Analysis

Israel’s Parties Are Contracting to Bring About Netanyahu’s Downfall

There may be as few as eight parties in the next Knesset, as parties across the political map make big plans for the day after Bibi

MERGER FEVER: Clockwise from top: Moshe Kahlon and Benjamin Netanyahu; Democratic Union; Labor-Gesher; and the reunited Joint List.
Noam Revkin Fenton / Tomer Appelbaum / Avishag Shaar-Yashuv / Rami Shllush

As things stand, the next Knesset will feature the smallest number of parties in Israel’s history. There are currently only nine parties with a realistic chance of crossing the electoral threshold on September 17. And if Labor leader Amir Peretz changes his mind before midnight on Thursday — the deadline for handing the party slates to the Central Elections Committee — and decides to join forces with Democratic Union (or if, as some now fear, Peretz’s party fails to cross the 3.25 percent threshold), we’ll only have eight parties in the 22nd Knesset.

Over the last seven decades, the Knesset has numbered, on average, 12 elected parties (not including the inevitable midterm splits and breakaways). Some had as many as 15, but the lowest until now was 10 (on three separate occasions). The short-lived, outgoing Knesset had 11 parties. This isn’t just meaningless statistics or a result of the threshold being raised three times since 1992. On the eve of the coming election, Israel’s politics is contracting, bracing itself for a cathartic event.

The contractions are happening in almost every part of the body politic. Let’s start with the all-too-often overlooked Arab parties. On Sunday night, the central committee of the Arab nationalist party Balad voted 26-1 to run with the three other Arab parties that comprised the Joint List of 2015. Balad’s hesitancy was due to a long list of internal and personal issues, but ultimately the decision partly came down to what one senior party member calls “the chance of finally getting rid of Netanyahu.”

To those aware of Balad and its sister parties’ politics, this may sound like a strange motive. After all, it was only three months ago, after the April election, that the Arab parties refused to endorse either Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz. (Neither politician is willing to accept them in his governing coalition.) But members in all four Arab parties acknowledge that this election could be different.

There is no love lost for the supercilious Gantz. But if the balance in the new Knesset gives them the opportunity to deny Netanyahu a mandate, a wary endorsement of Gantz is not out of the question. This could mean a hitherto unthinkable scenario in which the Arab leaders and their mortal enemy, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, both endorse the same candidate to form a government.

Members of Balad, including party leader Mtanes Shehadeh, second from right, at a press conference in Nazareth, July 29, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

An electoral pact between left-wing Meretz and Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel party would have seemed equally unthinkable only a few weeks ago. And on Sunday, as Meretz’s convention debated it, member after member got up to lambaste Barak, reminding colleagues of how he had coined the phrase “We have no [Palestinian] partner,” his unabashed capitalism and dubious ties to accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. They then voted overwhelmingly in favor of the alliance.

“This won’t be a normal election,” says a senior Meretz member. “We’re not merging Meretz with Barak, just the candidates’ slate, because we have an opportunity to finally replace this government — and yes, even if it means sitting with Lieberman, you can’t rule that out.”

Further down the political map, you have the rather bizarre Labor-Gesher hookup, between trade unionist Peretz and Orli Levi-Abekasis, the Likud princess and three-term Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker. Whether it will attract right-wing voters, as Peretz promises, is highly doubtful. But it certainly broadcasts an openness to new political combinations both before and after the election.

Merger fever is rife on the right, too, with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu — after two elections as an independent center-right party — being subsumed into Likud.

Why did Kahlon go back to the party he had previously abandoned in disgust at Netanyahu’s personal machinations and social policies? The obvious reason is that his dwindling support meant he could no longer run independently. But he could have cut a deal with Kahol Lavan or Labor. Instead, he rejoined Netanyahu, because he reckons this may be the best time to return if he wants to be part of Likud’s leadership in the post-Bibi future. This way, no one can blame him for disloyalty.

Yet another merger is taking place right now on the far right of Israeli politics, after the religious Zionists — unbelievably for them — agreed to go into the election with a secular woman, Ayelet Shaked, atop their ticket. Not only is the alliance of Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash and the Union of Right-Wing Parties taking place against Netanyahu’s express wishes; Shaked and her political partner, Naftali Bennett, have refused to commit themselves to endorsing Bibi after the election.

Hayamin Hehadash leader Ayelet Shaked speaking to the press after her party's electoral pact with the Union of Right-Wing Parties was confirmed, July 28, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Only three of the nine parties likely to feature in the next Knesset haven’t merged in recent weeks: the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. While Shas and UTJ remain Netanyahu’s most staunch supporters outside of his own party, Lieberman is publicly promising to endorse whichever candidate will form a “broad coalition” without the Haredim, including Gantz. Privately, he is promising to engineer Netanyahu’s downfall.

Lieberman’s decision two months ago not to join Netanyahu’s coalition, triggering 2019’s second election, has set a train of events in motion. Not one of the polls conducted in the last five weeks has given Netanyahu a chance of forming a right-wing/religious coalition without Lieberman. If that is indeed the outcome on September 17, it will be a cathartic moment for Israeli politics — after which any possible permutation of endorsements to the president, and the most bizarre coalition frameworks, are possible.

The parties are contracting, uniting and maximizing their options in preparation for that moment.