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AnalysisMinutes before deadline, a stunning blow to Lapid's chances

Joint List breakup deepens Lapid’s nightmare of anti-Netanyahu votes going to waste

While ex-PM united key factions of his bloc to minimize risk of wasted votes, caretaker PM failed to do likewise for those opposed to Netanyahu. Then came a Joint List hammer blow

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset session in memory of Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset session in memory of Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The submission of party electoral lists, one of the key milestones of the election season, was wrapped up Thursday night, allowing party leaders and indeed the entire country to take stock of the political landscape that has emerged less than seven weeks before polling day.

Perhaps the most consequential feature of that landscape is how it is littered with numerous parties from the bloc opposed to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu which have a decidedly precarious grip on their place in the Knesset.

Despite determined efforts and likely some sleepless nights as well, Prime Minister Yair Lapid did not succeed in a prominent declared goal of uniting Labor and Meretz so as to ward off the politically lethal threat of having one of them fail to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold.

Worse yet for Lapid, the Joint List of Arab-led parties split up at the very last moment, with the hardline Arab nationalist Balad party breaking away and only Ayman Odeh’s Hadash and Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al running together.

The smaller Balad party will almost certainly not pass the threshold and will therefore likely diminish the size of the anti-Netanyahu bloc.

Although the constituent parties of the Joint List were not partners in Lapid’s so-called change coalition, the electoral arithmetic of the next Knesset should Hadash-Ta’al also fail to pass the electoral threshold would likely be overwhelmingly in Netanyahu’s favor.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid meets (center) with Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh (left) and Ahmad Tibi in the Knesset on April 19, 2021. (Courtesy)

On the other side of the political map, the right-wing, religious bloc forming the Netanyahu-led opposition did succeed in uniting many of its various factions, including maximizing its electoral potential by ensuring far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam all enter the Knesset instead of scrapping for the same pool of votes.

Four seats or oblivion

Among Lapid’s outgoing coalition partners, Meretz, Labor, Yisrael Beytenu and Ra’am have all scored as few as four seats, the bare minimum to enter the Knesset, in at least one of the nine major polls taken since the beginning of the month.

Indeed, Ra’am has polled above four seats just once in that time, and even the now-depleted Joint List had been scrabbling close to the danger zone by polling frequently at five mandates, a showing made even more worrisome because turnout in the Arab community is predicted to be extremely low.

Meanwhile, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu coalition party also looks somewhat vulnerable, frequently polling at just five seats. Liberman has accused Netanyahu of targeting his voters, including via what he says is a smear campaign involving a former party activist. According to one report in the Hebrew press, Yesh Atid is freezing its Russian-language campaign, ostensibly so as to not further deplete Yisrael Beytenu’s voter base.

By contrast, the right-wing, religious bloc has managed to put all its ducks in a row.

Likud leader and head of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu worked arduously to bring together Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the squabbling leaders of the far-right, ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties.

Former Israeli prime minister benjamin Netanyahu with Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset plenum on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Polls with those two parties running separately suggested Religious Zionism might struggle to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold, so Netanyahu, as he has done on multiple occasions over the last five election cycles, played a central role in brokering a deal between them.

So committed was Netanyahu to ensuring right-wing votes will not be wasted on parties not passing the threshold that he even visited the home of Rabbi Tzvi Tau, the spiritual lead of the ultra-conservative, anti-LGBT party Noam, to make sure his support would not go to waste either.

Tau has in the past described members of the LGBT community as “deviants” and “wretched people,” and the Noam party’s banner issue is opposition to societal tolerance and equal rights for homosexuals. Noam, which has one MK in the current Knesset, is thought to have the support of no more than 10,000 voters, worth just one quarter of a Knesset seat.

Netanyahu nevertheless paid a personal visit to the radical rabbi’s home in order to persuade Noam to join Religious Zionism instead of running alone, as Tau had been threatening to do.

The former prime minister was also heavily involved in securing a deal between the two warring factions of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party to run together.

United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni speaks with Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 24, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That deal was finalized after Netanyahu pledged to fund ultra-Orthodox schools regardless of whether they teach core curriculum subjects such as math and English should he return to power. This promise essentially scuppered a deal between the large Hasidic Belz community and the Education Ministry for its schools to introduce exactly those subjects into its school curricula.

There was one party on the right which Netanyahu did not seek to bring into the fold: Ayelet Shaked’s latest political vehicle, the religious-Zionist Jewish Home.

Jewish Home might attract a significant number of right-wing voters, but the animosity of the pro-Netanyahu bloc toward Shaked — interior minister in the outgoing anti-Netanyahu coalition — meant that any efforts to merge Jewish Home with one of the right-wing, religious parties would have been futile.

Netanyahu will instead likely try to woo away potential Jewish Home voters via two tactics.

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu poses with candidates he added to the Likud Knesset slate: (from left) Yossi Fuchs, Tsega Melaku, Idit Silman, Moshe Saada, and Amichai Chikli, September 14, 2022. (Courtesy)

The first will be to point out his inclusion of two MKs from Shaked’s former Yamina party high on the Likud list — the coalition defectors Amichai Chikli and Idit Silman — as well as religious-Zionist candidate Moshe Saada, for whom Netanyahu also reserved a safe spot on his party slate.

The opposition leader will also point out to right-wing voters the likelihood that they will waste their vote if they select the Jewish Home slip in the voting booth on November 1, since the probability that the party will pass the electoral threshold appears slim.

Down to the wire

Lapid worked strenuously to bring together two of the most vulnerable parties in his bloc, Meretz and Labor, but without success.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli (left), Prime Minister Yair Lapid (center), and Meretz leader Zehava Galon (right). (Flash90)

Labor leader Merav Michaeli was vehemently opposed to uniting with Meretz, and argued that polls showed the two parties receiving more votes when running separately than together.

Michaeli also pointed to the experience of the two parties in the March 2021 election, when the merged list they put together took just seven seats.

After weeks of cajoling and behind-the-scenes maneuvers, Lapid’s hopes were finally dashed Thursday afternoon when Labor submitted its independent list to the Central Elections Committee.

But perhaps the biggest blow to Lapid’s chances of forming a new government, or preventing Netanyahu from doing so, was the one that fell immediately before the Thursday night deadline for the submission of party lists — the break-up of the Joint List of Arab parties.

This new scenario could see both Balad and the reduced former Joint List of Hadash-Ta’al fail to enter the Knesset, which would bolster Netanyahu’s bloc. The fragmentation of the Joint List could also serve to further diminish Arab voter turnout.

It is conceivable that Hadash-Ta’al could clear the threshold and prove willing to join a Lapid-led government, a prospect broached in the past year but rejected due to opposition from Balad. This, though, would also require the agreement of Lapid’s more hawkish partners.

Ra’am’s leader Mansour Abbas (right) speaks with Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Ra’am MK Walid Taha in the Knesset plenum, May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As of this writing, polling averages have all of the outgoing coalition parties passing the electoral threshold.

The polling average for Ra’am, as measured by the Madad polling aggregator, stands at 4.1 seats, based on surveys since the beginning of the year, and its support seems relatively steady, albeit small.

The Madad average for Yisrael Beytenu is 5.3 seats, Labour is at 5 even, and Meretz is at 4.9.

The Joint List of Arab parties had a polling average of 5.4 before the split, but the breakup of that list now endangers both its fragments.

If Hadash-Ta’al manages to scrape into the Knesset, the anti-Netanyahu political bloc might just manage to stop the Likud chief from forming a government, but will be unlikely to aspire to building a stable coalition of its own.

It is the fresh prospect of both Hadash-Ta’al party and Balad failing to pass the electoral threshold which will now be the greatest cause of sleepless nights for Lapid.

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