Flailing merger leaves divided right playing catch-up with united left

Flailing merger leaves divided right playing catch-up with united left

Two alliances and two very different final registration days send opposite messages of unity and political strength

Raoul Wootliff

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

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at a rally to support residents, ahead of the expected evacuation and demolition of the illegal Jewish neighborhood of Netiv Ha'avot in the Etzion,  bloc on June 11, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at a rally to support residents, ahead of the expected evacuation and demolition of the illegal Jewish neighborhood of Netiv Ha'avot in the Etzion, bloc on June 11, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Wednesday night’s final hours and minutes before the Central Elections Committee closed its doors for parties to register their slates ahead of March’s national vote followed a similar pattern to the final flurries in the lead-ups to the same midnight deadlines for the last two elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, again, engaged in frantic efforts to prevent right-wing votes being “wasted” on smaller parties that fail to cross the electoral threshold, which would reduce his chances of gaining the support of at least 61 of the 120 eventual Knesset members.

Before last April’s election, after the Jewish Home and National Union parties had already agreed to merge with the Kahanist extremists of Otzma Yehudit at Netanyahu’s urging, representatives of the new religious-Zionist joint slate spent the final hours before the filing deadline in futile talks to try to also bring aboard former Shas leader Eli Yishai’s far-right Yachad party.

Ahead of September’s vote, the smaller right-wing parties were pressured by Netanyahu to unite into a union that included Jewish Home, National Union, New Right and Otzma Yehudit, along with a number of other satellites on the right. In the end, however, those efforts failed and United Right, led at the time by former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, filed its own party list without Otzma Yehudit or Moshe Feiglin’s quasi-libertarian hard-right Zehut (or, indeed, the tiny anti-LGBT Noam party, which had temporarily agreed to run with Otzma Yehudit).

On Wednesday, Netanyahu’s repeated efforts to bring Otzma Yehudit back into the fold were again the most exciting drama leading up to the closing of registration. This time, however, it was more frantic, more messy and — with a center-left grand union filing their own slate sans the drama — its failure potentially more damaging to the entire right-wing bloc.

Divided right

The last-minute, messy agreement for Naftali Bennett and Shaked’s New Right to run with both the Jewish Home and National Union capped a hectic week of political wrangling that began with Bennett’s vow that his faction would run alone in the elections.

Jewish Home chair Rafi Peretz had for days been vowing not to break the agreement he reached last month with Otzma Yehudit, but he came under immense pressure from Netanyahu’s Likud party as well as other right-wing officials who were worried the Jewish Home-Otzma slate would not cross the electoral threshold.

New Right chairman Naftali Bennett arrives to present his party list at the Knesset on January 15, 2020.(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bennett had similar misgivings regarding the New Right’s chances, which ultimately led him to break his vow to run independently in March. The defense minister had expressed hope that the national religious camp was large enough to support two parties — one being his slightly more liberal New Right and the other a conglomerate of the far-right Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit parties. But on Tuesday he caved to concerns regarding the electoral threshold and inked a deal with National Union.

In the end, in a bustle of disappointment and other emotions, Otzma Yehudit filed on its own with around 15 minutes remaining until the deadline, while the new alliance, to be named Yamina like it was in the last election, filed with just six minutes to go.

Although it was not his original plan, the move is somewhat of a victory for Bennett, who had conditioned Peretz’s inclusion in the alliance on him breaking with Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, and succeeded despite immense pressure from Netanyahu. Yet, it it likely an overall loss for his party and the right as a whole. Instead of gathering the fringes of Israel’s right, the new union has brought together only its mainstream factions, all but guaranteeing their own political survival, but not Netanyahu’s.

Bennett is indeed almost certainly safe from a repeat of the embarrassment he suffered in the 2019 April election when the then newly formed New Right failed to cross the threshold. The merger has likely ensured that the party will enter the Knesset. And he is now likely set to be the head of a bolstered (and larger) Knesset faction.

But the new party is more likely to push away voters than entice them. And the right, as Netanyahu had warned, is now almost certain to lose at least some, if not all, of the 84,000 votes that went to Otzma Yehudit last time around.

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Even without Ben Gvir and Otzma Yehudit, the merger with National Union’s Bezalel Smotrich, known for his anti-Arab and anti-LGBT statements, makes it unlikely that Bennett will succeed in wooing the “liberal” right-wing voters he had hoped to siphon away from Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu.

At the same time, the move may have also pushed away a big chunk of the party’s potential base. Peretz took heat from erstwhile allies after the 11th-hour decision to drop his alliance with Otzma Yehudit, and his Jewish Home deputy quit after he was shunted to the 11th spot on the unified list: MK Moti Yogev, who had been the No. 2 figure on the Jewish Home slate, angrily announced that he was quitting the party and delivered a biting criticism of Peretz.

“Peretz’s word is worthless,” he said in a hastily arranged Knesset press conference as final party slates were registered. “Peretz is not up to being a public representative… Jewish Home under Rafi Peretz has lost his way.”

United left

At the other end of the political spectrum, Wednesday saw a grand left-wing union made up of the Democratic Camp — itself a merger between Meretz and the Israel Democratic Party — and the Labor-Gesher partnership formed before the last election.

And while the left-wing union, to be uncreatively named named Labor-Gesher-Meretz, also saw at least one prominent lawmaker left out and a number of others unhappy, for the left, the final day to file final party slates was not the same frantic mess seen on the right of the political spectrum.

Labor, the once venerable party of Israeli politics, has seen its fortunes tumble in recent years, hit by a rightward shift among Israeli voters, turmoil within the party, and the emergence of various new political players that have eroded its base. In April’s election, it dropped from the 24 Knesset seats it received as part of the Zionist Union in 2015 to just six. In September, after replacing its leader, it retained its meager six seats.

Like the merger on the right, the center-left union is seen as a marriage of convenience between parties that differ on ideology, but which polls have shown hovering at between four and six Knesset seats each, in danger of falling below the threshold and endangering the entire left-wing bloc. And, also like the merger on the right, while likely saving either Labor and Meretz from political oblivion, the union may well end up with fewer seats than the 11 the parties currently hold combined.

Gesher head Orly Levy-Abekasis, placed second on the slate, said Wednesday, “We are joining hands for the children, for the elderly, for all of Israeli society. We will do everything we can to promote the really important things. Together we will bring these issues to the forefront.”

Of the union, Levy-Akekasis said, “We did what was needed and now we are looking forward.”

Heads of Labour-Gesher-Meretz Nitzan Horowitz (L) Amir Peretz (C) Orly Levy-Abecasis at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But while the union has received some internal criticism, the two parties succeeded in keeping their dirty laundry hidden, unlike the Yamina faction. And they also succeeded in preventing so-called “wasted votes.”

Left out of the union was veteran MK Stav Shaffir, the Green Party chairwoman, who announced Wednesday that she would not be running in the March election.

Unlike Ben Gvir, who is running on his own, or Yogev, who trashed his political home, Shaffir, who had weighed the possibility of an independent run with her Green Party, ultimately reached the conclusion that it would not cross the electoral threshold and refused to risk wasting thousands of left-wing votes. Instead, she threw her support behind the new union.

“I won’t run in this election, but I will stay in the race for our country… this union is more important than me,” she said at a press conference announcing a break from politics.

A TV survey released on Monday, hours after Labor and Meretz agreed on the merger, indicated that the alliance would not pay dividends at the polls, predicting that they would receive nine seats as a joint list come March 2, less than their combined force today.

However, according to the Channel 12 poll, Blue and White did manage to widen its lead over Netanyahu’s Likud, with the survey predicting that Benny Gantz’s party would receive 34 seats compared to 31 for the premier’s faction.

With both Likud and Blue and White seeking to edge out the other after two indecisive elections, and with just 46 days now remaining until Israelis cast their ballots again, the two unions, and the manner in which they were formed and filed, may leave a divided right playing catch-up with a united left.

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