The silly season is upon us and the even sillier season seems to be approaching fast.
Israel is going to elections on the 9thof April.
On the one hand when it comes to actual policies, it is the Seinfeld election – yet again – an election about nothing – well at least nothing about the external situation where almost all parties are agreed that there is no current Palestinian partner for any deal and that Prime Minister Netanyahu, is doing a good job on the international stage.
Vis a vis the Palestinians, no party has any real alternative to the current status quo in policy terms, although there is a rhetoric or future approach divide.
On the other hand, it is the most significant election for a decade in that it is an election about who may succeed Netanyahu.
The real question is just when this succession might occur – in 2019, or at the next election after. It is only the timing of the take over from Netanyahu that is the open question.
And that depends on Attorney General Mandelblit who in reality is Netanyahu’s only serious opponent.
If he does not indict Netanyahu, then we can expect Netanyahu to win – currently, he is streets ahead in the polls – and he should also easily form a coalition.
However, if he does indict Netanyahu before April the 9th, whilst it is unlikely to harm his electoral appeal, it would be almost impossible for Netanyahu to form government as some of his potential coalition partners have already said that they will not then join him in government.
Mandelblit has sought out the opinion of past Attorneys General, High Court Judges and legal experts. His spokesman, in another yes/no/maybe statement, has gone for something in between and said that the AG “will publicise his leaning to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for public corruption before the upcoming election”– note the word “leaning”.
This means we will likely end up prior to the election with an announced decision to hold a hearing on indictment, but with the hearing itself to only be held after the election. Unchartered waters. And a minefield for potential coalition partners. But almost certainly meaning that even if Netanyahu can form a coalition after the election, as legal matters develop, it may fall apart quickly.
Nearly every morning thus far, we have awoken to an almost farcical series of mini political eruptions.
Naphtali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, previously the leader and co-leader of the right-wing ‘Jewish Home’ party, have left their own party to form a new one called the ‘New Right Party’. He is observant and she is secular and they seek to bring about a coalition of religious and secular right-wingers. This has nothing to do with policy but only about what they perceive as a broader electoral appeal than the old religious Zionist party they previously led, in order to be in a better position for one of them to succeed Netanyahu in due course. Shaked has already conceded that Netanyahu should be the Prime Minister after this election which she calls “his final one”.
This leaves their old party struggling to reach the electoral threshold of 3.25% of the votes needed to return to the Knesset.
If they merely succeed in destroying their old party without draining away votes from Likud, their electoral pull will still not be proven.
Ex IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, who seems to be the most popular of the new entrants in current polling, has decided to not join any existing party but rather to form his own called ‘Israel Resilience’. This is Gantz’s first foray into politics. His best tactic to date has been to say nothing substantive on policy.
Ha’aretz assessed that “the new party is seen as being centrist and moderate.”
Gantz himself is being reported as having said last February that “settlements like the Etzion bloc, Ariel, Ofra and Elkana will remain forever.” This list includes some consensus settlements but also some others that are deeper into the West Bank and more isolated. Which tells us something about how centrists and moderates in Israel view even the more controversial settlements like Ofra, compared to the disconnect of many in the Diaspora.
Another former IDF Chief of Staff and also an ex-Defence Minister in Netanyahu’s government – Moshe ‘Boogie Ya’alon’ – has also started his own new party. Ya’alon refuses to state any policies so far but says that his electoral slate of running mates “will have no shenanigans”.
And to round out the General’s, Ehud Barak is still offering himself in the background.
Orly Levy-Abekasis who was originally in the Knesset in Lieberman’s party until she left, has also set up a new one called ‘Gesher’ or ‘Bridge’. Like Gantz she too has till now kept any actual policies secret, nor has she outlined what it is that she is bridging. And again, she too is doing quite well in the polls.
Not speaking out on issues seems to be the better political strategy, at least currently. One assumes that eventually that will have to change.
In a bombshell announcement Avi Gabbay who heads what was the Zionist Union party until last week has separated from Zippi Livni. He did so publicly on TV and without warning either his Labor Party colleagues or Zippi Livni herself. Livni sat shocked alongside Gabbay whilst he made his speech.
Later, Gabbay said to Labor MKs:
“I was constantly eating shit because of Livni. She didn’t have a good word to say about me. She made an ultimatum here in front of the cameras that she’d quit if she’s not made opposition leader, so don’t talk to me about manners.”
Under Gabbay, Labor has continued the downward trajectory of what was once Israel’s ruling party, to no longer even being the major opposition party. His own leadership is also under threat.
Moshe Kahlon who heads current Netanyahu coalition partner ‘Kulanu’ with ten seats, has lost four members of his party since the election announcement. One went to Netanyahu’s Likud because he said Kahlon was too left wing, one left Kahlon because he found him too right wing, one left but has not announced where he is going and one is retiring from politics. There is talk of his party being absorbed into Likud.
Waiting there patiently is still Yair Lapid polling 2ndor 3rdbehind Netanyahu; Avigdor Lieberman who may or may not pass the threshold; the Haredim who in the case of Shas also face threshold issues; and Meretz who will be no-ones first partner in government.
The Arab block seems to be polling consistently as well.
Some of the parties may yet merge or face extinction because they might not reach the electoral threshold. And there are likely more surprises to come.
The sheer plethora of parties running and their lack of policy manifestos is mind-blowing.
Make no mistake, all of these political machinations are simply not about who can beat Netanyahu, but rather, who is fit to take over from him once Netanyahu disappears from the political scene one way or another.
Netanyahu has always been faced with the difference between his rhetoric and his actions. He will run yet again on the mantra that only he can lead the right wing block and be the strong man on security.
His rhetoric will move into overdrive.
We can expect him to emphasise the northern operation against the Hezbollah tunnels rather than the truce with Hamas in Gaza.
He will announce and reannounce new settlement building whilst the official figures of actual building starts for 2018 are down 17% compared to 2017 (which itself was down 47% compared to 2016) with just 1,206 housing starts, one of the lowest years on record.
He will also not talk about destroying some Jewish homes in both Netiv Ha’avot and Tapuach in 2018 deemed illegal by the Israeli High Court but still not having demolished illegal Palestinian structures in Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar because of international considerations.
Not to mention the demolition of outpost homes a few days ago in what was once Amona, which Netanyahu now says was done without his prior knowledge.
The game is on. Netanyahu’s hopeful successors wanting Mandelblit to indict him, whilst Netanyahu continues to argue that Mandelblit is interfering in the democratic process.
Israelis haven’t seen an election like this before – and are likely to see the following one, sooner rather than later.