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Op-ed

Some of Netanyahu’s most bitter adversaries have smoothed a path for his return

There are still more than six weeks until election day, but the splintering of the Joint List may prove decisive

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Members of Balad register their party for the upcoming elections, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on September 15, 2022. Third from left is party leader Sami Abou Shahadeh. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Members of Balad register their party for the upcoming elections, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on September 15, 2022. Third from left is party leader Sami Abou Shahadeh. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There are still more than six weeks to go until election day, and the Likud opposition is wisely refraining from premature kvelling, but Thursday’s eleventh-hour split in the mainly Arab Joint List has boosted the prospects for a return to power after November 1 by Benjamin Netanyahu.

His right-religious bloc of loyalists — Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas and United Torah Judaism — had already been polling at around 59 seats (including in last week’s Times of Israel poll of polls), far ahead of the 52 seats it won in the March 2021 elections. Two snap TV surveys on Friday night raised the Netanyahu bloc to 60 seats, just one short of a Knesset majority.

Until the breakup, the three-party Joint List alliance was heading for 5-6 seats — a hardly stellar performance. But Balad, an avowedly anti-Zionist party in that Joint List alliance, is splitting off to run on its own — in intensely disputed circumstances. Its two former partners, Hadash and Ta’al, are now seen wobbling barely above the Knesset threshold at 4 seats, and Balad is predicted to come nowhere near to clearing the threshold.

Rather than helping lift the Joint List to 5 or 6 seats, as expected until Thursday, Balad, with its departure from the Joint List and solo run, has thus not only almost certainly doomed itself, but could wind up dooming one or both of the other Arab parties as well.

Underlining the likely boost to Netanyahu, recent history shows that the more divided the Arab community’s would-be Knesset representatives, the lower the turnout, and the worse the result. As recently as 2020, the Joint List, which then also included the Islamist party Ra’am, won a record 15 seats. Friday night’s polls show those same four parties, now divided into three bickering slates, heading for just 8.

Again, there are still more than six weeks to go, and it is possible that all three slates will make it into the Knesset. Possible, but extremely unlikely.

It is possible, too, that support for Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am will rise between now and November, and that both will then partner with incumbent Prime Minister Yair Lapid — which Balad would not do — and help him build a Knesset majority. Even this scenario is unlikely, however, not least because Lapid’s right-wing allies in the outgoing coalition might not go along with it.

Hadash leader Ayman Odeh points during a press conference with lawmakers from the allied Hadash-Ta’al faction as they register their party list on September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ayman Odeh, the Hadash leader, insisted Friday night that the Arab electorate recognizes the gravity of the hour, and will turn out in high numbers, motivated by the imperative to prevent the return of a Netanyahu government, in which far-right leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir can anticipate prominent ministerial roles.

But Thursday’s split — ludicrously, over the arrangements for who would sit in the sixth slot of the Joint List, a slot that it may not have won anyway — has hardly endeared Odeh and his squabbling colleagues/rivals to an already unenthused constituency.

If the splintering of the Joint List does indeed clear a victory route for Netanyahu, the ironies would be considerable. Israel’s Arab MKs and their voters would have helped recrown a prime minister who those MKs bitterly oppose, who in 2020 appeared to delegitimize Arab political parties, and who on election day in 2015 attempted to boost his supporters’ turnout by warning that Arab voters were streaming to the polls.

Depending on the final election arithmetic and post-election coalition negotiations, they might have helped make powerful ministers of Smotrich, who last week called to ban the current Arab parties, and Ben Gvir, who wants to expel Arabs he deems disloyal. Given that Balad opposes the very idea of Israel as a Jewish state, its leaders, and its voters for that matter, would presumably feature on Ben Gvir’s deportation list.

And they will have brought a rapid end to the prime ministership of Lapid, whose coalition, led for its first year by Naftali Bennett, included an Arab party (Ra’am) as an integral player for the first time in Israeli history, and launched a serious effort to tackle the dizzying levels of crime in the Arab sector.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press after meeting with Prime Minister Yair Lapid, at the PMO in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Consummate politician that he is, Netanyahu did a remarkable job in the run-up to Thursday’s deadline for submitting party lists, in stark contrast to Lapid’s efforts.

He quashed the disunity that threatened to rupture the United Torah Judaism list, appeasing its leaders and hurting its voters by promising to fund ultra-Orthodox schools that do not teach essential subjects such as math and English.

He brokered a deal not just for the reluctant Smotrich to maintain his partnership with the alarmingly popular Ben Gvir, but for a representative from the anti-LGBTQ Noam party to again join them — personally working hard to reprehensibly mainstream an extremist party (as he for years did with Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit), in this case, to ensure just a few thousand likely votes would not go to waste.

And he has reached out to the Arab electorate, promising a “new era” — in an effort that, even if it does not bring more Arab votes for Likud, may help persuade potential anti-Netanyahu voters that he’s not worth turning out to oppose.

His loyalists are also on the offensive against Lapid’s allies, targeting Avigdor Liberman’s potentially vulnerable Yisrael Beytenu party, and they will be doing their best to prevent right-wing votes from going to interior minister Ayelet Shaked’s latest new-old outfit Jewish Home.

Lapid, for his part, proved unable to persuade Labor’s Merav Michaeli to merge with Zehava Galon’s Meretz, despite the risk of one or both of them slipping beneath the threshold.

As for the Joint List split, he either engineered it, as Balad outlandishly claims and he denies, for his bloc’s perceived advantage, in what would likely be an immense miscalculation, or he was completely out of the loop.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks during an election campaign event, presenting his Yesh Atid party list, in Tel Aviv, September 13, 2022. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Of course, he has had a country to run — but so did Netanyahu, for 12 election-filled years from 2009 to 2021.

Thursday night’s closing of the lists marked the start of the 2022 election campaign in earnest. An awful lot can yet happen, and probably will, but the shock collapse of the Joint List makes Lapid’s battle to stay in power even harder than it already was, and Netanyahu’s return to office more likely — on a path widened for him by some of his most bitter political adversaries.

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