As Israel’s Hard Right Links Up, What Are the Possible Mergers Ahead of the Election?

Benny Gantz very much wants to unite with a party keen on socio-economic affairs, but is getting a cold shoulder ■ Center-left groupings seem unlikely, but don't count them out just yet

Eli Yishai and far-right politician Baruch Marzel in 2015.
Emil Salman

Party slates must be filed by this Thursday, exactly 45 days before Election Day on April 9. This past Thursday saw a little merger action, albeit modest, as right-wing parties Habayit Hayehudi and National Union forged an electoral alliance.

The following are other possible scenarios.

The background

So far the big news has been parties splitting up; Labor offloaded Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, ending the Zionist Union alliance, while Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked split from Habayit Hayehudi to form another right-wing party, Hayamin Hehadash.

The most notable new party is centrist Hosen L’Yisrael of former army chief Benny Gantz. And there has been a slighter higher-profile merger than Thursday’s news: Gantz’s outfit has swallowed up Moshe Ya’alon’s new Telem party.

According to Thursday’s deal, Habayit Hayehudi’s new leader, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, will head the slate, and National Union chief Bezalel Smotrich will have the second slot – but will be the senior minister among the two if the party enters the government and the two get portfolios.

Members of the two parties will alternate thereafter on the slate. Thus Moti Yogev of Habayit Hayehudi will come in third, Ophir Sofer of National Union fourth, Yifat Erlich of Habayit Hayehudi fifth and Orit Strock of National Union sixth.

Habayit Hayehudi chief Rafi Peretz, February 2019.
Meged Gozani

If only one portfolio is on offer in a new government, Smotrich and Peretz will alternate in the post, with Smotrich serving for the first half of the term.

Now that National Union and Habayit Hayehudi have hooked up, a much thornier issue awaits them: whether to join forces with the remnants of Eli Yishai’s Yahad party, and more notably, with Otzma Yehudit. That outfit continues the tradition of the ultranationalist Kach party of Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990 in New York by an Egyptian-born American.

National Union, the right-wing Moledet party and Kahanists ran together in the 2009 election and won four Knesset seats. In 2015, the attempt to bring together Yishai, Kach supporters and the far-right ultra-Orthodox Zionist faction of Rabbi Zvi Thau failed.

Such a wide linkup on the hard right might seem logical, but Peretz is considered a mainstream, statesmanlike figure loath to be linked to Kahanists.

Habayit Hayehudi also fears that such a union would make it hard to join the government, while Otzma Yehudit says the other parties have taken a condescending stance toward it.

Likud and any other right-wing party

Two weeks ago, after the Gantz-Ya’alon linkup, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Likud members to sign off on him naming two people to the slate in spots with a decent chance of making it into the Knesset. This would provide a response to other parties’ hookups.

Netanyahu was amused by the idea of bringing in Habayit Hayehudi because that party might not win enough votes to make it into the Knesset. But since then he has surrendered one of the two spots, and no such hookup is in sight.

Netanyahu wanted Kulanu, led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, to join, but Kulanu said no. And in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Likudniks remember the turbulence of the 2013 election when the two parties ran together.

Thus even if Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party surprise everyone with a joint slate, Netanyahu will find it hard to respond with a unity party of his own.

Hosen L’Yisrael and Kulanu or Gesher

Gantz very much wants to unite with a party traditionally keen on socio-economic affairs. Both Kahlon’s Kulanu and Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher would fit the bill and change Hosen L’Yisrael’s image as a macho party studded with Ashkenazi Jews.

Orli Levi-Abekasis in January 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

For months, Levi-Abekasis has been singled out as a potential partner. Gantz has tried everything to woo her, to no avail. People in Hosen L’Yisrael thought that the recent polls showing Gesher not passing the 3.25 percent electoral threshold would change her mind, but the answer was still no.

Gantz has also sent messengers to Kahlon with very generous offers on economic issues, again to no avail. As plan B, Gantz is negotiating to bring in the head of the Histadrut labor federation, Avi Nissenkorn.

Hosen L’Yisrael and Yesh Atid

The biggest question is if there will be a Big Bang in the center. Gantz wants one, but Lapid has cooled off on the idea.

Lapid, a seven-year veteran in politics who built his own vigorous party, believes he should be first on any party list. He offered Gantz a rotation as prime minister, but only if Lapid received the post first. Gantz is unwilling for anyone else to be prime minister.

Relations between the two are good, but sources say the two sides have cut off contact; Lapid believes his troops on the ground will send him soaring in the polls. Thus a dramatic event is needed for the two parties to join up, but don’t place a bet until the very last minute before the registration window closes.

Meretz and Labor

The polls don’t flatter either Meretz of Labor, both of which are scraping the electoral threshold. So it’s no surprise they’re considering uniting. But Labor chief Avi Gabbay made clear two weeks ago that the two have no common denominator, and even Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, who pressed Gabbay to look into a merger, believes the chances are slim.

Tzipi Livni launching her Hatnuah party's election campaign, January 29, 2019.
Moti Milrod

Plus the latest polls have shown that a linkup would only add two seats to either party. The dislike of Gabbay within his own party has encouraged his opponents to look for another way to oust him, seal a merger and bring in both Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak. But because Labor’s popularity has stabilized in the polls after the party’s primary, such an option is even less likely now.

Hatnuah and anyone else

Livni’s Hatnuah hasn’t been able to find an alliance partner; Livni’s party isn’t even passing the electoral threshold in the polls.

Even if Barak joins up, the polls show no dramatic change. And Livni’s leftist image is a problem for Gantz's Hosen L’Yisrael and Lapid's Yesh Atid, which have set their sights on soft right-wing voters.

Even though Livni and Gabbay loathe each other, the possibility of reuniting hasn’t been ruled out completely, though Laborites consider this scenario extremely unlikely.

And though Meretz hasn’t ruled out a hookup with Labor, Hatnuah prefers one that would give it much more influence after the election.