What is happening in Israeli politics?
Election campaigns used to be filled with small parties furiously competing to get noticed, refusing to unite. No longer.
Three mergers in the last two weeks have changed the shape of Israeli politics with unions on the right, left and among Arab parties, but they may not change the result on 17 September. How is that possible?
First, we need to examine what happened in the 9 April election.
The Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid was a merger of Gantz’s Resilience Party, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Yaalon’s Telem. It won 35 seats. Likud, itself an old merger of Herut and the Liberal Zionists, also won 35 seats. The two parties sucked support from the smaller parties. On the centre-left Labour and Meretz suffered. On the centre-right Benjamin Netanyahu’s rescue plea to right wing voters to save the right-wing Government crushed Kulanu and took away just enough votes from Naftali Bennett’s new Right and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut to stop them winning any seats.
For the small parties, the lesson from April was merge or die.
Israel’s system of party lists and proportional representation requires a party to win 3.25 per cent of the vote to win any seats at all. If a party falls below that, all its votes are wasted. Bennett’s New Right party missed out on entering the Israeli Parliament by just 1500 votes, its 138,556 votes went in the bin as did the 117,969 votes for Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut.
Transfer deadline day for Israeli parties is 1 August when they all have to submit their final party lists to the Central Elections Commissions.
Last week, Meretz, Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Union and former Labour MK Stav Shaffir teamed up to form the Democratic Union. Barak had hoped to galvanise the entire centre-left into one big party, but his pulling power has waned, tainted by his links to Jeffrey Epstein, this mini merger was his least-worst option given that polls were predicting he might fail to win any seats on his own.
The Labour party led by Amir Peretz has teamed up with Orly Levy Abekasis and her Gesher party which won just 74,000 votes in April. Senior Labour figures are furious with Peretz for ruling out further mergers and potentially consigning Labour to oblivion as the new Democratic Union steals their support.
The four Arab parties, Hadash, Taal, Raam and Balad have announced that they will recreate the Joint Arab List that won 13 seats and 446,000 votes in 2015. Running as two separate parties in April, they won only 337,000 votes and 10 seats with very low turnout in Arab communities. In this election they are hoping for much higher turnout, attracted to the four-party merger.
Potentially the most significant is the merger of the New Right party and the United Right (itself a merger of Jewish Home and National Union) with former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked as leader. There is room for more right-wing parties to join but so far, they have refused. In some ways this is a reversion back to the pre-2015 Jewish Home party but the new element is Naftali Bennett stepping aside and bowing to Ayelet Shaked’s far greater popularity.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s role in this merger is hard to understand. It was reported that he was encouraging the United Right leader Rafi Peretz to renew his vows with Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) leader and Meir Kahane enthusiast Itamar Ben Gvir. At the same time he was reported to be trying to discourage the merger with Ayelet Shaked, as leader, even though it was clear that would boost their support and provide him with more seats for a right wing Government.
Do these mergers change the big picture? Not really.
All the recent polls have predicted that there is likely to be another stalemate on 17 September. Opinion polls should be interpreted with the usual health warning that they have a high margin of error, we haven’t yet seen the final party lists and are still seven weeks away from election day.
The polls suggest the new right-wing merger could win as many as 12 seats with Shaked as leader, but they look to be just taking support from Likud. The Democratic Union is predicted to win as many as 10 seats, but they are taking support from the Blue and White party and Labour.
According to the polls, neither a right-religious group led by Benjamin Netanyahu or a centre-left group led by Benny Gantz will be able to form a coalition and get to the magic 61 seats required for a majority Government in the 120 member Knesset.
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party is predicted to win 9 seats and he could be the swing vote once again after the September election. He was the one back in May who refused to join Netanyahu’s Government if it meant conceding on a deal to increase ultra-orthodox conscription. Lieberman hasn’t changed his mind and is committed to a national unity Government, built on a Likud-Blue and White merger, without the ultra-orthodox. But Benny Gantz refuses to work with Netanyahu as long as he is facing corruption charges.
The parties may have changed, some have shiny new leaders, but curiously nothing else has changed.