More Party Splits than Unions as Race Starts for Israel’s April Election

Binyamin Netanyahu at 70 and his Likud party are gaining ground in the polls this week as the 6.65 million-strong Israeli electorate faces a rollercoaster campaign for the April 9 general election. The almost daily splits and surprises are widening the gaps between the top three lists, leaving the rest battling for the minimum of 4 seats (out of 120) to cross the threshold into the 21st Knesset. Likud this week shot up to an estimated 31 seats, followed far down by the newly-established Israel Resilience Party of former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (12) and Yair Lapid’s opposition Future (10). These are the only double digits on the slate. But it is still early days for a guesstimate of the endgame in a campaign fraught with shocks and unforeseen upsets.

With seven parties vying for position on the right, a battle cry for mergers has gone up from Likud. The left is nursing its wounds from a major split. On Tuesday, Jan. 1, Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Labor Party, unceremoniously dumped Tzipi Livni and her Hatnuah Party on live television, breaking up the Zionist Union merger the two parties had formed before the 2015 election. The Labor leader, accusing Livni of disloyalty, was clearly clutching at straws to arrest the party’s free fall in opinion polls under his leadership. Political commentators of all stripes had been saying that Labor, which founded the state and led its first governments, had had its day.

This shock deflected attention from another major split three days earlier in the right-wing camp. Saturday night, two cabinet ministers, Naftali Bennett, 46, and Ayelet Shaked, 42, also on live TV, ditched their national-religious Jewish Home Party and established a new grouping called the New Right. They said they aimed to attract non-religious voters too but are clearly hunting bigger game.achaHa

Ex-general Benny Gantz, a newcomer to politics, has so far kept his platform and list of candidates close to his vest. After he levels to the public, his fortunes may change for better or for worse, although time is fast running out.

Three ultra-religious parties (on the right), Agudat Yisrael, Degel Hatorah and Shas are talking about running on a joint list to get around the threshold menace. Treasury Minister Moshe Kahlon aims to position his Kulani party roughly at the center of the political map. This week, a leading member, Housing Minister ex-general Yoev Galant quit (or was eased out of) this party and decided to run in the Likud primaries next month. Another new party, “Bridge,” is led by an ex-Likud lawmaker Orli Levy-Abekesis. She pledges action to close the social gap, a ticket not claimed by any other party. Perennials of Israeli politics are the tiny far-left Meretz and the Israeli Arab Joint List which is heading for a split. All the new faces are chipping away at the hawkish former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman’s veteran Yisrael Beitenu.

All the veteran political groupings (excepting Likud – for now) are scrambling against the rising volatility to hold onto their core supporters and party faithful. The consensus of all the experts is that Netanyahu and his Likud will win another term at the head of a coalition government, although its members may be less docile than the present lineup. The average voter knows that under the Likud baton, he/she has never had it so good economically or lived through a period with so few major wars. But first, there is a minefield of hidden explosives to be crossed up until April 9:

1. Acute security crises are a constant threat and have overturned more than one ruling party in the past.

2. The probes against the prime minister could lead to his conviction for graft, although sources familiar with the prosecution case awaiting the approval of the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit expect the charges of bribery to be dropped and leave only minor charges. In that case, Netanyahu may not be forced by law to step down. Still, his future is in question.

3. Voter fatigue after 10 years of rule by the same prime minister. Even some of his most loyal adherents wouldn’t mind seeing a new face.

4. A rival could spring up from his own Likud opposition and attempt a “palace revolution.” Few challengers spring to mind. A long-time rival, Gideon Saar, 53, a right-wing liberal, who quit government to challenge Netanyahu, will test the water in the party primaries next month.

Indeed, the prime minister, who has little to fear from the centrist or left-wing opposition, sees the only real threat inside his own camp. The relatively youthful Shaked and Bennett maintain that their New Right was set up to inject muscle into the prime minister’s soft line on terror and security. But their real motive quickly came to light: They established a vehicle for seizing control of disaffected Likud adherents who seek a new face at the top. The pair is counting on garnering enough votes to shrink Likud, join the next government coalition on their own terms and then take over.

Netanyahu’s strongest campaign card is his unmatched reputation as a brilliant orator on the world stage and talent for striding as an equal among powerful government leaders. In addition to giving the country security and economic stability, he will also claim to have brought honor and world-wide recognition to the Jewish state and acclaim for its exceptional achievements. His trips abroad and easy camaraderie with world leaders will be on show for downing his lackluster rivals.

Netanyahu will flaunt his success in persuading world leaders to promise to move their embassies to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Only this week, while in Brazil to attend the inauguration of its new president Jair Bolsonaro, the prime minister announced that the Brazilian leader would visit Israel in March – at a high moment in Israel’s election campaign – and pledge to transfer his country’s embassy to Jerusalem.

Israelis are especially thrilled when Arab governments set up ties with Israel after decades of hostility and denial. Netanyahu is therefore working hard to arrange a state visit by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al Khalifa or his Crown Prince ahead of election day. This would be the first by an Arab crowned head to the Jewish state. An alternative under discussion between Jerusalem and Manama is for Prime Minister Netanyahu to pay a state visit to Bahrain. He would then be the first Israeli prime minister to be received by a Gulf Arab state. The effect would be enhanced by the Saudi Crown Prince’s tacit blessing.

The Likud leader believes he can silence his critics and down his rivals by transforming the glitter of high theater into the gold of ballots. But he is not there yet.

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