Israel's Small Parties May Decide Election, and Pressure on Them Is Mounting

On the right, only one party might not make it over the electoral threshold. On the left, four. Meanwhile, Gantz's Kahol Lavan is running a three-pronged campaign

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz in August
Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz in AugustCredit: Tomer Appelbaum
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Recent polls indicate that the outcome of Israel's upcoming election on March 23 and the coalition built thereafter will largely be determined by small parties, and namely whether or not, and to what extent, they pass the electoral threshold.

Unlike on the right, where currently only one party – Religious Zionism – is in danger of not making it past the electoral threshold, on the left, there are four parties facing a similar obstacle: Kahol Lavan, Meretz, Labor and/or Yaron Zelekha's New Economic Party.

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The failure of any or all of these four parties would mean that anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of center-left votes would go unrepresented in the Knesset, effectively working to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's advantage. That said, Netanyahu would almost certainly be prevented from establishing a coalition if Religious Zionism failed to pass the threshold.

With 30 days to go until Election Day, the rise and fall of Israel's small parties is the main issue on the agenda and will have significant implications for how the coalition will be built, who will stand at its helm, and whether or not Israel will be dragged into its fifth election in a little more than two years.

New Economic Party Chairman Yaron ZelekhaCredit: Moti Milrod

Gantz and Zelekha are not stepping down, for the moment

Yesh Atid will try to ratchet up pressure in the coming days on Kahol Lavan and Yaron Zelekha to quit the race, leaving to the left of Yesh Atid only Labor, Meretz and the Joint List. The departure of one or two slates from the bloc will increase the seats for the parties left standing and will help them pull in many floating votes.

Kahol Lavan, in contrast, will make efforts over the coming week to make sure it crosses the electoral threshold. Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz is conducting a three-pronged campaign: Last week he called on veteran Labor voters to vote for his list, intimating that it was more the old-time Labor Party than the “leftist” slate chosen in the recent Labor primary. To this end, Gantz is using familiar Labor figures who “bolted” from Kahol Lavan’s slate.

Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett, this monthCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

At the same time, Gantz is trying to engender empathy among voters who see him as fair and honest, calling to mind the campaign of Shaul Mofaz in 2013. The harbingers of this aspect of the campaign can be seen in an aggressive interview he gave to Amnon Abrabmovich of Channel 12 News, in which he accused the media of disrespecting him since he joined the coalition headed by Netanyahu. The third part of his campaign highlights his conduct in the coalition vis-a-vis Netanyahu.

The New Economic Party, which some surveys in recent weeks predict will cross the electoral threshold, is having trouble becoming “the surprise of the election.” Party chairman Yaron Zelekha said that he intends to run all the way, even at the cost of wasted votes, but not everyone on his party's slate supports this. On Sunday,, Zelekha is expected to meet with Prof. Yoram Yovell, one of the candidates on his slate, to examine their future together.

The reservoir of votes for Naftali Bennett's Yamina and Gideon Sa'ar's New Hope seems unsteady. According to recent polls, although the two parties' voter bases are solid, there are a few seats’ worth of voters whose loyalty to one party over another is not strong. This might be the reason that over the past few weeks Bennett and Sa’ar have gone head-to-head in an effort to attract voters, many of whom might at the last minute vote Likud.

Labor Chairwoman Merav Michaeli, this month Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yesh Atid believes it has two seats’ worth of voters considered “classic centrist voters” in Sa’ar’s party and two seats' worth of voters in Bennett’s, who might move to Yesh Atid if its campaign is efficient.

Netanyahu for his part is fighting for votes on the right. To this end he claims that he is the only one who can put together a “full” right-wing government (without a rotation of the premiership, of course). The disadvantage of this move is clear – if he succeeds too much, he might put Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism party at risk. Without the far right, Netanyahu is unlikely to be able to form a government.

Find the differences

In the left-wing bloc, one of the main tasks of the campaign will be to differentiate between Labor and Meretz. To that end, Labor Chairwoman and lawmaker Merav Michaeli has enlisted the journalist and former lawmaker Mickey Rosenthal who will manage a campaign that emphasizes Labor’s return to "Rabin's Way.” Yet, at the same time, Labor has to deal with the ongoing crisis created by the candidacy and barring thereof (temporarily, apparently) of Israeli Arab Ibtisam Mara’ana, seventh on Labor’s slate of candidates.

Meretz, in contrast, is veering to the left and stressing clearly leftist values in its campaign, especially on matters of religion and state. Meretz is investing huge amounts of money to garner two seats’ worth of Arab votes which will help it stay above the electoral threshold. For the moment it does not seem to be rising in the polls.

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