Hard Questions, Tough Answers- What the Knesset Election Lists Tell Us (August 15, 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. Last week’s Likud primary produced an election list that appears to downgrade liberals and women. Is this what Netanyahu wants?

A. The first 15 or so candidates on the Likud list are overwhelmingly hardliners who evince blind loyalty to Netanyahu. Most of the remainder of the list fits that definition, too. That is presumably what Netanyahu wants. Then too, Likud veterans who were once thought to be potential successors to Netanyahu--Nir Barkat, Yisrael Katz, Yuli Edelstein--were demoted to relatively low slots.

That is also presumably what Netanyahu wants. He resents challenges to his leadership and has no inclination to step aside despite the serious criminal charges he currently faces in court.

The presence of only one woman, Miri Regev, among the first 19 on the list is presumably not to Netanyahu’s liking. On the other hand, by my count half of the opening 15 on the list are Sephardic or Eastern Jews, which gives the list broader appeal among the traditional Likud electorate.

If Netanyahu wants to begin to balance the Likud electoral list’s misogynist and ultra-nationalist, anti-liberal image, the Likud has set aside four slots out of the opening 37 (Likud is currently polling 34-35 mandates) for Netanyahu’s personal selections.

Note, however, that last week’s outcome is thoroughly in keeping with the Likud’s rightist trend of recent years: ultra-nationalist, anti-liberal, against judicial independence. Former minister Yuval Steinitz saw the writing on the wall and resigned from Likud politics a few weeks ago. He was preceded in recent years by the likes of Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. Tzachi HaNegbi, a veteran minister and a wanna-be moderate, was rejected this time by the Likud rank-and-file despite pathetic last-minute mouthing of far-right slogans. The relatively moderate Gila Gamliel was demoted from eighth place barely a year ago to thirtieth on the new list.

Not to mention the leaders of competing right wing parties who left the Likud specifically because of Netanyahu: Saar, Bennett, Shaked, Liberman, etc.

Q. The Labor party primary last week produced new faces and ousted veteran security figures. Will this help Labor in the November 1 Knesset elections?

A. Some 23,000 Labor voters relegated Minister of Internal Security Omer Bar-Lev to the ninth (and ‘unrealistic’) slot on the Labor Knesset list, and Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai to seventeenth place. They will be replaced by a revolutionary set of young, dynamic and relatively unknown candidates, led (number two slot) by Naama Lazimi, who has served in the Knesset for barely a year. Labor, by the way, features a provision whereby every female candidate elected to the list must be followed by a male, and vice-versa.

Lazimi, 36, feminist, Sephardic, Orthodox lite (‘traditional’), raised in a development town, is the kind of candidate Labor and Meretz dream of. But can her candidacy make up for the demotion of ‘responsible adults’ like Bar-Lev and Shai, even if their performance over the past year was less than remarkable?

Add to Labor’s Bar-Lev and Shai all three of the Meretz ministers--Horowitz, Zandberg and Frej--who announced they are not running again, and the Zionist left is losing five of its six ministers, with only Labor leader Merav Michaeli remaining. This appears to reflect the perception of political damage inflicted by a year of service in a predominantly center-right government.

The next government will almost certainly be no less center-right. Will Labor and Meretz refuse to serve in it, even if they are needed for an anti-Netanyahu majority?

Q. Meanwhile, among the parties whose lists are put together by party leaders, the big news is Gadi Eizenkot joining with Blue White and New Hope to form HaMahane Hamamlachti, a name that is barely translatable...

A. National Camp’ seems like the best approximation of the name of the new expanded list formed by Eizenkot’s decision to join with Benny Gantz and Gideon Saar. (‘Mamlachtiut’ or ‘national primacy’ is a term originally used by David Ben Gurion to define the primacy of the newly created State of Israel in the value system he demanded of the many diverse currents that came together to form the state. That Eizenkot insisted on the term says something about his personal value system.)

Eizenkot is bringing with him Matan Kahana, a refugee from Naftali Bennett’s crumbling Yamina party (now, under Ayelet Shaked, ‘Zionist Spirit’) who as minister of religious affairs over the past year tried to introduce important liberal reforms that alienated the ultra-Orthodox. Eizenkot and Kahana are expected to lift the National Camp by around five mandates above the 11 or 12 that the polls have been awarding Gantz and Saar until now.

Eizenkot served with distinction as IDF chief of staff (following Gantz) from 2015 until 2019 when he retired. At the time he was almost universally admired and celebrated. His Moroccan Jewish origins are definitely an electoral asset.

Gantz, reinforced by Saar and especially Eizenkot, wants to poach ‘soft-right’ votes from Likud and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (currently polling as high as 24 mandates) and hard right-wingers from Zionist Spirit, and to emerge as the second largest party after Likud. Then, assuming Netanyahu falls short of 61 mandates, and bearing in mind that Gantz is more acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox than Lapid, the National Camp would according to this scenario form the next government with a broad coalition that includes the ultra-Orthodox.

The fact that Gantz and Eizenkot are former IDF commanders-in-chief no longer impresses most Israelis. Recall their predecessors at the helm of the IDF, Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi, each of whom entered politics with a promise to unite Israelis and both of whom are now sitting on the sidelines. Then too, this is the sixth (!) time in recent years that Gantz is launching an electoral list based on some combination of centrist parties or groupings with inspiring names. That does not inspire confidence.

Remember photos of Sergeant Yair Lapid flanked by three former chiefs of staff in an ostensibly united list? Who’s still standing, and gathering strength in the polls? Lapid!

That’s not all. Gantz and Eizenkot are centrist, whereas Saar and the candidates he brings to the new joint list are pro-settler and opposed to a compromise solution with the Palestinians. This promises a degree of internal political dissonance that the National Camp will be hard put to live down.

Q. Some 80,000 Likud party members voted in last week’s primary for the election list. Some 30,000 Laborites voted in the Labor primary. Next week, Meretz will hold its primary. Are primaries a more successful system for putting together an election list than the arbitrary decisions of Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz?

A. Despite extensive back-room deals and politicking, the primary system certainly is more democratic. Anyone can join Likud, Labor or Meretz and vote for a favorite candidate for the party’s Knesset list. In sharp contrast Lapid and Gantz-Saar-Eizenkot, like the Arab and ultra-Orthodox party leaders, compose their Knesset candidate lists top-down, with no pretense of a democratic process. Eizenkot, by the way, appears to have chosen the Gantz-Saar list over Lapid in part because Gantz gave him a commitment to hold proper party primaries next election (too late for this one), whereas Lapid refuses.

Still, in view of the presence of so many mediocre demagogues on the newly-selected Likud list and so many quality candidates on, say, the Yesh Atid list (in previous elections; the dictatorial Lapid has yet to publish his new list), it is debatable which system is ultimately good for Israeli politics. As Nachum Barnea wrote in Yediot Aharonot on Monday, “With super-democratic procedures you can elect destroyers of democracy, as in the Republican party in America and the Likud here. . . . Democracy is done at the ballot box, deciding between parties. In my view, what happens within the parties is less important.”

Note, by the way, that the ranking of party candidates, whether in party primaries or in back-room horse-trading by party bosses, only goes so far in determining a party’s real pecking order. The best example of recent decades is Ehud Olmert, who ended up number 30 on the 2005 Kadima list yet was selected by PM Ariel Sharon as deputy prime minister, then was elevated to the premiership when Sharon became fatally ill.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Veteran Yediot columnist Shimon Schiffer wrote Sunday, “Don’t get excited over the primary dramas. At the polling station, voters just vote based on who heads the list”. The heads of virtually all the party lists competing on November 1 haven’t changed. Whether or not Schiffer is right--it may be fairer to say that, with the possible exception of charismatic personalities like Netanyahu and Lapid, voters vote for parties, not heads of parties--current polls predict yet another paralyzing dead heat for Israel in the upcoming November 1 elections.