Endangered: Three Israeli Political Parties Fight to Stay Alive

It's a battle for survival for left-wing Meretz, right-wing Yisrael Beitanu and far-right Yahad. Will they make the cut?

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Yisrael Beitanu leader Avigdor Lieberman visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron, March 15, 2015.
Yisrael Beitanu leader Avigdor Lieberman visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron, March 15, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel votes Tuesday and pundits are bemoaning the fact that the new political map is likely to reflect old patterns instead of dynamic change.

But the 2015 race is necessarily different from previous races in one key way: Because of a law passed last March, the parties face a higher election threshold to gain seats in the Knesset.

To enter the Knesset this year, parties must receive at least 3.25 percent of the vote. The previous threshold was 2 percent.

This means that to make it into the 2015 parliament, a party must win enough votes for four seats - enough to tip the balance in the ability of either Benjamin Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog to build a coalition.

So the fate of the nation may ride on the fate of these parties.

The law was designed to keep tiny marginal parties out of the parliament, in hopes of stabilizing the fractured Israeli government.

But if the polls are accurate, some established names and faces who were not expected to be affected by the change may be out of the Knesset this year – including, ironically, the very politician who was the driving force behind the law.

Yisrael Beitenu - Polling at 5 seats

The state of Yisrael Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, who initiated the new law, seems to perfectly illustrate the adage “be careful what you wish for because you might get it.”

Lieberman, who rose to power as the mastermind behind Netanyahu, before founding his own rightist party aimed at Russian immigrants, pushed hard for the higher threshold. He argued that in the "enlightened world," parties needed stronger political support to take parliamentary seats.

"In Austria, Norway and Sweden it is 4 percent, Germany and New Zealand, 5 percent," he argued.

Lieberman’s true agenda, most suspected, had less to do with enlightenment than with eliminating at least some of the small parties in the Arab sector. Instead, the law boomeranged: It forced the Arabs to unite and run together in the Joint List, which is shaping up to be the third largest party in the Israeli legislature.

Lieberman’s party, in the meantime, is being decimated by a perfect storm: a major corruption scandal that broke just as election season kicked off; a generational shift, in that younger Russian immigrant voters feel less need to vote sector; and an option for those who want to vote to Netanyahu's right, in the form of Naftali Bennett.

Now, in the final days of the campaign, as Netanyahu urges Likudniks to “come home” and save his prime-ministership, many of those who could be shifting back from Likud may very well come from Yisrael Beitenu.

Lieberman's depressing and racist campaign strategy doesn’t appear to have helped him.

Without a glimmer of lightness and hope, his message is all doom and gloom, stressing his support for the death penalty and his complex formula to exchange settlements for Israeli Arab towns, which Israeli citizens of Israel vigorously reject.

It’s hard to win over hearts and minds when your candidate won’t crack a smile. Some attempts to humanize Lieberman through up-close television interviews have done little to soften his Soviet-like image. Neither have his statements that disloyal Arabs should be “beheaded.”

Meretz - Polling at 5 seats

Meretz leader Zehava Galon. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

As the clock ticks down to Election Day, left-wing voters have been able to discuss little other than their inner struggle over whether to vote for the Zionist Union to give it a wider lead over Netanyahu’s Likud or use their vote to “save Meretz.”

The prospect of the far-left progressive party disappearing from the political map shocks and dismays many. If it happens, it will be viewed as a blow to Israeli democracy, even to many who don’t agree with its political positions.

In a frenzy of last-minute campaigning, Meretz leaders have been posting on Facebook, listing the contributions their party made in the previous legislative session and why it must be kept alive. They wear the campaign's desperation on their sleeves with the slogan “We Mustn’t Lose Meretz.”

Why is Meretz so weak that it is begging for votes this time around? The primary reason is the Zionist Union's strength.

Traditionally, Meretz's dips and valleys have been influenced by the Labor Party's fortunes. In the past several elections, Labor was perceived as standing no chance of challenging Netanyahu for the premiership and positioned itself as a centrist party with older, more establishment politicians on the top of the list.

Left-wing voters figured they might as well send a strong ideological message by voting Meretz. And besides, the further-left party seemed like the fresher and feistier alternative.

This year, with Herzog having breathed new energy into Labor's sails by merging with Tzipi Livni into the Zionist Union, the fighting spirit followed him.

That momentum has also been helped by young stars of the social-justice movement, like Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, pole-vaulting into top spots on the Labor list after making a splash in the previous Knesset.

On its leftward edge, the taboo against far-left Israeli Jews voting for Arab parties has dissipated. And in the previous election and this one, more radical leftists have decided at the best way to move their cause forward is to throw their support to the Arab-led Joint List instead of Meretz.

To be sure, when looking at a weakened Meretz, one can’t discount the overall rightward move of the Israeli electorate.

While declaring oneself a left-winger was once a badge of pride in Israeli society, it is now something that in many circles is whispered rather than trumpeted - particularly so soon after Israelis spent the summer running to bomb shelters dodging Hamas-launched rockets.

Yahad - Polling at 4 seats

Yahad leader Eli Yishai. Photo by Dudu Bachar

If the Yahad party doesn’t reach the threshold, it won’t - like Yisrael Beitenu or Meretz - be a story of an established party made extinct. Instead, it will officially be a new party that never came to be.

But the presence at the top of the ticket - Eli Yishai, who led a substantial breakaway faction from the Shas party, splitting up what was once a great king-making force in Israeli politics - means that if it doesn’t make it into the Knesset, it will be big news.

Without a doubt, the most bizarre sideshow of the 2015 campaign has been the battle over the legacy of the late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef by the two men who claim to have been tapped by him to lead Shas into the future - Yishai and Arye Deri. Deri served almost two years in prison for corruption.

In polls, Shas has remained safely above the threshold, though after the split, it is a far weaker party than it has been.

But Yahad's fate has been dubious throughout election season, always hovering at the electoral threshold in the polls, sometime bobbing above it, sometimes sinking below it.

In an effort to survive, it has formed a controversial alliance with the successors of a less revered rabbi - Rabbi Meir Kahane in the form of the Otzma Party - which includes Kahane successor and convicted felon Baruch Marzel.

A last-minute twist that have might given Yishai the boost he needed to make it to four seats appears to have dissipated.

On Sunday night, rumors flew that breakaway ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who is ordering his followers not to vote for United Torah Judaism, would shift his support to Yishai and Yahad.

But those rumors were denied on Monday, leaving the far-right party as the most likely to fall under the electoral threshold and into political obscurity, marking a clear victory for Deri and Shas.

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