September 29, 2022

If you like Israeli elections…

there may be another not long after the November 1 vote. Over the course of the campaign, most polls have been predicting another deadlock following the fall election. This week, Israel’s Channel 12 recently published a poll showing both electoral blocs missing the necessary 61 seats needed to secure a majority in the Knesset and form a government. Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu and parties supporting him would earn just 59 seats. But a loss for Netanyahu would not mean a victory for Prime Minister Yair Lapid, per se. His bloc would be at 57, with Hadash-Ta’al not committing itself to either side—it’s almost impossible to envision the leftist-Arab joint ticket under Ayman Odeh supporting Netanyahu, but it won’t necessarily back Lapid either.

The Channel 12 poll in question saw a drop in support for Likud when compared with its September 22, denying the right-wing a majority under its current projection. The small parties hovering below the electoral threshold at both ends of the political spectrum, like the Palestinian nationalist faction Balad and the Ayelet Shaked-led Jewish Home party. If a party fails to pass the electoral threshold, votes that might have gone to ideologically similar parties are effectively “wasted,” as a list below the 3.25% standard will receive no seats in the Knesset.

Speaking of Shaked:

The Israeli interior minister and Jewish Home party leader is facing pressure within the Netanyahu camp to drop out of the race owing to concerns about wasted votes. Shaked has charted a troubled political path during this campaign, first launching a partnership with Yoaz Hendel that ended over disagreements on Netanyahu. (Hendel wanted to commit to opposing the Likud leader, Shaked did not.) Rhetorically disowning (but declining to resign from) the outgoing Israeli government from which she received her current cabinet portfolio, she returned to the Jewish Home party with a vow to support a right-wing government under Bibi.

Throughout the back-and-forth, Shaked’s electoral prospects have not been promising. The Zionist Spirit ticket (Shaked’s abortive joint list with Hendel) was polling below the threshold and the Jewish Home is not expected to perform much better. The current rumors are that the Netanyahu camp is pushing for the Jewish Home head to abandon the race, with an ambassadorship as potential compensation. But Shaked is denying these reports. Her situation does not look good, but it’s worth noting that most polls have a margin of error comparable to the electoral threshold—we’ve seen this statistical dynamic at play with upsets like Shaked and Naftali Bennett’s New Right party missing the threshold in 2019 when they were on track to pass it in most polls. If Shaked stays in the race, we’ll find out on November 1 if she can beat the pollsters.

And Lapid is looking left:

In an interview with Haaretz this past week, Prime Minister Yair Lapid acknowledged that the “fact that the Israeli left insists on speaking in the language of human rights and the need to resolve the conflict is important.” Just last week, Lapid affirmed Israel’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the United Nations General Assembly.

Lapid has traditionally marketed himself and his Yesh Atid party as decidedly centrist, shunning associations with left-wing and Israeli Arab parties. But Lapid has undergone a shift, seemingly driven in equal parts out of sincere conviction and political necessity. With hard-right parties lining up firmly behind Benjamin Netanyahu, and missed partnerships between smaller left-wing parties (such as the non-alliance between Labor and Meretz and the breakup of the Joint List) mean the prime minister’s natural outlet for electoral growth is on the left side of the political map. But rather than obscure his political transition, Lapid has been fairly frank as of late about his desire to partner with the left, just as former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett admitted to being wrong on his opposition to an independent Arab political party participating in an Israeli government.

Ayman Odeh photo by Amir Deeb—source and license


September 22, 2022

Yair Lapid said what?

Well, he hasn’t said anything yet—but the Israeli prime minister, who is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, is expected to call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his speech to the delegates on Thursday. Lapid reportedly plans to highlight the importance of a two-state outcome for Israel—notably protecting the state’s Jewish and democratic character—while also affirming that Israel would not undermine its security in pursuit of territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

Lapid had yet to address the plenum as of this writing, but that hasn’t stopped political rivals and potential allies alike from commenting on his planned remarks. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar of the National Unity Party railed against a prospective “terror state in Judea and Samaria.” 

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party also spared no time in condemning Lapid for moving to “hand over territories of our homeland to our enemies,” while claiming that Netanyahu had “removed the Palestinian issue from the world agenda.” But Bibi was once singing the same tune—as recently as 2013, Netanyahu, then Israel’s prime minister, told the General Assembly that Israel “continues to seek an historic compromise with our Palestinian neighbors, one that ends our conflict once and for all. We want peace based on security and mutual recognition, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the Jewish state of Israel.” 

It’s fair game to question the sincerity of Netanyahu’s appeals to two states—particularly his condition that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, when the PLO had already recognized the State of Israel—but Likud’s invective against Lapid for saying essentially the same thing its leader did less than a decade ago is also illustrative of the rightward lurch in Netanyahu’s camp in the same period.

Disqualifications.

Meretz’s Gaby Lasky and the party’s attorney petitioned the Israeli Central Elections Committee to disqualify Idit Silman, a candidate on Likud’s list, in the November 1 election. Silman was coalition whip in the last government and a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, but she defected, causing the coalition to lose its majority and accelerating its demise. 

The crux of Lasky’s case is that under Israeli law, a serving member of Knesset who secedes from their party cedes the right to run with an existing political party, such as Likud, unless they quit the parliament. In other words, if a party defector wishes to contest the next election, they must do so as part of an entirely new faction. 

Silman did resign from the Knesset—but she did so last week, months after she left the last coalition. She was also never booted from Bennett’s erstwhile Yamina party.

Speaking of disqualifications:

Balad is also becoming a target for a potential disqualification bid. Last week, the anti-Zionist Arab nationalist party split from Hadash and Ta’al, which already lost the the Ra’am (United Arab List) faction ahead of the last election, leaving three mostly Arab slates where once the Joint List was dominant. 

Right-wing parties have had Balad and other Joint List candidates come before the Central Elections Committee before, but the committee has rejected those petitions or had its disqualifications overturned by the Supreme Court, as occurred in 2019 and 2020.

Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party is already seeking to disqualify Balad leader Sami Abu Shehadeh, while Prime Minister Yair Lapid is mulling whether to also target Balad, which is hovering around the electoral threshold. For his part, Ayman Odeh said that at the moment, given Lapid and Benny Gantz’s “current attitude,” his Hadash-Ta’al alliance would not recommend either for the premiership.

Gideon Sa’ar photo by Moshe Milner—source and license | Gaby Lasky photo by Oren Rozen—source and license | Idit Silman photo by Baruch Greenberg—source and license | Sami Abou Shahadeh photo by Amir Deeb—source and license


September 15, 2022

Late breaking (up) news.

The Joint List—the once aptly named alliance of Israeli Arab parties—is splitting once again, a decision that came just before tonight’s deadline for party registration and after several last-ditch attempts to rescue the unity arrangement failed. The Joint List had been plagued by disagreements over seat placements, a perennial source of discord among Israel’s small political parties awkwardly paired in various unity tickets. 

The unified slate started as a grouping of four parties: communist Hadash led by Ayman Odeh, veteran lawmaker Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al, the Arab nationalist Balad, and the United Arab List, a conservative Islamist faction better known by its Hebrew acronym, Ra’am. The list had its origins in the 2015 Knesset elections, split in half before the first 2019 election into Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad, and reconstituted itself before splitting once again in the last campaign, with Hadash, Ta’al, and Balad on one side, and Ra’am striking out on its own. Under Mansour Abbas’s leadership, Ra’am ultimately became the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli government.

A breakup is bad news for the Israeli Arab public, which saw low voter turnout amid last election’s disunity, and the anti-Netanyahu bloc more broadly. If a party misses the 3.25% electoral threshold, it does not receive any seats in the Knesset. That’s why tiny parties like Balad are a threat to their respective blocs: votes cast for them are effectively wasted if they do not make it into the parliament, with no gain in seats. Israeli journalist Mohammad Magadli has an interesting take, arguing that the rump Joint List and Ra’am could pressure Balad to drop out of the race and rescue Yair Lapid’s effort to retain the premiership. The idea sounds promising, but needs to be balanced against Balad’s track record and rejectionist proclivities.

The more the merrier?

Maybe not in the case of Religious Zionism. The far-right alliance grew a little this past week, with the anti-LGBTQ Noam party joining in. Its extreme politics have mainstream sanction in the form of Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s support. The once-and-maybe-future prime minister pushed the merger, just as he had with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism faction and Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit. 

If Noam had run alone and missed the electoral threshold, Netanyahu’s chances at receiving a majority of at least 61 seats would be diminished. For Netanyahu, brokering such pre-election deals may mean endorsing some new blend of bigotry, but Religious Zionism and Otzma’s existing slates already included candidates—including Smotrich and Ben-Gvir—with anti-democratic, anti-Palestinian, and even homophobic positions. Beyond its anti-LGBTQ stances, Noam also opposes female service in the IDF and religious rights for Reform Jews.

Noam struck a unity deal with Otzma before the 2021 Israeli election, and later joined Religious Zionism, giving the party’s leader Avigdor Maoz his first stint in the Knesset. However, it was initially unsatisfied with Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s offer of the 11th slot on the list and decided to strike out for an independent run. After some pressure from Netanyahu, Noam backtracked its position and ultimately accepted the spot on the unified Religious Zionism list, a realistic place given current polling, which shows the far-right grouping receiving as many as 13 mandates in the next Knesset.

Coming home (with regrets).

Ayelet Shaked ended her alliance with Yoaz Hendel, dubbed the Zionist Spirit, in favor of a return to the Jewish Home—the party in which she launched her political career alongside future Prime Minister Naftali Bennett nearly a decade ago. Shaked and Bennett left the Jewish Home ahead of the first 2019 election to start the New Right. That party missed the electoral threshold, but the partners were given a second chance with the succession of repeat elections, and the pair launched Yamina. 

With Yair Lapid’s accession to the prime ministership and Naftali Bennett’s pending retirement from politics, Yamina was left in a bad position. The party already faced problems with defectors during Bennett’s tenure as prime minister, and Shaked quickly forged a new path with Yoaz Hendel, who had worked as Benjamin Netanyahu’s communications director before turning against his new boss, becoming a fixture in various anti-Bibi center-right parties since 2019. However, polls repeatedly projected that their Zionist Spirit bloc would fall short of the electoral threshold.

Over the course of the current campaign, Shaked has been inching further right, and her relationship with Hendel finally broke down when she vowed that she would recommend Netanyahu as prime minister. In lieu of the Zionist Spirit, she is linking back up with the Jewish Home, which has shrunk considerably since she and Bennett left three years ago, eeking out an extraparliamentary existence after not participating in the last Knesset election.

Shaked said she regretted sitting in government with centrist and left-wing factions, as well as the Israeli Arab Ra’am party. In an apparent response to his ex-political partner’s expressions of remorse, Bennett seemed to feel more pity than anger: “My decision to establish a government in Israel was the best and most Zionist decision that I have made in my life. Some of those who say now that it was a mistake are suffering from post-trauma.”

Sami Abou Shahadeh photo by Amir Deeb—source and license | Ayman Odeh photo by Amir Deeb—source and license | Mansour Abbas photo by Mark Neyman—source and license | Bezalel Smotrich photo source and license | Itamar Ben-Gvir photo by דוד דנברג—source and license


September 8, 2022

Israel’s election is a three-way race, or so Benny Gantz would like voters to think.

The National Unity Party (Or is it the National Camp? Or Statist—or Statesmanship Camp? Civil Camp? The faction’s Hebrew name—HaMahane HaMamlachti—had Israeli media bouncing around with different translations) announced its election list earlier this week, with Defense Minister and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz heading up the party, followed by Justice Minister ex-Likudnik Gideon Sa’ar, and political newcomer Gadi Eisenkot, another former IDF head. With the launch of the party slate, Sa’ar declared that Benjamin Netanyahu is “the problem, not the solution.” But according to Sa’ar, Prime Minister Yair Lapid isn’t the answer either, stating that “Only Benny Gantz, at the head of National Unity, can end the crisis that Israel and the political system are in.”

Gantz was Netanyahu’s main challenger for the prime minister’s office in the April and September 2019 races, but ended up joining his government following the March 2020 election.  It’s long been clear that Gantz sees the current campaign as a three-way contest for the premiership with Bibi and the incumbent Lapid. What’s less clear is whether the Israeli public is sold on that proposition, with most surveys asking about preferred prime ministerial candidates showing Gantz a fairly distant third behind Netanyahu and Lapid. But Israelis don’t vote directly for their head of government, and the example of Naftali Bennett may have demonstrated to would-be prime ministers that any party that is just big enough (National Unity is currently projected to win about 12-13 seats) to hold up the formation of a coalition can vie for the top job.

“Scum of the Earth.”

That’s how Avigdor Lieberman described Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview over the weekend. The finance minister and Yisrael Beitenu party head had choice words for his old Likud boss after Netanyahu allegedly boosted rumors—shared by a man who claims to have worked for Lieberman twenty years ago—that Lieberman had offered a monetary reward for the assassination of a police investigator pursuing a corruption probe against him (Lieberman was acquitted on corruption charges in 2013).

Lieberman started his career as an aide to Netanyahu, but left to start a party catering to immigrants from the former Soviet Union—Yisrael Beitenu. Nevertheless, he served in successive Netanyahu governments and even ran a joint list with Likud. But in 2019, Lieberman declared he would not serve under Bibi again, and ultimately switched into the anti-Netanyahu camp. The pair’s long history makes their break personal. Earlier this month, Netanyahu and his son Yair both shared a video from former-Yisrael Beitenu member of Knesset Sofa Landver accusing Lieberman of being a dictator, transferring votes from right-to-left, doing nothing for Russian-speaking Israelis, and being a homophobe, among other things.

An unorthodox election season?

The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox alliance United Torah Judaism could disappear from the electoral map if its two constituent factions don’t resolve a simmering dispute, with significant consequences for the Haredi community in Israel and the political map writ large. 

The crisis emerged over the summer over two issues: Haredi education and placement on the election list, a perennial problem for joint tickets. On one side is the Agudat Yisrael party, which wants a network of its Hasidic schools to merge with the non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah party’s schools in order to receive state funding. Currently, the Belz Hasidic schools do not receive full government support because they are not fully in compliance with Israel’s core school curriculum. Degel Hatorah fears that this would invite closer scrutiny over their fully-government supported schools, whose adherence to the core curriculum is dubious. On top of this, Degel Hatorah leader Moshe Gafni insists upon taking the top spot on the UTJ list, and giving 60% of the slate to members of his party. One UTJ official interviewed by Haaretz last week seemed confident that their faction brings in most of the ultra-Orthodox union’s votes.

A breakup would risk both parties missing the electoral threshold, denying Israel’s Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox leadership access to an influential role in Israeli politics. Haredi parties once worked across the political spectrum, but in more recent years, UTJ and the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party Shas have become critical components of the pro-Netanyahu bloc. If UTJ splits, it could disrupt Bibi’s path to a parliamentary majority. Naturally, the opposition leader will try to facilitate a rapprochement as he recently did with the far-right Religious Zionism ticket. But Degel Hatorah’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, is telling the party’s politicians to block Netanyahu’s intercession in UTJ’s dispute. 

Gideon Sa’ar photo by Moshe Milner—source and license | Arye Deri photo by Adi Cohen Zedek—source and license


August 31, 2022

Keep It Brief

On Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu accepted a security briefing from Prime Minister Yair Lapid on the pending restoration of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, from which the U.S. withdrew under the Trump administration. The agreement limits Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, but many Israelis across the political spectrum oppose it, criticizing it for allegedly not going far enough against Tehran’s atomic aspirations, or for not covering other malign Iranian activities like support for terrorist proxies or the Islamic Republic’s missile program.

As leader of the opposition, Netanyahu has the right to receive security briefings from the prime minister, but Bibi has only invoked this privilege twice since being booted from Balfour Street—this Monday, and earlier this month during the recent Israeli military operation in Gaza. Netanyahu wants to act as if he is still Israel’s premier, and meeting with his successors in their official prime ministerial capacities would undermine that image. You can’t pretend to be prime minister if you’re seen with the real prime minister!

In the leadup to Israel’s November 1 election day, Lapid and Netanyahu, who are both against the nuclear agreement, will be eager to prove that they are especially opposed. In a controversial move as prime minister, Bibi went behind the Obama administration to deliver a speech blasting the deal before the U.S. Congress. Lapid has made his position known to the United States but is less likely to interfere Netanyahu-style, preferring to get some kind of security compensation from Washington and avoid any moves that could damage his standing with President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.

Jonathan Pollard’s Whiplash [Un-]Endorsement of Ayelet Shaked

Within the span of 24 hours, Jonathan Pollard endorsed and then withdrew his endorsement of Ayelet Shaked and her struggling Zionist Spirit party. Pollard is a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who went to prison in the 1980s for passing classified information to Israel (among other countries). His statement endorsing Shaked was equal parts tone deaf and backhanded, criticizing her for joining the previous government under her ex-political partner Naftali Bennett: “We all make errors in judgment,” Pollard said on Tuesday, as only someone who has been convicted of violating the Espionage Act could know.

Shaked welcomed Pollard’s support, describing him as an “Israeli hero” (Pollard recently moved to Israel after being paroled and then subsequently released from house arrest). But if it was the approval of disgraced American intelligence officers Shaked craved, disappointment was not long in coming as Pollard took back his endorsement later on Tuesday. The reason: Shaked would not commit to only joining a right-wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu and would not boot Yoaz Hendel, Bibi’s former communications director who has floated between various center-right anti-Netanyahu parties over the previous election cycles. 

It’s clear Shaked and the Zionist Spirit won’t have Pollard’s vote, and every vote counts as the party remains projected to fall short of the electoral threshold—albeit within the margin of error for most polls—amid a crowded field of centrist and right-wing factions. 

Unholy Alliance

Opposition Leader Netanyahu scored a major political victory on Friday when he brokered the merger of the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties after hosting their leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir at his home in Caesarea. The two factions had run a united ticket previously, but Ben Gvir was reportedly unhappy with the allocation of seats to Otzma on their joint electoral list. Separately, Ben Gvir would likely have entered the Knesset as a medium-sized party, but Smotrich was at risk of missing the threshold, thus “wasting” potential pro-Netanyahu votes and endangering Bibi’s ability to attain a parliamentary majority.

Much has been said already about the highly dubious ethics of riding to the prime minister’s office on the backs of religious zealots and fascists, and Friday’s deal all but guarantees that Religious Zionism and Otzma will be major players in the government if Netanyahu is able to form a coalition after November 1. During the merger, Netanyahu may have toyed with the idea of giving Ben Gvir a cabinet position, which Netanyahu had made clear was not on the table for him in the last elections. As a larger party, the united far-right ticket will have more bargaining power and have a better shot at pressing Netanyahu—who likely cannot form a government without Religious Zionism and Otzma—to hand over the desired ministries.

Bezalel Smotrich photo source and license | Itamar Ben-Gvir photo by דוד דנברג—source and license