|Itamar Ben-Gvir (Rueters)|
For many Israelis, not much work took place during this holiday period. Universities hadn't yet reopened, many people took extended vacations out of the country and people were generally in holiday mode. This whole time period occurred during an election campaign, which also seemed to be operating at a much slower pace.
But now, it is back to work, back to school, back to the grind and back to the election campaign. Less than two weeks to go until the election (which is actually a national holiday in Israel) and no defined public holidays for some time, other than election day itself.
So in preparation for the big day, I have put together a bit of a rundown on the competing parties with some running commentary. If you are not particularly interested in the upcoming Israeli elections - I will be writing another blog shortly on some other topics - so I guess you can skip this one - though I'll try to make it as digestible as I can.
If you have been reading my blogs over the years, you will recall that I have written several of these before. Some of the content will remain fairly similar since many of the parties are still the same. But some parties have changed and there have been some other shake ups. In a way, I think there is less to cover this time around since there are fewer parties. There are 11 parties that are likely to make it into the Knesset and two more that have a chance but are likely to miss the cut off. While this is still quite a bit in comparison to the number of parties in Canada, the U.S. or many other places, it is somewhat more manageable than it has been in recent years.
So here goes....
A Look at the List of Parties:
1. The Likud
Led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ("Bibi"), the Likud is poised to garner the most seats of any party running, which is also the situation in the current Knesset. Current polls have put the Likud party at anywhere between 30 and 35 seats. Interestingly, two polls that were released yesterday were the ones that had Likud at 30 and 31 seats, the lowest showing for Likud in several months.
Likud is a right of centre party emphasizing somewhat free market economics, a hard line position towards the Palestinians and a willingness to compromise on just about anything in the social-economic sphere with the ultra-orthodox parties in order to attain power.
Netanyahu is Israel's longest serving Prime Minister, having served as Prime Minister for more than 15 years in total. He knows his way around an election campaign. At the same time, he is in the midst of a criminal trial on three sets of charges including bribery, deception and breach of public trust. It is hard to read how the trial is going since much of it is not open to the public and it is such a long trial. But there is no indication that it is going to end any time soon although some plea bargain negotiations have taken place.
In order to form a government, the Likud will need to combine their 30-35 seats with a sufficient additional number to reach 61 (the required majority in the 120 seat Knesset) by entering coalition agreements with other parties. According to recent polls, Bibi and his potential partners are likely to wind up with a total of between 58 and 62 seats so it is really quite a toss-up.
Netanyahu has been running an energetic and interesting campaign. He has released a biography - just three weeks before the election - in English and Hebrew. He has held write-in contests and visited in the Sukkahs of winning Israeli families across the country. He has run an extremely active twitter and social media campaign and has avoided being interviewed.
Despite his ongoing legal troubles, Bibi has managed to reign in his Likud party and keep a lid on any public dissent. It is quite comparable to what Trump has been able to do in the U.S. with the Republican party, though Trump has probably faced more internal dissent than Bibi.
The focus of Bibi's campaign has been to portray Prime Minister Yair Lapid as "weak" and a "sell-out." For Bibi and the Likud, the campaign has not been particularly ideological. He has attacked Lapid and the left wing parties, Meretz and Labour, arguing that they will sell out Israel to the Arabs and the Arab parties. He has attacked Ayelet Shaked with the same line of attack. But he has also had to fend off the extremists to his right by moving a bit to the centre on some social issues.
I would say that his messages have lacked cohesion but there is a common theme. It is mainly about getting Bibi back into power and finding a way to resolve his legal issues. It is the cult of personality that "only Bibi" can run the country.
As of now, it seems that the odds are pretty close to 50-50 that he will be able to form a government. One option is that Likud and its coalition partners - the two ultra orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, along with the Religious Zionist ("RZ") party - will get more than 61. If that is the case, Israel will have the furthest right government that it has ever had in power. It will be a government in which Bibi will be at the left (or even far left) of the governing coalition.
A second option is that the Likud and its bloc will fall just short - at 58-60. This might produce a stalemate and another election. Alternatively - one of the parties in the opposition might agree to make a deal and join the government. As of now, it is hard to imagine which party would do that. I don't believe that it would be Yesh Atid or Meretz but it is possible that some of the members of Gantz's party, the "national unity" party could be pursuaded with the right offer. They will have a very hard time joining a government with the RZ party but stranger things have happened in Israeli political history. Likud will also lobby the Labour party and the Ra'am party with various offers.
My conclusion is that the Likud has the best chance of forming a government unless the poll numbers change drastically. If Likud cannot form a government, there is a reasonable chance that there will be another election. The current governing bloc, led by Yesh Atid, seems unlikely to muster sufficient support but that is the third most likely outcome.
2. Yesh Atid
Led by current Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid is the second largest party according to every poll that has been issued. The party is a centrist party, willing to enter into coalition agreements with parties across the political spectrum. Yesh Atid is very strong on anti-corruption measures and is one of the few parties that is unwilling, under any circumstances, to provide a "get out of jail free card" to Bibi.
According to recent polls, Yesh Atid is running at between 23 and 26 seats. The two most recent polls put them at 25.
Lapid has so far run a fairly low key campaign. He has focused on performing his duties as Prime Minister. Over the past few weeks, that has included negotiating a territorial waters deal with Lebanon to address the issue of natual gas reservoirs in disputed waters. He has also been pushing for a more pro-Ukranian Israeli policy and more of a break from Israeli relations with Russia. This would contrast with Bibi who prides himself on his strong relationship with Putin and has been eerily silent on the issue of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Yesh Atid will probably ramp up its campaign over these crucial weeks but it remains to be seen whether they will be successful. Lapid has been careful not to attack the parties on his left too much because some of them are perilously close to not passing the electoral threshhold. At the same time, he would like to have sufficient army and military credibility to retain support of the centre-right. I would imagine that he will ramp up the attacks on Bibi and corruption over the next two weeks, while also emphasizing the extreme nature of the government that Bibi would form if he wins the election.
As of now, it seems unlikely that Yesh Atid can win this election. I think they would need to get to 30 or 31 seats, which they don't seem to have. Even then, they would also need their coalition partners to have enough to reach 61. I guess we will have to see what Lapid can do over the next two weeks of campaigning and whether he can close the gap. If he can't, his next best option is a stalement - which is almost as good as a win. Lapid would continue to be the caretaker Prime Minister, another election would be called three or four months down the road and the pressure would probably increase on Bibi to step down. At some point, if Bibi doesn't win, the dissent in his party is likely to start to grow.
So overall, a win for Lapid and his coaltion does not look likely - I think less than 20%. But the chance of a stalemate is close to 40% and that is probably close enough to a win for Lapid. That is, as long as none of his coalition partners bolt and join Bibi.
3. National Unity
This is Benjamin Gantz's party that was formerly "Blue and White" and includes Gideon Sa'ar. The party is chock full of military - including the leader himself. Politically they are centre-right, a bit to the right of Yesh Atid on most issues. In fact, a number of the National Unity members are former Likud members who might even like to run for Likud if it was led by a different leader.
Gantz has in the past buckled and formed a rotation government deal with Bibi, though as we know, Bibi took his turn and then collapsed the government before Gantz could become Prime Minister by refusing to pass a budget. This National Unity party is running at a solid 11-12 seats.
They have been running as the party that could be the alternative to Netanyahu since they maintain that they would be more attractive to the ultra-orthodox than Lapid. With all due respect to Gantz, I don't see it. He is not a charismatic leader and from where I sit, seems to have little chance of forming the government.
His party stole Bibi's slogan outright and ran on the slogan "Only Gantz can do it" - which was Bibi's slogan the past few elections. His party has also plastered posters everywhere saying "After him" or "Follow him" I suppose. But since very few people see him as a strong leader, these posters seem to be somewhat comical.
I think there is a chance that this party could end up with 9 or 10 seats. However, in order to form a government, Lapid needs Gantz's party to have a good showing and wind up in the 11-12 range - while getting 30-32 himself. It's tough call since these two parties are fighting over some of the same voters.
4. Religious Zionists
The biggest growth for any party is in the support for the Religious Zionist party, which is a coalition of three different far right parties. The party is led by Betzalel Smotrich, an extreme nationalist. He advocates running the State of Israel based on "Torah law." He at one point declared himself to be a "proud homophobe" and generates all kinds of controveries just about every time he speaks. Just this week, he proposed legislation that would remove the offences of breach of trust and deception from the Israeli criminal code, which would all but ensure that Bibi's trial would end.
The party also features Itamar Ben Gvir, another gun-toting extremist, who has a history of extremism and involvement with the Kahanist movement. Ben Gvir has, in the past, advocated expelling "disloyal" Arabs from Israel.
This fine collection of folks is currently polling at numbers between 12 and 15 seats. If they wind up with those numbers, they will be indespensible to any coalition that Bibi might put together and will demand cabinet seats.
This would certainly create significant international pressure. A government with such far-right extremists would greatly harm Israel's image, not to mention the domestic damage that it would engender.
Some of this support has come from people who previously supported Bennett's party, the "Jewish Home," which is now being led by Ayelet Shaked. The RZ party also received boosts in its support as a result of riots in Lod, Acre and other parts of Israel where Israeli Arabs took part in violent acts against Jewish civilians in Israeli cities. Apparently, there are also many young Israelis poised to vote for this party.
I think we should all be concerned. I would imagine that many people will refuse to tell polsters that they are voting for the RZ party. I think they could wind up with 15-17 seats. If they take those seats from Likud votes, that still might not change the overall bloc numbers. But a government with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich in its cabinet is frightening indeed.
The Israeli TV show "Eretz Nehederet" ("Its a wonderful country") satirized the prospect of a Netanyahu-Ben-Gvir government by using a clip called "Springtime for Hitler" from the show The Producers. Here is the clip in case you are interested - though I don't think there are subtitles. Brilliant but frightening satire in my view....
5. Shas and 6. Torah Judaism
Shas and Torah Judaism are two ultra-orthodox parties.
Shas is led by convicted fraudster Aryeh Deri and appeals to Jews of "Mizrahi" (eastern) origin - i.e. sephardic Jews. For some reason, Shas also gets a lot of support from non-ultra-orthodox Israelis. They claim that they are a socially activist party - out to help the poor get better access to medical care, religious education, food etc., Shas is polling at 7-8 seats which it seems to get consistently no matter what else is happening. They have pledged to stick with Bibi, who will be happy to pay just about any price that they demand for their support.
Torah Judaism is an ultra-religious party mainly supported by Jews of western origin ("Ashkenazim"). They are more focused on getting money for Yeshivas, implementing stricter religious laws, defending the rabbinate and avoiding military service. Their leaders have also faced criminal charges on several occasions and they are as likely as anyone else to make outrageous comments about gays, women, reform Jews and anyone else who is not ultra-orthodox. The are polling at 6-7 seats and are also committed to joining Bibi for the right price. However, some Torah Judaism members have speculated, out loud, that they might consider joining another government if the only alternative was being part of the opposition. So there may be a narrow window here. If Bibi can't form a government, another group might be able to buy the support of Torah Judaism. This is where Gantz comes in. He seems to think he can convince both Shas and Torah Judaism to separate from Bibi and join his party as part of a coaltion.
However, using Gantz's math, lets say he gets 13 seats. Add the 14-15 from Shas and Torah Judaism - and that gets us to 27-28. He would need to get Lapid on side - with 25-30 and then some of the other left parties - which are somewhat anti-ultra Orthodox. Again, I don't see this happening but I suppose anything is possible.
7. Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home)
Led by Avigdor Lieberman, this party has historically been supported by Russian speaking Israelis. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected support for the party since Lieberman, in the past, has been a strong Putin supporter. He would like to keep Israel close to neutral in the war but this has started to create a backlash, especially among Russian speakers with Ukrainian origins. Lieberman is seen has having done a fairly good job as finance minister in the current government and is likely to support Lapid again. The party tends to be to the right on national security issues but avowedly secular on state-religion issues. In Israeli political terms, that means that they see eye to eye with the anti-Haredi left on some issue but are closely aligned with Likud views (or even more right wing views) on some other issues - including issues involving the Palestinians. They are polling at 5-7 seats.
8. Meretz and 9. Labor
These two parties are the stalwarts of the Israeli left. Labor has traditionally been aligned with the Histadrut the largest workers' union in Israel. It is currently led by Merav Michaeli who has also brought a strong general equality focus to the party. The party is polling in the range of 4 to 6 seats. It is most likely to join a government with Lapid and highly unlikely to consider joining Bibi.
Meretz has traditionally been the most left wing Israeli party with a focus on secularism and equality and has been a strong advocate for a resolution with the Palestinians as well as for Arab-Jewish equality within the state. The most recent leader of Meretz, Nitzan Horowitz, has served in the cabinet of the current government. He stepped down after the election was called and was replaced by Zehava Gal-On who has pledged to bring the party "back to its roots." Meretz is likely to support a Yesh Atid government and highly unlikely to join Netanyah or any government with the ultra-religious. They are polling at 4 to 6 seats.
10. Hadash-Ta'al and 12. Bal'ad
For the past few elections, three Arab Israeli parties have run under one umbrella as the "United Arab List" or the "United Joint List." They have been able to muster as many as 12 to 15 seats. This year, they had a falling out and one party, the most extremist, "Bal'ad" left the group. Balad is now running at less than 2% and will most likely not make the cut off. Hadash Ta'al is polling at 4 seats, which seems suprisingly low but is probably due to significant Arab Israeli apathy for the coming elections. Hadash Ta'al has never taken an active role in an Israeli government though they have supported legislation and votes "from the outside." While Balad was unwilling to be part of any Israeli government in any circumstances, Hadash Ta'al might look to the recent Ra'am example and try to negotiate itself into the government. The right wing Jewish parties have argued that this would be illegitimate since Hadash Ta'al are generally anti-Zionist parties. Hadash Ta'al would have to be prepared to accept Israel as a Jewish state to enter the government. I'm not sure that they would be willing to take this step. At a minimum these parties could be the key to preventing Bibi from forming a government.
Led by Monsour Abbas, Ra'am played an active role in the most recent Israeli government, the first time ever that an Arab Israeli party formed an active part of a governing coalition. Although there were hiccups, Ra'am would almost certainly join Lapid again if that could lead to a government being formed. Ra'am is currently polling at about 4 seats. On social and economic issues, they are further to the right than Hadash Ta'al since Ra'am party members are religious Muslims. Hadash Ta'al tend to be more secular socialists. In the past, Bibi had tried to negotiate with Ra'am. At this point, however, the RZ party is likely to be a key component of any government that Bibi might form. And they have stated repeatedly and emphatically that they will not join a government with Ra'am or any other Arab Israeli parties. So Ra'am's only option will be to join a Lapid government (or a Gantz government if can come up with a credible option).
14. Habayit Hayehudi
This is former Prime Minster Bennett's party. He has left politics. The party is now being led by Ayelet Shaked. This was once a religious Zionist party, but Shaked is avowedly secular. She is on the right of political spectrum but she took an active role in the most recent government as a cabinet minister. She has now said that all of that was a mistake and that she shouldn't have joined. One of her campaign slogans stated that "everything is forgiven on Yom Kippur" and she has publicly apologized for "sinning against her voters." They don't seem to be listening or granting the repentance that she is seeking. She is well under the requisite threshhold according to every poll that has been released. She is willing to join a Bibi-led government if she gets past the threshold. Her willingness to do this - leaves potential voters wondering why they should vote for her instead of just voting for Bibi.
Given all of this math, there are aren't too many realistic possibilities. But here they are, handicapped by an amateur (yours truly)...just for you lucky readers.
1. Bibi forms a government with 61+ including the two Haredi parties and the RZ party. 38%
2. Stalemate - and a new election is called - 32%
3. Lapid forms a government with or without the support of Hadash/Ta'al - 20%
4. Gantz forms a government, with one or both of the Haredi parties - 5%
5. Some other government or option that I haven't thought of....5%.
Of course it is impossible to measure how well I do - since if any one of these occur - we will never really know how likely that event was - only that it actually occurred.
I might adjust my odds as the election gets closer based on news, events and newer polls. But for now. buckle up. It should be a bumpy ride and I think there is a good chance that we will not really know where things are headed until at least a few weeks after the election, which is taking place on November 1, 2022.
I hope that you have found this useful. I will probably send out another blog shortly addressing some issues with much less politics. Wishing everyone a terrific 5783 and all the best in this "after the holidays" period.