Kafe Knesset: One month to go until election day | Blue and White’s path to a coalition | What Likud is banking on | Feiglin rising ‘high’ in the polls
Welcome to Kafe Knesset: Your daily guide on everything driving the conversation in Israeli politics. I’m Neri Zilber and I look forward to briefing you from now through the upcoming election and beyond. Thank you to our daily subscribers for your interest and support. If you are not yet a subscriber, please sign up here. You can also follow me @NeriZilber and please email Neri@KafeKnesset.com or reply to this newsletter with your news tips and feedback. Thanks!
One Month Out — Election State of Play: With one month to go until the April 9 ballot, an already intense election season has officially hit its stretch run. The major milestones have been passed: Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (contingent on a hearing); the last-minute merger creating Blue and White between Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) and Hosen Le’Israel (Benny Gantz); the union of far-right parties Jewish Power and Jewish Home-National Union; the splits and schisms of the first weeks that saw the creation of The New Right (led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked) and the dissolution of the Zionist Union (formerly Avi Gabai’s Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Ha’Tnuah)….
All that’s left over the next four weeks for the various players — now 14 parties with a rough shot at passing the electoral threshold — is to campaign until the finish line. The polls have Blue and White leading Netanyahu’s Likud but the constant refrain heard in the cafes, TV studios and newspapers isn’t whether Blue and White can “win” on election day — but whether it’ll be able to form a governing coalition on the day after….
Blue and White’s Path to a Coalition: Blue and White has a plan, the first step of which is to beat the Likud decisively. Such a clear decision would leave no choice for President Reuven Rivlin but to hand Benny Gantz the first opportunity to form a governing coalition. Blue and White has already promised not to sit in government with the Arab parties, thereby shrinking any potential/hypothetical left-leaning coalition. Yet once in negotiations, so the thinking goes, many of the right-wing and religious parties that have so far publicly pledged to support Netanyahu will reverse course. Another scenario gaining traction among the political class is that after a Blue and White win, Likud will jettison Bibi, thereby opening up the possibility of a national unity government between the two largest factions….
As Yair Lapid stated adamantly last week at a campaign event in Tel Aviv, “The one who forms the government is the one who wins the election. It’s simple and basic regarding how politics work — you win or you lose.” The confusion is due in part to the vagaries of Israel’s post-election process: the president calls all the party heads to him for consultations, after which he tasks the party head with the best chance at forming a governing coalition with first opportunity. And if the president doesn’t give this opportunity to the largest/winning faction? “People will take to the streets,” Lapid answered. “[But] let me win, I’ll form you a government”….
Likud Banking on Blocs: The above was looking at least plausible given recent polls, with Blue and White leading by five to six seats on the Likud. Yet two polls from the weekend (Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot) show a drop in support for Blue and White, with the gap at the top closing to three to four seats. Moreover, the right-wing bloc has, per the polls, retaken the majority — ruling out even the possibility of a (left-wing) parliamentary blocking majority for Blue and White. The Likud is banking on this: not only that it effectively ties Blue and White, thereby making the president’s decision harder, but also that the right-left split is such that Netanyahu’s path to a governing coalition is infinitely easier than Gantz’s….
Indeed, this (still hypothetical) scenario has formed a big part of the Likud’s campaign so far. “It’s either Bibi or Tibi,” Netanyahu and his ministers state repeatedly, alluding to prominent Arab MK Ahmed Tibi and the inevitability, as they see it, of Gantz having to rely on the Arab parties’ support to form a coalition. Not only does this put Gantz on the defensive — having to rebut such charges, as if the twenty percent of Israel’s citizens who are Arab don’t count — but it also undercuts Blue and White’s central strategy of poaching “soft” right-wing voters. As Netanyahu wrote again today on social media, “Lapid and Gantz don’t have another path to form a government, and a government like this [with the Arab parties] will undermine the security of the state and its citizens”….
Electoral Threshold as Kingmaker: As in every Israeli election what will ultimately decide matters is the numbers, since cobbling together a 61-seat governing coalition with so many different parties is at bottom a math problem. This time around, however, the race is top- and bottom-heavy: Likud and Blue and White hovering between 28-36 seats, with the rest of the field at ten seats and below. Depending on the day (and the poll) there are roughly nine small parties, both right and left, that are currently hovering around the electoral threshold — 3.25 percent of the total vote, equalling four Knesset seats….
The Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas, the far-right merger of Jewish Home-National Union-Jewish Power, the left-wing Meretz, The New Right, Yisrael Beitenu (led by Avigdor Lieberman), the center-right Kulanu (led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon), the predominantly Arab Ra’am-Balad, the libertarian Zehut (led by Moshe Feiglin), and the centrist socio-economic Gesher (led by Orly Levy-Abuksis) are all dangerously just above or below the cut….
Feiglin Rising in the Polls: In recent days the election spotlight has been thrown on Feiglin’s Zehut, which is rising fast in the polls and making a serious bid for the next Knesset. Feiglin — an observant Jew, West Bank settler, and former Likud backbencher — was previously known for his far-right beliefs, including fierce opposition to the Oslo Accords, support for the annexation of the West Bank, and the re-establishment of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Feiglin is now running on a strict libertarian platform, touting complete social and economic freedoms including, most importantly, legalization of marijuana use. Indeed, according to Feiglin, legalization will be his core demand before he joins any future coalition government….
This position has endeared him to many recreational marijuana users, even those on the left who had previously voted for parties like Meretz. Helping Feiglin is the fact that after multiple election cycles, the pro-marijuana Aleh Yarok (“Green Leaf”) has decided not to run, throwing its support in part behind Zehut. Marijuana, the Third Temple, and a plan to give cash inducements to Palestinians so they emigrate — Feiglin could be the surprise of the election, and with that hold the balance of power in the next government...all on the backs of primarily young secular voters. You’d have to be high to come up with a more improbable scenario but here we are (according to the polls)….
Gaza Heating Up: The uptick in tensions in and around the Gaza Strip continued over the weekend, with Palestinian militants firing one rocket each on Friday and Saturday, respectively, the continued release of explosive-laden balloon clusters into Israel, as well as the long-standing border clashes with Israeli forces. In response the IDF struck Hamas positions inside Gaza, including the group’s naval commando assets and two vessels. An Egyptian intelligence delegation visited the territory on Friday (after meeting with Israeli officials) in an attempt to re-establish a tenuous ceasefire. The last week has seen the most serious increase in hostilities between Israel and Hamas since last November’s major three-day conflagration….
Women of the Wall Clashes: The Women of the Wall were assaulted by ultra-Orthodox worshippers in the main Western Wall plaza on Friday morning, with group members reporting being kicked and spat upon. The Israel Police eventually separated the two sides before returning the Women of the Wall to their original (women-only) prayer area. The police accused the Women of the Wall of deliberately creating “friction and provocation” and disregarding prior requests to remain out of the main prayer plaza. The group, for its part, rejected the accusation and said the police had abandoned them, refusing to provide protection….
Budget Goes Into Deficit: The Finance Ministry announced late Thursday night that the budget deficit for the past year had exceeded forecasts, rising to 3.5 percent of GDP. Government officials chalked up the unexpected hole to higher than expected tax rebates, although others pointed to the loose spending policy of recent months leading into this election year. Regardless, if the trend does continue then serious corrections — and possible major budget cuts — are in the offing for the next government. Finance officials have ruled out any such cuts before the election, but Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s political opponents have already seized on the news to attack his economic policies….
The Week Ahead — Supreme Court to Decide on Electoral Disqualifications: The Supreme Court was set to hear appeals beginning today for the three decisions that came out of the Central Elections Committee last week. The committee, a political body, voted to disqualify the entire Ra’am-Balad slate as well as far-left Jewish lawmaker Ofer Kasif, a member of the other Arab party Hadash-Ta’al. A petition to disqualify the Jewish Power list was rejected by the committee, as was the particular request to ban its party head Michael Ben-Ari, despite the Attorney General supporting such a move. The Supreme Court has in the past overturned the decisions of the Central Elections Committee.