Israel's Left Seeks to Form anti-Netanyahu Bloc, but Union Remains Elusive

Ehud Barak, Meretz and Labor are mulling the option of joining forces, but there is concern that two parties running together could sink the third

From left: Gantz, Barak and Horowitz
Tomer Appelbaum, Meged Gozani

Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who has formed a new party ahead of the September general election, said Monday he would have no problem being No. 2 on a joint slate with Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz in the event of an alliance with his own Democratic Israel party.

“I don’t insist on being first,” Barak said in an interview with the Israeli radio station 90FM. “The only thing that should be a deciding factor is what’s better for the system.”

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Barak said Peretz had suggested to him ahead of last week’s Labor Party primary that they run jointly in the party’s leadership contest, with Barak leading the slate.

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“A few weeks ago we were talking and [Peretz] said, ‘Listen, come join me in the Labor Party, I’m prepared to give you the top slot; let’s go together to the primary and we’ll win there,’” Barak said.

Barak added that he wasn’t setting any conditions for running together with any other party. “I could be Amir Peretz’s No. 2 the same way he said he could be my No. 2. I plan to run with the group that’s with me, that is excellent, to the end. It’s clear that our best contribution could be in the framework of a broad bloc.”

However, a source who spoke to Barak about his plans said he had heard from him that he will insist on leading the bloc. “Barak didn’t enter politics to sit on the back benches,” the source said. “He entered to lead. He really wants to go back to being prime minister. Anything else he says is spin aimed at easing the negotiations between him and Peretz over who leads.”

Later Monday, officials in Labor, Democratic Israel and Meretz said they would discuss a possible electoral alliance but there was as yet little concrete progress in that direction.

Peretz met Monday with Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, who held talks Sunday with Barak. Peretz and Barak were expected to meet soon to discuss the issue.

After his meeting with Horowitz, Peretz said in a statement that they “had a serious discussion about the joint challenges of Israel’s democratic camp and about ways to replace the right-wing regime headed by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

Sources familiar with the conversation, however, said that at this stage there is no outline for running together and it is too early to say whether the three parties would unite. “There’s nothing serious,” one source said.

The three parties were expected to seek a formula that could increase their combined number of Knesset seats if the parties unite, while at the same time not leave any party that chooses to remain independent at risk of falling below the electoral threshold.

“That’s a complicated formula,” said someone involved in the contacts. “It’s very possible that the union that would bring in the most votes would be between Labor and Meretz, but then Barak’s party could fall. A union between Labor and Barak could bring down Meretz.”

According to the source, the three parties will find it difficult to decide on unification because “the environment must stabilize.”

The source noted that in one of the polls published by Barak, his Democratic Israel party does not pass the threshold, but “in others, Meretz wins four Knesset seats and may not pass the threshold.”

The source added that “The decision on who will head such a union, which parties will participate and which people will be part of it will be a result of the various polls.”

The parties are indeed conducting surveys to decide whether and what union strengthens their power. Similar surveys conducted by Labor and Meretz before the April election had indicated that any union between them would turn voters off and not increase their total number of seats.

Another obstacle to a union is the debate over who will head it and how the slots on joint ticket would be distributed among the parties. Sources in both Labor and Meretz say they are suspicious of Barak and his motives, because he was defense minister in the Netanyahu government and he had dismantled the Labor Party in order to remain in that government. Another dispute expected to feature in any discussion on unity is the issue of reserved slots on a joint ticket.

One way Peretz is trying to increase Labor’s appeal is by reserving places on the slate for big names. He has, for example, suggested reserving spots for Tzipi Livni and Orly Levi-Abekssis. They have not yet replied to his offer or to offers from other figures, including Barak.

Last week Peretz appointed former MK Omer Bar Lev to talk to additional key people in an effort to recruit them to the party. Bar Lev has approached former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin, both of whom said they weren’t interested in contending this time. Bar Lev told Haaretz, “Increasing the number of Labor’s seats is an important mission, but the main mission is expanding the entire bloc.”

One source involved in the discussions said it could be assumes that at least two of the three parties will unite in the end. “It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the three parties run separately, but it’s too early to say what the best lineup would be.”

Horowitz, in an interview with Israel’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday, called Barak’s party an “atmosphere party,” as opposed to Meretz and Labor, which he described as “well-rooted ideological parties with a path and a vision.”

The deadline for forming a united left-wing bloc is August 1, the last day for submitting the final party slates to the Central Elections Committee. Any agreement on a union would have to be signed at least a few days before, to allow the Meretz and Labor party conventions to approve it, assuming either or both are parties to it.