Israeli Political Landscape Still Unsettled Ahead of Parliamentary Elections

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


With a little more than a month to go ahead of the September 17 parliamentary elections, Israeli politicians are continuing to rally their bases while reaching out to potential allies. In Israel’s chaotic political landscape there appear to be no permanent alliances as former government officials turn against their former political leaders and new splinter groups try to remain relevant by realigning and recalibrating their message. Israeli commentators and observers reflect this kaleidoscopic reality by urging or warning against, depending on the occasion, the formation of a new political alliance or the splintering away from one.

According to Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer this ongoing reconsideration of alliances and political calculations has one common denominator, and that is bringing to an end the long reign of the current Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu: “Lieberman’s decision two months ago not to join Netanyahu’s coalition, triggering 2019’s second election, has set a train of events in motion. Not one of the polls conducted in the last five weeks has given Netanyahu a chance of forming a right-wing/religious coalition without [Avigdor] Lieberman. If that is indeed the outcome on September 17, it will be a cathartic moment for Israeli politics — after which any possible permutation of endorsements to the president, and the most bizarre coalition frameworks, are possible. The parties are contracting, uniting and maximizing their options in preparation for that moment.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s defenders, like Jerusalem Post’s Isi Leibler, admit that there is a real possibility that the prime minister may lose in September and worry that, should that scenario take place, the end result would be a weaker Israel and that leaders like the Blue and White alliance’s Gantz lack the required qualities: “Does Gantz possess the qualities to lead the country? Could he, like Netanyahu, successfully walk the diplomatic tightrope between Trump and Putin? Gantz displays neither charisma nor a strong leadership image. A big question mark hangs over his ability to effectively lead the country over the next 12 months, when critical decisions will need to be made. And if not Gantz, who in either party does have the qualifications to lead? The brutal truth is nobody! This is why, despite the fact Netanyahu does not endear himself to most Israelis, at the same time polls show that even today many consider him the only competent candidate for prime minister. Indeed, there are many who detest him but would still opt for him to retain the reins of leadership over the coming crucial year.”

In an op-ed written for Israel Today, Tsvi Sadan notes that the emergence of an “anyone but Netanyahu” alliance seems to have given a new lease on life to other politicians, like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who have been in the political wilderness since being driven out of power: “Democratic Israel, the new party of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is the spark that seems to have ignited the second election campaign of 2019. Aware of the public’s election fatigue, most politicians have over the past several weeks avoided launching premature campaigns that would likely only result in further voter apathy ahead of the September 17 poll. But Barak’s noisy return to the political arena left the other party heads no choice but to respond to his harsh criticism, leveled against any and all who fail to get onboard with his agenda to dethrone Benjamin Netanyahu…. There are signs that a left-center bloc consisting of Labor, Meretz, and Blue and White is beginning to emerge.”

Some doubt whether such a left-center bloc — called Democratic Israel — a union of Mr. Barak’s Democratic Israel with Meretz and Blue and White can become a kingmaker in the upcoming elections. That is also the assessment of Sever Plocker, who in an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth suggested that despite all the excitement surrounding the announcement of the newly formed Democratic Union, the alliance “has yet to prove itself. Ehud Barak has failed in his efforts to lead a viable unified center-left bloc. Polling predicted his party alone would not cross the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset. Later polling conducted immediately after the joint press event marking Barak’s merger with Meretz predicted the joint endeavor would win 10 seats. Polls since then have shown that number dropping, and at this point in time, they project no more than seven seats if elections were to be held today…. The Democratic Union has no valid reason to exist separately from the Blue and White party, so all involved should put aside their personal animosities and show some political savvy instead. And Barak can take comfort in being the currently absent left-wing faction of a centrist party.”

Another politician and former Netanyahu ally turned political rival is Avigdor Lieberman, who as Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev observes, has experienced of late a “metamorphosis  from a sectorial leader who is shackled to the right and hovering near the threshold of political extinction into the ultimate kingmaker, with double digits in the polls, who has also become, hard as it is to digest, the great white hope of the Israeli center-left…. And what a Lieberman it is: Not the one seen before the last election as a too-clever-by-half conniver trying to flog a dead Russian horse, but the daring maverick who’s got the political arena wrapped around his little finger…. Lieberman’s willingness to defy expectations, confound Netanyahu and thumb his nose at his former allies on the right has marked him as the ‘strongman’ that many Russians, as well as many Israelis, dream about at night.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s challenges are not limited to attacks from the center and center-left of the political spectrum, but also from the right. Many still blame the lack of a united front of a ‘broad united right’ for what Arutz Sheva’s Dov Fischer characterizes as “the Oslo Disaster” and are urging the creation of a cohesive bloc on the right ahead of the September elections: “To this very day, Israel and Jews throughout the world pay the terrible price for the Oslo Disaster that never would have happened if the Israeli Right had not splintered itself, thus wasting and losing the thousands of votes that had comprised the electoral majority. Thus, Israel’s enemies this time blasted Prime Minister Netanyahu for helping negotiate Otzma’s inclusion into the [Union of Right Wing Parties] bloc, and ignoramuses then parroted those criticisms without understanding the underlying complexities. Israel, as usual, took unfair heat — and, as usual, survived it. The good news is that, for several reasons, this time around it should be so much easier to include Otzma in the URWP technical bloc.”

Here, as in so many other cases, the charge is led by a former Netanyahu acolyte. Shlomo Pyuterkovsky points out that following the last election’s failed campaign, as the head of United Right, Ayelet Shaked now has been given a second chance to make the United Right an indispensable political actor: “Many supporters of the far-right parties have developed anger and resentment towards their leadership during this period, and these sentiments must now be reversed if a campaign to win voters is to be successful… The New Right Party’s failure to pass the threshold in the April 2019 ballot was down to a poor campaign strategy, while the Jewish Home’s campaign, was in hindsight also far from effective…. In order to run a good campaign, candidates must both show leadership skills and be attuned to their constituents and supporters. The task is this time placed firmly on Ayelet Shaked’s shoulders. Her skills as the leader of this political union will be tested to the extreme.”

Lost amidst all the talk about coalition building and winning campaign strategies, and underlying the very narrative of once-marginalized political figures turned kingmakers is the question of political accountability. As Times of Israel blogger Alona Vinograd puts it, “To be able to exercise our fundamental right to vote, we need to know what our elected representatives do with our money during their hours on the job (which we pay for); what ideas and programs they promoted, and the extent to which there is a match between their promises and what they actually did. Without the answers to all these questions, we are doomed to be the captives of well-oiled mechanisms of fake news, propaganda, and disinformation…. Until our elected representatives, of their own initiative, share substantive information about their political activities with the public, we must insist on reliable information and transparent conduct by those who want to lead the country. Election season is an excellent time to start demanding this.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top