Snap-elections in Israel are off but twenty-four hours ago they were all but a sure thing. What changed? Orly Levy-Abekasis.
Up until Monday evening, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was leading the charge toward elections, taking a firm stance against any legislation that would prevent ultra-orthodox enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The ultra-orthodox had folded and reached a compromise but Lieberman announced that he would stand by his commitment and not support the bill in any form.
Then at 8:03 pm, Chadashot released a poll that had independent MK Orly Levy-Abekasis – formerly a member of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party – at 5 seats, while Lieberman and his party were barely above the 4 seat threshold. All of a sudden, Lieberman was magically ready for compromise and elections were avoided at the last minute. The incident demonstrated how Levy-Abekasis is likely to become a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics.
Levy-Abekasis has been a Knesset member since 2009, part of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu until her resignation from the party in May 2016 over the decision to enter the Likud-led government. Interestingly, at the same time, current Labor leader Avi Gabbay, then minister of environment, quit Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party. Levy claimed that by joining the Likud coalition, which included the Ultra-Orthodox UTJ and Shas parties, the party was abandoning its social agenda. She has remained an independent member of Knesset ever since.
Levy-Abekasis is charismatic, talented, and widely respected across the political spectrum. Unsurprisingly, the moment she declared the creation of her new party, the applause poured in. From suspended Likud MK Oren Hazan to former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who issued a congratulatory tweet: “Best wishes for MK Orly Levy-Abekasis and for the party she is establishing – an independent and courageous parliamentary leader, a natural political leader, a talented and deserving woman, an important contribution to a clear voice that really cares about the citizens of Israel and its future. Good luck, Orly, with all my heart.” Praise also came from different media outlets as well; on International Women’s Day, prominent Israeli feminist Orit Kamir wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz declaring Levy-Abekasis and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg the two biggest hopes in Israeli politics.
Expect Levy-Abekasis’ party to present a liberal social and economic agenda. “I’m starting a new party that will set a real alternative to crony capitalism,” she declared at a press conference announcing her party. She also emphasized her focus on the Israeli periphery: “We have a strong society, and we need to make it stronger, so a child from Sderot, Beit She’an, Kiryat Malachi, Dimona or Be’er Sheva would have a better life.”
For all the great praise she has received in public, Levy-Abekasis is surely causing panic behind closed doors. Her clear vision on social issues, such as enlistment of ultra-Orthodox in the IDF, greater separation between religion and state, aid for the periphery, and a strong stance against government corruption, are all positions supported by the vast majority of secular Israelis. Her diplomatic views are not as clear-cut but she likely falls into the center-right camp, in a recent interview in Maariv, she said: “I grew up in a right-wing home but the Likud has gone too far to the right.” With that being said, there is a trend among center-right parties to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian issue altogether. Moshe Kahlon won 10 seats in the 2015 elections without a clear platform on the issue and still lacks one three years later.
A former model and television host, Levy-Abekasis is the daughter of former Netanyahu rival and former Minister of Foreign Affairs David Levy. But make no mistake, Levy-Abekasis is not just another child of a prominent Israeli politician trying to make a name for herself; she is a force to be reckoned with. Levy-Abekasis’s likeability, charisma, and Knesset experience make her a threat to every mainstream Israeli party including Yisrael Beiteinu (led by Avigdor Lieberman), Kulanu (Moshe Kahlon), Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Avi Gabbay (Zionist Union), and even the Likud (with or without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). She will most likely find her base of support from Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu voters who have lost faith in their party leaders after agreeing to be part of an ultra-orthodox-inclusive coalition.
Now that elections have been postponed for the moment, Levy-Abekasis has the opportunity to develop a clear party vision and agenda. To do this, she could look at a partnership with Tzipi Livni, who is weighing her options with the Zionist Union polling at 10-13 seats. An alliance with Livni would present a clear social and diplomatic agenda backed by two impressive politicians.
In a post-Netanyahu government, Abekasis-Levy can play a vital role in deciding who becomes prime minister. By not taking a strong stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, her party further blurs the line between the center-left and right blocs and it is unclear where Levy will stand or if she will take a stance at all. Snap-elections have been avoided this time but what is certain is this: Israel’s next kingmaker may be a queen and her name is Orly Levy-Abekasis.