The political landscape in Israel often shifts at the start of an election campaign, but the changes in the last few weeks have been especially dramatic once new elections were announced in December.
Former top general Benny Gantz, ex Likud defence minister Moshe Yaalon, Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis (daughter of former Likud foreign minister David Levy), former general Gal Hirsch, and Israel Prize winner Adina Bar-Shalom (the daughter of influential former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef), have all announced the formation of new political parties. In addition, there were major party splits on both the right and the left: Bayit HaYehudi leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked broke away to form a new party called the “New Right” (HaYemin HaHadash), and Labor’s Avi Gaffnay dramatically ended his alliance with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua Party during a shocking press conference.
The birth of so many new parties ahead of the next election can be traced to the strength of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and its allies on the right. Polls currently predict the Likud to win 25-30 seats, well ahead of rival parties. Crucially, when Likud’s strength is combined with other right-wing parties and their erstwhile ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, polls suggest that a nationalist bloc anchored by the Likud may be able to reform a majority coalition. If Netanyahu is unable to persuade his allies in the nationalist bloc and the ultra-Orthodox religious parties to join a coalition like the one that he has led for the last four years, Likud could still govern with the support of centrist parties like Yesh Atid, or Gantz’s new party. In any case, at this juncture it’s hard to imagine a ruling coalition without the Likud.
The result is a scrambled political scene that bears little resemblance to Israel’s post-1973 political divisions. Instead of two nearly equal blocs on the right and left competing for the affections of king-making (or – breaking) religious parties, the centre of gravity has shifted significantly toward the right. Heading into the next election, the two parties of the left are shadows of their former selves as many voters who support continuing peace negotiations intend to support centrist parties.
This shift to the right means that even if corruption charges weaken the Likud in favour of the centre or the New Right, other parties would find it nearly impossible to form a government without the Likud. The secular Yesh Atid has previously announced that it would not form a government with the religious parties or the Arab parties; another centrist party might be able to form a coalition with the religious parties, but their other likely coalition partners would either prefer a government led by the Likud or would have nearly as many issues with religious parties as Yesh Atid.
With most political elites and Israeli voters expecting the Likud to lead the next government, the influx of new parties reflects the efforts of politicians seeking to position themselves to better bargain with Netanyahu. As the threat of criminal indictments hangs over Netanyahu’s head, politicians like Gantz, Lapid and Bennett want to position themselves as possible successors by holding high profile cabinet positions like defence or the foreign ministry.
But the reality is that not every new party will win seats in the Knesset, let alone enough seats to give their leader the leverage to demand a plum cabinet post in coalition negotiations. Barring a last minute change to the election rules, the threshold for representation in the Knesset will go up to 3.25 per cent of the total vote. If any party fails to get that (or four Knesset seats), those seats will be allocated to the larger parties. Polls released recently suggest that Gantz’s Israel Resilience party and the New Right are polling much higher than the threshold. All the other new parties are either in danger of slipping below the threshold or are barely attracting any support. Even established parties like Livni’s Hatnua and the remnants of Bayit Yehudi are in danger of crashing out of the Knesset.
Between now and late-February, many of these aspiring prime ministers will have little choice but to pursue mergers with other parties to ensure that they will enter the Knesset. With a quarter of all Israeli voters still undecided, you can expect the party landscape to change between now and voting day in April. But even if Netanyahu is indicted, the basic dynamics of Likud surrounded by many smaller parties vying for influence in the post-election coalition is unlikely to change.