Israel election campaign: Polls, rumors and upheaval

The scene that played out in the cramped meeting room at the Israeli parliament building on Tuesday could ha...

Posted: Jan 6, 2019 6:58 PM
Updated: Jan 6, 2019 6:58 PM

The scene that played out in the cramped meeting room at the Israeli parliament building on Tuesday could have been scripted by Hollywood.

Think Robert De Niro in "The Untouchables," baseball bat in hand, speechifying about teamwork, before brutally executing an "unloyal" deputy with a heavy blow to the head.

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Avi Gabbay, the head of the Labor Party, was the one wielding the weapon at that meeting in Jerusalem.

Sitting directly to his left, his target, Tzipi Livni, head of Hatnua, and Gabbay's factional partner in the Zionist Union, unaware of what was to come.

"A successful partnership needs friendship, agreements need to be stood by, there needs to be loyalty to the cause," Gabbay began by telling faction lawmakers.

"Unfortunately, this did not happen in this partnership and thus I choose to go public.

"Tzipi, I wish you luck in the elections with whichever party you choose."

An audible gasp filled the room, and Gabbay walked out. The largest parliamentary opposition bloc to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just been ripped apart, and one of Israeli politics' biggest names had been humiliated, all on live TV.

Livni, stunned, took a quick turn at the microphone.

"Gabbay was right about one thing today. We were not partners because he did not want a partnership," she said.

"The speech you heard today [from Gabbay] is something I've heard during this whole period. Me, me, and more me."

And with that, she, too, was gone from the room.

Welcome to the campaign.

Political impact

The election itself comes after Israel's parliament, the Knesset, voted on December 26 to dissolve itself, triggering early elections in April -- nearly eight months earlier than required by law.

Livni had said she wanted politicians "to put (their) ego aside for the common goal" of a united center-left coalition.

So, whom, if anyone, can she partner with now? One possibility could be to form a bloc with former military chief Benny Gantz, who recently formed his own centrist party called Israel Resilience, though it is reported that Gantz considers Livni "too left-wing" for him.

Gantz is the bright shiny object in this campaign; but one that remains almost completely untested.

He is the latest in a long line of former Israeli generals who have made a much-heralded leap into politics.

Over the years, many have gone on to make a huge political impact: Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon are three names that come readily to mind.

Others, though, have found the going harder: former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's popularity plummeted after peace talks with the Palestinians failed and the Second Intifada took off.

Gantz's early poll numbers are promising, putting his party ahead of all except Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud.

But while Israeli voters might like the idea of Gantz in politics, he has yet to say anything that could upset them, and until he makes his first significant speech on policy, there will be a question mark over how real his support in the polls really is.

Darlings of the right

While the left and the center tried to work out how best they can fight the election on April 9, there has been upheaval on the other side as well.

Last Saturday night, two of the darlings of the Israeli right -- Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked -- announced they were dumping their far-right Jewish Home Party to form a new political party, to be called the New Right.

It's a risky move, but they see it as their best shot to outmaneuver Netanyahu, who has played them very cutely in recent months, not least when he correctly called their bluff over a threat to resign over Gaza.

At a press conference announcing their new venture, the two allies lambasted Netanyahu and the Likud, while lamenting the Jewish Home Party's waning influence on the outgoing coalition.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu understands that the wonderful religious Zionists are in his pocket and, as much as he misuses them, the religious Zionists will remain in his pocket," Bennett told journalists.

"The new right-wing party is right wing. Against a Palestinian State. Against freeing thousands of Palestinian prisoners. And for Jewish tradition, the people of Israel, and the State of Israel."

Shaked also spoke about uniting the divisions on the right.

"Today we are forming a new right-wing party for the secular and the religious," she said.

"A party that, for the first time in the history of the country, will have full equal partnership between the two groups."

One of Netanyahu's most loyal lieutenants, the outgoing Culture Minister Miri Regev, quickly fired a warning shot across the new party's bows, saying it raised the prospect of a center-left government, and with it a possible Palestinian state, a dirty word for those on the Israeli right.

"If they wanted to mimic the Likud Party then they did a terrible impression because the Likud is the home of the religious, secular, and those around the country," she said.

"I call them to understand one thing, this step that they've taken to split [from the Jewish Home Party, a coalition partner of Likud] can only lead to a situation paving the way for a second Oslo accord disaster," she added, referencing the agreements signed between Israelis and Palestinians in the 1990s.

Netanyahu under fire, but still on top

All the political turmoil has but one real purpose, of course: unseating the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is just a few months away from becoming the longest-serving premier in the country's history.

While the tumult was unfolding back home, the man himself was taking something of a victory lap half a world away in Brazil, for the inauguration of that country's new far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro.

Bibi received a hug from the new president and encouraging words about his plans to move Brazil's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

"It's not a matter of if, but when," Bolsonaro had told him, Netanyahu reported.

Altogether less attractive would be early word from the attorney general that he plans to indict Netanyahu on possible offenses of bribery, fraud or breach of trust.

Police say there is enough evidence to charge him with all three offenses.

Netanyahu denies all wrong-doing, saying repeatedly, "there will be nothing, because there is nothing."

Early opinion polls suggest a sizable swathe of the public continues to have faith in him and his leadership.

His Likud party would win about 30 of the 120 seats available in the new parliament if the vote was held tomorrow, polls suggest; that figure is pretty much unchanged on the number Likud enjoyed in the outgoing parliament.

Israel Resilience, the party of Benny Gantz, is a distant second, polling about 13 seats.

Bennet and Shaked's new party currently trails in fifth place with about eight seats.

With three months to go, expect more upheavals and dramatic announcements; and look for others to force their way into the limelight.

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