Israel’s ‘American-Style’ Race


For the past 20 years, Julie Landau, a writer and editor in northern Israel, has voted for either the left-wing Meretz party or the center-left Labor party.

Not this time around.

When Landau goes to the polls on April 9, she intends to vote for the Blue and White party, a new centrist party that could potentially beat Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party, according to the latest opinion polls.

Landau attributes her political change of heart to Netanyahu’s support for the far-right wing Otzma Yehudit party, which is known for its ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab views.

Under a technical arrangement brokered by the prime minister, Otzma Yehudit, which has roots in the Kahane movement, will run with the Jewish Home party, which would join Likud in a future right-wing government. Without this temporary alliance (the parties will part ways after the election), Otzma Yehudit probably wouldn’t pass the election threshold.

“I am not completely thrilled with Blue and White,” Landau acknowledged. “But we just cannot have a government with terrorists in it — or with a leader so desperate for votes that he tries to legitimize terrorists. And that’s not to mention the legal troubles Bibi is currently facing, but that’s a separate issue,” she said, referring to Netanyahu’s indictment on charges of corruption and breach of trust, pending a hearing.

Israelis like Landau could decide the upcoming election by supporting either Blue and White or Likud, even though neither party is their “natural” home.

“We’re seeing more voters coalescing around the two [largest] parties,” said Gil Hoffman, the Jerusalem Post’s chief political correspondent and analyst. “It’s not quite the American-style two-party system, but we’re seeing this more than we did before.”

In contrast to the U.S. electoral system, where two parties dominate, the Israeli landscape is highly fragmented: Several parties will be running in April, but not every party will win enough seats to sit in the Knesset.

While voting for a larger party so as not to “waste” their vote is nothing new to Israelis, Hoffman said, this is the first time in a long time that the Likud has a formidable opponent.

“Voters on the center-right have every reason to fear an alternative on the center left, and that could unite them behind Netanyahu more than ever, and make this more of a two-party race,” Hoffman said.

Even so, it remains to be seen whether die-hard leftists will have the stomach to support Blue and White.

Party campaign slogans like “You Picked Netanyahu, You Got Extremists” resonate with the left, but the fact that three of Blue and White’s four leaders are retired IDF chiefs of staff isn’t a selling point for Israelis who believe the country should withdraw to its pre-1967 borders. The party’s reported commitment to a united Jerusalem and holding on to West Bank settlement blocs will surely turn off many left-wing voters.

The party’s soon-to-be-released platform also reportedly contains a pledge to implement the pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall that Netanyahu first championed and later nixed, but few Israelis care deeply about the issue.

Likud’s platform endorses settlement activity and the annexation of at least some parts of the West Bank.

Although Likud has long been the preferred home of many right-wingers, Netanyahu’s embrace of Otzma Yehudit while he courted the support of the Jewish Home party has spurred some rightists to question their allegiance to Likud and the Jewish Home.

Rabbi Benjamin Lau, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, recently urged his followers to consider carefully whom to vote for.

In a Times of Israel op-ed, Rabbi Lau noted that Otzma’s doctrine “is steeped in racism. … We cannot minimize the impact of this political merger.”

By voting for the Jewish Home, Rabbi Lau said, voters “will be ushering in race theory to the Knesset.”

Netanyahu’s Otzma Yehudit endorsement, and possibly his indictment (pending a hearing that won’t take place until 2020), appear to be eroding Likud’s position.

According to a March 3 Channel 12 poll, 7 percent of 2015 Likud voters plan to vote for Blue and White. In the same poll, only 41 percent said Netanyahu should stay in office while 50 percent said he should leave.

“This is an election over Netanyahu, more than any other issue,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a Haaretz reporter and author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

“For the first time in a decade there is a viable contender against Netanyahu,” Pfeffer said. Although Gantz’s hasn’t held public office, he is a respected former general with serious security credentials.

“Gantz needs a relatively small number of voters to move across to him to prevent Netanyahu from getting another majority. If 100,000 ex-Likudniks or ex-Kahlon voters move to Blue and White, it could change the balance.”

The most recent Walla opinion poll gave Blue & White 36 seats and only 31 seats to Likud. But when other parties were counted into the mix, Likud was able to cobble together a slim 61-seat coalition government.

Josh Weixelbaum, an American-Israeli who made aliyah several years ago, plans to vote for Likud next month. Like many other center-right Israelis, he acknowledges the party’s weaknesses but embraces what he considers its strengths.

“Likud pretty much reflects my values. I believe in a free market system that includes proper regulations but also allows competition. I also want a state that gives Judaism prominence in our everyday lives without giving rabbis too much power. Likud doesn’t want a separation between religion and state, and at the same time doesn’t want a state based first and foremost on Jewish law.”

Weixelbaum said he isn’t happy with Netanyahu’s arrangement with Otzma Yehudit, but noted that it is perfectly legal for political parties — any parties — to run on joint tickets and then part ways.

“I don’t necessarily want the party in the coalition, but I understand why it was done: to prevent the loss of votes,” Weixelbaum said.

Weixelbaum is more concerned about Netanyahu’s indictment, which still awaits a hearing to become official.

“We have a former prime minister, a former president, a former chief rabbi and other officials who have served prison terms. It’s a big deal and, unfortunately, seemingly normal in this country.”

If and when Netanyahu must defend himself in court “he will need to step down,” Weixelbaum said. “You can’t focus on leading a country while you’re trying to defend yourself in court.”

Pfeffer said it remains to be seen whether these issues will dissuade large numbers of right-wing voters.

“I do think Otzma and the indictment are making some people hesitate to vote for Likud,” he said, “but will that push them into the arms of Blue and White? We’ll see.”