Analysis

Uri Ariel, King of the Election Shuffle

The head of the Tekuma party has changed political partners in each of the past four elections. Is he about to take the fifth?

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel.
Eyal Toueg

Uri Ariel and Naftali Bennett are like a pair of lovers who both desperately want to break up, but don’t want to be the one to initiate the split. In public, the two are still declaring that their parties will run on a joint ticket next March, just as they did in the last election. But a longtime member of Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party said on Wednesday that he thinks Ariel’s Tekuma faction is on the way out. And even if they somehow manage to patch things up this time, their relationship is so bad, it’s only a matter of time until the next bust-up.

Itamar Saida

Earlier this week, Bennett upped his offer to Ariel: He is willing to give Tekuma four of the first 18 places on Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset slate – the second (for Ariel), ninth, 14th or 15th, and 18th. But if Ariel says no, that’s fine with Bennett. The polls show Habayit Hayehudi will do well even without Tekuma. And a split might even serve the right wing better: Should Ariel join forces with Eli Yishai’s new party, Ha’am Itanu, their joint ticket would surely win enough votes to enter the Knesset, whereas Yishai’s party on its own might not – thereby wasting tens of thousands of right-wing votes.

So far, Ariel has been insisting on more than four out of the first 18 places. In the last election, Bennett gave Ariel’s party five out of the first 15, and Ariel says it’s inconceivable that his share of the spoils should decline now that Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset representation is expected to grow.

But Bennett’s associates say that Ariel – who represents the more ultra-Orthodox wing of the religious-Zionist community – is worth only about 60,000-70,000 votes, while his presence drives away the secular voters whom Bennett sees as Habayit Hayehudi’s real growth source.

Ariel’s associates claim that the demand for more places is really about values. They need those additional places to help them preserve the joint ticket’s religious-Zionist character, which would otherwise be drowned in a flood of refugees from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

But the real root of the quarrel is the magic number 33 – the minimum percentage of a Knesset faction that, by law, can split off and form an independent faction after the election.

Ariel wants Tekuma to comprise at least a third of the joint ticket, because that would enable him to split off from Habayit Hayehudi anytime he pleases. But Bennett, who became fed up with Ariel’s repeated threats to break away during the last Knesset term, would rather run alone than be subject to that kind of political extortion again.

Ariel is happiest when his allies are dependent on him. Ever since he first entered the Knesset following the assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001, his Tekuma party has never run for election on its own. Ariel knows his electoral drawing power is weak, but with impressive political talent, he has managed time after time to forge alliances that got him into the Knesset. In a party with, say, 15 MKs, only two of whom are loyal to him, Ariel would be lost.

It’s true that if he runs with Yishai, their joint faction will have many fewer Knesset seats. But Ariel will be its king. Yishai will head the list, but with a dowry of four million shekels ($1 million) in campaign funds from the state, Ariel will get most of the seats and just about anything he wants. And once again, he’ll be in the position he likes best: behind the scenes, extorting and maneuvering. Yishai will be interviewed on television, and Ariel will extract more money for religious-Zionist institutions.

In each of the last four elections, Ariel has changed political partners. He knows exactly how to function in situations like this.