Will Israel get Republican/Democrat-style big parties?

The fate of Israel’s next elections will be determined within the next few days by the alliances forged or not forged between the parties on Israel’s political right and left.

al-monitor Amir Peretz, head of the Labor party, addresses a conference ahead of national elections, which will be held on Sept. 17, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 5, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Nir Elias.

Jan 10, 2020

Is Israel ready for a new political model? Is the divided, torn Jewish state, split by internal and external disputes, able to forge a model of two political blocs similar to the one of the US Republican and Democratic parties? Probably not, but that did not prevent the idea from germinating and taking over the political agenda and discourse of the past week. It was orchestrated by two people: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the right, and Labor-Gesher party Chair Amir Peretz, on the left.

Peretz went first, presenting what he dubbed the “Peretz road map for defeating Benjamin Netanyahu” in a Jan. 7 Channel 12 TV interview. The idea is quite simple, Peretz said. Rather than trying to unite the small Labor and Meretz parties (known in their current incarnations as Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp), all the forces on the left and in the center would be unified in one bloc comprised of Blue and White, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp, he explained. Such a move is the only way to shatter the glass ceiling of Netanyahu’s hold on power, to imbue hope in voters that a political upset is feasible, to loosen the dependence on Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s capricious whims and to form a political bloc that forestalls a Knesset majority for Netanyahu’s Likud and its allied parties.

According to Peretz, such an alliance would garner 44 Knesset seats based on the current strength of its constituent parts, and would probably go up to 48 if united; a repeat of the 13-seat result achieved by the Arab Joint List in the September 2019 elections would bring the bloc to 61 seats of the Knesset’s 120 — and bingo, preclude a Netanyahu-led majority and remove him from power.

A day after Peretz’s appearance, Netanyahu was reported to be examining a possible joint ticket with all the parties on the political right. No more strange, perverse, shifiting alliances between the HaBayit HaYehudi party led by Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the National Union party led by Bezalel Smotrich, the Otzma Yehudit party formed by disciples of arch-racist Rabbi Meir Kahane and led by radical right provocateur Itamar Ben-Gvir and the New Right of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. This intrinsic, cumbersome complexity afflicting the right-wing parties and their various splinter groups has resulted in a massive vote drain — hundreds of thousands in the April 2019 elections and tens of thousands in the September 2019 voting — for the bloc of parties that was supposed to save Netanyahu and protect him from criminal prosecution on charges of corruption. According to the leaked reports, Netanyahu is fed up. Why not just create one large Knesset list, a Republican-style party stretching from the farthest corners of the radical right all the way to the edges of the pragmatic right and political center?

The answer to the question raised at the start of this article is negative. Chances of unifying all the components of Israel’s political right or of the center-left at this stage are zilch.

Concerning the center-left camp: At a Jan. 8 meeting with Peretz, the chair of the Blue and White party ruled out any alliance with parties to its left. Blue and White, he explained, is not a left-wing party and it is seeking also inroads into the right of the political map, targeting a large reserve of so-called soft right voters that include veteran Likud supporters. A link with leftist politicians from the Meretz party and the left-wing flank of the Labor party was just not in the cards, Gantz told Peretz. An alliance of all the parties would be much smaller than the sum of its parts, he added, and would not contribute to Netanyahu’s ouster, on the contrary.

Peretz himself is expected to walk away from his grand plan next week and drag his feet as long as possible in examining a possible merger with Meretz. Peretz, a former defense minister and one of Israel’s most experienced politicians, will have to give up his dream of drawing new voters from the right and the geographic periphery (from where he hails and which he had hoped to mine for support through his alliance with another outlier, the Gesher party of Orly Levy-Abekasis). He will have to make do with a lot less: to hook up Labor with Meretz in order to ensure that both are elected to the Knesset in the March 2 elections and neither fails to cross the electoral threshold.

“Amir is not stupid,” one of the people closest to Peretz told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “He knows that if Meretz fails to cross the threshold and the entire center-left bloc sinks, he will go down in history as the person who put the kibosh on the chance of a regime change in Israel. That will be his legacy. He will not allow Meretz to disappear and will do what he has to do in the final week.” On Jan. 14, the final date for submitting the lists of party candidates for the upcoming elections, we will know whether Peretz has indeed delivered the goods and if these promises have any holding in reality.

Things in the right-wing camp are even more complex. The strong emotions, internal rivalries, bloated egos and consistent failures that have created shifting splinter groups all far outweigh these parties’ electoral power. Chances of convincing Smotrich, Rabbi Peretz and Ben-Gvir to unite on one platform and to link this construction to the Likud are virtually nil. The right, unlike the left, is also awash in rabbis, each with his own following, beliefs and hatreds, each faction more radical than the next; only a higher power or cosmic event can bind them into one harmonious whole.

Netanyahu is now considering ways to create such a cosmic event and to move ahead with the election campaign, but the prospects are poor. The overriding question is whether the in-depth polls he has commissioned for the coming two days will indicate that a right-wing ticket can yield the desired results: 45 Knesset seats. That, along with the 16 seats that the ultra-Orthodox parties are expected to get would hand Netanyahu the 61-seat majority he needs to assume final and total control of the State of Israel, its institutions, law enforcement authorities and all other systems and agencies. Cautious assessments suggest that just as is the case on the left, so unification on the right would distance more voters than it would attract. The moderates would be scared by the racists, and the radicals by the moderates.

The driving force behind the process described in this article is the electoral threshold, which was raised in March 2014 to 3.25% (from 2%) and prevents parties that get less than the equivalent of four Knesset seats from being elected to the Knesset. If Israel is truly interested in electoral reform of its ungovernable political system, it must raise the threshold once more, up to 5%, and perhaps even more. Such a move would force the smaller parties and their splinters to unify, leading to an almost utopian reality of two major blocs, one on the right and the other on the center-left, and two minority blocs — one of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the other of the Arab ones. Such a constellation would still provide the right with a significant advantage given that voters consider a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties legitimate, whereas a coalition with the Arab parties, some of whose representatives reject Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, is still considered a radioactive taboo electorally annihilating anyone who tries it.

Either way, the fate of Israel’s third elections within less than a year will be determined in the coming days by the alliances that will or will not be forged on the right and the left. The side achieving the most skillful mergers and thereby preventing the waste of fewer votes cast for parties that fail to get elected will have a distinct advantage over the other. Netanyahu is deeply invested in this move and engaged in it around the clock. Benny Gantz is signaling relative equanimity. He is “relying” on Peretz to do the right thing at the last minute and agree to run jointly with Meretz. The remaining question is whether Peretz relies on himself.

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