Since 2019 is an election year in Israel, everyone knew that there would be some big changes afoot, but nobody predicted that those changes would happen with lightning speed as the calendar changed. The past week in Israeli politics has been head-spinning even by Israeli standards, with new parties showing up, old parties breaking apart, and the prospect becoming more likely that voters will go to the polls on April 9 with the attorney general’s announcement that he will be indicting the prime minister ringing in their ears. But with each big news item, there is a story behind the story, and it is important to pay attention to what all of the different moves in recent days represent.
The biggest earthquake was Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s decision to leave the Bayit Yehudi party that they led, and form a new party called Hayemin Hehadash (the New Right). On the face of it, Bennett and Shaked appear to be doing this in order to shed some of the extremist religious baggage that they were saddled with in Bayit Yehudi, which is controlled to a large extent by a group of religious Zionist rabbis and has a few MKs that are extreme even by the standards of a party that positions itself as occupying the farthest right-wing position on the spectrum. Bennett and Shaked have branded their new party, both in name and philosophy, as representing a broader based but less apologetic right, one that is a partnership between religion and secularism but that will stand firm on opposing a Palestinian state and removing any and all restrictions on Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank. In other words, a party that speaks to the political-nationalist sentiments but not the religious ones of the settler-led religious Zionist movement.
While Bennett and Shaked are undoubtedly happy to be free of the constraints that they were operating under in a party that was a merger of disparate factions and beholden to unelected rabbis and party functionaries, the real reason they broke away was to, for the first time, challenge Prime Minister Netanyahu as an opponent rather than just as a competitor. Netanyahu has always had Bayit Yehudi’s religious Zionist constituency in the palm of his hand, and because Bayit Yehudi was always going to join a Netanyahu-led coalition no matter what, it meant that Netanyahu’s leverage over Bennett and Shaked was absolute since they had no credible threats to wield against him. Now, Bennett and Shaked can rail against Netanyahu and his policies to whatever extent they wish, as their potential voters will be voting for them rather than for the set of institutions and legacies that Bayit Yehudi represented, and they are choosing their party list of MKs themselves.
It also sets up Bennett and Shaked to start running as future prime ministers in earnest, which they could not do from Bayit Yehudi and its extremely narrow religious base. It is no accident that Bennett and Shaked’s description of their new party – a demographically diverse coalition of religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, with political ideology as the unifying factor – is also a description of Likud, raising the question of why Bennett and Shaked feel the need to create a satellite version of the mother ship. Bennett and Shaked have created a vehicle that will allow them to return to Likud the second the Netanyahu era is over, and to argue that they now represent the new right-wing mainstream rather than the tip of the right-wing spear that Bayit Yehudi represented. While Bennett and Shaked have never been wallflowers, their publicly belligerent attitude towards Netanyahu is about to grow by leaps and bounds.
If Bennett and Shaked are the right’s great hopes for the future, Benny Gantz was supposed to be the left’s. His formation of the Hosen L’Yisrael party (Resilience for Israel) at the end of December marking his entrance into politics was what Israelis who want to see Israel shift course in a more leftward direction have been waiting for. But the significant story here is not actually that Gantz is running, but rather how he is running. Gantz did not join Labor, which would have signaled his inheritance of Israel’s left of center mantle. When he formed his own party, there were no whispers of him joining with other security figures who are firmly ensconced on the left side of Israeli politics, such as Ehud Barak. Instead, the rumored Gantz outreach went to former chief of staff and fired Likud defense minister Bogie Ya’alon, who is challenging Netanyahu on good governance and transparency issues but is as opposed to a Palestinian state as most died-in-the-wool Likudniks. It is also telling that the party that suffers the most in polling from Gantz’s entry into politics is Yesh Atid, whose leader Yair Lapid goes to great lengths to disavow any attempt to paint him as left-wing. Every signal from Gantz is that he has discovered what Lapid discovered years ago; Israel is a right-leaning country, and the most suitable hunting ground for votes is on the moderate right rather than on the left. Gantz wants to be seen as a right-leaning centrist, which is also why the smart money is on him eventually merging with Lapid and Yesh Atid as they are in the same boat. Those expecting Gantz to herald the left’s return to the seat of government are in for a rude awakening.
Finally, there was Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni’s nasty divorce, with Gabbay literally dumping Livni and her Hatnua party while sharing a stage on live television, thus ending the Zionist Union partnership between Labor and Hatnua. Like the Gantz story, this one also demonstrates just how far the Israeli left has fallen, as Labor continues its free fall in the polls and Livni is now in a position where she is going to have to scrape and claw to meet the Knesset threshold and keep her party alive. But there is another story here – one that can be seen in nearly every political development over the past few weeks – which is the final nail in the coffin of Israel as a system of parties rather than of personalities. The break between Gabbay and Livni was ultimately because Livni has been pushing in public and in private for every party on the left and the center to unite into one big bloc to challenge Netanyahu and the right, and Gabbay is not willing to cede his role as Labor chief in order to make that happen. Gabbay’s focus on himself is part of the reason that Labor is going to see its seats halved at best from its current number, but it is in keeping with the trend of Israelis voting for the person and not the party. If Livni survives, it will be because enough voters like her and not because of anything Hatnua represents that is different from Labor. It is why Gantz thinks he is better off striking out alone at the outset. It is why Bennett and Shaked believe that their personal brand will be more of an asset than Bayit Yehudi’s built-in base and infrastructure.
Netanyahu has been more responsible for this transformation than anyone, as Likud has become a cult of personality in which anyone who crosses the Dear Leader is banished. As absurd as it is to use the term “left-wing” within one hundred miles of describing Bennett and Shaked, anonymous Likud officials were doing just that this week, and pledged to keep on doing so until the two New Right chiefs openly declared that they would support Netanyahu as prime minister even if he is indicted before the election. What matters is not ideology, platform, or political positions; what matters is the stance on Netanyahu, since support for him is the only thing that counts.
Between now and April 9, expect many more surprises, including party mergers, party break ups, tremor-inducing announcements, and who knows what else. If this week is indicative of what is to come, Israeli politics will remain the world’s best reality show.