Analyzing Israeli politics is perhaps one of the most difficult analytical jobs due to its complexity and flexibility. There is a debate on what the parameters and data actually are, and the fact that the rules of the game constantly change do not help matters. The continuing education required to do the job properly includes following an extremely wide spectrum of media coverage and contacts with all ten Knesset factions. If you ignore one major media outlet or even the narrative of the smallest Knesset faction, you are missing a crucial piece of the complex puzzle, and that exposes your neglect to the Knesset insiders. It is easy to understand why most analysts focus on the past because it is the safer option, and an analyst can always rely on choosing a time period where he or she was “up to date” and “in the know”. The expectations are complicated when you are predicting the future, especially in Israel, because no date is set in stone and the process is always fluid, so you are given relatively more rope. Analyzing the present is always the trickiest and requires the most skill. It is possible that the situation being analyzed is actually a smokescreen and one must ask oneself if these situations are truly newsworthy. The colorful comment by a backbencher can become headline news while the new tax law that was passed that affects everyone is deemed not newsworthy. There are many in the press that tend to exaggerate because they need to write a new story every day, so they find new angles to the same stories, sensationalize every disagreement into a crisis and add as many descriptive catchy adjectives as possible in the rumor mill. Many politicians are happy to comply with those types of journalists and shift the public focus away from what they are really working on. The latest example is how the biannual budget passed under the radar. What makes my Weekend Perspective pieces more daring is that I often choose to analyze the past, present and future. I am due for another piece, so here you go.
Instead of looking towards the next, 21st, Knesset, in this piece I will examine the six influencers of the current, 20th, Knesset. That means political players like Gideon Saar, Moshe Yaalon and Nir Barkat will have to take a back seat. I suggest that those interested in the 21st Knesset pay attention as well because the way the following six people have influenced and continue to influence the Knesset will determine how the elections for the 21st Knesset will look.
How did I determine the six influencers?
The Knesset has 120 MKs, and each one has a certain level of influence. Every MK knows that the level of influence they have is limited by the leader of their party, and that a majority of the public does not even know the names of the other MKs on each list. Seventeen political parties are represented in the Knesset, but the public doesn’t elect parties, they elect factions, otherwise known as lists. It was the leaders of the lists who were invited to the televised debate, received fancy online graphics, were featured in all polls, and were invited by the President to nominate a Prime Minister candidate. Despite their election campaign promises, both Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni knew that the Prime Minister would be chosen among the ten faction leaders, not the seventeen party leaders. It is the leaders of the lists that sign the coalition deals that form the government. So, are the ten faction leaders the most influential? Well, they are during Phase 2 of the Prime Minister Selection process, but that changes after the government is formed. There are #2s on lists that are party leaders, such as Livni, Moshe Gafni, Ahmed Tibi, and Uri Ariel, who are quite influential as well. The difference is that a faction leader has the ability to both influence the internal Knesset agenda and set the external public agenda. Some players might have more internal influence, but the media will always give more weight to Herzog over Livni and to Naftali Bennett over Ariel. Additionally, not all ten Knesset list leaders are influencers during the course of the term. If you take a look at the media coverage there are six names that will show up in just about every news broadcast and morning newspaper. The influence of the Joint List’s Aymen Odeh or Meretz’s Zahava Gal-On is minimal both internally and externally. The influence of UTJ’s Litzman and Shas’s Aryeh Deri is more significant as leaders of lists in the coalition, but the lack of ambition to reach the highest level automatically reduces their external interest a great deal. I would make the case that Litzman and Deri wield significant influence internally, but their ranking is harmed by media shares that are less than impressive. I give external influence more weight because that is what a majority of MKs do as well. As one Likud Minister told me during the days he was a backbencher, it used to be that the press covered the Knesset; today, the Knesset covers the press.
That leaves us with six influencers – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Opposition Leader Herzog, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is in his fourth term. His three consecutive terms have already given him the record for the longest consecutive term of any Israeli prime minister. If this government fulfills its current term that is set to expire in 2019, Netanyahu will have served for over 13 years, and will pass Ben-Gurion to become the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history. Love him or hate him, even if Netanyahu does not pass Israel’s founding father, he will likely be remembered as one of the most influential Prime Ministers that Israel has ever had. The influence of a Prime Minister is always considerable. However, it is under Netanyahu that the influence of the Prime Minister’s Office grew both in terms of number of personnel and in terms of the concentration of government authority. Netanyahu serves as a Prime Minister with more official authority than his predecessors. Additionally, over the course of the 20th Knesset he has served as minister over a number of various portfolios. Today he holds only two, he is both the Foreign Minister and the Communications Minister. Although it is still early, but based on the KJPA (KnessetJeremy Poll Average), if elections were held today his current coalition would re-elect him for a fifth term.
Opposition Leader Herzog has been both an influential and tragic figure in the 20th Knesset. In the 2015 elections it was the Herzog-Livni duo that gave Netanyahu his toughest fight since Livni defeated Netanyahu in Phase 1 of the 2009 Knesset elections. Following the election the Zionist Union gained three seats, mostly from former Yesh Atid and Meretz voters, and Herzog started off leading an opposition to Netanyahu’s most narrow majority 61-59. This was a great field position to start in compared to Herzog’s predecessor Shelly Yacimovich, who became opposition leader in 2012 when Netanyahu enjoyed his widest coalition support of 94-26. Herzog had few successes in embarrassing the coalition considering the narrow gap. Herzog chose to blame Liberman for not falling in line with the rest of the opposition. Yacimovich, who was in a much more difficult position during her time as opposition leader, was able to find ways to cooperate with the right flank of her opposition, including Kahanist MK Michael Ben Ari, when it was necessary to influence government action. It didn’t take long for Herzog, a minister in Netanyahu’s government from 2009-2011, to start negotiating so that he could return to Netanyahu’s cabinet. Even after Netanyahu chose Liberman over Herzog, it didn’t stop Herzog from trying to enter the coalition that he was supposed to be toppling. After it became clear that Herzog wasn’t going to join the government he focused on dealing with his internal political competition by pushing off his leadership election. The last time a Labor Party Leader led his party into two consecutive elections was when Shimon Peres led the party into four straight elections in 1977, 1981, 1984 and 1988. Herzog rejoiced this week as the deadline passed to join the Labor Party in time to run for the July primary. Neither former IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi nor Benny Gantz joined the party. Yacimovich might run for the Histadrut Union Chair instead of against Herzog. Herzog feels confident that he can beat the current crop of hopefuls that include Amir Peretz, Erel Margalit, Livni, Eitan Cabel, Omer Bar-Lev, Ron Huldai, and newcomer Avi Gabai. If there are enough candidates running then Herzog has a shot at reaching the second round. In Labor primaries the first and second rounds are different ballgames, and that is Herzog’s only shot. The Zionist Union under Herzog’s leadership has dropped in the polls and is currently tied for 5th place in the KJPA with 9 seats. Opposition Leader Herzog is in the spotlight, but for the most part he has squandered it. If he is re-elected internally the end of the party could be near, and if he isn’t he will serve as the punching bag for his successor to rally up potential voters. Despite his lose-lose situation, the influence of his position requires everyone to follow him, both internally and externally. His formal position allows him to address the Knesset during the key dates on the calendar with the prime real estate of following every Prime Minister speech. His support in the Histadrut has given him key influence in the Central Committee, and that has empowered him to navigate through each one of his mistakes and scandals. The leader of any political party that has primaries is influential because of the dynamic of those choosing to challenge the leadership.
In 2013 Lapid started a party of relative nobodies and entered the Knesset with 19 seats. To me he has always seemed to be someone who wants power but is not quite sure what to do with it. He ran originally wanting to be Finance Minister, but instead requested Foreign Minister. He was convinced to take the Finance Ministry, and he made many mistakes by falling into rookie traps. He started the term with an alliance with Naftali Bennett, and finished it with an alliance with Livni. Lapid got the short-stick of the three-bill-bargain when he agreed to implement his bill far into the future, while Bennett and Liberman’s bills were implemented immediately. In 2015, Bennett ran on the record of his Basic Law: National Referendum, Liberman ran on his raising the electoral threshold, and Lapid ran on asking people to vote for him so that his sharing of the burden law would not be repealed. In his first term, Lapid had at first prioritized a government without the Haredi parties at pretty much any cost and by the end of his term was not shy from pursuing policies that led Netanyahu to fire him and call early elections. Netanyahu offered Lapid the Foreign Ministry after the 2015 elections, and Lapid rejected it. With Netanyahu also serving as Foreign Minister, Lapid has decided instead to play a Shadow Foreign Minister. Netanyahu keeps offering Lapid the portfolio that he has desired since 2013, but Lapid keeps rejecting the offer. Lapid wants to be Prime Minister, but he needs a pathway to get there. He understands that he isn’t going to be able to run for Prime Minister based on his term as Finance Minister and that he doesn’t have the military career or the necessary hawkish views to be a successful Defense Minister. That leaves Foreign Minister, but Lapid understands that his popularity is based on his opposition to Netanyahu. Serving as a Shadow Foreign Minister kills two birds with one stone. He is acting like a Foreign Minister while serving in the opposition. For Lapid Foreign Minister is just not a good enough offer anymore. He wants to run in the next election for Prime Minister, Opposition Leader or bust. Lapid has skillfully outperformed Herzog in the opposition and is viewed by many as the unofficial Opposition Leader in the Knesset. The polls view him as the true alternative to Netanyahu as well. Time is on Lapid’s side. In an average of all 33 polls since the election Yesh Atid has 20.6 seats. Yesh Atid had a 24 KJPA for October and November. Lapid’s party averaged 26 seats in December’s KJPA. Based on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s routine public remarks it is clear that he views Lapid as his true competition. Lapid’s current problem is that even with his success in today’s polls he would not be able to form a coalition because he has not been able to win right-wing voters. His future problem is that a new Labor leader could steal back some of his newest left voters. His previous #2 Shai Piron resigned because the opposition wasn’t challenging enough for him. He understands that he can’t go into the next election with his current #2 Yael German, a former Meretz Herzliya Mayor, and that the spot needs to go to a security figure. It seems doubtful that former military #1s Ashkenazi, Gantz, Yaalon or even Ehud Barak would agree to be Lapid’s #2. There are other security names on the market such as Shaul Mofaz, Dan Halutz, Matan Vilnai, Uzi Dayan or perhaps Yair Naveh, but that won’t cut it because none of them have proven that they carry any significant weight in terms of public opinion. The question remains if Lapid’s biggest challenge moving forward is the lack of a security-minded #2 necessary to crack those right-wing votes or deciding what it is he would actually do differently on a policy level if elected Prime Minister.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is an enigma to many analysts. Despite his rookie backbencher status he was a leading voice in the Likud rebels group that opposed Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Kahlon would cash in on that fame and come out of nowhere to win the Likud MK primary in 2006. He would also serve as Chairman of the Likud Central Committee until his recess from Knesset in 2013. He was by far the most popular minister in Netanyahu’s second term for reducing Israeli cell phone bills. Netanyahu was so pleased with Kahlon that he gave him an additional portfolio. Kahlon held consistent right-wing positions during his ten years as a Likud MK. After a two-year-recess he returned to politics, explained that he had a feud with Netanyahu, and started his own center party. He was able to convince former IDF Major-General Yoav Galant to be his #2 and actually ran in the elections to replace Lapid as Finance Minister. As a Knesset veteran, Kahlon realized that there is no center button in the Knesset, so he branded his center party by taking relatively right views on national security and relatively left views on social issues. He made Herzog’s life difficult by publicly refusing to sit with the Joint List, which was a sound electoral decision for Kulanu. He won ten seats and received exactly what he asked for in the coalition negotiations. His main problem has been that the issues he campaigned on, such as the housing crisis and the dominance of the Israeli bank on consumers, are more complex than the cell phone industry. Kahlon has bought himself time to work on these issues thanks to the biannual budget, and the press routinely views him as the man of reason in Netanyahu’s cabinet. Kahlon’s Kulanu Party is the senior partner in Netanyahu’s coalition government, but they only have two ministers. Kahlon and Galant do not always get along with each other, and other Kulanu MKs have announced or indicated that they will not seek re-election. Even if elections are in 2019, it will be difficult to show progress on the issues on which Kahlon campaigned. It is possible that Kahlon will merge his party back into Likud or run in an alliance with Lapid. My money would be on the former. Kahlon’s biggest problem is that although the press, courts, academia and international community view his comments favorably, his voter base does not. A great deal of his voter base is unhappy with his lack of success in improving the housing market and prefers that he stick to the issues he was elected on. The key for Kahlon will not be his statements on upholding the standing of the courts. The key will be on how his results shape up when elections come around.
Defense Minister Liberman is exactly where he wants to be. He wants to run for Prime Minister after Netanyahu is finished, and his resume to get there is now complete. Two terms as Foreign Minister and one term as Defense Minister is not bad for a guy who entered the Knesset in 1999 as the leader of a 4-MK-list that included two parties. Liberman has had a love-hate relationship with Netanyahu. He has served as confidant, campaigner, and later the PMO’s CEO. He left to create his own party and chose to align himself with Moledet’s Rehavam Ze’evi instead of Likud. Prime Minister Sharon, to make sure he had a majority in his cabinet, would fire Liberman and Benny Elon (Ze’evi’s successor after his assassination) so that he could move forward with the disengagement. Liberman served as the senior coalition partner in Netanyahu’s second term, and the duo ran on a joint list for Netanyahu’s third term. Liberman realized that to become Defense Minister and perhaps Prime Minister he would have to become less right-wing and turn to the center. He attempted to move himself away from the right by disposing of the right flank of Yisrael Beitenu – the former leader of the Likud rebels Uzi Landau, the son of Israel’s most right-wing Prime Minister Yair Shamir, and the religious Zionist settler David Rotem. The result was that Yisrael Beitenu became the biggest loser of the last election dropping from 13 seats to six. Liberman has been a hawk internally, but has maintained a more moderate persona externally. Liberman might have the resume on paper, but the Israeli public does not seem ready to view him as a serious contender for Prime Minister. However, it would not be wise to count him out just yet, because as Defense Minister Liberman is the most senior minister in the current government. Liberman has the opposite plan of Lapid. Lapid is trying to brand himself as the alternative, while Liberman views himself as Netanyahu’s eventual successor. The key for Liberman is to use his position as Defense Minister for people to view him more seriously. He needs to promote externally the influence that he is wielding internally. That could be the difference for him.
Bennett is serving in the typical religious Zionist role as Education Minister, but he is not your typical religious Zionist. Unlike the former NRP leader Zevulun Hammer, who served as Education Minister three times in 1977-1984, 1990-1992, and 1996-1998, Bennett more resembles a nationalist version of Abba Eban, also an “Anglo-Israeli”, who used the Education Ministry (1960-1963) as a stepping stone to become Deputy Prime Minister (1963-1966), Foreign Minister (1966-1974), and a Prime Minister contender. Netanyahu’s former COS has become Haaretz’s poster-boy for everything that is wrong with Israeli politics, and Bennett is taking full advantage of it. It was Bennett who was quoted more often than any other Israeli politician by John Kerry in his recent policy speech, implying that Bennett and people who think like him are a problem. Responding to the opposition’s no-confidence motion on Israel’s failed foreign policy, Bennett gave a 20-minute speech to the Knesset on Monday in which he quoted Friday’s Smith Poll. What some analysts might have missed is Bennett’s statement that according to the poll he actually views himself in the center of public opinion. Bennett claimed that the 39% of the Israeli public that answered that they are in favor of annexing all of the territories to Israel to create one state for two peoples are flanking him on the right. He labeled to the left of him the 30% who favor two states for two peoples, a division based on 1967 lines, and an arrangement where the Temple Mount is under Palestinian sovereignty and the Western Wall is under Israeli sovereignty. Bennett said that he represents the 31% that called for annexing the blocs and went on to describe his vision for annexing Area C. Bennett’s message was that Kerry’s assessment that the solution is an “either-or-scenario” between two states and one state is incorrect, that there is an actual viable third path forward. The question is whether the public agrees with Bennett’s narrative or Kerry’s. If the public, and perhaps the next US administration, decides to adopt Bennett’s narrative, Israel will have its first serious candidate for Prime Minister that wears a yarmulke. If it doesn’t work, Education Minister is not the worst job to fall back on.
Most internal polls are examining the public opinion of the six influencers of the 20th Knesset: Netanyahu, Herzog, Lapid, Kahlon, Liberman and Bennett. The 21st Knesset will look different, but especially after passing the biannual budget, it is time to live in the present and focus on who is influencing right now.
Note: I wrote this before the latest poll.
You can read the latest KJPA below: