Last night was the deadline in Israel for announcing party slates for the coming September 17th Israeli parliamentary elections. It was a drama to the end, and the buzzword was “mergers.” Since the last elections in April, which failed to result in a government, a few new elements came into prominence:
- Avigdor Lieberman of the secular right-wing Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) has become kingmaker since he busted the government formation last time (insisting on tougher ultra-orthodox military drafting). That move doubled his popularity – and he’s using it to push hard for a right-center government, and only that.
- Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak came into the race, and although the prospects seemed daunting, he surprised observers by getting together a merger with Meretz and Labor defector Stav Shaffir – a merger called the Democratic Union – overshadowing Labor, which is now at risk of going into oblivion, below the 3.25 percent electoral threshold required to enter Parliament.
- Finally – Ayelet Shaked, who last time failed to make that electoral threshold with Naftali Bennett – has become the most powerful woman in Israeli politics, leading the Right Union, which includes the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) and National Union. The Kahane disciples of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) eventually opted to go it alone, and they don’t seem to stand a chance of meeting the threshold.
All in all it’s a historically low party count, in terms of how many parties seem to stand a chance of passing the electoral threshold and gaining the four seat minimum in the Knesset. All forces are more “merged”, as I will explain later.
But in the end, all that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference – the grand political picture is overall quite similar. Although the Democratic Union is saying that “the left has never been stronger”, this is not true. The left is relatively weak and is not offering anything very different from the right, mostly just “not Netanyahu” as a slogan. And everything is pointing towards a center-right government, and continuance of the status-quo.
The electoral threshold destroyed Netanyahu’s hopes last time…
In 2014, Israel raised the electoral threshold to 3.25% (meaning a party needs to win at least 4 seats of the 120 seat parliament). It was the third time it was raised since 1992, and the last time was largely seen as a push by Avigdor Lieberman meant to throw the Palestinian-Israeli (‘Arab’) parties under the new threshold. The Palestinians adapted to it and merged. The recent elections in April showed that avoiding mergers could have detrimental results, and eventually bar the creation of a government. The starkest example of such results was the New Right led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, respectively former Education Minister and former Justice Minister. The two had broken off from Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) – and despite their individual celebrity fell just a few votes below the electoral threshold. Had they passed the threshold, Netanyahu would have had a relatively easy time creating a government – even without Avigdor Lieberman. But their failure made Lieberman a kingmaker. And he used his power to press for harsher draft measures for ultra-orthodox – to the point of breaking the potential government, resulting in a vote for dissolution of the parliament and calling of new elections.
Lieberman the kingmaker
Lieberman’s grandstanding was perceived by many as a sign of strength, and even as revolutionary secular liberalism. Because religious parties had traditionally always played a part in governments, even under Ehud Barak’s Labor-government in 1999-2001. But Lieberman created a precedence, with a fundamentalist secularist vein. This positioning, and this standing up to Netanyahu, seems to have won him popularity. His party has gone up in polls from the 5 seats Beteinu got in April to a predicted 10 and even 11 by some recent polls.
So Lieberman is again positioned as a kingmaker of the right-center. He is saying that he will go for a unity-government of the two largest parties, and only that: Likud and the centrist Kahol Lavan (Blue White) of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid.
Since Likud and Kahol Lavan each poll at roughly 30 seats each, Lieberman’s envisioned government could easily be sustained by their combined majority, and the religious parties would become redundant. Lieberman says he will support as leader the first man who first shows willingness to enter such a cooperation. Netanyahu has used Lieberman’s stance to claim that a vote for Lieberman is thus a vote for the left, whereas Gantz of Blue White has ruled out a government under Netanyahu if he is indicted (Netanyahu’s various corruption charges are pending a hearing three weeks after the elections).
Ehud Barak and the new Democratic Union
Following the April elections, a new contender came into the arena: former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He started out in June by declaring a party that had no name and hardly anything to stand for other than unseating Netanyahu. In early July he gave it a name: Israel Demokratit (Israeli Democratic Party). At first it polled above the threshold.
Yet focus upon his close business (and possibly personal) relationship with convicted sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein appeared to threaten his political survival – especially as Epstein now faces new charges for sex trafficking. Barak first expressed shock at the new Epstein charges, saying he has decided to cut ties. But this was not enough. Barak’s party was already being polled well below the threshold, and opted to form an alliance with the left-Zionist Meretz, also incorporating a Labor-defector Stav Shaffir (darling of American liberal Zionists whose career began with the 2011 tent protests). Barak issued a token apology for his part in the year 2000 police violence that saw 12 Palestinian citizens killed during protests following Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa compound, and that was enough to legitimize him for this union. Meretz didn’t want to alienate too many Palestinians, who after all saved it from oblivion in the last elections.
Barak sought a big union, which would have incorporated Labor too. But Labor stuck to its slate and its alliance with the former Yisrael Beitenu member Orly Levy-Abekasis (who had departed from Yisrael Beitenu before the last elections and went alone with her party Gesher and failed to pass the threshold). Although Abekasis is a right-winger on Palestinians, she has some social justice interests that Labor leader Amir Peretz thought would strengthen his party’s centrist appeal. The refusal of Labor to work with Barak may have devastating results for its survival. The party used to be Israel’s leading bloc, and only managed to garner 6 seats in the April elections. Recent polls put it at 5. The departure of Stav Shaffir, who was seen as Peretz’s deputy in leadership of Labor, was a major blow to Labor.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Union appears to have good support. Recent polls give it about 8-9 seats, less than the original hyped 12 seats when Democratic Union declared just over a week ago. There seems to be other reasons why Labor were reluctant to join with Barak: they still remember how he busted the party in 2011 in order to continue serving as Defense Minister under Netanyahu, when most of the party could no longer suffer the alliance with Likud. At the time, Barak formed his own party Atzmaut (Independence), and while he stayed on in the cabinet, three other Labor cabinet ministers resigned.
This time, Barak gave a top spot in the new slate (# 3) to former general Yair Golan, placing himself at a modest #10. In other words, the party would need to win ten seats for Barak to enter the parliament. It is very possible that damaging PR has been the main calculation of his staying in the shade (Barak was shown in a photograph with his face covered entering Epstein’s mansion in NY in 2016 on the same day that several young women went to the house).
The leaders of the Democratic Union’s list are Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, Shaffir and Golan.
Shaked and the Right Union
Although it may have seemed that Ayelet Shaked was a lost political cause after last April, her comeback has been dramatic – arguably far more dramatic than Barak’s, and perhaps historical.
Shaked first announced she was joining forces with Bennett once again – but this time, Shaked was to be leader of the New Right instead of Bennett. The Likud didn’t want Shaked for various reasons, although she would arguably be at her ideological home there. Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara had lobbied hard against her inclusion. Another reason is that Shaked is a very popular young leader, at 43, and many old-timers in the Likud are waiting for their chance to rise to prominence in a post-Netanyahu era. Shaked would likely have jumped the queue. And the mere announcement of Shaked’s leadership gave a major spike in polling for the New Right, doubling its support.
Then came the really historical move: after polls revealed dramatic support for Shaked leading a bloc with the religious-Zionist Union of Right Wing Parties, (support for Bennett doing that was way below), Shaked jumped, and took over leadership of that new merged bloc, becoming the most powerful woman in Israeli politics. Shaked’s leadership is a paradox on several fronts: She is not religious per se, and she is a woman. Although this bloc contains both a lot of religious fundamentalism as well as misogynist traditional attitudes, she became its leader. This shows just how popular she is. In the end, the paradox is solved by the logic, Ayelet Shaked is a fundamentalist, authoritarian, Jewish supremacist. And if a woman can sell that brand and do it well, then it’s a win.
Her United Right bloc is polling at around 12 seats. The Kahanist, further right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power)– the racist party that got so much attention before the last election — ended up outside of that union, due to grievances and disagreements about allocation of seats in the slate. Netanyahu lobbied hard to have Jewish Power included in United Right, and United Right wanted Jewish Power for the (as many as 70,000) votes it would bring, but it also wanted Likud to be part of the political deal so that the United Right wouldn’t have to have all the Jewish Power members on its list. In the end the party fell between the two more powerful lists. Jewish Power may have given United Right one more seat, but it’s probably not going to change the world for the right-wing bloc.
The Joint List is back in business
The Joint List of four Palestinian parties that had once held 13 seats in the Knesset split into two factions before the April elections, and lost power as a result. Hadash-Ta’al got 6 seats, Balad-Ra’am got the minimum, four. The very low turnout among Palestinian citizens (only about 50%) seemed once again to threaten the survival of the Palestinian parties, especially Balad-Ra’am. While other issues may have been at play (such as a political depression due to last year’s Nation State law), the parties joined together once again last month to combine strengths and secure a Palestinian representation in Israel’s Parliament, as marginal as that has always been– and despite the fact that Palestinian parties have never featured in any Israeli government coalition.
Following the merger, the Joint List has polled at about 11 seats.
Where all this is pointing…
It is hard to predict what formations the upcoming elections may result in. It is not clear whether the decision of the Attorney General to indict Netanyahu will survive the hearing. So far, the pet subject of those who seek to oppose the government from the left and center is “unseating Netanyahu”. Lieberman’s position as kingmaker seems to preclude a right-wing government on its own. Such a government would have been heavily focused on securing immunity for Netanyahu in case his indictment is confirmed.
Benny Gantz would not sit with Netanyahu if indicted, but that also means that he would sit with him if he’s not. Thus, much seems to hang on Netanyahu’s potential indictment. But even if that happens, which is not sure, the winds are blowing mostly to Israel’s center. Even if, for argument’s sake, the left and center join up, they would need the Joint list as well as Lieberman’s support for creating a majority bloc.
Although Ayman Odeh, a leader of the Joint List, has expressed a wish to “join” Gantz, that does not mean joining an actual coalition, and Gantz has his reservations. Not to mention Likudist leanings in the party leadership which would oppose such a thing.
Then there’s Lieberman, who just wouldn’t allow a Palestinian powerbroker. So it points to the center-right – with, or possibly without, Netanyahu.
Thus the big players here are really not on the left. They are on the center-right. The big new leaders are now Avigdor Lieberman, the man who once advocated decapitating disloyal Palestinians with an axe, and Ayelet Shaked, who once advocated for the genocide of Palestinian children, whom she called “little snakes”. One could maintain the illusion that since Jewish Power has been ostracized, the prospective scenario is relatively moderate now. But it isn’t, it’s a rabidly Jewish-supremacist, ultra-nationalist scenario, where Palestinians will be marginalized and Israel’s colonialist takeover of Palestine will continue. Hardly anyone is talking about “occupation” any more, and those who do are a largely disregarded fringe.
It is all pointing to a continuance of status quo.
Those who believe that the time after Netanyahu will offer new hope are living in an illusion. In the future, we may be seeing leaders that make Netanyahu’s fascist racism seem pale. Gantz offered to save us from Netanyahu by boasting of his own butchery of Gaza. Lieberman the decapitator will save us from the ultra-Orthodox. Barak who couldn’t wait to bomb Iran and was on the right of both Netanyahu and Lieberman on Iran has forged the left revolution.
There is nothing here that suggests any real change. And that can be depressing – if you expect change to come from within the Israel political dynamic. But many of us have realized that this is not where change will come from, and that it can only come from outside pressure. Meanwhile, Israel will continue being the Apartheid state, with a make-believe democracy generating governments that do not represent half the people in its territory.