(December 26, 2018 / JNS) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision on Monday to call early elections was not entirely unexpected, but it still caught some Israeli parties off-guard.
The elections, due in November next year, have been moved up to April 9, and experts are already predicting a tumultuous campaign in which the smaller parties will do their best to chip away at what early polls say is a guaranteed Likud win.
Polls conducted over the past year, and especially since Monday, predict Likud will, at the very least, retain power and win 30 Knesset seats.
But party insiders warn of complacency, saying overconfidence may prove to be the party’s Achilles’ heel.
The ruling party faces no real threat from any of the opposition parties and Netanyahu’s popularity continues to soar among his base and right-wing voters in general, despite the legal issues he faces.
Complicating the issue are tensions within Likud, which are likely to make for particularly charged primaries.
No date has been set for Likud’s internal elections at this time, but they must be held in the next two months. Party veterans and newcomers alike are eyeing the top 15 slots, and campaigns by Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat are likely to exacerbate tensions within the party.
Meanwhile, Habayit Hayehudi, which represents the religious Zionist sector, is facing something of an identity crisis. The party is torn between preserving its base, which demands that it continue to champion its ultra-conservative platform, and the desire by party leader Naftali Bennett and his dominant second Ayelet Shaked to branch out of the “sectorial party box” and broaden Habayit Hayehudi’s appeal.
Over the past few months, Bennett and Shaked have consistently tried to “out-right” Netanyahu on various issues, while simultaneously pulling Habayit Hayehudi in a more liberal direction, which may end up costing it the votes of its conservative base.
Habayit Hayehudi currently holds eight Knesset seats. Recent polls predict that it is likely to strengthen and win 11 or 12 seats in an election.
The situation is equally complex for Kulanu, which has a largely economic platform and whose success therefore hinges on market performance and hot-button issues such as the cost of living and housing prices.
Kulanu leader Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s election campaign—unofficially launched weeks ago—is clouded by a recent wave of price hikes, which he has been able to block only partially.
Moreover, the party’s Knesset list, which is determined by its central committee rather than through primaries, is heading for a shake-up, with exits expected in favor of other parties, including Likud.
Kahlon has made it clear he would like to remain finance minister in the next government, but with the polls predicting that his party will drop from its current 10 mandates to six at best, it is unclear whether he will get his wish.
The religious parties may have less to be concerned about with regard to their voter base, but they are plagued with inner conflicts that may affect their performance in the polls.
Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Party, is wrestling with inner conflicts over the corruption allegations surrounding its leader, Aryeh Deri, although it still managed a solid performance in the local elections in October.
The party has no real leadership contingency if Deri is indicted, and his legal troubles may erode its power come the election, as polls predict the party will drop from its current seven mandates to four or five seats.
Meanwhile, former Shas chairman Eli Yishai announced Tuesday that his party, Yahad (“Together”), will vie in the next election. The party did not pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold in the 2015 elections and chances of it being elected into the Knesset in 2019 are slim.
Things appear to be more stable over at United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party.
The party is expected to improve its position in the Knesset come April, winning seven seats from its current six, but here, too, party insiders warn of complacency.
Recent months have seen a growing rift between Degel Hatorah and Agudat Israel representatives in the party, which according to sectorial polls does not sit well with its haredi voter base and may affect voter turnout.
Curveballs and dark horses
Over in the opposition, the Zionist Union—the alliance between the Labor and Hatnuah parties—is predicted to be the biggest loser in the coming election. Most polls predict the faction will drop from its current 24 seats to only 12. Some polls project an even worse result, only nine seats.
Zionist Union MKs admitted Tuesday that faction leader Avi Gabbay is responsible as, despite the public support he received following his election last year, his approval ratings have since been steadily dropping. Tuesday’s polls showed only 7 percent of the public views Gabbay as a suitable candidate for the position of prime minister.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as defense minister earlier this month is largely viewed as a key factor in the decision to call early elections, although it failed to win him the public support on which he was banking.
Lieberman still has a solid voter base and his party may very well again prove the key to another stable right-wing government. However, he will have to fight Habayit Hayehudi for votes, as that party will undoubtedly try to paint him as the man responsible for the government’s inability to see its term out to the end.
Lieberman told Army Radio Tuesday that he was confident his party would increase its power from the current six mandates to “at least nine seats.” Most polls, however, predict Yisrael Beytenu would slide down to five or four seats.
Since Monday, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has boasted that it was his decision not to support the haredi conscription bill—controversial legislation that has threatened the government’s stability multiple times in the past—that triggered the April elections.
Given the troubles in Zionist Union, Lapid is trying to position himself as the only viable alternative to Netanyahu.
But even the most flattering polls say Yesh Atid would increase its power from its current 11 seats to 15 at best—far behind the 30 seats projected for Likud.
The question remains whether Lapid, whose party pushes a centrist platform, would be willing to join a Netanyahu-led coalition.
Most political experts agree this would be an uncomfortable alliance for both Netanyahu and Lapid, with some predicting that while the move is unlikely to affect Likud, it would be “political suicide” for Yesh Atid.
On the left, Meretz, the social democratic party, has left no substantial mark on the 20th Knesset.
The party, which held its first primary elections this year, elected Tamar Zandberg to replace longtime head Zehava Galon. It is projected to increase its power in the next election from five to six or possibly seven seats.
The Joint Arab List announced Tuesday that for the next election it will maintain the alliance forged by the Balad, Ra’am-Ta’al and Hadash parties in 2015, despite bitter internal rivalries.
The party, whose members are often lambasted for statements undermining Israel on a wide range of topics, won 13 mandates in 2015. Most polls project this will largely remain the same, and, barring a dramatic event, the party is likely to win 12 seats.
Several surprises in store
The 2019 election campaign also has several surprises in store for all parties, as returning actors and newcomers may end up changing the face of the 21st Knesset.
The most intriguing question centers on whether former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (ret.) Benny Gantz will enter politics.
Gantz, who enjoys unusual public consensus, has been aggressively courted by both the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid, but he has yet to confirm whether he will be entering politics at all.
Political analysts agree that having Gantz on the ticket would be a boon for any party, and if he decides to run independently as the head of his own party, votes would undoubtedly migrate to him from most secular parties, particularly from Zionist Union and Yesh Atid.
Tuesday’s polls predicted a Gantz-led party could win as many as 16 mandates, potentially making it the second-largest Knesset faction.
Former Likud MK and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, himself a retired IDF chief of staff, announced Tuesday that he was forming an independent party, which has yet to be named.
Since resigning as defense minister in 2016, Ya’alon has been unable to position himself as an electoral heavyweight. Most polls predict that, barring an alliance with one of the bigger parties, he is unlikely to pass the electoral threshold.
Another rising political star is former MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, who formally launched her party, Gesher (“Bridge”), on Tuesday.
Levy-Abekasis, who left Yisrael Beytenu in 2016, was one of the party’s top legislators and is considered highly popular. She announced her plans to form an independent party almost immediately after leaving Yisrael Beytenu, saying she plans to champion socio-economic issues.
The party, which remained unnamed until Tuesday, has been performing steadily in the polls, which predict a five-seat win.
Levy-Abekasis’ choice of Gesher as her party’s name is a nod to her father, veteran politician David Levy, who used the same name for the national social movement he formed in 1996. The first Gesher was active until 2003, when David Levy retired from politics, and it aligned and eventually merged with Likud.