The upcoming elections are set to be one of the most dramatic in Israel’s history, with much of the drama focusing on small business owners.

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This was made painfully clear last week, when Lahav, the Israeli association of small businesses, organized a demonstration in support of the owners of a Tel Aviv falafel stand who were fined for opening their business in defiance of the latest lockdown restrictions.

As has become the norm, the protesters blocked roads and organized a rally in protest of low levels of government support. This has become an almost routine sight in Israel since the onset of the pandemic. Business owners, particularly in those industries which have been hit hardest by the lockdown, have periodically taken to the streets to demand the government do more to help them, with limited success so far.

Protests outside the Parliament building on March 30, 2020, as the Knesset was in the middle of deciding on new lockdown measures. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The financial distress has caused many business owners to become disillusioned with the government, which they feel has been consistently making decisions which are out of touch with the reality on the ground.

“This lockdown that they’ve decided on is a death sentence, how can they not see that?” said Na’ama Tzikiyahu, one of the protesters, who owns a restaurant in Modi’in. “We don’t want empathy, we want the government to do more to help us through this crisis. The government takes 50% of our income, so the least they can do is reduce taxes while it orders us to shut down for months.”

The politicians are coming

But last week, something changed. For the first time, the small business owners’ protest managed to attract three new and aspiring politicians, signaling the opening shot for a race to ensure this economic sector’s vote in the upcoming elections.

The first two of these politicians are Roi Cohen, head of Lahav, and Yaron Zalicha, an economist who has recently announced his intention to run for a seat in the Knesset. Both Cohen and Zalicha are considered to be representatives of a moderate, center-left agenda, calling mainly for a boost in fiscal support for business owners. Cohen arrived at the protest as one of the organizers. Zalicha, on the other hand, was the first politician to speak at a small business owner rally.

On the other side of the political spectrum was Abir Karah, one of the founders of the “Shulman’s protests”- a loosely organized group founded to represent self-employed workers in face of the coronavirus restrictions. Karah, as opposed to the other two aspiring politicians who attended the rally, is considered to be rooted in the deep right. He is known to have connections with the Likud member Minister of Finance Israel Katz, and has made himself seen in the company of Gideon Sa’ar, who is attempting to challenge Netanyahu’s position as leader of mainstream right wing in Israel.

Karah is also being courted by Netanyahu’s Likud party. Earlier this week, recordings of the prime minister attempting to recruit Karah to his party were leaked to the press, in which Netanyahu can be heard saying that he would have introduced labor reforms which would “sterilize” unions but “lacks the votes,” and that unions in general and the Histadrut in particular “have no place in a democracy.”

12 seats in the Knesset

All three candidates seem to recognize the small business owners as a considerable political asset,perhaps even the most powerful ticket into the next Knesset. All three of them seem to be attempting to position themselves as the political representatives of the small business owners, a title that might allow them to reach a deal with one of the larger parties, in return for a relatively high-up position.

They may, of course, be targeting Israel’s small business owners as their direct electorate. There are approximately 280,000 registered self-employed workers in Israel, on top of 160,000 small business owners. The support of these 440,000 votes would translate into 12 seats in the Knesset, and would position the lucky candidate as one of the strongest actors in parliament.

This, however, seems unlikely to be the goal that any of the three candidates had in mind when attending last week’s rally. Israel’s small business owners have never been a politically organized group in the past. Any politician would find it exceedingly difficult to break traditional political affiliations, and rally all 440,000 around his own party.

It seems far more likely that what stands behind the courting of Israel’s small business owners is a strategy similar to that which drove Orly Levi -Abekasis to join the Labor party in the run up to the last elections.

Levi joined the Labor party with the promise of attracting the Mizrachi vote, and broadening the party’s traditionally Ashkenazi and middle class voter base. Her image as a candidate who represents a wider electorate than the one historically associated with the Labor Party was what made her an attractive candidate for a political union. The results in terms of votes were disappointing – Levi famously raised the labor party’s tally by only 76 votes in Beit She’an, her hometown, which she was expected to sweep.

For Levi, on the other hand, the deal was fairly sweet: after securing a seat she would otherwise never have won, she switched her political allegiance and defected from the Labor Party together with her own small party, Gesher.

It seems likely that last week’s protest was the first move in a race between the three aspiring candidates to consolidate their image as representatives of a large sector of the Israeli electorate. Whether they will manage to secure many votes on the basis of this remains to be seen, but they will probably attempt to seem as if they can, and by doing so earn a relatively senior position in one of the larger parties before the final call on the 3rd of February. Until then, they will do their best to appear at each and every one of the many protests organized by small business owners.