By Jacob Bardugo
There is something strange in the sight of fervent preparations for a battle that won’t take place for another four months or so. But Israel’s politicians are already preparing for the vote on Nov. 1.
Right now, it appears that the ones who are best prepared are the “anyone but Bibi” camp or, as they are known in the media, the “center-left bloc.” Until a few weeks ago, however, when the coalition was breaking apart, it looked like the right was the stronger, better-organized bloc. Its forces appeared well-arrayed and stable. United Torah Judaism and Shas were solid in their corners, the Religious Zionist party was rising in the polls and Likud was in its natural place as bloc leader.
The anti-Netanyahu center-left, on the other hand, looked more battered and at odds than ever. It was Gantz vs. Lapid, who was scheming for Michaeli’s seats and Michaeli was, in turn, looking to Meretz. Even the ideology that had been sacrificed on the altar of “change” ceased to be a factor, and the government ministers were, needless to say, not at their best.
Suddenly, everything changed. In the haredi camp, MK Moshe Gafni has recently become very active and started obfuscating his messages ahead of ushering Benny Gantz into the prime minister’s office if Netanyahu fails to secure the magic 61 seats. While Gafni has always been seen, and characterizes himself, as having dovish tendencies, political circles are divided on how real his warming relations with Gantz really are. What is certain is that realistically speaking, Gafni has only two to three of the 15-16 seats that UTJ and Shas will bring in together. This might not sound like many, but in a close election they could be critical. Gafni’s behavior is causing the ground to shake under the haredi wing of the Netanyahu bloc.
Another problem comes from the Religious Zionist party. MKs Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are in the midst of a bizarre spat. What first looked like a political honeymoon is turning into a nightmare. Of course, the fight is over places on the Knesset list. Ben-Gvir says Smotrich isn’t returning his phone calls, Smotrich says if Ben-Gvir wants to talk he can call. Each wants everything for himself.
It would be hard to overstate these two hawks’ irresponsibility. If either of them fails to make it past the electoral threshold, it will almost automatically hand power over to the left. This week, Ben-Gvir held a press conference in which he took aim at Smotrich. Smotrich was interviewed and failed to clarify what the problem was. They, along with the rest of the party leaders in their bloc, think that a responsible adult needs to step in to prevent an electoral disaster.
Meanwhile, the left-wing camp is seeing mergers. Gantz and Sa’ar joined forces this week and announced it to the public without taking questions from reporters. The merger is rooted in their shared rivalry with Yair Lapid. They hope to take away his legitimacy as leader of the bloc and bring in votes from the moderate right, which does not like Netanyahu. Make no mistake, however. Sa’ar does not think that Gantz is the best candidate for prime minister. Only a few days before the announcement, he denied that any such idea was even on the table, or that the two men had been holding talks.
At this stage, Lapid is projecting confidence. He doesn’t feel threatened and continues about his business like someone who is running from the Prime Minister’s Office as bloc leader. Polls aren’t predicting any tectonic shift as a result of the merger between charisma bombs Gantz and Sa’ar, who looked paler than usual while talking to the press. But in a country in which a person with only five or six Knesset seats can serve as prime minister, a double-digit number could be enough to cut off Lapid and lead the way to a new government under Gantz.
The only unknown in the left-wing bloc is the situation of Meretz and Labor. To the horror of Meretz members, Horowitz’s decision to drop out of the race for party leader could benefit Yair Golan. Meretz is almost begging former leader Zehava Gal-On to step in and save them, fearing that Golan—an army commander who many in Meretz see as a nationalist — will be the final nail in the party’s coffin. They have also realized that comparing leftists to black slaves or Jews to Nazis won’t necessarily help them in their war to make it past the electoral threshold.
Despite this, Meirav Michaeli, who is expected to be reelected Labor leader, is rejecting any merger of the far-left wing of a center-right bloc. But expectations are that the more time passes, this too will be resolved. The apocalyptic scenario rests on the assumption that Gantz and Lapid will try to siphon off as many votes as possible from Labor and Meretz, leaving them both below the threshold.
As of now, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked — who, if you’ve forgotten, is also head of Yamina — is out of the picture entirely. Yamina, which until a moment ago was the party of the prime minister, is now polling at less than 2%.
This week, Shaked had to pull an ace out of her sleeve and, luckily, she found one. After Amichai Chikli resigned from the Knesset, he was replaced by MK Yomtob Kalfon. It appears that Shaked is having a hard time keeping Yamina members in the party and attracting new candidates. This says a lot about how the political world assesses her chances.
So, in light of all this, Shaked rushed to have her picture taken with Kalfon and praise him to the skies on social media. Remember, only about two months ago Shaked, Naftali Bennett and Matan Kahane ousted Kalfon from the Knesset in a sudden attempt to preserve the coalition. Now Shaked, who used to be the princess of the right and seen as a future leader, is clinging to Kalfon for dear life. It’s not clear which of them is in bigger trouble.
Jacob Bardugo is a commentator on Israeli Army Radio.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.