Israeli Parties Face 'Do-or-die' Moment Ahead of Election

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Israeli lawmakers gather on the day before the lists close, 2019.
Israeli lawmakers gather on the day before the lists close, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

The list of Knesset candidacy slates for the March election is set to close February 4th, and yet very little progress has been made in terms of mergers, even though political sources say that on the left in particular, some parties will need to merge in order to earn enough votes to pass the minimum vote threshhold and make it into the Knesset.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

Yesh Atid

Since the Knesset disbanded, opposition leader Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid has played a marginal role in this round of elections, with Gideon Sa’ar and Benjamin Netanyahu battling each other for the prime minister’s seat. However, recent days have shown its chairman, Lapid, to be gaining ground in opinion polls. One of his key tasks now is to overtake Sa’ar and make the public see him as a direct competitor to Netanyahu.

For now, Yesh Atid prefers to run on its own. Surveys show that any merger would not increase the total number of seats won by both parties. Lapid’s associates don’t want to drive other parties in the bloc – mainly Labor, The Israelis or Meretz – under the electoral threshold. “If Lapid wants to be prime minister, he’ll have to play the bloc game, just like Bibi [Netanyahu] is doing,” warned a senior member of another left-wing party. “Otherwise, he’ll remain the leader of the opposition.”

One reason for Lapid’s growing strength is his identification with anti-Haredi messages, in the wake of the failure to enforce the coronavirus regulations in ultra-Orthodox communities. But Lapid prefers not to attack the Haredi public directly, in an attempt to pave the way for a possible future collaboration with United Torah Judaism and Shas. He will focus on attacking Netanyahu and his incompetence during this coronavirus crisis.

New Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli at the party's primary election, January 24, 2021Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Labor

Labor gained its second wind after the departure of Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli. The election of Merav Michaeli as party chairwoman knocked Ron Huldai’s The Israelis party under the electoral threshold, giving Labor 4-5 seats in opinion polls. It’s too early to say if this is a temporary uptick, but Labor sources believe Michaeli prefers to run independently, possibly taking in other small parties or prominent public figures under her.

In-depth surveys indicate that Michaeli at the head of a union of leftist parties would draw more votes than Huldai. In any case, Michaeli will not make any decisions before the results of the primaries are in on Monday. In an attempt to diversify, she announced that her Knesset slate would have alternating male and female candidates, and that she might bring in other candidates such as Ofer Shelah or Avi Nissenkorn, finding them appropriate slots. In an exceptional move, in an attempt to increase hype, the party opened its voter and candidate lists so that anyone wishing to vote or be elected could register by Saturday night.

Tel Aviv mayor and The Israelis leader Ron Huldai speaking at a vaccination center in Tel Aviv, December 2020.Credit: Hadas Parush

The Israelis

With a few surveys showing that Huldai will not pass the electoral threshold, one can definitely state that The Israelis has been a dud. This is not what the veteran mayor of Tel Aviv envisioned a few months ago, when he believed that his political debut would galvanize the left, which he would then lead. The realistic options he now faces are a withdrawal and return to the mayor’s office, admitting failure, or joining a bloc led by Michaeli, whom he greatly respects.

The question is whether the seasoned mayor, whose campaign states that the country has only two leaders, will be able to swallow his pride and play second fiddle to Michaeli. Over the weekend, Huldai called for a large union, including with Yaron Zelekha’s new Economic Party, which is currently uninterested in alliances, or with former lawmaker and Mossad Chief Danny Yatom. Estimates are that such a union would also hurt Benny Gantz, who is maintaining a surprisingly even keel in polls, above the electoral threshold.

Meretz party chairman, Nitzan Horowitz, at the Knesset, Jerusalem, September 2021.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset

Meretz

Meretz, too, prefers to run independently after two elections in which the party made some disappointing alliances. Like in every election in the last two years, Meretz has been stable in polls, at around 4-5 seats, but the proximity to the threshold might endanger it at the moment of truth. The party hopes that it will be able to recruit two seats from Arab voters, and put two Arab candidates in the top five slots: Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and former MK Esawi Freige. The party is targeting Jewish voters with religion and state issues, anti-Haredi messages and warnings that other parties would join a right-wing coalition. Meretz is also trying to convince the Arab public to vote for it after the Joint List broke apart.

Israeli PM and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Jerusalem, January 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

Likud

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is still looking for an appealing person to fill the fifth spot on Likud’s Knesset candidate list. The party has dropped the idea of giving the spot to an Arab Israeli, as it hasn’t found an appropriate candidate. Orli Levi-Abekasis is being given a spot of honor after abandoning Labor-Meretz, with whom she ran in the previous election; this will be her fifth party in 12 years. Gal Hirsch is also expected to run with Likud.

Netanyahu had hoped to bring in someone such as Miriam Peretz, who lost two sons during their army service; Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich; or Federation of Local Authorities Chairman Haim Bibas, but none wanted to be part of his political platform. At the bottom of the list is one Michel Troni, a bodybuilder who became famous thanks to a video that went viral in which he was seen saving a dog from abuseWhile Likud won’t be merging with any other lists after the trauma of its merger with Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu is still intervening when it comes to mergers between other parties. He’s pushing Bezalel Smotrich to merge with both Habayit Hayehudi and Otzma Yehudit; Smotrich is resisting the latter.

Likud isn’t planning to change its campaign at the moment. It’s pleased with the 30 or so Knesset seats it’s being forecast in polls, and is hoping that this will increase should this coronavirus wave subside somewhat. It’s planning to continue with the positive message of vaccines and a united Israel, and doesn’t intend to engage in personal attacks on Yamina’s Naftali Bennett, Lapid or Sa’ar in order not to build them up further as potential candidates for prime minister.

Gideon Sa'ar in Jerusalem, December 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

New Hope

As for Sa’ar’s New Hope party, he has rejected out of hand a merger with Bennett, explaining that he’d lose five seats’ worth of centrist votes, and the resulting party would not be large enough to compete against Netanyahu. Sa’ar considers his list closed, and isn’t planning to bring in any new names. New Hope is worried that recent polls have shown it losing strength, and is planning a strategy of attacking Likud on two fronts: for creating social divisions, and for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Sa’ar’s party believes that the longer it takes for Israel to exit the lockdown, the more people will understand how poorly Netanyahu has handled the crisis.

Yamina's Naftali Bennett speaks in the Knesset, August 2020.Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

On the far-right: Yamina, National Union, Otzma Yehudit

Three different parties will be running on the right: Bennett’s Yamina, National Union led by Smotrich, and Otzma Yehudit led by Itamar Ben-Gvir. Yamina is expected to continue with its current platform of pushing Bennett’s proposals for handling the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying financial crisis.

Further to the right, over the last few days, Smotrich decided not to try to merge with Ben-Gvir. Sources close to Smotrich said he feared that Ben-Gvir might scare off voters due to his association with the far-right and the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane.

“For every person he brings, he chases two away,” said sources within National Union.

Far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich speaks in the Knesset, July 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

“If there’s a merger with Ben-Gvir, it will happen only at the very end,” said a source from the right, who believes Smotrich is trying to play for time in order to reduce what he’d have to give Ben-Gvir. Sources close to Smotrich insist that a merger is unlikely.

Ben-Gvir intends to run on his own. Smotrich’s party meanwhile is planning to merge with Habayit Hayehudi, led by Hagit Moshe. The main remaining dispute is over how many seats Habayit Hayehudi will get on the slate of the joint party’s top five Knesset candidates; sources say it will likely get two out of the top six seats. Smotrich is also working to bring fresh faces into the party’s list, particularly people who aren’t associated with Israel’s settlement movement.

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