So we’re into election campaign mode. This does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that matters will now go smoothly: We’ve got a long and winding road ahead of us before election day.
One factor seems reasonably certain: this election will play out for the most part on the right. As Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote just days ago: “…our next leadership and legislature will be unprecedentedly right-wing…our political pendulum has stopped swinging.”
This, my friends, is cause for celebration. I’ve been writing for some time about the movement of the electorate to the right, and we may have reached a significant point in this political evolution. But there is still much flux – new parties, people switching parties – and a great deal to track.
Left-leaning Labor and Meretz are truly insignificant in their impact now.
Centrist Blue & White, with a projected five or six mandates, is on the verge of falling apart. Benny Gantz, likely at the twilight of his inauspicious political career, bears considerable responsibility for this: After pledging not to sit with Netanyahu, he joined that unity government. Had he achieved the position of prime minister and acted decisively in that role, it would have been different. But that, as we all know, was not the case.
Gabi Ashkenazi, Foreign Minister and second on the current Blue & White list, has announced intention to leave the party because Gantz refuses to relinquish his role as head. He had sought that role for himself. I have no information on his plans going forward.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (pictured) has just announced formation of a new left wing party, because “hundreds of thousands of Israelis feel they have no home in the current political system.” This move will certainly pull votes from other parties. Blue & White’s Avi Nissenkorn, who is currently Justice Minister, has already announced his intention of joining Huldai.
Yair Lapid, who led the opposition in the last Knesset, chairs the centrist Yesh Atid. He is still a player of sorts. However, his numbers have dropped, as some of his supporters have turned to Gideon Sa’ar.
And so, to the right wing parties:
When last I posted, I reported that MKs Michal Shir and Sharren Haskel had both left Likud to join Sa’ar’s New Hope party. This was after Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton had already done so.
“Hmm…” I wrote. “Do we see the beginning of a trend here?”
And in the blink of an eye we saw Zev Elkin also leave Likud for Sa’ar’s party.
Elkin – who was a cabinet minister and one-time confident of Prime Minister Netanyahu – had gravitas within the party and is respected for his integrity. His departure from Likud, and his courageous, forthright statement explaining why he did so, caused political shockwaves:
While praising Netanyahu for achievements in the past, including his contributions to “Israel’s security, world standing and economy,” Elkin charged that in the last two years Netanyahu had destroyed the party by increasingly placing his personal interests ahead of the country’s.
“I can’t tell voters to support someone I’ve stopped believing in.” (Emphasis added)
Pausing to address Netanyahu directly, Elkin said: “We’re going to these surreal elections because you want to influence [the appointment of the] state attorney and the attorney general, and because of your hope for a French law [to stop your corruption trial]…”
“As someone who is watching this dangerous process from up close, I see how his personal considerations are getting mixed up with the national considerations, and even triumphing.”
Netanyahu would dispatch Likud ministers to attack him, he said, but in private they say the same thing. “They are afraid of you, of the atmosphere you’ve created.”
Sadly, my friends, I have no inclination to take issue with what Elkin has said.
There have been things Netanyahu has done superbly on behalf of Israel, moving me to cheer him on. Perhaps most notable, and most significant, has been his strong stance against Iran. I am not sure anyone else could have made the case as adroitly as he has.
He is a consummate speaker, and has represented Israel well on the international stage. With diplomatic skill and considerable charisma, he has been adept at forging new relationships and solidifying old ones for Israel’s sake. Not a small matter.
Yet increasingly there have been problems: An astute politician, he seems to think he can keep going indefinitely. Already the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, he has expressed no intention of retiring. This is not good for Israel. Not a team player, he tends to drive away those he sees as political threats. Definitely not good for Israel. Many of those who are “anti Bibi” today began as confidants of, or assistants to, the prime minister.
Netanyahu exhibits one other disturbing tendency: He caves politically as is expedient, failing to consistently demonstrate ideological strength. He plays it “safe.” Some might regard his pragmatism as prudent. I, and many others, do not. With the notable exception of Iran, he tends to lack backbone. Thus, for example, did he fail to apply sovereignty to Israeli communities in Judea & Samaria when he had a small window of opportunity to do so.
Very recently a news report came to my attention that, if true as it appears, demonstrates the worst of his readiness to sacrifice ideology for pragmatism, and in this case pragmatic concerns that are personal:
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is pushing for a very significant reduction in the proposal for a resolution on regularizing the ‘Young Settlements’ following pressure from Ra’am party chairman MK Mansour Abbas.
“A very senior source in the government revealed to Arutz Sheva that the prime minister has decided to reduce the scope [of the] government’s decision to regularize the ‘Young Settlements which was proposed by Ministers Biton and Hanegbi, without their knowledge.
“Instead of the full regularization of 70 localities in Judea and Samaria, the prime minister intends to bring a resolution to the government which would only regularize three localities in exchange for the three Bedouin localities the government agreed to legalize earlier this week. The move was made as part of the ongoing discussions between Netanyahu and MK Mansour Abbas…
“These moves, according to the senior official, are intended to please Abbas to ensure his support for Netanyahu for prime minister in the upcoming elections, given Gideon Sa’ar’s strength in recent polls.” (Emphasis added)
JPost political correspondent Gil Hoffman last month referred to Mansour Abbas (pictured) as Netanyahu’s unlikely ally: “Abbas is currently surprising Israelis by adopting a new strategy of actively seeking an alliance with Netanyahu that could change Israeli politics forever.”
Likud’s platform is ideologically on the right, as are many if not most of the Likud MKs. But Netanyahu? Allow me to disabuse you of the thought that he, personally, truly is – although he would have the electorate believe so when it suits him. I believe once upon a time – before always winning became so important to him – he was.
Naftali Bennett of Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar of the New Hope, the party heads seeking to replace Netanyahu, are both solidly to the right. The thought in some quarters is that Bennett (pictured) is more decisively so.
The question, then, is why Elkin, and before him Shir, Haskel and Shasha-Biton, all opted to join Sa’ar, who is also running ahead of Bennett in the polls.
I think there are multiple factors to consider. New Hope as a new party provides more latitude for those joining to be instrumental in establishing its policies and locating high up on the Knesset list. And Sa’ar is promoting democratic reforms: He wants to increase the power of local authorities, set term limits for prime minister, and establish a procedure for electing half of the MKs in direct regional elections.
But beyond this, a major key to Sa’ar’s current popularity is his upfront pledge that he will not sit in a government headed by Netanyahu. Bennett, on the other hand, has said there is no guarantee that he would sit with Netanyahu, but has not decisively declared that he would not.
Both Elkin and Shasha-Biton have made statements regarding this: They did not leave Likud in order to find themselves in a party that joins a coalition with Netanyahu at its helm.
What Bennett did recently was publicly announce that Netanyahu had offered him a position of considerable import if he would return to Likud, and that he had turned it down. But he did not say he would never accept in the future. Elkin was cutting in addressing this matter: Netanyahu, he said, was counting on the fact that Bennett would forget all the times that he tricked him. After the election, charged Elkin, Bennett would, “like a battered woman,” rush back into Netanyahu’s arms and save him.
Sa’ar, of course, has weak points. Having taken a hiatus from politics (2014 – 17), his experience is less broad than that of Bennett, who has been involved actively throughout. What is more, Sa’ar’s personality is flat, and this is of concern on several levels – electability, making Israel’s case internationally, and more.
We cannot yet know if Sa’ar’s poll numbers, which have already slipped slightly, represent a flash in the pan, or something solid that can be sustained.
Bennett, in making his recent announcement about running for prime minister, focused on criticizing Netanyahu for his poor handling of the corona virus pandemic and ensuing economic problems. I do not know if this was far too narrow a focus, or a smart move because this is what concerns people right now.
It is important to note here that Yamina, which he heads, enfolds Bezalel Smotrich of Tkuma, a religious nationalist party.
This is both a positive – attracting religious voters, and a negative – perhaps driving secular voters to Sa’ar.
This set up may be changing, in any event. There are reports that Smotrich may be leaving Yamina, either to run alone (not a good move), or in a bloc with HaBayit HaYehudi, headed by Rafi Peretz. Smotrich denies this, but it is being said that he may leave because of discontent with Bennett’s refusal to campaign on broader issues. To further complicate matters, Peretz, whose political career has not been successful, may be leaving.
I have not mentioned Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu, an opportunist of the first order, who still has a following. He might yet fold into a coalition to help it succeed. However, the ultra-Orthodox parties are not likely to sit with him and their tally of mandates would surely far exceed his.
The inclinations of those two parties, which of course have their own followings, remain to be seen.
It would be terribly sad if Sa’ar and Bennett undercut each other, splitting the opposition against Netanyahu. And so the question hangs in the air regarding some sort of cooperation between them down the road, for the good of the country.
While Thursday night is New Year’s Eve, I observe that this is no time for celebrations.
It is a time for serious contemplation. Perhaps begin the new year with a charity donation, or personal resolve to do something to make the world a better place.
To all my readers, I wish the blessings of health, peace, and prosperity in the year ahead.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.