The Israeli coalition survived for just over a month after Avigdor Liberman’s resigned as defense minister bringing the government to a bare majority in the Knesset of just one seat. During that time, Benjamin Netanyahu warded off threats from the Jewish Home Party and Naftali Bennett, who demanded the Defense Ministry before folding, and it seemed Israel’s consummate political wizard would continue to work his magic until the legally mandated election date of November 2019. But even Netanyahu could not steer the ship of state with just 61 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. Legislation stalled. Ministers and party heads began to exercise increased independence from Netanyahu. Now the government is moving to dissolve itself, with national elections in April.
With multiple parliamentary factions, Israeli elections always come with a lot of moving parts. Whenever Israelis head to the polls, new political parties are bound to enter the fray, and the role of the traditional players is inevitably altered. Here are five things to watch as Israel enters election season:
Benny Gantz is the biggest question mark on the Israeli political scene. The decorated general served as chief of staff of the IDF and appears poised to make a run for the Knesset. But how Gantz will figure in elections is not so clear. Gantz has just registered a party Chosen LeYisrael, meaning “Resilience for Israel” but will his party run alone, or join an existing one? Pollsters have projected different numbers for both scenarios. There were reports that Gantz rejected an offer from Avi Gabbay to head the Zionist Union which Gabbay himself denies and last night it was reported that Gantz will team up with former Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon and run on a joint ticket as two former chiefs of staff.
The former IDF head is also seen as a potent challenger to Benjamin Netanyahu, though no one has projected a scenario at this point in which he topples the prime minister. Interestingly, in polls where Gantz does not join an existing center-left party, the Likud is significantly weakened whereas in polls where he joins either Yesh Atid of the Zionist Union the Likud maintains its strength. Gantz’s potential electoral success makes sense, as military officers have a long history of national leadership in Israel: think Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon.
But for such a potentially impactful figure, a lot is still unknown about Gantz as a politician. He is generally seen as fitting into the center or center-left of the ideological spectrum — no one has suggested he might join Likud or Bayit Yehudi (though, it is worth noting Yaalon is publicly committed to right-wing positions). Still, Gantz has not yet released a policy platform, and his precise stance on many key national issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, remain undisclosed.
The Zionist Union
The Labor Party and its predecessors governed Israel for the country’s first three decades uninterrupted. However, it is no secret that today’s Labor is not enjoying the success of yesteryear. During the 2015 Israeli elections, Labor ran under a joint list with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party — the united faction was dubbed the Zionist Union.
Today, the Zionist Union is the second largest faction in the Knesset, with 24 seats, but polling from late November painted a dire picture of its future. Walla forecasted just 12 seats for the Zionist Union, halving the center-left list’s presence in the Knesset. Of course, much of the Zionist Union’s performance will depend on other factors, namely Benny Gantz. A Zionist Union headed up by the former general might come out ahead of its current standing. Running on his own list could displace potential votes for other moderate blocs. Gantz leading his own party or joining others could yield Zionist Union as few as nine seats. A Midgam poll in mid-December showed the Zionist Union holding onto 10 seats without Gantz — hardly an inspiring difference. Gantz’s formation of the Chosen LeYisrael party and reported rejection of the Labor Party leadership makes this latter scenario seem ever more likely.
What happens to the Zionist Union after Israelis cast their ballots is almost as important as what will happen on election day. Labor chair is a position with high turnover, and if Avi Gabbay is still running the party comes April and I fails to deliver a strong turnout, he may lose his title. He is also facing a struggle within his own list with five Zionist Union MKs rumored to be looking to leave the party.
There is also the open question of whether Livni will remain in the bloc. The opposition leader and Hatnuah party head’s stalwart commitment to a liberal Zionist platform amid politicking from other centrist politicians is a central element of the Zionist Union’s appeal. Reports yesterday indicated internal strife between Livni and Gabbay and that Livni was considering her next moves. If Livni withdrew from the Zionist Union, it would have an immediate impact on the electoral fortunes of both Labor and Hatnuah.
Gesher, Bogie Ya’alon, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, and the Electoral Threshold
There will be a long list of parties fighting to pass Israel’s electoral threshold, the percentage of votes each party must receive to enter the Knesset. In 2015, Avigdor Liberman narrowly avoided a narrowly avoided own goal when he pushed for raising the threshold to its present 3.25 percent. His move was widely interpreted as an effort to keep small Palestinian-Israeli factions out of the Knesset. It might have been successful, but the Arab parties ran together as the Joint List, becoming the third largest bloc in the Knesset. Meanwhile, Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu barely crossed the new threshold.
At its height, Yisrael Beiteinu held more seats than any other right-wing party outside Likud, and Liberman has held important portfolios including foreign affairs and, most recently, defense. When Liberman left the coalition over objections to the government’s controversial ceasefire with Hamas after a massive barrage of rocket fire from Gaza in November, Yisrael Beiteinu’s polling numbers briefly jumped. But the news cycle moves quickly, and people may have forgotten this stand. While the party seems to be stabilizing around six seats (equal its results in 2015), polls from March after the departure of Yisrael Beiteinu’s Orly Levy-Abekasis – we’ll get to her in a second – left Liberman at just four seats, barely passing the existing electoral threshold.
Orly Levy-Abekasis announced her party this past Tuesday. The name Gesher, meaning “bridge,” is a reemergence of the faction her father, former Foreign Minister David Levy, founded more than two decades ago. Levy-Abekasis has served in the Knesset since 2009 with a heavy focus on social and economic issues, and it is expected that her party will focus on the same. She is expected to announce a star-studded party list in the next few days, that includes Israeli singer Kobi Oz and former soccer star David Aouate. Her party has been polling over the threshold consistently (months before it was even announced) and given Levy-Abekasis’s popularity, it’s hard to see a scenario where she doesn’t win at least 4 seats.
Then there’s Yaalon. The former defense minister has yet to announce party name. Running on his own Yaalon has a low ceiling, he has rarely polled over the 3.25 percent threshold, but rumors of an alliance with former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz could change things.
Shas is a party beset by internal fractures. The Mizrahi Orthodox faction’s former leader Eli Yishai left to form his own party Yachad. Meanwhile, Israel Police have recommended indictments against the current Shas head, Aryeh Deri, on several corruption charges. The party’s rabbinical leadership has been tepid in its support of Deri in the face of legal action. Some polls show Shas falling to as few as four seats, just hugging the current threshold. And if a new threshold is set, it could have an immediate bearing on the political futures of both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu.
There is one more factor undermining the future of Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu: the raison d’etre of each may no longer be relevant. Shas has long positioned itself as the voice of the Mizrahi community, marginalized by Israel’s Ashkenazi leadership. Avigdor Liberman, born in Soviet Moldova, built his base among the Russian-speaking Jewish community, which faced its own hardships during the massive waves of immigration in the late 1980s and 1990s. But Mizrahi and Russian figures are achieving success across the political spectrum and outside the confines of special interest factions like Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. Thus, the very necessity of such parties will be called into question when Israelis vote in April.
The Joint List
The Joint List is a union of three Arab Israeli parties and Arab-Jewish Hadash. In 2015, the Arab factions formed the Joint List in a bid for survival. The new electoral threshold would have left some of the parties which now form the larger Arab list out of the Knesset. Led by Hadash’s Ayman Odeh, the Joint List came out as the third-largest bloc in the Knesset.
These factions share a common Palestinian identity and varying degrees of antipathy toward the Israeli state, but outside of that, they make an odd marriage, bringing together communists, Islamists, and Arab nationalists — ideologies whose clashes have devolved into outright civil war in other countries. Now, the internal cracks have started to show among the Joint List parties.
In late November, MK Ahmad Tibi, leader of the Joint List’s Ta’al faction, refused to attend a meeting of the other three parties. The list’s rotation agreement, which intends to share power among the factions, means Joint List MKs frequently resign to be replaced by MKs of other parties from within the unified bloc. While it may be equitable, it has kept the list from presenting a stable, united front. With its most radical elements unwilling to work with the mainstream Zionist left, and with the extremism of some members (In 2017, one Joint List MK was forced to resign after being convicted of smuggling cell phones to terrorists in prison) making it politically untouchable for Israeli moderates, the Joint List’s size has not necessarily translated into tangible political influence for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Indeed, the contentious Nation-State Law, which undid the official status of the Arabic language, was passed under the Joint List’s watch. To the delight of many, Balad Knesset members Hanin Zoabi and Jamal Zahalka will not be seeking reelection in 2019.
Nonetheless, running as the Joint List likely ensures Israel’s small Arab parties will survive, but not much else. How the Joint List fares in the next election, and whether it is able to wield any kind of real influence remains to be seen.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have sat in both left- and right-wing governments, seeking to protect a narrow set of community interests in place of espousing a national political agenda. In Jerusalem’s municipal elections this past October, United Torah Judaism was fractured among its Hasidic and non-Hasidic elements, with further infighting inside these two subsets. UTJ is a joint list of two parties, Degel Hatorah, the non-Hasidic (“Lithuanian”) faction and Agudat Yisrael, the Hasidic faction. The parties had split before, when Degel Hatorah withdrew from the list, weathering a two-year divorce between 2004 () and 2006.
Ultra-Orthodox voters, who tend to take their cues from the rabbinic leadership, may also be inclined to demonstrate greater independence in April. During the Jerusalem elections, the Haredi religious authorities failed to come down in favor of any one candidate. Thus, in the October municipal contest, there were no cues to follow. 30,000 Haredi voters felt free to vote for the party of their choice, in many cases for the first time. Some may be unwilling to surrender this newfound autonomy in the next national election.
Stay tuned to Israel Policy Forum for continuing analysis on Israeli elections.