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A Note from Michal Sella: The Elections Have Begun in Earnest
Analysis from Michal Sella, Director of the Shatil Center for Policy Change
Israel’s second election campaign of the year has begun in earnest, and the electoral map is finally clear to the Israeli voter. At the beginning of this month, party lists — the final submission of which parties would run for Knesset — closed. The results are in, and while neither the right nor the left have fully united into single cohesive blocs, each have succeeded in forging unions that will likely mean that the bigger parties are safe, while small parties will risk falling below the electoral threshold of 3.25% of votes cast (or the equivalent of four Knesset seats).
At the moment, all of the parties that constitute the left-wing bloc appear able to pass this threshold. But there are two smaller right-wing parties that failed to unite with a broader list which may not be so lucky. This would “waste” any ballot cast for these parties because votes cast for a party that fails to pass the threshold are thrown out and not counted.
When the lists closed, polls showed that the right-wing-plus-ultra-Orthodox bloc, which comprised the previous government, would not have the 61 minimum seats necessary to form a governing coalition without the support of Avigdor Lieberman, the Chairman of Israel Beitienu (Israel is Our Home). Lieberman’s refusal to join a Netanyahu-led coalition after the previous election in April led to Likud dissolving the Knesset and the current repeat elections.
The polls also show that Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) and Likud are neck-and-neck. Each is projected to win approximately 30 seats.
What do the numbers tell us?
Lieberman, once again, appears to hold the keys. He has pledged that he will only support a unity government made up of the Likud and Kachol Lavan. It was his opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu’s concessions to the ultra-Orthodox, after all, that offered the pretext for his refusal to join the last prospective coalition.
Netanyahu opposes a unity government. But he is also afraid of an electoral outcome that allows a challenger from within his own Likud party to join such a government without him. Kachol Lavan, which staked its last campaign on good governance and fighting corruption, has indicated that it will only join a unity government coalition with Likud if it excludes Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is currently under indictment for three counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, pending a hearing in October. (This week, however, Benny Gantz, generating some controversy within his party, signaled willingness to join a unity government with a rotating premiership with Netanyahu, stipulating the condition that he go first.)
This time around, Netanyahu, the indisputable leader of the Likud, appears a bit less confident of his grip on his party, fearful of competitors from within. To prevent a mutiny within the party, last week Netanyahu required that all Likud MKs sign a declaration of loyalty to him. The Likud, which was, for much of its history, considered Israel’s ‘liberal’ party, last week became a party whose members must declare allegiance to their leader. Party officials threatened to reveal the names of Likud members who failed to sign on the dotted line.
This implies the Likud message to Israeli citizens is that the upcoming elections have little to do with differences of policy, security, poverty, education, occupation or health — the issues that really matter to those who live here. What the loyalty oath tells us, Israeli citizens, is that the singular question in Israeli politics is the same as it was in the last elections: Bibi, yes or no. Whether other parties vying for leadership will allow this election to become another referendum on the prime minister or if they will seek higher ground and pivot to the core issues facing Israelis is yet to be seen.
The Run-Down: Shifts and Splits in Party Politics
With the August deadline behind us, here is a finalized list of parties contending for the 22nd Knesset.
IN THE CENTER
BLUE AND WHITE: Kachol Lavan (Blue and White). This party launched ahead of the last election by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid and is comprised of a slate of former IDF generals. It is currently polling as the main alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. The new party — like its rival — attained 30 seats in the last round of elections, but was denied the chance to form a government as the law dictates, after Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition. The Knesset voted instead to dissolve itself and head to new elections. Kachol Lavan has not ruled out a national unity government arrangement, and Benny Gantz has said he would be willing to participate in a “rotation” where he and Netanyahu alternated in the Prime Minister’s office, presuming went first.
ON THE LEFT
DEMOCRATIC CAMP: The Meretz Party, led by Nitzan Horowitz, Stav Shaffir, a high ranking former Labor leader, and Ehud Barak’s new party Democratic Israel united to form a wide left bloc. The party, headed by Horowitz, has been titled the Democratic Camp.
JOINT LIST: All four Arab political parties are now united. Registering their joint list with the Central Elections Committee by the August deadline, the leadership of the four Arab-majority parties, Mtanes Shihadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas have officially joined forces and are again calling themselves the Joint List, and are led by MK Ayman Odeh.
LABOR – GESHER: The Labor Party under the leadership of Amir Peretz declined to join a broader left-wing list and join the Democratic Camp, and instead merged with the Gesher Party of MK Orly Levy-Abekasis. The new list is called Labor-Gesher. While the Democratic Camp openly courted Itzik Shmuli to defect from Labor and join its ranks, ultimately, the former contender for the leader of the Labor Party decided to stay put and run as part of Labor-Gesher.
While not all of the left wing parties merged into a broad coalition bloc, all of these new parties are projected to pass the electoral threshold, and can therefore be expected to make it into the next Knesset.
ON THE RIGHT
THE UNITED RIGHT: The Union of Right Wing Parties, led by Rabbi Rafi Peretz (Jewish Home) and Bezalel Smotrich (National Union) successfully merged with Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s short-lived New Right Party. The party that emerged, called The United Right Party, will be headed by former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and will be constituted by the New Right and the Jewish Home and National Union factions that comprise the Union of Right Wing Parties. Israel’s Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) which ran as part of the Union of Right Wing Parties during this year’s previous election, will not run as part of the United Right. With Ayelet Shaked as chairperson, the New Right is currently the only political party running in these elections led by a woman.
SMALLER RIGHT WING FACTIONS: Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party whose leaders are the ideological followers of Meir Kahane who led the Kahana Hai Party – an extremist group designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, and did not, along with MK Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut Party, manage to unite with any other list. They will both run independently, and are therefore unlikely to pass the electoral threshold.
YISRAEL BEITEINU: Avigdor Lieberman is running, once again, as chairman of his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party. According to polls, the perception that he prevented the formation of another Netanyahu-led government, has significantly bolstered his standing in the run-up to these repeat elections. He is campaigning on strong opposition to the ultra-Orthodox agenda, a campaign that took the place of Yair Lapid’s earlier campaign as the head of Yesh Atid.
SHAS AND UTJ: The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, will, as usual, run separately and are expected to maintain their electoral power.
LIKUD: The Likud is likely to campaign against the smaller parties in order to prevent the loss of right wing votes. The Likud Party has been trying to appeal to ‘the Russian vote’– i.e. Russian-speaking voters from the former Soviet Union — which represents the core of Lieberman’s electoral base.
NIF Issues in Play
OCCUPATION AND ANNEXATION
In the wake of a deadly stabbing of an off-duty soldier and yeshiva student, Dvir Sorek, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to expand settlement construction as an answer to Palestinian terrorism. “We will deepen our roots in our homeland, in all of its parts,” he said. This statement is consistent with previous pronouncements Netanyahu made during this campaign to expand settlement construction (in which he fails to distinguish between large settlement blocs and isolated settlements) and to apply Israeli sovereignty (annex) Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In the wake of the tragedy, Benny Gantz, head of Kachol Lavan (Blue and White), also vowed to continue building settlements within Gush Etzion. “We will continue building in Gush Etzion,” he said, and promised to do so “out of strategic view and not a short-term political view.”
The Netanyahu government approved 2,000 new settlement units in the West Bank and began the process of retroactively legalizing 35 illegal settlement outposts (in an act referred to as “regularization”), many of which are located deep within the occupied West Bank. The move was internationally condemned, and in its wake Peace Now held a protest tour highlighting one settler tactic that can often lead to the establishment of such outposts. Democratic Camp leader Nitzan Horowitz, attending the protest, commented on the phenomenon of illegal outposts by saying: “So be clear: the rampant construction of settlements and outposts eliminates the prospect of a solution.”
Israel announced its approval of this new settlement construction simultaneous to issuing permits for the construction of 700 Palestinian units in Area C. These permits come after decades of the Israeli government’s refusal to grant permits for new Palestinian construction in Area C. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s far right Minister of Transportation Bezalel Smotrich confirmed in a Facebook post that the plan is part of an Israeli strategy to extend its sovereignty in the West Bank. In the post, the Minister explained that Israel is forming a strategic plan to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state and to “implement its sovereignty and responsibility for the entire area [of the West Bank].…For the first time, Israel will create a toolbox for enforcement and forceful neutralization of the Palestinian takeover plan.”
READ: What’s behind Israel’s approval of construction permits for Palestinians? by Shlomi Eldar (Al Monitor)
SEE: Planning Policy in the West Bank: Background. (B’Tselem)
On Israel’s Decision for Palestinian Construction Permits in Area C (Peace Now)
Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon (Blue and White) said in an interview regarding the imperative to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians, that there wasn’t “any chance for an arrangement.” Yaalon said: “The problem is with the Palestinians, not on the Israeli side. The gaps between us are huge. The Palestinians haven’t produced a leadership that recognizes the rights that we Jews have to live in a Jewish and democratic state.”
EQUALITY AND INCLUSIVE CITIZENSHIP
Arab Voter Participation
Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) is reportedly investing hundreds of thousands of shekels to attract votes from the Arab sector. The party has reportedly been actively encouraging its activists to canvas in the Arab sector and to create the conditions for cooperation with the Joint List. Last week, Benny Gantz, Chairman of Kachol Lavan, gave his first-ever interview to Arabic-language outlets. Former Likud MK and member of Blue and White Moshe “Bogie” said that his party was : “prepared to include in the coalition anyone who agrees with Blue and White’s core values” possibly laying the groundwork to potentially include representatives of the Joint List in a governing coalition.
The elections this past April produced the lowest Arab sector turnout in in Israel’s history Only 45% of Israel’s Arab citizens went to the polls last time. Ahead of this repeat election, Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civil Equality, alongside the Abraham Initiatives and the Hebrew University, surveyed eligible Arab voters to determine their attitudes. 42% of respondents said that they intended to vote in the general elections while one-third of respondents (32%) are undecided about whether or not to vote. Only 7% said they would boycott the elections on ideological grounds.
During the previous election in April, Tamer Nafar, Palestinian rapper, artist and social activist, released groundbreaking video, “Tamer Must Vote,” that puts a fine point on the question of Palestinian participation in the electoral process. The video depicts Nafar in boxing ring — with himself – debating whether he should vote. This remains a central question of this election for Palestinians – and for the outcome of the election.
Central Election Commission Allows Anti-LGBT Political Ads
After some advertising companies refused to run overtly anti-LGBT political ads created by the anti-LGBT ultra-Orthodox-Zionist NOAM Party on the grounds that “they could be hurtful to whole communities,” Israel’s Central Elections Commission ruled last week that the companies will be required to run them unless they clearly violate the law. The NOAM Party is a niche party founded this year for the sole purpose of highlighting opposition to the LGBT community that they see as threatening to the heterosexual “Jewish family.” NOAM requested that advertisers place their anti-LGBT political ads on billboards in Jerusalem and on buses with the slogan, “Israel chooses to be normal.”
READ: Israeli Election Panel Rules anti-LGBT Campaign Ads Be Allowed to Run by Yotam Berger (Haaretz)
Israelis Protest the Deportation of Filipino Children
Last week Israelis gathered in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to voice their opposition to the government’s plan to deport Filipino workers and their families, including children born in Israel. There are an estimated 30,000 Filipino foreign workers in Israel, many of whom became undocumented due to regulations of the Ministry of the Interior, or due to employers’ failure to arrange visas properly.
Attending the rally against the deportation of Filipino families, Democratic Camp MK Tamar Zandberg called on the government to “stop the expulsion of Hebrew-speaking Israeli children, born in Israel, who continue to be tagged as ‘aliens’ in their own country.”
This week, Israel’s High Court of Justice refused to halt the deportation of Rosemarie Perez and her son, Rohan Perez, who was born in Israel and a student at the Bialik Rogozin school in Tel Aviv who was due to enter the eighth grade this fall. The Israel-born children of undocumented workers who face deportation — akin to Israel’s “Dreamers” — have known no other home but Israel. Perez and her son were reportedly placed on plane by immigration authorities and subsequently removed from the plane for an unknown reason.
READ: Filipina Workers Give Israel’s Elderly Great Care, but They Can’t Get Pregnant by Meirav Arlosoroff (Haaretz)
Facing deportation, children of Filipino workers know no home but Israel by Amir Alon (Ynet)
DEMOCRACY AND THE RULE OF LAW
Hidden Cameras and Voter Suppression
In the last elections in April, under the pretense of election ‘monitoring,’ the Likud Party distributed hidden cameras and recording equipment to 1,200 operatives to record voters at the polling stations in Arab towns. The PR firm hired to conduct this surveillance operation boasted that it helped to lower Arab voter turnout. The purpose of this initiative was to intimidate and suppress Arab votes.
The head of the Central Election Commission, Justice Hanan Melcer ruled in a snap opinion on election day that filming voters arriving at polling stations or the voting process itself was forbidden, and referred the case to the Attorney General and Israel Police to conduct an investigation. For this upcoming election, the Likud Party has doubled the budget for its voter suppression operation targeting Arab towns.
This week, the Central Election Commission met to hear testimony from political parties, civil society groups (including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah, Zazim, the Israel Democracy Institute, Movement for Quality Government), far right NGOs (Kohelet Forum), independent experts on democracy, representatives from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office, and the Israeli Police. Mandelblit’s written position is that Likud’s placement of cameras in the area of polling stations could constitute a criminal offense if the placement of those cameras served as an impediment to the voting process. Justice Melcer is expected to issue a written, precedent setting opinion within a week.
How Likud weaponized cameras in Arab polling stations and intends to do so again by Jacob Magid (Times of Israel)
RELIGION AND STATE
Political conflict over religion and state continue to play a dominant role in the election discourse, emerging as a key splits within the right–and between the right and the left.
Earlier in this election, comments by Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Union of Right Wing Parties) in favor of replacing Israeli civil law with Biblical religious law, led to a public outcry. Last week, Smotrich again endorsed the notion of establishing in Israel a halachic state, reiterating his aspiration to have “the state conduct itself in keeping with the Torah and in keeping with Halacha.”
The notion was dismissed by Prime Minister Netanyahu during a meeting with a Democratic Congressional delegation. Netanyahu, referring to Smotrich’s comments, said: “A member of the coalition, not from the Likud, from another party, has said that he would like Israel to be a halachic state. Well, that is pure and utter nonsense. It’s pure BS. And no one can attest to that more than the recently appointed justice minister from the Likud, who is putting forward a bill today for universal adoption by parents regardless of gender. Some halachic state. This is ridiculous.”
Yair Lapid established his political brand by confronting ultra-Orthodox parties. However, now, running alongside Benny Gantz, his release of a satirical campaign video depicting Haredi leaders in a negative light — accusing them of defrauding the Israeli public of trillions of shekels — caused a strain within Kachol Lavan over the matter of the party’s relationship with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Kachol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz openly criticized his partner Lapid for the video.
מי ביקש חסינות ולא קיבל. pic.twitter.com/8pHWqMADtN
— יאיר לפיד Yair Lapid (@yairlapid) August 12, 2019
Ultra-Orthodox and other right wing parties decried the video as “anti-Semitic” for its portrayal of religious parties. Gantz distanced himself from Lapid’s video stressed that to replace the Netanyahu government, Blue and White required a working relationship with the Haredi parties.
The Democratic Camp, headed by MK Nitzan Horowitz, used the occasion to attack the ruling Likud Party for enabling religious extremism of their coalition partners. Their official statement accuses Netanyahu of giving Smotrich “the keys to [the] country” in exchange for immunity from prosecution, and that losing the election would mean “Smotrich will turn the country into a halachic state in exchange for immunity to Netanyahu.” Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman responded via Facebook: “It’s unbelievable how once again, without even blinking, we’ve heard Minister Smotrich declare that if it were up to him and his friends, he and they would repeal the laws in the State of Israel and force on us a halachic state that operates only in keeping with the Torah’s laws.” Lieberman reiterated his preference for a “broad national liberal government that excludes the extreme religious parties advocating for a halachic state on us.”
Temple Mount / Haram al Sharif Escalation
Tensions escalated this week in Jerusalem as Jewish Temple Mount activists clashed with Muslim worshipers over access to holy sites. This year, the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha coincided with the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and its ancient Temples. Although Jews have been allowed to ascend to the Temple Mount on the fast day in the past, given the presence of 60,000 Muslim worshipers observing Eid al-Adha, given the potential volatility, the Israeli police decided to forbid Jewish visitors. But, following a violent clash between Israel police and Muslim worshipers, which resulted in 20 Palestinians and four Israeli police sustaining light injuries, the commander of the Jerusalem District Police decided to allow non-Muslims up to the Temple Mount compound. Under police escort, the Temple Mount Faithful, a group of religious Jews dedicated to allowing unfettered Jewish access to the holy site, were allowed access.
Politicians to Netanyahu’s right from the United Right Party took the opportunity to attack Prime Minister Netanyahu. Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich called the decision to restrict Jewish access to the Temple Mount “a shame and a disgrace,” calling the decision a capitulation “to Arab terrorism and violence at the holiest site to the Jewish people” and thus a “root [cause] of the loss of deterrence in the other sectors as well.” United Right Chairwoman Ayelet Shaked also joined in the fray via Twitter and said, “Whoever controls the [Temple] Mount controls the land. On a day like today, a sovereign state needs to allow its citizens to ascend the Temple Mount. Closing the Temple Mount to Jews because of threats of violence leads to violence. When you capitulate to terrorism—terrorism wins.”
READ: A Surrender to a Few Extremists by Haaretz Editorial Board