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AnalysisThe dishonest politicking has put a new premium on integrity

After a year of political betrayals, mistrust puts party mergers on hold

Israel’s electoral system facilitates infidelity by letting blocs break up easily; with big parties unable to trust those hitching a ride, smaller factions may be left in the cold

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

An election campaign billboard of Tnufa party leader Ofer Shelah, in Tel Aviv on January 17, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An election campaign billboard of Tnufa party leader Ofer Shelah, in Tel Aviv on January 17, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It’s crunch time. Thursday is the final deadline for registering a party slate for the March 23 election. For a long list of aspiring candidates, everything comes down to whether they can wiggle their way into a merger with a larger party over the next day and a half.

Second in drama only to election day, party-slate-closing day will determine what the electoral map will look like when voters go to the polls in seven weeks, plotting out with reasonable confidence where votes may go to waste and where parties may become contenders.

Will Ofer Shelah, whose Hatnufa party got 0.0 percent — yes, 0.0% — in Tuesday’s Channel 13 poll, manage to convince Labor leader Merav Michaeli to merge slates and help ensure he enters the Knesset? And what about Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s The Israelis, for a brief period the great hope of the left, now reduced to 0.9% in Tuesday’s poll?

“To change the government, we must unite today to form one large, strong slate,” Huldai declared on Tuesday, “from Yesh Atid, Labor, Zelekha [who leads the Economic Party], Blue and White, Shelah and The Israelis.”

A noble sentiment, or a desperate one. Unless the polls are wrong, Huldai currently has no other path into the Knesset.

MK Betzalel Smotrich. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

It’s the same story on the right. Will Betzalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism slate (polling at 2%, well below the 3.25% needed to enter the Knesset) finally conclude unity talks with Jewish Home (recently polling at 0.3%) — and perhaps even merge with its more successful sister party Yamina (a comfortable 8%) to form a broad religious-right party?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fearful of losing right-wing votes to small parties that will end up falling below the threshold, is working feverishly to get Smotrich to let the far-right Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party ride on his slate — promising the Religious Zionism chief a cabinet post and even the power to appoint a lawmaker on the Likud slate if he lets Otzma get on board.

Such mergers have been common throughout Israel’s political history and were a regular feature of the last three elections. Likud itself, which translates to “union” or “agglomeration,” was a merger slate cobbled together to help drive Menachem Begin’s Herut party to victory. Labor once ran as “One Israel” together with smaller satellites Gesher and Meimad. More recently Likud itself ran on a shared slate with Yisrael Beytenu under the name “Likud Beytenu.” And more recently still, there was the original Blue and White formed in early 2019, which combined Yesh Atid, Israel Resilience, and the now-defunct Telem.

But this time around, something has gone haywire. Everywhere one turns, the mergers seem stalled. Some slates may still unite by the Thursday midnight deadline, but most won’t. Why? In a word: Integrity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to a Covid-19 vaccination center in Sderot, southern Israel, January 27, 2021. (Liron Moldovan/Pool/Flash90)

Things fall apart

Election law that permits multiple parties to run on one ticket discretely, rather than forcing them to form a unified faction, offers an enormous potential advantage for the parties, especially small ones. It allows them to form what politicians call “technical blocs,” which leaves them the option of splitting back apart once they are safely in the Knesset. It’s a way for small parties to ride together into the Knesset without fear of falling below the electoral threshold of 3.25%. That’s the logic behind the United Torah Judaism alliance that brought together Ashkenazi Haredi slates and behind the union of Arab-majority parties known as the Joint List.

Merging rather than amalgamating into a single party also avoids the various electoral penalties normally associated with splitting from a party, were they to do this after the election. This has become the preferred way for politicians to operate, and how eight parties elected to the Knesset in 2020 had become 13 by the time the dust had settled from all the reshuffling and backstabbing, as some factions split off to join the government.

Take the Labor-Meretz-Gesher list, for example. On January 13, 2020, the left-wing Labor party, then led by Amir Peretz, formed a joint slate with progressive Meretz and Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party.

MK Amir Peretz, leader of the Labor party, right, and Orly Levy, head of the Gesher party, seen at an opening event for the new election headquarters in Tel Aviv, on July 24, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Peretz lauded the alliance of left-wing and Mizrahi political factions, depicting it as a long-overdue social contract between progressives and the marginalized Mizrahi half of Israeli society. He lauded it right up until Levy-Abekasis, who could not have passed the electoral threshold without left-wing votes for her new slate, which ended with seven seats, jumped ship to the right, carrying her Knesset seat with her.

Netanyahu had promised her a cabinet post. She would go on to become Israel’s first-ever “minister of social advancement.”

Levy-Abekasis, who had earlier jumped ship from Yisrael Beytenu — again, without surrendering the Knesset seat bestowed on her by that party’s voters — has become a much-maligned symbol for the new politics of betrayal. But she’s a small example of a much larger shift.

When splitting without electoral penalties is an option, betrayal is everywhere

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who led a 33-seat Blue and White alliance of three merged parties, also broke his solemn vow to his partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, divided their slate, and entered into unity talks with Netanyahu.

Benny Gantz seen during a visit on the Israel-Lebanon border, northern Israel, on November 17, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

So too Amir Peretz, who shortly after the Levy-Abekasis betrayal unceremoniously committed one of his own, dumping ally Meretz to follow Levy-Abekasis and Gantz into the unity government.

It wasn’t just on the left, of course. There was another Peretz elected to the Knesset in March 2020: Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz, then part of the Yamina alliance. When Yamina went to the opposition, Peretz jumped ship and became Netanyahu’s minister of Jerusalem and heritage.

And on and on it goes. When splitting without electoral penalties is an option, betrayal is everywhere.

Faith no more

Labor’s Merav Michaeli hears the pleading of Shelah, Huldai and others to merge with her now-rising slate, but has held back. Smotrich is resisting Netanyahu’s pressure to take on Otzma Yehudit. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid has said openly that he doesn’t see the point of once again carrying other parties into parliament on the strength of his voters, then seeing them join Netanyahu or others in a coalition.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid arrives at the Blue and White party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on election night, March 3, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

They’re all responding to the same simple reality laid bare over the past year: There’s little incentive to ally with another party when the near-universal expectation across all parts of the political spectrum is that one will be betrayed at the first opportunity, even if it does mean losing some support to a rival competing for the same pool of votes.

But whereas Netanyahu was able to woo avowed rivals with promises of sweetheart cabinet gigs in 2020, he may have lost that ability by unabashedly reneging on his solemn and repeated promise of a premiership rotation with Gantz.

“With Netanyahu, you get cash upfront, no credit,” is how one Likud minister put it recently.

But Netanyahu, like Levy-Abekasis, is only a small part of that story. A great many promises had to be broken to forge the Netanyahu-Gantz unity government, perhaps the largest of them Gantz’s own repeated vow not to form such a government. So many promises were broken, in fact, and across such broad swaths of the political spectrum, that no new talk of alliances, commitments or mergers is really possible anymore without each side assuming the other is unreliable.

Merav Michaeli may want Ofer Shelah on her slate, but can he be trusted with a party of his own — with the legal ability to splinter from the Labor slate that got him elected as soon as he sees a political advantage in doing so? She has reportedly offered Shelah a place on Labor’s slate as an individual but without merging her slate with his.

Naftali Bennett visits the Haredi town of Elad, September 6, 2020. (Flash90)

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett has refused to run on a joint slate with Religious Zionism’s Smotrich for the same reason. Smotrich has committed publicly to support Netanyahu for prime minister after the election. Bennett wants flexibility: the flexibility to recommend himself for prime minister, or at least to have the leverage over Netanyahu of the uncertainty over whether he’ll recommend him. Why would Bennett help shepherd a Netanyahu supporter into the Knesset?

A year of unusually dishonest politicking, even by Israeli standards, has put a new premium on integrity. One clear example: Michaeli’s surprising resuscitation of the Labor party. Michaeli brought one major argument to her run for party leader: While Labor’s Peretz and Itzik Shmuli sat in Netanyahu’s cabinet, she rebelled, effectively caucused with the opposition over the past year, and railed constantly against the government and her own party’s enablers of that government.

When she took over Labor, that simple fact, that clinging to old promises — her primary campaign motto was “Truth in politics” — drove The Israelis and Tnufa into the dust and brought well over 100,000 votes (according to polls thus far) back to Labor’s ranks.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli seen during a first meeting of the Labor party’s newly elected Knesset slate after party primaries, in Tel Aviv on February 2, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has reportedly decided to once again save Levy-Abekasis from political oblivion by placing her on Likud’s list in the coming race. That decision caught many by surprise. It’s an unexpected show of generosity for a politician that polls suggest will bring no voters at all to Likud’s election bid.

But Netanyahu doesn’t need Levy-Abekasis to sway voters. He needs her as an example of the reliability of his gratitude when he inevitably tries to woo future defectors from the other side of the aisle.

Israeli electoral politics are undergoing an unexpected cleansing. A year of unrelenting maneuvering and betrayals has had the effect of trammeling the merger-playing field, where integrity is vital. If the smaller parties want a chance of merging and making it into the Knesset, “trust me” may not cut it anymore.

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