Last Thursday, Haaretz published its most recent opinion poll, in which it checked what the election results would be if held today, should Moshe Kahlon, Gideon Sa’ar and former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi decide to run together in a single list (to be referred to in this article as KSA).
The results of the poll were that such a list would beat the Likud under Netanyahu (only just) and that a Center coalition, including KSA, the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, but without the Likud, Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu, would have a comfortable majority. The Likud, Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu would together lose seven seats.
If the KSA potential were to be realized, it would be a right-of-center party. Two of its leaders would be Likud refugees – ambitious Likud politicians with leadership aspirations, viewed by Netanyahu as potential rivals to be neutralized at any cost. Ashkenazi has so far refrained from making any political statements, but is generally viewed as a Labor hawk, who appears to be wary of trying to penetrate the Labor leadership hornet’s nest.
Should KSA materialize, it will not be the first time that a new list, based on a combination of former Likudniks and Laborites, plus additional centrist figures, entered the scene in a storm. Some of these lists did impressively well in their first elections, but none survived more than two terms.
All the previous lists of this nature – Dash, formed in 1977 toward the elections to the 9th Knesset, the Center Party, formed in 1999 toward the elections to the 15th Knesset and Kadima, formed in 2005 in the course of the 16th Knesset, were all headed initially by former generals: former chief of staff Yigal Yadin in the case of Dash, Yitzhak Mordechai in the case of the Center Party and Ariel Sharon in the case of Kadima.
Dash did extremely well in the 1977 elections (the election of the Upheaval) with 15 Knesset seats, but soon fell apart because Menachem Begin was not dependent on it to form his first coalition, and Yadin was a total novice at politics. The Center Party received only six seats in the 1999 elections, and though it joined the Barak government after the elections, it disintegrated soon after Barak was replaced by Sharon in 2001. Kadima inherited from the Likud the government formed by Sharon in 2003 (when he was still leader of the Likud), and then proceeded to form another government, under Ehud Olmert, after Sharon suffered a stroke.
We do not know what would have transpired had Sharon not suffered a stroke in January 2006, or had recuperated from it, and if Olmert had not become involved in petty corruption and been forced to resign.
Even though under Tzipi Livni Kadima gained 28 Knesset seats in the elections to the 18th Knesset in 2009 compared to the Likud’s 27, it was Netanyahu who formed the government, while Kadima remained in opposition. In the elections to the 19th Knesset it received only two seats.
While these three historical parties were all formed as an alternative to the two main Israeli parties – the Likud and Labor – they were not cohesive enough to survive the vicissitudes of Israeli politics, though under different conjunctural circumstances at least Dash and Kadima might have survived.
It is, of course, impossible to predict what chances KSA has to succeed, if indeed it crystallizes into a list, and if it does, whether it will place the right person at its head. It is generally believed that one of the reasons for the rapid downfall of the Center Party was Mordechai, who was chosen as the party’s leader not because he was thought to be the best choice – Amnon Lipkin Shahak (another former chief of staff) was the preferred candidate – but because of the ego games he played.
Within less than a year Mordechai resigned from Barak’s government as a result of allegations of sexual harassment, for which he was eventually charged and convicted, and which put an end to his political career.
At the moment the KSA is merely a promising concept, which seems to offer the only viable alternative to Netanyahu and a Likud that has lost most of its liberals, who have been replaced by a bunch of populist provocateurs who prefer confrontational politics to the search for compromise.
It is clear that the majority of the Israeli public today is not ready for a predominantly secular, left-of-center alternative, and that the triumvirate Kahlon/Sa’ar/ Ashkenazi is more attractive than former television presenter Yair Lapid – a handsome face with a bloated ego, who lacks depth and consistency and who seems devoted these days to pretending to be someone he isn’t (it seems to be Purim every day for him).
KSA also has the advantage of its three potential leaders being half Ashkenazi and half Mizrahi (Sa’ar is Ashkenazi, Kahlon is a Mizrahi, while Ashkenazi’s father came from Bulgaria and his mother from Syria).
Insofar as many of the Mizrahim in today’s Likud – headed by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev – seem intent on radicalizing the ethnic divide in Israel without Netanyahu intervening, KSA is more likely to seek to moderate it.
Of course, KSA might never actually take shape. Ashkenazi might choose some other path into politics, if indeed he finally decides to jump into the boiling political waters. Netanyahu, who has read the results of the opinion poll just like the rest of us, might decide to try and entice Kahlon and Sa’ar back to the Likud (Sa’ar is still formally a member), though it is difficult to imagine him actually managing to do so.
While some people in the Labor Party seem to want Ashkenazi to join the party, it is unlikely that he will be interested unless he is invited to lead the party, which is quite unlikely to happen. In general, recent opinion polls show Labor losing more than a third of its seats, whether or not KSA crystallizes into a list that will run in the next elections. It is Yesh Atid that will gain most should KSA fail to materialize, but in this case the Likud is still likely to preserve its primacy.
Of course, all this is speculation.
At the moment, despite the decline in Netanyahu’s popularity, there is no reason to doubt that the next elections will take place in time – in another three to three-and-a-half years. In the meantime much can change in terms of whether the governments finds a solution to the current wave of Palestinian terrorism, whether quiet is maintained on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Gaza, whether the Syrian mess will be resolved, how Europe will deal with the threats of Islamic State and the flood of refugees, who is elected president in the US, how the Israeli economy will fare, whether Israel’s internal confrontational politics will continue to radicalize over ethnic and religious issues, and along the Right/Left schism (a partial list).
No matter what one thinks of Israeli politics, they are certainly never dull, and even though one is inclined to feel that “plus ça change, plus ça la même chose” (the more things change, the more everything remains the same) history teaches us that nothing is permanent, even in Israeli politics.
The writer is a political scientist, and a retired Knesset employee.