13 parties, at most, seen with chances to win Knesset seats

39 parties register for elections; Jewish Home spurns Smotrich, will back Yamina

Final merger on religious right falls through: Hagit Moshe springs last-minute surprise as deadline passes for submission of slates for March 23 vote, Israel’s fourth in two years

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Hagit Moshe, pictured after she was declared the winner in elections for leadership of the Jewish Home party, January 19, 2021. (YouTube)
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Hagit Moshe, pictured after she was declared the winner in elections for leadership of the Jewish Home party, January 19, 2021. (YouTube)

Thirty-nine parties registered their candidate lists for the March 23 elections by the Thursday night deadline, with the Jewish Home party causing a last-minute surprise by announcing that it would neither join the hardline joint slate of national religious parties nor run independently but would instead throw its support behind Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party.

Of the 39 competing parties, no more than 13 are seen as having realistic chances of winning seats in the 24th Knesset. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is bidding to extend his unprecedented 12 consecutive years as prime minister in Israel’s fourth election in two years, and is facing challenges principally from the centrist Yesh Atid, the right-wing Yamina, and the New Hope party founded in December by former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar. (Israel has never had a single-party government; a coalition must win the support of at least 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset to take office.)

Jewish Home’s leader Hagit Moshe had been urged by Netanyahu to merge with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism alliance, which brought in the far-right Otzma Yehudit and anti-LGBT Noam parties on Wednesday. But Moshe said she had grown frustrated with Smotrich’s negotiating tactics in recent days, and ultimately signed an agreement with Bennett, under which she will be given a ministerial post in the next coalition if Yamina is a member.

With Jewish Home being the most moderate of the four self-identifying national religious parties, Moshe’s decision leaves Smotrich allied only with the extremist Otzma Yehudit and Noam after saying for weeks that he planned on uniting the national religious camp into one diverse list.

Yamina’s Bezalel Smotrich and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (File; courtesy)

The last time Otzma Yehudit ran with Smotrich, in 2019, the list included Jewish Home, and garnered five seats, just above the 3.25% electoral threshold. A Tuesday poll suggested the Smotrich-led alliance could win six seats in March, but that was predicated on Jewish Home joining the slate.

Soon after announcing her support for Bennett’s Yamina, Moshe said she backed Netanyahu as prime minister. She later clarified that it was for Bennett to determine strategy; Bennett has said he is seeking the prime ministership himself.

With the deadline for the parties to present their lists now closed, no more than 13 parties are seen seriously contending for Knesset seats: Netanyahu’s Likud; Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid; Sa’ar’s New Hope; Bennett’s Yamina; the Joint List of Arab-dominated parties; the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties; Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu; Merav Michaeli’s Labor; Nitzan Horowitz’s Meretz; Benny Gantz’s Blue and White; Abbas Mansour’s Ra’am, which has split from the Joint List, and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, with Yaron Zelekha’s Economy Party an outside bet according to the polls.

Party leaders ahead of the 2021 elections (from left): Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gideon Sa’ar, Benny Gantz (Courtesy)

The final days before the deadline saw feverish merger negotiations and some parties abandoning their Knesset bids.

Michaeli chose not to include ex-Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah’s Tnufa or Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s The Israelis on Labor’s slate, and both men abandoned their campaigns.

Gantz, who is barely clearing the threshold in recent polls, failed to draw any merger partners but has vowed to run “till the end.”

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party holds a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Ra’am’s Mansour defied criticism and broke away from the Joint List, a move that seems certain to weaken the Joint List — thus benefiting Netanyahu — and could see Ra’am fall below the threshold.

Orly Levy-Abekasis gives a speech during a Labor-Gesher-Meretz campaign event in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Netanyahu gave Orly Levy-Abekasis, a minister in the outgoing coalition, the safe slot of 26th on Likud’s slate, having earlier Thursday placed Likud’s first-ever Muslim candidate, school principal Nail Zoabi, in the 39th slot.

Parties cannot change their Knesset slates now that the deadline has passed, but they can withdraw from the election altogether.

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