Tel Aviv — For most of the last decade, politicians on Israel’s center-left have been handicapped at the ballot box by infighting and party fragmentation.
But as the current election season gathers steam with a string of primary elections starting this week, it appears that it is parties on Israel’s right that are the ones headed toward potential implosion as they struggle with personal grudge matches, scandal and factionalism.
“There is disarray on the right,” said Stephan Miller, an Israeli American public opinion expert. “We’re in this internal [party politics] campaign mode, and what we’re seeing is not just controlled chaos. It’s just chaos.”
Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party that has been a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has split into two factions over the inability of two of its party leaders to work together. The crisis reached a peak on Tuesday when party leader Ariyeh Deri tendered a resignation after a years-old recording surfaced in which Shas’ former spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, criticizes Deri for corruption and disloyalty.
Yisrael Beitenu, the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has become embroiled in a wide-ranging corruption scandal as the police investigate senior party politicians for alleged schemes of bribe taking and kickbacks.
And Netanyahu’s Likud, which holds a primary vote for party leader and the parliamentary slate this week, has been struggling with spats over procedural issues for the election, an exodus of party stars and a lackluster preliminary campaign with no new candidates.
To be sure, recent political polls suggest that much of Israeli public’s sentiment lies on the center-right, and Netanyahu could still find himself re-elected to a fourth term at the helm of a coalition with right-wing and religious parties. But dominance of government by Likud and the right has left those parties with few fresh ideas and too much corruption, said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political blogger and analyst.
“It happens to everyone who is in government too long,” Schneider said. Earlier, she wrote in a Facebook post, “At this stage, you get the impression that all [Labor party leader] Isaac Herzog has to do is to hope that things will continue this way until March 17. The more splintering, disputes, anger and attrition there is among the span of right-wing parties — and he can allow his strategists to go home. ‘Laissez-faire’ might clash with [Labor’s] economic doctrine, but it might fit the party’s campaign now.”
In two separate messages urging Likud members to vote in the primary, the party looked and sounded tired. “The March 17 elections are a critical moment for the State of Israel. It’s important that we arrive, united as one person. Amid all of the challenges faced by the state, there’s only one force that can lead the country: One large Likud, against all of the left.”
But Likud has been hemorrhaging prominent politicians. Moshe Kahlon, a party star who served as communications minister in the previous government, fled the party, established his own, and started attacking Netanyahu on both the economy and foreign policy. Gideon Saar resigned from the Interior Ministry and is sitting out the election. And Danny Dayan, a former leader of the settler’s council, has joined Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party.
“I am very worried that we are liable to collapse in this election,” said Shlomo Madmon, a longtime Likud Central Committee member who complained that the party has become too “extremist” and “messianic.”
“We are in the gas stations, in the malls, in the schools, and we hear the sentiment of the people,” he continued. “They are depressed. What will Bibi sell? That kids are moving abroad. That housing prices are in the sky and kids are moving back in with their parents.”
The party has spent the last few weeks wrangling over the date of the primaries, allegations that Netanyahu misused party money, and over his control over the party list.
Many observers contend that the party leadership has moved to the right of Netanyahu. Public opinion expert Miller said the percentage of votes received by Danny Danon, who is challenging the prime minister for the party leadership, and the success of Netanyahu’s allies in the party primaries, will serve as a litmus test of Likud enthusiasm for the prime minister’s leadership. Turnout, which was 60 percent in 2013, will be another indicator.
“The Likud has become very stale; there’s nothing fresh about it,” said Mitchell Barak, the head of Kivun Global Research. “It’s become a second-class party to that of Bennett. Bennett has outsmarted Netanyahu in building a [candidate] list. He’s just as extreme, but he’s able to attract talent who are just as desirable to the right-of-center public.”
Meanwhile, Shas looks like it is in worse condition than Likud. Several weeks ago, former party leader Eli Yishai resigned because of a personal spat with Deri, who resumed control over the party after being sentenced to jail for corruption. The spat apparently led to the leak of a recording of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in which the deceased Shas leader criticizes Deri.
The recording prompted Deri and the entire Shas parliament faction to resign from the Knesset, while Yishai, who wants to establish a rival party, denied responsibility for the leak. The split in Shas means that both Sephardic ultra-Orthodox parties (the other being Ha’am Itanu) are in danger of not securing the minimum votes required for a seat in parliament; if that occurred hundreds of thousand of votes for right-wing parties could be squandered. Its factionalism also threatens low voter turnout by demoralizing Shas’ constituency, said Roei Lachmanovich, a former political aide to Yishai.
“No one is dealing with the election campaign. We haven’t heard anything about the economy, medicine or foreign policy. They’re involved in internal fights,” he said, noting that a Shas party led by Deri could sit in a coalition led by dovish parties. “The person that needs to be worried about this is Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Though Yisrael Beiteinu isn’t suffering from infighting, the party of Avigdor Lieberman got hit with a corruption investigation revealed last week that covers a deputy minister, a former cabinet minister, mayors and a former Jerusalem mayoral candidate. Lieberman is currently not under investigation.
The police investigation sounds like a replay of the 2009 campaign, when it was revealed that authorities had launched an inquiry into Lieberman’s dealings. Lieberman was cleared, though he was able to use the investigation five years ago as a rallying cry for supporters. The foreign minister is trying to do the same now, alleging a conspiracy against the party.
“This is very well-timed and well-conceived move,” he said of the probe. “This is an investigation that is completely coordinated with the election campaign.”
Analysts believe that even though he hasn’t been named, the inquiry could threaten the party in the vote.
“This is a corruption scandal that the party has yet to see: it’s widespread,” Miller said. “The police have multiple state witnesses. I imagine that they are not stopping with just a parliament member or a minister. If there’s enough witnesses, this could be the downfall of Lieberman,” said Miller. “This is a difficult story to overcome. In the past, victimhood helped him to gain votes, but there’s no indication that’s the case now.”