Hard Questions, Tough Answers- Israel’s Elections: Who’s Merging, Who’s In, Who’s Out, and Why? (July 11, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Let’s begin with Sunday night's merger between Blue-White and New Hope. What do party leaders Benny Gantz and Gideon Saar hope to achieve?

A. Taken as one, this new two-party union now numbers 14 members of Knesset. If by combining forces it can grow that number by poaching votes from left and right, it aspires to present itself as a new center bloc that competes for primacy with the Likud-Haredi-messianic-extremist bloc on the right and with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and everyone to its left.

That’s the theory presented by Gantz and Saar Sunday night in announcing their move. Practice, meaning reality, is different. First, because Saar’s New Hope party was in danger of disappearing at the polls below the four-mandate threshold and this union is quite simply his ticket to survival, holding Gantz’s coattails. Second, because Lapid is also center, not left, despite this new attempt to push Yesh Atid in that direction. Recall that Gantz and Lapid were themselves once a united list.

Third, because this is a hook-up between a centrist, Gantz, and a genuine pro-settler right-winger, Saar, and it is not at all clear how they will get along. It was almost comic to hear Saar describe the union as embracing “the political right [meaning Saar] and the security center [presumably, Gantz].” There is no ‘security center’ in Israeli politics! Saar is somehow trying to reassure his own right-wing constituency.

Fourth, Saar and Gantz are ignoring Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party (six mandates), a secular-rightist entity supported by Russian-speaking immigrants that could have been a good fit for this union. And fifth, because while Saar and Gantz pointedly declared they were leaving room for ex-chief of IDF staff Gadi Eizenkot and his supporters (see below), Eizenkot was conspicuous by his absence from Sunday night’s joint announcement.

Still, this is the most dramatic new development in the still nascent process of electing a new Knesset.

Q. Next, let’s look at those prominent politicians who have decided not to run again. What do their decisions signal?

A. Naftali Bennett is considered to have succeeded as prime minister but failed as a politician and as leader of his own small right-wing party, Yamina, which is in tatters. Rather than risk leading Yamina to defeat below the four-mandate threshold, Bennett is wisely stepping aside for a break from politics.

But can he hope to make a comeback at some point in the future? Skeptics say he should learn from Ehud Barak that once you have opted out of politics, no one wants you back.

Bennett is joined by Likud’s Yuval Steinitz, a moderate Likudnik (and prior to that, a Peace Now activist) with a strong ministerial background. Steinitz has resigned from politics after 23 years in the Knesset rather than risk certain demotion on Netanyahu’s ever-more-extreme Knesset list. If Bennett’s withdrawal from politics says something about Bennett himself--his successes and failures--Steinitz’s abdication is a clear indication of the extremist direction the Likud is taking.

Steinitz was not the first right-wing ideologue to lose faith in Netanyahu. Benny Begin and Dan Meridor preceded him by several years. None of these resignations from Likud ranks has in the least affected the party’s fortunes at the polls--or, for that matter, affected Israel’s increasingly right-religious-messianist politics.

Moving to the political left, Issawi Frej, minister of regional cooperation in the outgoing coalition and the most prominent Muslim Arab MK in Meretz, is also taking time out. His withdrawal appears to be a vote of no-confidence in Nitzan Horowitz, the Meretz leader who is blamed for the party’s lackluster performance in recent pre-election opinion polls (see below). At issue here is whether Meretz’s participation in the Bennett-Lapid wall-to-wall coalition--its first role in a ruling coalition in 20 years--hurt or helped the party, which had seemed to relish its pro-peace opposition role prior to joining the anti-Netanyahu coalition.

 Q. And in the other direction: who is tossing their hat in the ring?

A. Watch the retired generals. IDF ex-chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot is considered charismatic, centrist and attractive. Will he be Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s no. 2 in Yesh Atid? Will he join another former chief of staff, Benny Gantz, and Gideon Saar in their freshly united list?

Or will Eizenkot’s healthy instincts persuade him to stay out of politics? No one should be surprised if that happens. That’s how ugly and hopeless Israeli governance looks from the outside.

Already deep in politics is Meretz’s Yair Golan, a former IDF deputy chief of staff. Golan’s outspoken liberal views probably denied him the IDF’s top job. Having served in the Bennett cabinet as a deputy minister, he has now announced that he is competing against incumbent Meretz party chairperson Nitzan Horowitz, who is minister of health, for the party’s top position on the upcoming election list. Will Golan’s military past, spent in part enforcing IDF rule in the West Bank, alienate Meretz’s dovish constituency?

Meretz, like Yamina on the political right, is currently considered a risky bet to pass the four-mandate threshold. Justifiably or not, Horowitz’s leadership is blamed. Meretz’s 2021 achievement of six mandates has appeared like a distant pipe-dream since the party was humiliated by the defection of an Arab member of Knesset recruited by Horowitz who appeared to be totally alienated from the party’s political values. If Meretz runs and fails to gain at least four mandates, it would waste votes on the left in a manner that could, electorally, contribute to a Likud victory.

For this reason alone, Meretz emerges as a key party this election. Its looming dilemma of survival places Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Labor’s Merav Michaeli in a bind: try to poach votes from Meretz in order not to lose them for a centrist coalition, or help Meretz electorally in order to improve the chances of reconvening the outgoing coalition.

Returning to the Likud, one prominent outsider candidate is Gilad Sharon, outspoken son of late prime minister Ariel Sharon. To hard-core Likudniks, Gilad represents his father’s controversial 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and decision to bolt Likud ranks to form the short-lived Kadima party. Former Gaza Strip settlers, Likudniks who have never forgiven the Sharons, father and son, are targeting Gilad. Like the Steinitz withdrawal, this reflects the primacy of hard-core settlers and pro-settlement politicians in Likud politics.

Likud leader Netanyahu, incidentally, will have the option of placing as many as three outsiders in ‘realistic’ (first 35) positions on the party list (the remainder will be determined by primaries among party members). But don’t think ‘new blood’. Netanyahu will be honoring commitments to the members of Knesset from Yamina whose defections catalyzed these elections.

Q. Don’t ignore interesting developments on the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox right . . .

A. Usually the Haredi parties are remarkably stable in terms of party-list composition. This year there are potential personnel changes among the ultra-Orthodox political leadership due primarily to legal issues. Aryeh Deri, charismatic leader of the Sephardic Shas, may not be able to run due to his recent conviction on corruption charges, thereby potentially depriving Shas of two or three mandates. The Ashkenazic Agudat Yisrael component (with Degel HaTorah) of the United Judaism coalition also lost its leader, Yaakov Litzman, to a corruption-related plea bargain.

The Aguda rabbis who run the party list have replaced Litzman with an aging and inexperienced apparatchik, Yitzhak Goldknopf. This puts the spotlight on the real engine of the United Judaism list, Moshe Gafni, who has risen through the ranks and seems, for the first time in many years, to be pitching his party’s allegiance to the highest post-election bidder, whether Lapid, Gantz-Saar or Netanyahu. Needless to say, all are interested; all are doing the math regarding the next coalition.

The corruption convictions appear to reflect the blatant mismanagement of ultra-Orthodox parties that are run by rabbinic diktat and that lack even a hint of public accountability. Gafni at least understands money--he has headed the Knesset Finance Committee--and realizes that after merely a year in the political opposition the Haredim cannot afford financially not to be in the next coalition and benefit from its budgetary allocations. This, regardless of whether the coalition’s leadership is centrist (Lapid, Gantz) or right-wing (Netanyahu).

The Haredi parties are also, for the first time, being threatened by a non-Haredi party, Religious Zionism, whose racist and messianist leaders, Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, are attracting young Haredi adherents who would normally follow their rabbis’ directives to vote for ultra-Orthodox parties. Current polls show Religious Zionism booming in the November elections (nine mandates, up from six)--yet another reflection of the dangerous direction of Israeli electoral politics.

Q. Is Meretz the only party in danger of disappearing electorally?

A. No. Bennett’s former party Yamina has already been mentioned. Gideon Saar’s New Hope, another right-wing veteran of the outgoing anti-Netanyahu coalition, has as noted already disappeared through merger after teetering in the polls. In perennial danger, too, is the Arab Islamist Raam, which enters the race with only four MKs and faces highly critical opposition from the other three Arab parties that are united under the Joint List banner and that resent Raam’s readiness to collaborate politically with Zionist parties.

Note that in last year’s elections all these parties, including Meretz, registered last-minute comeback surges that gave them comfortable margins of political survival. The same could happen again. What is striking about their performance this time around is the potential effect of the disappearance of even one of them (due to gaining fewer than four mandates, i.e., less that 3.25 percent of the overall vote). Since the system would then redistribute their lost mandates among the largest parties, this could affect the Knesset balance between the Likud-led right-Haredi bloc, the Lapid-led center-left-Arab bloc and the new Gantz-Saar (-and Eizenkot?) centrist bloc.

Q. Does any of this affect this week’s visit by President Biden?

A. Biden is covering his bases by meeting with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who formally heads the parliamentary opposition. Biden is certainly aware that anything he does or says regarding Iran and the Palestinians will be fodder for Israel’s election campaign. In contrast, any normalization achievement he brings from Saudi Arabia will get the blessing of left, right and center in Israel.

Beyond these areas of interaction, and barring rude behavior by an Israeli politician, Biden should be able to navigate the visit with limited political ramifications in Israel. But by the same token, limited political achievements for Prime Minister Lapid.

Q. Bottom line?

A. As the election campaign picks up steam, and factoring in the significance of drop-outs and mergers, the political right-religious mainstream is becoming more extreme while the left-wing and Arab components of the outgoing coalition appear to be weakened. The center (Yesh Atid, the new Blue-White-New Hope list, Eizenkot if he runs) is stable and hopes to expand at the expense of both extremes.

Will the outcome indeed present the public with three viable blocs, pushing Yesh Atid leftward, as Gantz and Saar hope? Lapid, Gantz and Saar surely know that the fate of centrist blocs in traditional Israeli politics does not offer much cause for hope. Still, the emergence of two large centrist parties in this election will make it all the more interesting.