Now, about that other election…

With the American election coming to its nail biting conclusion today, it’s time to turn attentions to the other impending election – in Israel on January 22. Here is a look at some of the new figures entering Israeli political life for this campaign — Yachimovich, Lapid, Deri, Shamir, Bennett and more.

Published on the Israel elections blog of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs (Canada), November 5, 2012. Click for a printer-friendly copy.

The short, twelve-week, Israeli election campaign currently underway is already producing multiple surprises. Dozens of colorful new personalities are entering the political arena. While Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly again be elected prime minister, the make-up of the Knesset and the governing coalition are likely to undergo sweeping change.

Time to take a look at some of the new figures entering Israeli political life:

The Labor Party: Party leader Ehud Barak (the former prime minister and current defense minister) split from the Labor party to form his own tiny faction two years ago. That faction, called Atzmaut (Independence), is unlikely to make it into the next Knesset and Barak himself may be drummed out of politics. Labor has been taken over by a dynamic new figure, a well-known radio broadcaster named Shelly Yachimovich, who has been a parliamentarian for only a few years. She has recast the party as the country’s leading social-economic lobby, and encouraged a wide net of public figures to throw their hats into the party ring through an internal primary election to be held in late November.

Among the people now running in the Labor primary are the former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit Col. (res.) Omer Bar Lev, head of the Reform movement in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv, venture capitalist Erel Margalit, Haaretz commentator and outspoken feminist Merav Michaeli, Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer, Channel Two television journalist Miki Rosenthal, former IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Sagi, social protest leader Stav Shaffir, National Student Union and social protest leader Itzik Shmueli, and national religious educator Chili Tropper. Kadima MKs Nino Abesadze and Nachman Shai have also announced that they will contend in the Labor primary.

Kadima: Recent surveys show Kadima plummeting from 28 seats to four, while Labor is expected to show significant gains, climbing from eight to perhaps 20 seats. As a result, many Kadima MKs are looking for a new political home, including MKs Absada, Bar-On, Berkovits, Bielski, Edri, Itzik, Mula, Noked, Schneller, Wahaba, and Zuaretz. But they don’t really have where to go. The Labor and Likud primary races are already very tight.

Yesh Atid: This is a new political party founded by high profile TV and print journalist Yair Lapid and claiming to represent the middle class. (Have you noticed the overwhelming prominence of journalists in this year’s crop of Israeli political wannnabes?) Lapid’s platform is an attempt to stake out a “middle” ground, with a less radical economic plan than that of Labor, and a more moderate diplomatic plan than that of Likud. This party has no established institutions or membership so Lapid is crafting a slate of candidates for Knesset on his own. As his number two he has appointed national religious educator and “Tzohar” founder Rabbi Shai Piron. Herzliya mayor Yael German (formerly of Meretz) and Dimona mayor Meir Cohen (formerly of Likud) are on the slate too, along with former General Security Services (Shin Bet) head Yaacov Peri, Maariv political commentator and sports analyst Ofer Shelach, Attorney Karin Elharar of Bar-Ilan University, Adi Koll of Tel Aviv University, and former Jerusalem police chief Miki Levy. Five of the first ten people on this slate are women. Lapid is promising the public a “clean slate,” so he is not taking any current MKs.

National Religious Party (NRP): The feuding factions (Bayit haYehudi and Ichud Leumi) of this veteran political party have united for this Knesset run, and the larger Bayit Yehudi faction has a primary vote being held today (Nov. 6). More than 50,000 new members were registered in the party’s membership drive leading up to the vote, generating a sense of renewal. A young political newcomer named Naftali Bennett is poised to win the leadership race, displacing party chairman (and current Minister of Science) Prof. Daniel Hershkovits and veteran MK Zevulun Orlev. Ichud Leumi and settlement leader Yaacov Katz is stepping aside too, making room for new figures. Bennett is a former Sayaret Matkal officer, and was head both of the settlement lobby group and of Benjamin Netanyahu’s office (when the latter was in opposition). Bennett and Netanyahu are no longer on speaking terms, and the latter has sought to block Bennett’s impending victory by mixing into the NRP primary. Bennett is a very successful hi-tech entrepreneur, and has funded his own campaign.

Shas: The Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, has brought back its star figure Aryeh Deri. Deri was the wunderkind of Israeli politics back in the nineties, leading Shas into double-digit electoral successes and into government with the Labor Party of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. He was an all-powerful Minister of Interior, but went to jail for corruption. Deri is defiantly unrepentant, charismatic, and very close to former Kadima leaders Ehud Olmert and Haim Ramon. He too is claiming to be a social-economic crusader, and promises to fight for large government budgets for Israel’s poor. With Deri at the head of Shas, Netanyahu cannot count on Shas as an automatic and sure-fire coalition partner.

Yisrael Beytenu: Avigdor Lieberman has anointed Yair Shamir, the son of former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and former head of the Israel Aerospace Industries, as his number two man. Under the terms of last week’s surprise merger of Likud and Yisrael Beytenu (– which is supposedly only a temporary marriage of convenience for the purposes of this Knesset run), Lieberman will appear as number two and Shamir as number five on the combined “Likud Beytenu” slate for Knesset.

Likud: There are a few new-ish figures running in the Likud November 25 primary, like Excellence Nessuah Investment House chief economist Prof. Shlomo Maoz, former Shin Bet director (and former Kadima MK now turned Likud Minister of Public Security) Avi Dicter, and former Kadima cabinet minister Tsachi Hanegbi (who earlier broke away from Likud).

But Likud’s challenge is not the absorption of new figures. It has a problem finding space for its current star figures and sitting cabinet ministers. Avigdor Liebeman’s candidates are guaranteed almost one-third of the slots on the combined Likud Beytenu slate! As a result, prominent Likud leaders like Benny Begin, Yuli Edelstein, Miki Eitan, Zeev Elkin, Gilad Erdan, Chaim Katz, Yariv Levin, Dan Meridor, Ruby Rivlin, Gideon Saar, Silvan Shalom, Yuval Steinitz, Moshe Yaalon and many others will be bumped significantly down on the Likud Beytenu slate of candidates for Knesset, even if they poll well in the overcrowded Likud primary. There is no way that all five current female Likud MKs (Gila Gamliel, Tzipi Hotoveli, Limor Livnat, Leah Nass, and Miri Regev) will gain realistic spots on the slate.

Likud Beytenu does have two overpowering advantages over all the other parties running for Knesset: money and profile. Under the byzantine Israeli rules for national campaign financing and advertising, Likud Beytenu will get over NIS 54 million in taxpayer funds to help run its campaign, compared to only NIS 14 for Shas, NIS 10 million for Labor and NIS 4 million for Yesh Atid. Similarly, Likud Beytenu will get over 90 minutes of free advertising time on Israeli television, compared to only 29 minutes for Shas, 23 minutes for Labor, and 7 minutes for Yesh Atid. The parties are not allowed to buy additional adverting time on Israeli television! Interestingly, Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut party thinks that it has found a loophole in the political advertising law, and this week it began advertising itself through some tiny regional television stations – something that no political party has ever done before.

A Center-Left Super-Party?: All of the above does not take into account the possibility that former Kadima leaders Ehud Olmert and/or Tzipi Livni will return to active politics, seeking either to revitalize Kadima or to form a merged voting bloc of Kadima-Labor-Atzmaut-Yesh Atid. Everybody keeps talking about this, but neither figure has yet indicated what their plans are.

The prevailing assumption is that if President Obama wins reelection, Olmert and Livni will run. Apparently, they think that they can count on Obama’s strong support in the race against Netanyahu. Netanyahu, reports say, is indeed concerned about this. It won’t be the first time that an American administration has intervened to sway Israeli public opinion. (Bush I campaigned against Shamir in 1992, and Clinton campaigned against Netanyahu in 1996).

There are three significant obstacles in the way of the proposed Center-Left Super-Party: Olmert’s criminal conviction and current criminal trials, the declared unwillingness of Yachimovich and Lapid to join such a venture, and questionable political viability. A Haaretz public opinion survey last week showed an Olmert/Livni-led Super-Party getting 25 seats in Knesset. But, Haaretz admitted, this would likely not be enough to block Netanyahu from forming the next government.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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