As Israel’s do-over election approaches and political alliances form and reshape, parties on both the right and the left have some big decisions to make. With Ehud Barak’s formal reentry to politics, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett’s decisions whether to try their luck again or sit this cycle out, new party chiefs for Labor and Meretz, and the Arab parties’ efforts to reconstitute the electorally successful but politically fractious Joint List, there are lots of machinations taking place. Here are two of the biggest ones to look out for in the slightly more than two months that remain until Israelis vote on September 17.
Where does Barak fit in on the left?
Ehud Barak made a temporary splash with his return to Israeli politics through a new vehicle that he has named the Israel Democratic Party, rather than attempting to rejoin Labor or link up with his fellow former chiefs of staff in Kachol Lavan. Barak brings with him some serious pedigree and advantages. He has enormous name recognition having been prime minister, defense minister, IDF chief of staff, and a public figure for decades. He has no compunction about directly challenging Prime Minister Netanyahu on politics or policy. He is the last and only Israeli politician to successfully thwart Netanyahu as an incumbent and prevent him from retaining the prime ministership. It is harder to dismiss him as being unfit or unprepared to be prime minister given his extensive record and the fact that he has served in the role before.
But Barak also has some serious drawbacks. His tenure as prime minister was a short one and is perceived as having been a failure, remembered mainly for his withdrawal from Lebanon – widely viewed as emboldening Hizballah – and for his presiding over the outbreak of the Second Intifada. He has a reputation for being untrustworthy and often too clever by half. More importantly for the purposes of the upcoming election, many Labor voters revile him for his breaking away from the party in 2011 in order to continue serving as defense minister and maintaining Netanyahu’s cushion to keep a Knesset majority. Many Arab voters revile him for his pledge before the 1999 election to include Arab parties in government and then shunning them entirely when it came time for coalition negotiations. And right-wing voters revile him for what they see as coddling Yasser Arafat and being the first prime minister to negotiate the formation of a Palestinian state.
This all leads to the question of how Barak’s inclusion in the anti-Netanyahu coalition impacts the chance of those parties unseating Netanyahu. In the previous vote, Kachol Lavan essentially took over Yesh Atid’s votes and cannibalized the rest from Labor, leading to its 35 seats and Labor’s nearly complete collapse. The latest polls have Barak between four and six seats, and most of those are probably former Labor voters who either still like Barak or who want to vote for a security figure that embraces a more left of center position than Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. The danger of Barak going alone is that he may end up playing the same role on the left that Bennett and Shaked’s New Right and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut did on the right on April 9, drawing over 100,000 votes that are wasted because he does not make it past the 3.25% threshold.
That concern may lead Barak to run jointly with Labor, but that arrangement could cause problems as well if it prevents a merger between Labor and Meretz and thus pushes Meretz below the threshold. And even if Labor, Meretz, and Barak’s Israel Democratic Party form a single list, Barak’s presence will turn off some Arab voters who may otherwise vote for Meretz and thus cost votes. There is also a question as to how Barak impacts Kachol Lavan, since there is an argument to be made that any voter who is security-minded and does not want to vote for Netanyahu was already captured by a party headed by three former chiefs of staff, and the potential to have Barak sit in a coalition with them may drive some of those voters away if they feel sufficiently negative about Barak.
Barak’s return will only be successful if he manages to enlarge the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Simply taking the 55 seats that were split last time between Kachol Lavan, Labor, Meretz, Hadash-Ta’al, and Balad-Ra’am and redistributing their market share while adding a sixth party into that mix will accomplish nothing electorally. Whether Barak actually adds to this bloc rather than detracts from it is an open question, and Labor and Meretz in particular have to figure out how to interact with him, and whether running together with him gives them another asset or adds a new liability.
Where does Shaked fit in on the right?
The New Right’s failure to make the 21st Knesset has made Shaked a hot commodity. The consensus within Israeli political circles is that responsibility for the party’s failure lies more with Bennett, and Shaked is still seen as a popular figure who will provide a boost to whichever party she joins. Reports have had her being wooed at various times by Likud, Avigdor Liberman, the Union of Right-Wing Parties (UWRP), and Bennett, and it seems that the only sector entirely uninterested in her is the Haredi one.
But there are hurdles to arranging a successful union between Shaked and any of her suitors. In many ways, it makes sense for Shaked to land on her feet with Likud, which is not only the most natural place for her to be politically but also sets her up best for a post-Netanyahu world, in which she will be a strong competitor to take over the party. The fact that she is such a political asset – smart, savvy, had immense policy success as Justice Minister, and is a woman – is precisely what makes integrating her into Likud so difficult, as it threatens the potential Netanyahu successors who have been cutting their teeth in the party for a decade as they wait for the Netanyahu era to end. It also doesn’t help that Sara Netanyahu has reportedly banned Shaked from Likud.
UWRP has its own issues, having passed the threshold by less than half a percentage point in the last election and only squeaking in by virtue of its inclusion of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party. While the two parties that make up the majority of UWRP – Bayit Yehudi and Tkuma – have agreed to run together again despite major tension between their respective party heads Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, Otzma Yehudit has not yet agreed because it feels like it was used for votes but then not given its proper due in terms of power and influence. As Shaked used to be a co-chair of Bayit Yehudi, this would seem to be an easy spot for her, but it is complicated by anger at her for leaving the party before the last election; the fact that she never quite fit in ideologically with a religious Zionist party given her secularism; her reluctance to accept anything other than top billing and Peretz’s reluctance to give it up as he is now the party chief; and the fact that there is no scenario in which Shaked agrees to run with Kahanists, which may put UWRP’s electoral viability into question.
And then there is Bennett, Shaked’s longtime political partner. The dynamic between them in the past was that Bennett was number one and Shaked was number two, but any new arrangement between them would likely flip that order. What is unclear is whether Shaked views Bennett as helpful given New Right’s disappointing performance last time, and whether she has any interest in being part of an arrangement that includes Feiglin, with whom Bennett has also been negotiating.
As opposed to the question facing the left with Barak, where the bloc needs to be enlarged but there is no definitive view on whether he is an asset or a liability, everyone seems to agree that Shaked is an asset. The issue for the right is how to avoid wasting another 200,000 plus votes as its voters did last time, and while nobody would argue that Shaked will not be helpful in that regard, the question is whether her stature will make it difficult for the parties that need her the most to incorporate her.