The candidates’ debate
On Thursday, leaders of eight parties participated in a televised debate. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac (“Bougie”) Herzog, Labor Party chair and opposition leader, chose not to participate. Yaacov Litzman, head of United Torah Judaism (UTJ) was also not present.
The format pitted individual candidates against one another, and economic issues and the peace process, rather than Iran, dominated the discussion.
Six days until Netanyahu’s speech to Congress
On Saturday evening, Likud released a new advertisement comparing Netanyahu’s upcoming address to Congress with the U.S. State Department’s opposition to Israel’s 1948 independence declaration. The ad asks: “Would we be here today if Ben-Gurion had not done the right thing?” and ends with the slogan, “Only the Likud. Only Netanyahu.”
In an accompanying Facebook post, Netanyahu defended his upcoming address, writing, “Congress is the only place where a bad deal can be stopped. It is the right and essential thing to do to safeguard Israel’s security and existence.”
On Tuesday, Herzog revealed that he would not travel to Washington for next week’s AIPAC conference, stating that “[N]o Israeli leader would ever accept a nuclear Iran. The way to deal with it—that’s where I differ from Prime Minister Netanyahu.” Bennett announced he would accompany the prime minister to Washington, saying that when it comes to Iran, “there is no right or left. When Iran is edging closer to acquiring nuclear weapons under the sponsorship of world powers, we have no time for politics.” Bennett described the speech as “the last chance we have to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” and urged Herzog and the other party leaders to join the trip because “now is the time for unity.”
Comptroller housing report
On Wednesday, the state comptroller released a report on Israel’s housing crisis. The report chronicled the failure of Israeli governments dating back to 2006 to address the housing problem, it found many of the problems occurred after 2009, the start of Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister.
Netanyahu vowed to address the report’s recommendations after the elections, tweeting that “We’re taking about housing prices and cost of living. I do not forget about life itself, living. The greatest challenge standing before us and our lives as Israeli citizens and of this state is the threat of Iran being armed with a nuclear weapon.” Herzog in turn accused the prime minister of engaging in fear-mongering to win support.
Earlier in the week, several candidates discussed their plans to address the housing crisis at the Israel Real Estate and Infrastructure Conference. Herzog discussed his four-point plan to solve the crisis.
Moshe Kahlon, Kulanu’s founder and chairman, said that he would “need 15 Knesset seats to solve the housing problem,” and pledged to break up the Israel Land Authority (ILA) after the new government is formed. Kahlon also stated his intention to helm the finance ministry, adding, “[R]egardless of what ministry I’m in, I want the Ministry of the Interior Planning Administration consolidated with the ILA, and I want to be in charge of it. Without that, I won’t enter the government.”
Housing Minister Uri Ariel, currently second on the Jewish Home Party’s candidate list, responded that Kahlon’s plans “would bring chaos.” Ariel defended his record against allegations that he allocated too many resources to projects on the opposite side of the Green Line.
Shifting campaign strategies
On Wednesday, the Zionist Union criticized Yesh Atid for the first time in this campaign. A senior Zionist Union member told Haaretz that in order to expand their mandate by two to three seats, “these votes can only come from Yesh Atid.”
The Zionist Union sought to portray Herzog as a strong leader, with a new ad praising his service as an officer in the 8200 Intelligence Corps (SIGINT) unit.
On Friday, Kulanu released a new ad featuring Michael Oren, former ambassador to Washington. In a parody of the popular TV show “House of Cards,” Oren urged voters who are tired of “dirty politics” to vote for Kulanu.
Coalition rumor mill
On Monday, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid refused to rule out the possibility of joining a coalition with Likud. Shas’s Chairman Aryeh Deri announced on Monday that he preferred Netanyahu to lead the next government, “as this is the natural choice of his electorate,” but stipulated that Shas would only join a coalition that supported the party’s social priorities, including higher minimum wages and lowering the value-added taxes.
MK Ahmed Tibi, the fourth candidate on the Joint List of Arab parties, told Haaretz Monday that Joint List candidates would not join the next coalition “as long as the occupation continues.”
On Thursday, an editorial in Hamevaser, a prominent Haredi newspaper, criticized Netanyahu and argued that Herzog is “not a viable alternative,” because in the previous Knesset he supported laws deemed “anti-religious” by the Haredi community.
The Jewish Home Party and Israel’s LGBT community
Last Saturday, in response to a Bennett’s Facebook post from Bennett expressing his appreciation and love for the Israeli Defense Forces, activists posted photos of gay servicemen and women, asking if Bennett appreciated them as well. On Sunday, Bezalel Smotrich, ninth on the Jewish Home Party’s list, campaigned at a high school where he was asked about an anti-gay march he organized in 2006. Smotrich said that “A state may determine what is a normal family unit . . . Every person has the right to be abnormal at home, but he can’t ask of me as a state to see the idea as normal.” Students in the audience interrupted the event with criticism, and the issue provoked violence last week at a campaign event in Haifa.
Other election news
In an interview Saturday, Bennett warned voters that the Jewish Home Party would be in the opposition without winning at least 15 or 16 seats, and that this “would bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2017.”
On Thursday, a group of senior rabbis from the religious Zionist movement published an open letter, withdrawing their support from the Jewish Home in favor of Yachad.
Meretz revealed its diplomatic platform this week, including support for a future peace deal based on the principle of two states to be implemented in accordance with a regional plan consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative. The platform also called for a plan to gradually remove Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
[The resignation of assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell] is surprising news, which seems to have caught everyone off guard. He doesn’t appear to have shared this news with his ambassadors, who were in Washington last week for a global chiefs of mission conference. His deputy is also slated to retire soon, which raises question of near term leadership on European policy at a time of challenges there.
[Wess] Mitchell was a strong supporter of NATO, particularly in Eastern Europe where he will be sorely missed. His departure comes follows the resignation of senior Pentagon officials – Robert Karem and Tom Goffus – working on NATO along with Secretary Mattis. Without this pro-alliance caucus, NATO is now more vulnerable than at any time since the beginning of the Trump administration.