Arab, religious parties last of record-high 47 slates to register for elections
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Campaign notebook375 million ballot slips to be printed

Arab, religious parties last of record-high 47 slates to register for elections

Procession of candidates come before Central Elections Committee amid flurry of last-minute mergers and splits; Pirate party will recommend ‘the internet’ as Israel’s next PM

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Tzomet party head MK Oren Hazan takes a selfie as he present his party list at the Central Elections Committee, on February 21, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Tzomet party head MK Oren Hazan takes a selfie as he present his party list at the Central Elections Committee, on February 21, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two Arab-Israeli parties, a union of religious-Zionist factions and the ultra-Orthodox Shas registered their electoral slates with the Central Elections Committee minutes before the midnight deadline on Thursday-Friday, wrapping up two long days in which a record 47 parties filed to participate in the elections.

According to Israeli election law, Thursday was the last day for parties to register their slates, 55 days before the April 9 ballot. Party representatives who entered the Knesset, where the election committee is based, by 10 p.m., were allowed to complete negotiations until midnight, when the parliament building was officially locked to the public until after the national ballot.

Starting on Wednesday morning, parties presented their lists to the committee’s chair, Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer, one by one, filing details on each candidate and requesting a letter or letters from the Hebrew alphabet that will represent them on ballot slips come April.

In an antiquated and at-times bizarre process, new parties compete for the free letters not already in use by existing parties, which are given out on a first come, first served basis. The last of the parties to register are therefore forced to take obscure pairings of letters that make little sense and have no relation to their party name.

The discussions over the letters are also significant, given that each paper ballot slip for each party must be printed as many times as there are eligible voters, with extras printed to make sure no one is prevented from voting for their preferred party. With approximately 6,300,000 Israelis eligible to vote, the spokesperson for the Central Elections Committee said that some eight million slips would be printed for each party. And with 47 slates, that’s a whopping total of 376 million ballot slips to be printed.

The record number of slates represents almost double the 24 parties that ran in 2015 and outdid 2013’s then-record of 34.

The committee finally closed its doors at 11:59 p.m. as the final parties completed the registration process, following a tense few hours that saw last-minute negotiations to finalize candidate lists. Amid the flurry of mergers and talks of possible alliances, one veteran Central Elections Committee official told The Times of Israel that this year’s registration “felt like the most tense it’s ever been.”

MKs Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi react after submitting a joint list of candidates from their Hadash and Ta’al parties to the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset on February 21, 2019. (Hadash)

Signaling the end of the Joint (Arab) List union of Arab-Israeli parties, which ran in the 2015 elections, the mixed Arab-Jewish Hadash party reached an agreement Thursday afternoon with veteran MK Ahmad Tibi’s Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al) to run on a joint slate, while Ra’am and Balad reached their own deal to run on a separate ticket.

In 2015, these four parties, running together as the Joint List, won 13 seats to become one of the largest factions in the opposition. MK Masud Ganaim from the United Arab List told The Times of Israel that negotiations to maintain the united slate of all Arab-Israeli parties continued until the final moments before the deadline, but ultimately fell short.

After Hadash-Ta’al presented their slate, the new and controversial union between the Jewish Home, National Union and extremist Otzma Yehudit parties filed their candidate list. Their merger, announced Wednesday, followed an excruciating three-day negotiation to try to bring as many right-wing parties into the same tent, and was conveniently named the “United Right-Wing Parties.”

While Jewish Home (which had already merged with National Union) and Otzma Yehudit may not have had enough support to enter the Knesset separately, now united, the two small parties will likely cross the electoral threshold and capture several seats for the right-wing bloc.

After bringing in the Kahanist extremists of Otzma Yehudit at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s urging, representatives of the new religious-Zionist joint list spent much of Thursday in talks to try to also bring aboard former Shas leader Eli Yishai’s far-right Yachad party.

Yishai demanded the number nine slot on the list as well as a promise to be made a minister if the party was given three ministerial posts. In return, Jewish Home wanted an endorsement letter from Yachad’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Eli Mazuz, which they estimated could bring them an additional 10,000 votes from among his flock — the Tunisian Jewish community in Israel.

Yachad party chairman Eli Yishai addresses a conference in Jerusalem on February 12, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But Mazuz said he would only write such a letter if Jewish Home allowed Yishai to split from the joint party after elections, even if he was appointed a minster.

After talks broke down and the United Right-Wing Parties registered without him, Yishai, speaking to journalists, accused Shas of blocking the deal.

“They told Netanyahu that they would not agree to me being made a minister,” he said. “That’s why the whole thing broke down.”

In 2015, Yachad gained 124,984 votes but failed to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. This year, it will again run on its own.

After registering their joint list with Otzma Yehudit, the chairs of Jewish Home and National Union, Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, respectively, said they believed they had enough nationwide support to enter the Knesset even without Yishai.

“We have worked extremely hard to create this union and we will continue the work now,” Peretz said. “I’m sure it will pay off.”

Presenting its Knesset slate to the Central Elections Committee earlier Thursday evening, the Likud party revealed a creative solution to potential legal problems created by a political deal it made with the Jewish Home party in order to persuade it to merge with Otzma Yehudit.

Netanyahu promised to give Jewish Home 28th spot on Likud’s slate, a move which has faced legal challenges from both inside and outside his party, with activists and legal experts questioning the legitimacy of a political party promising to hand over its votes to a candidate of a different party.

Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party outside the Central Elections Committee on February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an effort to sidestep those challenges, Likud announced that it will run on a joint ticket with the defunct Achi party, which was founded in the 1990s by former minister Effie Eitam and has been out of the Knesset since 2009. Jewish Home MK Eli Ben Dahan, who is to be given the 28th spot on Likud’s slate, will now run as the solitary member of Achi, alongside Likud.

A Likud party official told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu was behind the move. “He’s the magician, no?” the official quipped, evoking a nickname that the prime minister earned long ago with his crafty politicking.

Before Likud, the newly formed Blue and White party presented its joint slate, which combines Israel Resilience and Yesh Atid candidates.

“We are delighted to present here a chance for change,” said party number nine Yoaz Hendel. “Our party has people from the right and left but we are coming together to work for the public, not dividing it. With this great list we will form the government.”

Former IDF major-general Orna Barbivai, number 10 on the slate, said that the party will “stand above the petty politics of others. We represent something bigger.”

The Blue and White party was formed in the small hours of Thursday after marathon negotiations between Israel Resilience chair Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

Under the merger agreement, Yesh Atid candidates fill 13 of the first 30 slots, Israel Resilience gets 12, and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party, which merged with Israel Resilience last month, has four slots. Ex-IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who joined the party Wednesday night, is in the fourth spot on the slate.

Of the candidates occupying the Blue and White party’s first four slots, only Lapid is not a former head of the military.

According to the unity agreement, if the party is tasked with forming the government after elections, Gantz and Lapid will rotate the premiership, with Gantz taking the post for the first two and a half years. During that time, Lapid will serve as foreign minister and Ya’alon will head the Defense Ministry. Lapid would then take over as prime minister from Gantz, who in turn would become defense minister. It was not clear from reports if Ya’alon would then be appointed foreign minister or receive another role.

Candidates Yoaz Hendel, Orna Barbivai and Orit Farkash Hacohen of the Blue and White party pose outside the Central Elections Committee (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Filing the slate with the committee, the party’s three representatives — Hendel of Israel Resilience, Barbivai of Yesh Atid, and Orit Farkash Hacohen of Telem — were initially told that only two of them could enter the hall. Eventually, explaining that the party was a merger of three separate factions, all three candidates were allowed in.

The deal between Gantz and Lapid came hours after MK Orly Levy-Abekasis announced that her Gesher party would run alone in the upcoming elections, having failed to reach a merger agreement with Israel Resilience.

Presenting Gesher’s independent candidate slate to the Central Elections Committee, Levy-Abekasis said that in the face of polls showing it may not pass the electoral threshold, her party would be “the surprise of these elections.”

According to Levy-Abekasis, a former Yisrael Beytenu MK, Gesher will succeed in entering the Knesset, “because there is need for a party that knows about and cares about the challenges facing people. ​We will be here for the people who need it.”

Levy-Abekasis said negotiations with Gantz fell through despite the sides having reached written agreements that included Israel Resilience adopting Gesher’s socioeconomic platform as one of the alliance’s main campaign planks, as well as determining which spots on a unified list her party members would receive.

“We are not in anyone’s pockets. Gesher will follow its own path,” she vowed. “I was courted by different parties for many months, especially Israel Resilience. I gave it a chance, I wanted to try.”

The only incumbent parties to file slates on Wednesday were the New Right, Yisrael Beytenu and United Torah Judaism.

One of the first to arrive on Thursday were representatives of the Pirate party, which seeks to promote a form of direct democracy via internet referendums. Party chairman Ohad Shem Tov, decked in a tricorn hat, said that if elected to the Knesset, his party would recommend “the internet” as prime minister — not Netanyahu or Gantz.

Another party taking a lighter approach to the elections was that of former YouTube star Semeon Grafman, which is called “Betach – Bitachon Chevrati,” meaning “Social security.” It requested to be represented on ballot slips by the Hebrew letters פק, read phonetically as “fuck.”

“It sounds better in English,” Grafman told Supreme Court Justice Melcer, the committee chair.

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