How to Vote Strategically: The Dilemma Facing Left-wing Voters in Israel

For ditherers, the choice is between Zionist Union and Meretz (for the more conservative), and between Meretz and the Joint List (for the more radical).

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On at a rally. New variables make the choice tough.
Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On at a rally. New variables make the choice tough.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

For Israeli voters on the left, next week’s election presents more than the usual set of dilemmas. As always, a key question for many will be whether to vote strategically – that is, for the bigger party with the better chances of forming the next government, even if it’s not their cup of tea – or simply to follow their hearts.

This time around, though, three new variables have entered the equation, making the choice, in certain ways, more difficult than ever:

Neck-to-neck race: For weeks now, the polls have been predicting a virtual tie between the two major parties, the ruling Likud and the opposition Zionist Union, formed by the merger of Labor, headed by Isaac Herzog, with Tzipi Livni's Kadima. Since it is longstanding practice that the leader of the party that receives the most votes gets a first shot at forming the next government, every vote for either of the two big parties in such a tight race becomes extra critical.

Higher election threshold: The minimum proportion of votes a political party is required to obtain in order to gain representation in the Knesset was raised last year from 2 percent to 3.5 percent. Among those parties teetering at the moment on this threshold, according to the latest polls, is Meretz, the smallest of the three left-wing parties.

One big Arab list: It was precisely because the election threshold was raised that the three Arab parties and Hadash, the Arab-Jewish Communist Party, decided to merge into one slate, the Joint List. In past election campaigns, when the Arab vote was split among different parties, many votes went to waste, as not all these parties succeeded in passing the threshold. Today, thanks to the merger (the combined ticket is expected to receive enough votes to gain a dozen seats in the Knesset, according the recent surveys), that is no longer a concern. In fact, the understanding that every vote will count this time is expected to be a major factor in increasing Arab voter turnout in next week’s election.

Israel's political left covers a very broad spectrum, with Zionist Union stationed at one end (the right) and the joint Arab list at the other (the left). Considering the vast ideological territory separating the parties on the two extremes – one being mainstream Zionist, the other, most certainly not – it’s hard to imagine voters considering both. Thus, for most of those who are vacillating, the choice is not among all three parties on the left, but rather between Zionist Union and Meretz (for the more conservative), and between Meretz and the Joint List (for the more radical).

So who is an Israeli leftist to vote for in the upcoming election? Here are some of the key factors working for and against the three lists:

Zionist Union: For those on the left who aren’t exactly enamored with Labor in its latest incarnation, the main reason to cast their ballot for the party is most likely to boost its chances of getting more votes than Likud. This would give it a first crack at forming the next government. But many others dismiss this motive, pointing out that it doesn’t really matter how many seats Zionist Union gets. What’s important, they insist, is how many seats the entire left-wing bloc gets because ultimately, the president will invite the head of the party that has the best chances of putting together a majority coalition – and not necessarily the head of the party with the most votes – to form the next government.

Another reason many on the left hesitate to vote for Zionist Union is that they fear, based on past experience and because of the current close race, that it will join a national unity government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For others, though, the possibility – and perhaps even inevitability – of such government is actually a reason to vote for Zionist Union. As they see it, a Likud-Zionist Union government is still preferable to the alternative: a government headed by Netanyahu that would include all the far-right and religious parties. According to this logic, the more seats Zionist Union gets, the more inclined Netanyahu will be to invite it as the senior partner in the next coalition.

For many who may have happily voted for Zionist Union under other circumstances, there’s another factor pushing them toward Meretz: the deep concern that their vote could help save the smaller left-wing party from dipping under the new threshold. That would mean that, for the first time ever, there would there be no representatives of the smaller left-wing, Zionist parties sitting in the Knesset. It would also automatically reduce the size of the left bloc by the handful of seats that Meretz would have contributed had it crossed the threshold (the new one automatically guarantees a party four seats). Considering how tight the race is right now, those lost seats could make the entire difference.

Meretz: For many voters undecided between Meretz and Zionist Union, a key factor tipping the balance in favor of the former is its track record championing causes leftists hold dear to their hearts. Meretz voters can also rest assured that their vote won’t end up in Netanyahu’s hands because hell would probably have to freeze over before that party ever agreed to join a coalition with Likud. But perhaps the most important factor working in Meretz's favor these days is the deep fear among many supporters of the left that the party may be totally eradicated from the Israeli political map. Having said all that, why not Meretz? Those leaning toward Zionist Union will make the argument that every vote for Meretz is one less vote for the only party with the power to unseat Netanyahu. Those leaning toward the Joint List will argue that Meretz is too Ashkenazi, too elitist – and, frankly, too Zionist.

Joint List: For many dithering between Meretz and the Joint List – Jewish voters, by and large – the main appeal of the combined Arab list is that there is no better way, as they see it, for expressing solidarity with the most disenfranchised group in Israeli society. Beyond that, according to their calculations, if a national unity government is formed – as many anticipate – the Joint List could end up being the third-largest party and leader of the opposition. Why not support the Joint List? Mainly because a vote for it could mean one less vote for Meretz, dipping it under that critical threshold and severely weakening the left bloc as a whole. Another factor weighing against the Joint List, for Jewish voters at least, is its composition. Whereas in the past some people may have had no compunction about voting for Hadash – the joint Jewish-Arab (though mainly Arab) Communist Party – the Joint List today has representatives of the Islamic Movement. That could constitute a problem for some of the more secular, progressive Jewish voters who naturally gravitate toward parties on the far left.

Confused? The good news is there’s still a week to decide.

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