In Israel’s fraught political arena, something needs to change for the outcome of September’s redo election to be different from the stalemate created by April’s national vote.
In the previous election, both the ruling Likud and challenger Blue and White parties gained 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset but, without the support of Yisrael Beytenu’s stubborn leader Avigdor Liberman, neither was able to form a majority coalition. The former foreign and defense minister has now said he will only join a government that includes both rivaling parties, a prospect that seems dead in the muddied waters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal investigations, as Blue and White has rejected the prospect outright.
Both sides are therefore relying on some form of voter swing to give their potential center-left/right-wing coalitions enough seats to form a coalition without each other and Yisrael Beytenu, come September.
That explains the motivation behind Netanyahu’s frantic efforts to prevent right-wing votes being “wasted” — that is, from going to smaller parties that fail to cross the electoral threshold, and thus reduce his chances of gaining the support of at least 61 of the 120 eventual Knesset members.
To avoid such wastage, Netanyahu has been encouraging smaller right-wing parties to merge with each other ahead of the Thursday deadline for parties to register for September’s elections. But the Monday announcement that a pair of religious, right-wing parties — New Right and Union of Right-Wing Parties — had successfully closed a deal to merge into a single electoral slate, led by popular former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, was condemned by Netanyahu’s Likud as a “dangerous mistake” that risks the prime minister’s continued rule, rather than safeguarding it.
Though desperate to see the various right-wing parties folded into his political calculations, this is not the merger Netanyahu had hoped for.
Instead of gathering the fringes of Israel’s right-wing, the new union has, so far, just brought together the mainstream factions on the right, all but guaranteeing their own political survival, but not necessarily Netanyahu’s. At the same time, it has specifically boosted two of his own rivals on the right, whom he had hoped to eliminate in April.
“If this is the end of the merging process on the right, while all the Arab parties have united, the right-wing bloc will be at risk. Bennett, Shaked, and Smotrich intentionally left out 5-6 mandates on the right — and they are knowingly jeopardizing the continuation of a right-wing government. It’s not too late to fix this dangerous mistake,” a Likud statement read, suggesting that the extremist Otzma Yehudit, Moshe Feiglin’s quasi-libertarian hard-right Zehut, and the anti-LGBT Noam party are all worth roughly four to five percent of the vote (180,000-216,000 votes), and worthy of being his political partners.
Before the April vote and again this time around, Netanyahu has actively lobbied to include the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party in the union, believing that its hard-line voters can boost the entire right-wing bloc. He succeeded last time around, but for now, the faction remains out of the merger deal confirmed on Monday.
The joint slate, to be named the United Right, will see only Shaked and former education minister Naftali Bennett run alongside the Jewish Home and National Union factions that form URWP. The two former ministers bolted the Jewish Home last December to form the New Right, which championed “secular-religious partnership,” but failed to cross the electoral threshold in the April elections, while URWP won five seats.
A thorn in Netanyahu’s (right) side
Announcing in December that they would be leaving the Jewish Home party to form the New Right, Bennett (who led the party at the time, but gave up the top spot ahead of the new elections) and Shaked lamented that they had lost their influence over Netanyahu, and claimed they needed a new political platform to have a real impact.
Since first taking control of Jewish Home in 2012, Bennett has always pitched himself as the right-wing force keeping a flaky Netanyahu from drifting leftward. “We need a strong Jewish Home to keep the government on the right path,” he had argued during both the 2013 and 2015 election campaigns, and again, ahead of the April election.
Unveiling the New Right party last year, the pair slammed the premier for a series of policy decisions they denounced as having “strayed from the path of the right.” In so doing, Bennett and Shaked appeared for the first time to be making a bid to replace him — or at least to run an election campaign that directly challenges him.
Bennett and Shaked both began their political careers as senior aides to Netanyahu, when he was head of the opposition in 2006, but abruptly left Likud in 2008, amid rumors of personal disagreements with the Netanyahu family. Their move to Jewish Home — engineered in part by Avichai Ronsky, a settler leader and the former chief rabbi of the IDF, who died last year — was based on the idea that the religious right needed to be reinvigorated and that this must include cooperation with Israelis who are not Orthodox.
This approach also sidelined the last vestiges of the old National Religious Party, in favor of a more energetic version even less beholden to democratic rule and willing to toy publicly with explosive ideas — like backing vast judicial reform and pushing an aggressive plan to annex settlement blocs.
They initially succeeded in reaching new audiences, boosting the party from just three seats to an impressive 12 in the 2013 elections. While they were on the path to a similar result in the 2015 elections, however, Netanyahu’s warnings about the dangers of a Zionist Union victory led voters to flock to Likud, leaving the Jewish Home with just eight seats. In April, the same tactic succeeded in pushing the New Right below the electoral threshold altogether, while Likud swelled from 30 to 35 seats.
Now, concerned that a New Right-URWP merger under a reinvigorated Shaked will take away votes from Likud, Netanyahu and his wife Sara have not just pushed for a different sort of right-wing union, but have worked aggressively against the merger.
While he wants to save right-wing votes, such as those for Otzma Yehudit, from oblivion, the union headed by Shaked could end up being a direct threat to his own support. It may boost the right-wing bloc somewhat, but it is just as likely to drain support from the Likud in favor of the new United Right, with many Likud voters likely amenable to Shaked and the type of party she is forming.
In a joint statement announcing the deal, New Right and URWP said they would recommend to the president that Netanyahu form the next coalition after the elections, (a compromise by Shaked and Bennett, who had balked at the commitment in recent weeks, but ultimately agreed to the URWP demand).
For Netanyahu, that may not be enough.