Likud official: 'We critically hurt the anti-Netanyahu bloc'

Center-left fractures as Huldai, Shelah drop out of elections ahead of deadline

Meanwhile, Labor, Meretz and Yaron Zelekha’s party confirm separate runs and Ra’am splits from Joint List Arab alliance, underscoring a splintered anti-Netanyahu camp

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai holds a press conference at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, on January 24, 2021 in Tel Aviv. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai holds a press conference at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, on January 24, 2021 in Tel Aviv. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Several center-left parties dropped out of the Knesset race Thursday, while others confirmed separate runs, underscoring how fractured the camp trying to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ahead of the March 23 elections.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said he was quitting the race after failing to agree on a merger with Labor ahead of the evening’s deadline to file party rosters, completing a stunning downfall for his The Israelis party that was predicted to become a significant political force mere weeks ago.

Huldai, who gained a reputation as an effective mayor able to enact reform in the midst of gridlock at the national level, threw his hat in the ring roughly two months ago, promising to present a center-left alternative to Netanyahu’s rule. However, The Israelis came out of the gate polling at just nine seats, and support gradually eroded in the weeks that followed.

The fatal blow appeared to come in the form of MK Merav Michaeli’s securing of the Labor party leadership last month. The latter party — whose previous incarnations led Israel for its first few decades but which has lost almost all of its power in recent years — had seen its remaining support vanish upon its entry into the Netanyahu government, after its former leader Amir Peretz had vowed repeatedly never to do so.

Michaeli refused to join Peretz and Itzik Shmuli in the unity coalition, serving in the Knesset from the opposition, which evidently brought her credibility in the eyes of Labor members. Since taking over the helm, Michaeli has breathed new life into the party, which is now polling at between five and eight seats, largely at The Israelis’ expense. Given that the two parties are ideologically similar, surveys suggest that voters prefer going with the faction they’re familiar with rather than throwing their lot behind another unproven, fledging slate.

In a Facebook post announcing the move, Huldai said, “I did my best… Unfortunately, we did not succeed.”

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)

“The most responsible action on my part is to take a step back, step down and let others lead the effort on behalf of all of us to build the country back up,” the Tel Aviv mayor continued. “I do not blame anyone and take full responsibility. I will continue to do all I can to replace this bad government.”

Michaeli subsequently issued a statement expressing hope that Huldai will rejoin the Labor party, of which he was a longtime member.

“I have told him I will be happy for any advice and aid he can give. I thank him for the effort to rejuvenate and give new life to the [political] camp and urge him to continue to do so,” she said.

Unlike the last election, when Labor ran on a joint left-wing slate with Meretz and Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher, Labor and Meretz will run independently, with Levy-Abekasis getting a reserved spot on Netanyahu’s Likud party slate.

Meretz, led by Nitzan Horowitz, filed its party roster on Thursday. While analysts have questioned whether there are significant ideological differences between the left-wing party and Labor, MK Tamar Zandberg told Hebrew media that Meretz would reach out to more progressive voters while Labor appeared set to focus on more centrist voters.

Also on Thursday, MK Ofer Shelah announced that he and his Tnufa party would not run in the coming election, after failing to reach a deal to merge with Labor.

Shelah left Yesh Atid late last year over disagreements with its chairman Yair Lapid, after the latter refused to hold open primaries for its leadership. But while he had the reputation as an effective lawmaker, Shelah never gained the support necessary to make inroads on his own. The party was polling far below the electoral threshold.

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

“I made every effort for an alliance with Labor to succeed. It did not happen, and not because of any demand on my part,” he said in a statement. “Under these circumstances, I must do what I promised many and prevent a loss of votes for the camp seeking to replace Netanyahu.”

Unlike Shelah, Israeli economist Yaron Zelekha, who is also polling below the threshold, refused to bow out and submitted the roster for his New Economic Party to the Knesset on Thursday.

Likud officials appeared satisfied with the failure of center-left parties to unite ahead of the midnight party filing deadline.

“We’ve critically hurt the anti-Netanyahu bloc,” a senior official in the ruling party told Channel 13 news.

Meanwhile, having recently split from the Joint List, the Arab-Muslim Ra’am party filed its own slate for the March election.

The remaining three factions — Hadash, Balad, and Ta’al — agreed to remain under the name the Joint List, increasing the odds that Ra’am will fail to pass the electoral threshold alone.

Tensions among the four Arab parties had been rising steadily over the past few months, stoked by Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas, who has publicly pursued closer ties with Netanyahu in a move seen by his Joint List colleagues as beyond the pale.

Abbas has said that in order to advance legislative priorities for the Arab community, he would even consider voting in favor of a law providing Netanyahu with immunity from prosecution in his corruption cases, or serve as a minister in a Likud-led government.

Joint List factions Hadash, Balad, and Ta’al sign an agreement for the March elections on February 3, 2021. (Courtesy: Joint List)

But Netanyahu has given him the cold shoulder, placing Ra’am in the same boat with the rest of the Joint List, which he has argued is beyond the pale and does not serve the interest of Israel’s Arab citizens.

After warning that large Arab turnout could cost him his rule in 2015 and more recently removing the Joint List from the equation entirely to argue that he has the support of the majority of the public, Netanyahu has changed course ahead of the March campaign, seeking to woo Arab voters to support Likud. Analysts are split as to whether he believes the long-neglected minority will actually come out and vote for Likud or whether the premier is seeking to instead lower turnout rates in the sector by dividing its representatives.

Abbas’s position represents a growing sentiment in the Arab public. According to an Israel Democracy Institute poll published Thursday, 25% of Arab Israelis think that their representatives in the Knesset should cooperate with Netanyahu.

Sixty-six percent of Arab Israelis believe that Netanyahu’s outreach to them has been insincere, according to the IDI poll.

On Thursday, Likud announced that it had reserved a spot on the party list for the first Muslim MK candidate on its slate this election.

Nail Zoabi will be placed 39 on the party’s roster, a spot that likely won’t enter the Knesset. But a Likud spokesman said it will use the so-called Norwegian law in the next government — which it hopes to form. Accordingly, Likud MKs who are appointed as ministers resign, freeing up spots for more MKs lower down the slate.

Zoabi, an Arab school principal from the village of Nein, is a supporter of Netanyahu and a longtime Likud activist.

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