech Eretz had previously entered the Knesset in mergers with the Blue and White and New Hope parties, so the Zionist Spirit party has roots in both a merger and a split.

 

Farewells

Around the time that the Bennett-Lapid Government fell on June 20, Yamina leader Bennett announced he would be taking a time-out from politics and would not run on any party’s list in the next election. In doing so, Bennett added himself to the ranks of other Israeli politicians who have walked away from politics for a time following a political setback with the option of returning at a later date – among them prime ministers Netanyahu, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak and longtime MK Benny Begin, to name a few.

Unlike his three previous temporary retirements, for 79-year-old Benny Begin, the son of iconic former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, the most recent announcement on July 28 that he would not run in the next Knesset has an air of finality to it. Begin’s honesty, modesty, dignified conduct and readiness to stand up to Netanyahu on matters of principle long before it became fashionable earned him the respect of political allies and rivals alike, though his reserved personality also proved to be a liability in terms of tapping into the populism necessary to lead a major party.

He will no doubt be missed.

Photo credit: Kohelet Forum

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