Two new Israeli contenders enter political fray before fall elections

June 25, 2019 by Dov Lipman - JNS
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Israel’s repeat election on Sept. 17 might not be a literal do-over of April 9, as two new parties may be entering the fray.

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak during a press conference in Tel Aviv on April 3, 2019. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

The first of these new parties belongs to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who seems to be preparing for a Knesset run. Barak has confirmed reports to this effect, telling Israel’s Channel 12 news, “I would like to see if we can put a bloc together that can defeat [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

He explained that there must be a coming together of forces on the centre-left “to prevent what happened in the last elections,” in which the Blue and White Party, with three former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff in its leadership, failed to topple Netanyahu.

Barak is the most highly decorated soldier in Israel’s history and served as IDF chief of staff from 1991 to 1995, and then as prime minister from 1999-2001 as head of the Labor Party.

“Ehud Barak the only person to have beaten Netanyahu in an election for prime minister—and everybody loves a rematch.”

While many voices, especially on the right, mock the idea of Barak returning to politics given his many failures as premier, veteran pollster and CEO of KEEVOON Research, Strategy & Communications Ltd., Mitchell Barak, told JNS that a repeat attempt by the former prime minister should not be dismissed as hopeless.

“Israelis tend to place value on those who served as prime minister, even with limited success and even failure,” he said. “Remember, many would agree that Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, from 1996-1999, was a disaster. But he was able to rehabilitate himself and improve.”

“Ehud Barak,” he added, is also “the only person to have beaten Netanyahu in an election for prime minister [in 1999]—and everybody loves a rematch.”

Barak has reportedly been recruiting an all-star team to join his new party. The list of potential recruits includes former IDF deputy chief of staff Yair Golan; former Likud minister Dan Meridor; former foreign minister and head of the Kadima Party Tzipi Livni; and Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of the late Shas spiritual leader and founder, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Barak also held a “secret meeting” with Knesset member Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid Party and one of the leaders of Blue and White, indicating that he is seeking ways to generate a wide bloc to try to topple Netanyahu.

However, Dahlia Scheindlin, a policy fellow at Mitvim–The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a political analyst/public-opinion expert, told JNS that “it would be a mistake” for Barak to form his own party.

“Ultra-fragmentation of the political system harmed both left and right in Israel,” said Scheindlin, “and it’s a no-brainer that anyone with a political following should add his or her electoral support to existing parties rather than repeat the most obvious mistakes of April.”

She added that Barak “doesn’t have time to build up an actual party, with a genuine platform, infrastructure, voter following or leadership beyond the small coterie of [his] friends. … Blue and White’s votes came mainly from gutting the Labor Party. Now there’s nothing left to gut. If Blue and White continues to exist alongside Labor and Meretz, and Ehud Barack introduces a new party, someone will not cross the [electoral] threshold. Of course, mergers, breakups and dropouts are possible, too, so that could change everything.”

‘The Secular Right’

The second new party has already been registered as “The Secular Right” under the leadership of Tiberias Mayor Ron Kobi.

Since his election last fall, Kobi has made headlines for his all-out battle against the ultra-Orthodox establishment in his city. Just a few days after his election victory Kobi told Israel’s Army Radio that he “the wants the ultra-Orthodox to continue to grow, but not in his city. … They currently make up 22 per cent of the Tiberias population, they cannot be allowed to reach 30 per cent.”

He has taken numerous steps that have enraged the ultra-Orthodox public, including introducing public transportation on Shabbat in his city.

“Lieberman copied everything he’s doing from our actions over the past six months. He saw the trend and was drawn towards it.”

However, Kobi has failed to put together a coalition to run his city council.

His third attempt to pass a municipal budget failed last week, which by law leads to the Interior Ministry calling him in for a hearing, disbanding the city council and taking control of the city. The city council also voted to impeach him as mayor.

Kobi says that his goal is to replace Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party as interior minister and minister for the development of the periphery, the Negev and the Galilee. Kobi declared his objective to be restoring order in the country’s cities and “removing the ultra-Orthodox from positions of power.”

Scheindlin, who conducts regular polls of Israeli society, believes that Kobi has little chance of entering the Knesset with his new party.

“By my assessments from recent surveys I’ve conducted,” she told JNS, “the portion of Jews who are both right-wing and secular is about 15 per cent. These voters already have numerous choices: [Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor] Lieberman, who got about 4 per cent of the vote [in April]; Likud [especially with Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon now back in the party]; and Blue and White. I doubt there will be 3.25 per cent ‘extra’ to push another party over the electoral threshold based on one guy, a social-media provocateur who isn’t showing any great achievements so far in Tiberias.”

Mitchell Barak agreed with this assessment, telling JNS that Kobi “needs to accomplish something in his hometown of Tiberias before entering national politics.”

Lieberman accused the prime minister of pushing Kobi to run in order to destroy Yisrael Beiteinu, which has been running on the platform of “secular and right.”

It was Lieberman who brought down the government and sent Israel to new elections over his demand that a draft law requiring ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to serve in the military be passed in its current form.

Yisrael Beiteinu MK Oded Forer claims that Kobi met with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence twice and went as far as suggesting that Netanyahu promised Kobi a prime position in his government following the September election.

Likud has denied any involvement with Kobi, and its leaders say they are not focused on Lieberman’s anti-ultra-Orthodox voters, who they say are currently Yair Lapid supporters in Blue and White. Likud, they say, would be more than happy if Lieberman drained votes from their primary competition.

Kobi has gone on the attack against Lieberman, telling Israel’s Channel 13 television that “the battle against religious coercion began in Tiberias. Lieberman copied everything he’s doing from our actions over the past six months. He saw the trend and was drawn towards it.”

While most do not see Kobi gathering enough support to enter the Knesset, Scheindlin told JNS that he could still have an impact on the election.

“Kobi can either be a distraction and siphon off votes from the larger parties if he runs alone, or if he joins with another party and becomes a prominent figure in that party’s campaign, maybe he can boost that party by a mandate or two,” she said.

She did concede, however, that “right now, he just looks like a fleeting headline to me until we see how the party structure takes shape by the deadline.”

Knesset lists must be submitted 47 days before the election (Aug. 2). Between now and then, there will no doubt be many developments. But for now, all eyes are certainly on Barak and Kobi. and the potential impact of their new parties.

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