round four

A guide to Israel’s perplexing political parties

As Israel gears up for its fourth national election in two years, the political landscape continues to shift

Oded Balilty/AP

People walk by election campaign billboards showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alongside the Blue and White party leaders in Tel Aviv in April.

The first day of Israel’s national election campaign kicked off with a bang yesterday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals on the right sought to position themselves as leadership alternatives, and as the center-left is scrambling to get in fighting shape.

Right rivals: Former Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, who resigned from the Knesset earlier this month to form his own party, “New Hope,” has continued to rack up Likud defectors who have joined his ranks. Last night, Sa’ar scored a major win when Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a longtime Netanyahu loyalist, announced he would be joining New Hope. In a primetime speech last night, Elkin accused Netanyahu of “destroying the Likud” and making decisions based on “personal considerations and the whims of his inner circle.” Other Likud MKs who have joined Sa’ar include Yifat Shasha-Biton, Michal Shir and Sharren Haskel. The two most right-wing members of Blue and White, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, have also teamed up with Sa’ar.

Reverberations: The defection of Elkin was seen as the biggest blow to Netanyahu so far. While Sa’ar has been popular in Likud, he previously challenged Netanyahu for the party’s leadership, and their yearslong rivalry was evident. Elkin, however, was long seen as a Netanyahu confidante, and his defection was more shocking. “Hearing Elkin criticize Netanyahu feels as odd as the first time I heard criticism of him from [Netanyahu’s former media advisor] Nir Hefetz, when he became a state’s witness against him,” tweeted Jerusalem Post political correspondent Gil Hoffman. “Folks, these are the men behind the words ‘sources close to Netanyahu’ that you’ve been reading for years. That’s why it’s big.” 

Not backing down: Not to be outdone, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett delivered his own primetime address last night, announcing that he was running for the premiership. “When we needed him the most, [Netanyahu] was not there for us,” Bennett said. “We must thank him for his years of service, but we must move on.” Yamina currently holds six seats in the Knesset, though polls predict it could reach as many as 13-15 — still far short of the power necessary to become prime minister. Gideon Allon, the Knesset reporter for Israel Hayom, pointed out that Bennett’s announcement “has no practical significance” considering Israel’s parliamentary election system, and was a “trivial statement.” 

Loose left: Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, meanwhile, is struggling to hold on to its footing as polls show the party receiving just five to six seats in the March election, down from the 33 it received this year and the 14 it currently controls after it split from Yesh Atid. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, meanwhile, is expected to be the second- or third-largest party in the Knesset, although Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelach announced his own new political party today. Labor leader Amir Peretz, who was the subject of derision after joining Netanyahu’s coalition following the March election despite a vow to the contrary, announced yesterday that he would step down from heading the party to make way for new leadership.  

Rumors: A series of high-profile names have been bandied about as potential new additions to Israel’s national political scene, including former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai — as well as very familiar names like former Minister Tzipi Livni and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. With the filing deadline for running not until early February, there is still plenty of time for more political surprises.

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