After the 2006 election, then-Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz considered an attempt to establish a coalition that would have him installed as prime minister while bypassing Ehud Olmert and Kadima, the party that grabbed the largest number of Knesset seats. The move seemed completely farfetched, but Peretz was not ready to give up so easily. It was only after the Labor Party’s most senior members reminded their boss that joining hands with the National Union just so that he would be able to form a rickety, unstable government that would last just two minutes in power was simply unacceptable that Peretz finally realized it was best for him to abandon the plan.
Despite remaining heavily favored to assemble the next coalition, Likud-Beytenu's continued downward slide in the polls has unleashed a fury of speculation and predictions, some of which suggest that victory is no sure thing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although the chances of such a scenario are quite slim, a number of political operatives have gone so far as to entertain the possibility that the following of chain of events will unfold:
Immediately after the elections, Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, and Hatnuah Chairwoman Tzipi Livni will announce the merging of their factions, a move that polls predict would give the newfound union close to 40 Knesset seats, a greater number than Likud is expected to draw. President Shimon Peres, whose downright clumsy intervention in the election campaign this week proved just how eagerly he is waiting for an opportunity to knock Netanyahu off his perch, will award the task of assembling the next coalition to the largest faction. In other words, he will bestow the honor to the newly united left-wing faction headed by Yachimovich.
Aryeh Deri’s Shas Party will obviously have no problem joining the coalition, and neither will United Torah Judaism. As such, the key is in the hands of Naftali Bennett. The Habayit Hayehudi chairman will play the role of kingmaker. Theoretically, it is possible to form a right-wing government without Bennett. But a left-wing coalition without him is simply out of the question.
On the surface, it seems that this scenario will inevitably run into a pitfall and crash. After all, Bennett is a rightist through and through. This is how he has presented himself over the years, and that is the platform upon which he is running in the current election. The party that he heads is one that is firmly fixed on the Right. What can Bennett and Yachimovich possibly talk about? Why would he prefer her over Netanyahu, who would naturally be his and his party’s choice to head the next government?
One can certainly state that Bennett would hold much greater value for Yachimovich than he would for Netanyahu. With Yachimovich as prime minister, Bennett could perhaps obtain one of the three most senior portfolios, since the Labor chief would be unable to form a government without him.
An interesting aspect regarding Bennett’s campaign is his party’s assaults on the Left. Habayit Hayehudi is almost exclusively aiming its fire at Livni, while laying off Yachimovich. Aside from a few attacks on marginal issues, like the disproportionate power wielded by the large labor unions, Yachimovich can feel at ease with Bennett around.
In one instance, Bennett stunned observers by paying Yachimovich a compliment this past week, calling her “a woman of truth” at a political conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He even used the opportunity to say that he does not rule out a scenario in which both parties are coalition partners. Likud officials have long been suspicious that Bennett is cooking up a surprise plan for immediately after the elections. That is why they tried — without success — to win back the Knesset seats that polls show have migrated to Habayit Hayehudi in the last month.
Now, however, it isn’t just Likud that is showing signs of apprehension. Officials within Habayit Hayehudi are holding their breath over a possible surprise move by Bennett. Until now, party activists were rubbing their hands with glee as they watched the growing number of Knesset seats working in their favor. Most of them took great pride in Bennett managing to attract voters to their camp, including Tel Avivians and yuppie Israelis who were captivated by Bennett’s ability to brand himself as the hottest start-up in the 2013 elections.
Now, though, those same Habayit Hayehudi activists are growing fearful that something is going awry, and that someone will drag their party to a place they do not wish to be in. There may even be an attempt, God forbid, to bring the Left to power.
Bennett is working to assuage the concerns of the hysterical operatives. He has repeatedly sought to reassure them that Netanyahu is his preferred choice to form the next coalition. In any event, it is most likely that Bennett’s recommendation will have no effect on Netanyahu’s chances to win re-election, since Peres will assign the task to whoever has the best chance of assembling a stable coalition, and not to the candidate with the majority of endorsements.
Don’t say a word
Bennett has little to fear from his grass-roots activists. Since he was elected party chairman, he has effectively dried up all of the National Religious Party’s branches throughout the country. There is nothing going on there. There are no regional headquarters. There are no budgets. There are no job positions to be filled. Although the National Religious Party's central committee was elected recently, and despite the party’s main centers of power thirsting for work after years of dormancy, Bennett is asking them to stay at home in the meantime. Just get out of the way.
Some National Religious Party officials believe that Bennett plans to dissolve the central committee. This has been denied by the party chief. According to speculation, Bennett will order the dissolution of the central committee after the elections, a move he sees as necessary to consolidate the merger with the National Union.
Habayit Hayehudi officials noticed in recent weeks that Bennett and his talented team of strategists have completely obscured the party’s list of candidates. Any candidate who wishes to be interviewed in the press must receive permission. Whoever deviates from the code of conduct as dictated from above is subject to censure. The only party leaders who are permitted to give interviews unfettered are Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Uri Orbach.
Last week, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, who occupies the impressive fourth spot on the party slate, gave an interview to the Walla news site, which quoted him as saying, “Same-sex marriages are a recipe for the destruction of the Jewish people.” Immediately after those comments were made public, he was silenced. When he was asked to comment on the remarks, he told us that he was not permitted to say anything without authorization from the campaign staff.
The same can be said of Orit Struck, the director-general of the Human Rights Organization of Judea and Samaria, who is also considered to be one of the more hawkish candidates on the Habayit Hayehudi slate. Her views are even considered by some of the more moderate party members as extreme. Struck is also not permitted to give interviews without permission. The limits on interviews apply only to the mainstream media. When it comes to press outlets that cater to the national-religious constituency, they are free to talk as much as they want.
Struck is a star on right-wing media outlet Arutz 7. Rabbi Hillel Horowitz, a Hebron resident who is considered close to Hassidic circles, is a fixture in the party’s campaign to win votes from this constituency. When it comes to the Hassidic voters, Bennett’s skullcap is too small. Horowitz’s black skullcap is a better fit for the Hassidim. While Habayit Hayehudi officials are worried over losing secular voters to Likud, they are also fearful of seeing slippage in support from those who could just as easily cast their ballots in favor of Strong Israel, the party headed by MKs Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben Ari.
MK Uri Ariel, an experienced, talented lawmaker, is ranked second on the Habayit Hayehudi slate. It is said that not one stone is displaced in all of Judea and Samaria without Ariel knowing about it. Ariel is currently the chairman of the Knesset State Control Committee. He recently created a stir by using his position to call for the establishment of a state committee of inquiry into the Harpaz Document affair. Throughout his stint in the outgoing Knesset, Ariel has operated largely independently. He supported the government when its policies were in line with his views. When he saw fit, he was also one of its most vociferous, fearless critics.
It appears that those days are long gone. Now Ariel is in the hands of campaign strategists. He’ll speak when they wish, and he’ll keep quiet when they wish. This article should have been devoted to an extensive, in-depth interview with Ariel. We wanted to hear what he thought about the slate of party candidates. Was he satisfied with the party chairman’s stewardship? Was he pleased with the list of candidates? What does he think about the negative campaign that the Likud is waging against them? We also wanted to know his views on the rumored possibility that Habayit Hayehudi would support a left-wing coalition.
He wanted to talk. We wanted to hear him. But the campaign strategists decided otherwise. Like Struck, Ben-Dahan, and others, Ariel’s voice has been silenced.
Polls, ads, and Olmert
Meanwhile, Likud-Beytenu experienced another week of floundering. The campaign is stuck. Polls show a decline in support. Morale is dipping. The ruling party, which is expected to form the next coalition, continuously finds itself acting according to the agenda set by somebody else, whether it’s Bennett or Peres or Shas co-chairman Aryeh Deri.
At the start of the campaign, party officials said that the strategy mapped out by political guru Arthur Finkelstein required it to focus solely on managing the affairs of the state. Recently, however, it appears that the instructions have changed. Now, campaign officials say that the strategy is to attack everyone constantly. At least that is what appears to be the case. Lo and behold, it’s not working.
Likud officials are pinning their hopes on a last-minute turnaround. They hope that Bennett peaked too early, and that his numbers will begin to fall. They would like to see Yair Lapid lose votes at their expense. They are excited about a series of campaign ads that are being filmed and edited as we speak. These ads will be aired during the time slots allotted for campaign commercials beginning Tuesday all the way through to Election Day.
Talk about two weeks of nail-biting fun. The fact that the viewership for these ads is low and the impact on the campaign is unknown has yet to prevent the parties from pouring enormous resources into these commercials.
Before Likud-Beytenu unveiled its latest campaign slogan — “A strong prime minister, a strong Israel” — Finkelstein decided that the assault on Habayit Hayehudi would continue. The most pressing matter for the ruling party is not the Iranian nuclear project, the rioting in Judea and Samaria, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. No, the people who are worthy of having targets on their backs are members of Habayit Hayehudi.
Under the heading “Habayit Hayehudi — not what you thought,” Likud-Beytenu officials assailed two politicians on the rival party’s slate, accusing them of misogynistic behavior. Ben-Dahan was accused of calling for the abolition of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, while Moti Yogev was accused of masterminding the segregation between boys and girls in the Bnei Akiva youth movement.
More damning material about other candidates is likely to be revealed soon. The underlying assumption of the campaign is that Bennett has managed to amass momentum because he has shrewdly obscured the identities of the individuals on his party list. The Likud’s strategy of winning back the non-religious voters who make up 40 percent of Bennett supporters could fail or succeed. One thing is certain: Likud has already given up hope of winning the support of the national-religious public.
The man trying to do the handiwork that is usually left to the campaign ads is former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. This past week, he jumped into the fray, though his goal is altogether a different one. He wants to see Kadima, led by Shaul Mofaz, pass the minimum vote threshold required to enter the Knesset. Polls indicate that the party is teetering dangerously close to extinction. Olmert is less concerned with saving Mofaz’s career than he is with preserving the political platform that will serve as the basis for his future comeback. At least that is the hope, once he finally clears all of his legal hurdles.
Along the way, Olmert is using every available opportunity to send a few slings and arrows in the direction of the person who is perceived to have caused him grievous harm, Tzipi Livni, who in his eyes is guilty of not waiting for his decision on whether to return to politics and hastily forming her own party. Livni failed in shepherding Kadima, according to Olmert, which is why she lost by a wide margin (25%) in the party primary showdown against Mofaz.
Movement in Hatnuah
Beyond the criticism she is absorbing from Olmert, Livni has other problems with which to contend. These are longstanding issues that have hounded her since she founded the party.
While the election campaign is still in full swing, the possibility that Livni will depart after the results are in appears to be a great source of concern for the senior party membership. While Amram Mitzna is the nominal No. 2, the heir to the throne is shaping up to be No. 3 — Amir Peretz. Meanwhile, as the campaign enters its most critical stretch, the tension among the party leadership is intensifying, and Livni is having a hard time imposing discipline.
For all intents and purposes, Livni has lost control of events that are taking place within the party that she founded. Mitzna, for his part, is furious. According to party officials who have been in contact with him in recent days, Mitzna’s marginalization from the campaign has the former Labor chief enraged. He refuses to accept Peretz’s forceful takeover of the campaign headquarters, nor is he happy about all of the talk about a battle for succession in a post-Livni order.
Mitzna, a major-general in the reserves, the man who once served as chairman of the Labor Party, and the man who successfully ran two cities, is not cut out for these kinds of battles. If this is what is in store for him at Hatnuah, perhaps it would be best for Mitzna to return to his old stomping grounds in Haifa or Yeruham, two cities that he helped to build and is thus given tremendous credit for. Before he was invited into the party by Livni, Mitzna founded a consulting company that helps local authorities maintain open channels of communication with the central government. He’s also helping to build a hotel in Yeruham.
Mitzna denies that he harbors anger toward Livni. “We’re getting along very nicely,” he said. “I’m working at full steam for the benefit of the campaign. I’m traveling around the country, not just in Haifa. Naturally, like in any election season, we don’t always see things eye to eye, but overall relations between us are completely normal.”
Mitzna also insists that he is not fearful of Peretz muscling his way to the top of the party pyramid. “Livni is not going anywhere,” he said. “After she already left a party once, it’s hard to envision her doing it again. This time, she’s here to stay, even if it means serving in the opposition.”
Peretz justified his decision to leave Labor by citing Yachimovich’s refusal to rule out the party’s participation in a Netanyahu-Lieberman government. He pointed to Livni as a politician who proved her willingness to serve in the opposition. Before his departure from Labor, Peretz said that he demanded Yachimovich pledge that she would not enter the coalition. Now it is Livni who is refusing to rule out membership in Netanyahu’s coalition. She even said so out loud, while Peretz was the one who kept quiet. If it were up to Mitzna, Hatnuah would certainly have things to do in the next Netanyahu coalition.
Labor on the fence
Just like their counterparts in Likud, senior Labor party officials are facing a gradual erosion of support as reflected in the latest public opinion polls. This loss of Knesset seats is quite worrying to them. In one in-depth survey conducted by American pollster Stanley Greenberg, many voters who had previously expressed support for Labor are now either undecided or have found new political homes, particularly among parties that do not cross the minimum threshold for entry into parliament.
According to Labor officials, the loss of support barely benefits Livni, though it does provide a certain boost for Lapid. The other Knesset seats have been split among Eldad Yaniv’s Eretz Chadasha ("New Country") faction, the Greens, as well as Haim Amsalem’s Am Shalem ("Complete Nation") party. In the 2.5 weeks until Election Day, the Labor Party will try to get out the message to voters that supporting these factions is a wasted ballot since there is a good chance that some or all of these parties will not gain representation in parliament.
Despite the worrying figures, Yachimovich’s aides are projecting optimism. They said that these voting patterns are typical of those who support Center-Left factions, many of whom will decide which party to support at the last minute after much haggling back-and-forth.
One of the major problems facing Shas in this election is the lack of a clear enemy. Their preferred target is Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party. They waited for Lapid to attack them. They anticipated a rant against the draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox and the child stipends for large families, but it never came. In recent days, Lapid prefers to train his sights on attacking Livni.
Afterward, Shas tried to goad the Likud into battle, but the Likud is not really a worthy enemy. It’s hard to depict the Likud as a party that fleeces the ultra-Orthodox. Without an available whipping boy, Shas went back to their bread and butter strategy — playing the ethnic card. Though Deri apologized for his use of the term “white Russians” in describing Yisrael Beytenu voters, he did not recant his accusations and claims of discrimination and persecution. When the Immanuel incident (in which Sephardi girls were not admitted into an Ashkenazi school in the settlement of Immanuel) made it into the headlines, Deri capitalized on it, making numerous appearances. At the time, he did not decry discrimination against Sephardi Jews. Instead, he called for dialogue and understanding. Disenfranchisement at the hands of Ashkenazi masters is worth fighting only when it is perpetrated by the secular.
These tired claims, however, also proved ineffective. Now the party is mulling a return to the original line of attack as proposed by Shas co-chairman Eli Yishai: all-out war against the infiltrators from Africa. The horrific rape of an 83-year-old woman at the hands of a 20-year-old Eritrean youth revived this campaign. The incendiary movie produced by Yishai — and which was shelved on the orders of Deri — was leaked to Internet sites.
The problem with Shas’ strategy is that there is already a struggle being waged to solve the problem of the foreigners. Yishai claims that he was the first to spot the danger. Netanyahu says the fence that he ordered built along the border with Egypt prevents infiltrations. If Shas can’t even get that message across to the public, it will have a difficult time marketing a pet issue as part of their campaign.