Election Crunch Time

No Merger on the Left: Labor Head Tells Meretz Alliance Off the Table

Arab-majority parties Hadash and Ta'al agree to run on joint slate ■ Habayit Hayehudi's number 3 quits after party joins forces with Kahanists

Labor chief Avi Gabbay and Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg.
Ilan Assayag, Olivier Fitoussi

The Labor Party will not merge with the left-wing Meretz party, its chairman Avi Gabbey said on Thursday, hours before deadline for the submission of party slates ahead of the April 9 election.

Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg said the two parties had a "historical opportunity to build a large left-wing party against the Likud-Kahanist government. Unfortunately, Gabbay claimed he didn't see the big chance and that there's a procedural difficulty within the Labor Party."

Meretz called on Thursday on the Labor Party to join forces after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's two biggest challengers, Hosen L'Yisrael's Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, announced that they will run on a joint ticket in the election.

Labor in turn convened and decided to examine all possibilities "in order to ensure a political upheaval in Israel while maintaining the Labor Party's values."

Party sources said earlier that according to their analysis and recent polls, such a merger would not help either party as it would not increase the number of overall Knesset seats and as both parties will likely pass the electoral threshold on their own.

Sources said that the two parties have opened negotiations, however, to examine such a possibility. 

By turning to Labor, Meretz was trying to both encourage Labor chairman Avi Gabbay to agree to a union and to ensure that it is not seen as the party responsible for blocking such a union in case the move fails.

>> Read more: How merger between Netanyahu's biggest rivals will affect Israel's election Political bombshell as Gantz, Lapid join forces to replace NetanyahuKahane returns to the Knesset | Editorial

Orli Levy-Abekasis.
Olivier Fitoussi

"In light of the union on the center, it's time for a union on the left in order to establish a center-left government. Meretz will turn every stone to make this happen," the party's chairwoman, Tamar Zandberg, said Thursday morning. "We have 12 hours and we're inviting Avi Gabbay to the discussion table immediately."

Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich seconded Zandberg's comments, saying that the new political context necessitates "quickly and thoroughly examining the possibility of creating a joint bloc with Meretz. "Automatically refusing this would go down as in history as a day of infamy if the new situation would wipe out Meretz and cause Labor to crash," she said.

The chairman of the Labor caucus, MK Itzik Shmuli, said Thursday morning that "the connection between Gantz and Lapid is welcome because it promotes the chance to create a bloc that would halt the Kahanist-supported Netanyahu." Nonetheless, Shmuli added, "As was the case with [the now-defunct party headed by Tzipi Livni] Kadima, now, too we need Labor to be as strong as possible... so it can maximize the chance for a turnaround."

Meretz MK Esawi Freige echoed Zandberg's statement, saying: "Meretz and the Labor party should run together. On such days when Netanyahu brings the Kahanist craziness into the Knesset, when centrist parties treat the left like a curse, we cannot stand silent and act as if nothing has changed."

Freige was referring to the news that far-right party Habayit Hayehudi had accepted an offer from Netanyahu to join forces with Otzma Yehudit, a right-wing party led by followers of racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, in exchange for the education and housing ministries in addition to two seats in the security cabinet.

The decision to run with the Kahanists on a joint ticket led number three on Habayit Hayehudi's slate, Yifat Erlich – a settler and former journalist with daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth who was preparing to run for the Knesset for the first time – to announce she was leaving the party.

Attempts to form a stronger bloc on the right

Israeli Arab leader and lawmaker Ahmed Tibi.
Tomer Appelbaum

Meanwhile, on the right calls were made Thursday for Netanyahu to significantly expand the right-wing bloc in response to the Gantz-Lapid union. Netanyahu's options are limited, however, and may not increase the number of seats his bloc can get, especially since Yisrael Beiteinu and Hayamin Hehadash submitted their slates to the Central Elections Committee on Wednesday, meaning they would no longer be able to participate in any alliance.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party announced it would not join any party ahead of the election. "We at Kulanu plan on continuing and running by ourselves with no connections, no back-door deals, no work arrangements. We intend to run and keep serving the citiziens of the State of Israel in the next term as well," Kahlon said.

His party might suffer the biggest blow from the latest unions. Kahlon had previously declared he would not run together with any party, but the various alliances might eat away at his base and push him below the electoral threshold.

Orli Levi-Abekasis, who already announced Wednesday she would run independently after discussions with Gantz about a possible alliance, cannot join any existing party due to a sanction placed on her after she resigned from Yisrael Beiteinu. In an unlikely possibility, she could leave her Gesher slate so that Gesher could merge with Kulanu, as long as Kahlon promises to give her an exterior appointment if the merged parties join the coalition.

Future still unclear for Arab-majority parties

The four Arab-majority parties continue meanwhile to negotiate possible mergers after the Joint List, which ran on a joint slate in the previous election in 2015, disbanded in January when Ahmad Tibi withdrew Ta'al from the alliance. On Monday, two of the four parties, Balad and United Arab List, agreed to run on a joint slate.

On Thursday, Ta'al and Hadash agreed to run jointly as well. Hadash, led by Ayman Odeh, would receive the 1, 3, 5, 6 and 8 slots on the list, with Ta'al taking 2, 4, 7, and 9.

Party leadership would be shared by Odeh and Tibi. Issues such as who would lead the party's faction and committee appointments would be settled further down the line.

The Joint List was formed in 2014 after Israel raised the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent, making it likelier that individual parties representing Israel's Arab population could be shut out of the Knesset unless they allied with other parties. It is currently the third-largest bloc in the Knesset.

Separate runs would exacerbate the risk of the parties failing to pass the electoral threshold but the parties have been riven by mutual distrust, and, have been bracing to run separately amid mutual accusations.

Ta'al didn't show up at a meeting of the parties Wednesday night, scheduled to discuss a possible merger. The three parties continued the discussions without Ta'al, ending the meeting without any results. Ta'al has yet to submit its slate to the elections committee, meaning all options are still on the table. Ta'al is said to be negotiating with Hadash to run on a joint ticket.

On Thursday, Tibi rejected claims that he was responsible for foiling the negotiations, saying he had offered all the compromises and is also examining the option of running together with Hadash.