Amid major political shake-ups, Netanyahu’s Likud Party is solid

The recent shifts are likely only the first in Israel’s rapid election cycle that culminates at the national polls on April 9.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting in the Israeli Knesset on Dec. 24, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting in the Israeli Knesset on Dec. 24, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

In the week since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the country would be going to new elections, Israel’s political scene has suffered a number of minor earthquakes.

Several parties have fractured, new parties have emerged, and the only constant in the political scene is the strength of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, even amid ongoing corruption allegations and potential indictments looming around the prime minister, who has stood at the helm of Israel’s ever-complex political system for the past 10 years.

Kulanu, the second-largest party in the current coalition, a centrist party led by current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, has imploded with Housing Minister and former IDF Gen. Yoav Galant defecting to the Likud Party. Galant thanked Kahlon and the Kulanu Party for “cooperation and joint leadership of the construction and housing sector, and for their economic and social activities for Israeli society.”

Former Ambassador to the United States and Deputy Minister Michael Oren has announced that he would not run with the party in the upcoming election.

He stated that “in 2015, I was called upon to serve the State of Israel in the Knesset. For four full years, as a Knesset member and later as deputy minister, I worked tirelessly to strengthen Israel’s relations in the world,” adding that “I do not abandon the diplomatic mission. I will continue to fight against boycott organizations and anti-Israel groups and to represent Israel around the world.”

Head of Kulanu Party Moshe Kahlon leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on Dec. 24, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Additional Kulanu MKs Rachel Azaria and Elie Elalouf have also announced they would not seek re-election, and Kahlon’s Chief of Staff Nadav Sheinberger has announced he will step down from his post.

Rumors have been swirling that Oren, as well as Kahlon himself, a former Likud member, may similarly join Galant and return to his former party.

The ‘New Right’ Party

There has also been a major shake-up on the right. The religious right-wing Jewish Home Party, led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, with eight seats in the current coalition, has now splintered.

On Dec. 29, Bennett and Shaked announced the formation of a “New Right” Party aimed at secular right-wing voters, leaving behind the party’s religious establishment on the right fringe of Israel’s political spectrum. The new party will be joined by Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli.

In announcing their new party, just several weeks after walking back an ultimatum to Netanyahu to receive the recently vacated minister of defense portfolio, Bennett stated, “We were forced to fold and remain in the government despite what we believe. Four weeks later when the prime minister decided elections were good for him, he did it.”

Shaked said the “New Right,” would be a “full and equal partnership” between the secular and the Orthodox. “We’ll regain Knesset seats that have slipped from the Likud to the left—to parties that claim to be right-wing, but are, in fact, left,” she said. “The party will strengthen the right.”

Israeli Minister of Education Nafatli Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked seen after a statement during a press conference in Tel Aviv announcing a new political party on Dec. 29, 2018. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90.

Several smaller religious, right-wing groups may enter the race, hoping to enter the Knesset to the right of the remaining Jewish Home, though few have chances of passing the electoral threshold of approximately four seats unless they form vote sharing partnerships.

Netanyahu criticized the Jewish Home splinter, stating, “Bennett and Shaked are destroying right-wing parties, which won’t pass the electoral threshold,” Netanyahu told senior Likud officials. “This is a fatal wound to the nationalist camp that can lead to the rise of a left-wing government.”

A messy Zionist Union divorce

Within the current opposition, the Zionist Union, a combination of the once powerful left-wing Labor Party and the smaller Hatnua Party, a remnant of former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert’s short-lived Kadima Party, has dissolved, following a sudden messy public divorce between Labor faction leader Avi Gabbay and Hatnua leader Tzippi Livni.

Gabbay’s move stunned many members of his own party, as well as Livni, who was sitting at the dais when Gabbay made his surprise announcement. Afterwards, Gabbay reportedly stated that “I only got crap from her [Livni]. I let her lead the opposition, and she had nothing positive to say about me,” adding that “the Zionist Union is done,” and the party would go by its former name, Labor.

Head of the Zionist Union party Avi Gabbay and head of opposition Tzipi Livni during a statement in the Knesset on Jan. 1, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Prior to the announcement, Livni had urged the formation of a left-wing alliance between Zionist Union, Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party, and political newcomer, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who registered a new party last week called “Israel Resilience.”

Gabbay is now rumored to be in talks with Gantz, as is Livni. Gantz, whose political views have not been made known and therefore have not been duly scrutinized, has thus far declined to align himself with the political left, suggesting that he could be right-wing on security issues and left-wing on socioeconomic issues, stating that “right and left are concepts that have to be reconsidered in Israeli society.”

‘Only Netanyahu can defeat himself’

In response to questions on Gantz’s political views, Netanyahu said during a press conference on a state visit to Brazil that “from my experience, those who say they are not in the right or the left are in the left. Like with Yair Lapid, everyone knows where the weight of his [Yesh Atid] party is, so he should admit it. But those who say they aren’t that or that are usually on the left.”

In response to efforts to form a left-wing alliance that can challenge Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader said he would consider efforts to align with the smaller right-wing parties ahead of the elections, stating that he was “checking all options.”

“I will act responsibly so that the right-wing bloc will preserve its power,” Netanyahu stated, insisting that his preference is to form his next coalition, should he succeed at the polls “based on the current government.”

The recent shifts are likely only the first in Israel’s rapid election cycle, that culminates at the national polls on April 9. New alliances will be made, and old alliances shattered. Despite all the shifts and corruption probes, Netanyahu remains confident in his double-digit lead in the polls. All early indications are that only Netanyahu can defeat himself come April.

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