Israel was built on the multi-party system. Throughout most of the 20th century Israelis voted for parties over leaders and ideas over people. The mainstream observation of how Israeli politics has changed in the 21st century is the movement of voters to choose leaders over parties and people over ideas. This movement, along with the increase of the electoral threshold, has led to a rise in the number of political arrangements between parties, resulting in just ten Factions for the 20th Knesset. Livni’s Party would not pass the threshold without Labor. Degel HaTorah would not be in Knesset if not for Agudat Yisrael. The same could be said for The Joint List of Hadash, Ra’am, Ta’al and Balad. Tekuma owes their Knesset survival to Bayit Yehudi. The technical bloc of Yachad which failed to cross the threshold is another example.
Israel does not have fewer parties but they do have fewer faction leaders at the top of Knesset lists. One of the most remarkable events of the last election was “The Debate” between eight Faction leaders. Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett, Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Liberman, Shas’s Aryeh Deri, Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Meretz’s Zahava Gal-On, The Joint List’s Aymen Odeh and Yachad’s Eli Yishai all participated. Netanyahu, Herzog and Litzman were all absent. The Debate focused on how the leaders would solve issues and for the most part ignored their parties. A year after the elections and all these leaders are still leading their parties.
On Wednesday the Knesset ended its winter session. The Knesset passed roughly 110 new laws in 74 plenum sessions and conducted about 1,600 committee meetings over the winter. Before breaking for recess one would think that people would be summarizing their accomplishments or talking about their goals for the next session. Instead the conversation was focused on what would happen to Shas or the Zionist Union if they lose their leaders. Because there has been no turnover since the election, I’d like to extend that question and examine what would happen today if the leaders from each Faction were removed.
Let’s start with Netanyahu. The Likud was founded in 1973 and its founder Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. In fact all four Likud leaders (Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu and Sharon) have become Prime Minister. Of course Likud has had its low points, such as their drop from 38 seats in 2003 (40 following the Yisrael B’Aliyah merger) to 12 in 2006. Likud is on a hot streak and has been the ruling party for the past three terms. They have plenty of candidates who can take over the party and try to become the fifth party leader, and perhaps Prime Minister.
Following its establishment in 1968 the first five Labor Party leaders (Eshkol, Meir, Rabin, Peres, Barak) became Prime Minister. The next five (Ben-Eliezer, Mitzna, Peretz, Yachimovich and Herzog) have not. How would things look without Herzog? I think it could be very likely Herzog loses his next primary before the police make a decision on whether or not to officially press charges. It is possible that the new Labor leader decides to dump Livni. It is less likely, but possible, Livni dumps Labor if she doesn’t like the new leader. There are many candidates and it will be difficult to predict a final result here. Margalit, one of the Labor candidates facing Herzog in the primary that still doesn’t have a date, warned against becoming another Kadima. Kadima fell from 28 seats in 2009 to 2 seats in the following 2013 election. I don’t see Labor falling under the current 3.25% threshold but there is a likely scenario where Lapid takes the momentum and Labor finishes in the high single digits.
The Joint List is a new endeavor, and choosing rookie MK Odeh to lead it was an interesting choice. When you have a collection of four parties anything is possible, and Hadash might not stay if they do not have the top spot on the joint list. Also Odeh may not be re-elected as the leader of Hadash because predicting Central Committee elections is about as accurate as predicting an American Caucus Election.
There is no Yesh Atid without Yair Lapid. The good news for Lapid is that he stands a lot to gain from Herzog’s current troubles. What would happen without Lapid? The current #2 Yael German is not the type of person capable of winning double-digits and Lapid’s former #2 Shai Piron is not either. This is how center parties work and that is also why they don’t last. There is no future for this party without Lapid. The MKs would all scramble and end up in either Likud or Labor.
The same can be said about Kulanu. Without Moshe Kahlon there is no Kulanu. Most of the MKs would probably immediately merge with Likud.
Without Naftali Bennett the Bayit Yehudi would probably go back to the three seats they had with their first leader Professor Daniel Hershkovitz, but the new 3.25% electoral threshold creates a bleak outlook for the party after Bennett. Of course there is the argument that if Ayelet Shaked took over the party that might not be the case.
The focus of Shas has always been on their spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who founded the party in 1984 and de-facto ran it until his death in late 2013. In a clever series of moves Deri was able to regain control of the party and ultimately oust Yishai, who had taken over for him in 2000 after Deri entered prison. If Deri leaves it will be difficult for Yishai, who led the party for 13 years, to come back to Shas, but he might run again with Yachad. The current Shas #2 Itzick Cohen, who also served as interim leader during Deri’s brief retirement prior to last election, is the most likely candidate to replace Deri if he faces jail time again. Cohen lacks the star power needed to keep Shas above the threshold in the post-Yosef era, and Yishai’s list might split the vote enough to throw Shas under the threshold.
Health Minister Litzman was graded as the most popular minister by the general public. There is no chance the Rabbis of the sectorial parties that make up the Faction would replace him against his will. The leader of the UTJ list is also irrelevant to the number of votes they receive. UTJ is the exception to the current trend of voting for leaders over parties.
Liberman is Yisrael Beitenu, just like Lapid is Yesh Atid and Kahlon is Kulanu. Liberman’s party has finished with 4, 12, 15 and 6 seats in the four elections of six when not on a joint ticket. The latest polls have been better for Liberman but this is still a party that will disappear after Liberman leaves. In a case like that most of the MKs would probably join the Likud.
Zahava Gal-On is considered popular within Meretz circles, and any replacement would probably lead to a decline in support for a party that is already flirting with the 3.25% threshold.
To summarize, what would happen to the ten Knesset lists if they replaced their leaders ahead of the next election?
Yesh Atid, Kulanu and Yisrael Beitenu would completely collapse without their leaders and end up under the threshold. Bayit Yehudi, Shas and Meretz would most likely collapse without their leaders and would see a significant decline in seats. Likud, Zionist Union and UTJ are less likely to see a collapse with a new leader, and the Joint List’s fate is too volatile to predict.