The Israeli Left’s Plot to Save Netanyahu

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Member of Knesset Ofer Shelah, who left Yesh Atid last month to form a new center-left party.

In the past weeks, leaders on the left have been scheming to keep Netanyahu in power. In his wildest dreams, Netanyahu himself, the cleverest of politicians, probably never imagined such an efficient plot. It would have seemed inconceivable that the left would actually serve up on a silver platter an immunity government that will save him from facing trial.

In this fourth election, too, the question of immunity will rest on just a few thousand votes. The two blocs – one composed of Netanyahu, the Haredim,and probably Naftali Bennett, too; and one composed of Gideon Sa’ar and Netanyahu’s opponents in the centrist camp, and possibly Bennett, too – are polling neck-and-neck, on the brink of the 61 Knesset seats needed for a majority. Every wasted vote will bring the other side that much closer to the target.

How tight is the race? In the 2019 election, Bennett fell just 1,400 votes short of entering the Knesset and giving Netanyahu a coalition of 62 and a “French law” so he could avoid his trial. In all, the right “wasted” more than a quarter-million votes on parties that failed to pass the vote threshold, but just 1,400 of them would have been enough to give Netanyahu a government.

As it looks now, in the 2021 election the center-left stands to waste far more than 1,400 votes. Moshe Ya’alon, Yaron Zelekha, Ofer Shelah, what’s left of Labor and other parties – the polls show that each may draw the support of hundreds of thousands of voters, but will fall short of entering the Knesset. Even if the support for these parties shrinks significantly as Election Day nears and voters become more concerned about their vote going to waste, plenty of votes will clearly still be wasted.

And that’s still within the optimistic scenario in which the small parties in this bloc that currently do pass the threshold – Hayisraelim, Kahol Lavan and Meretz – really do make it, otherwise the number of wasted votes will be nearly half a million. A reminder to all the self-styled leaders: For every Knesset seat that they leave outside, half goes to the right-wing bloc. Right now they’re leaving out at least six, which means Netanyahu gets at least three, which ensures him a government.

Obviously, many of those mentioned above don’t really intend to make an independent run but founded their platform with the idea of making it easier for them to obtain a prestigious spot on a larger list. But by declaring their candidacies, they actually make this prospect harder to achieve, because they also bring demands for guaranteed spots for their people, and for being able to maintain independence in their Knesset activity. They’ll also need the approval of the other solo players in the same situation who beat them to the punch in seeking a merger.

The desire for a range of parties that will reflect a range of voices, contrary to the confederation of views in Kahol Lavan, is understandable. But the Israeli system requires that politicians make common cause, just like in the United States, where, for example, the ideological gap between progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and centrist Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy is vast. But both ran under the umbrella of the Democratic Party and found a way to cooperate. And, ultimately, their party achieved its goal – ousting Trump.

There, the system has made running outside the two major parties nearly impossible. In Israel, too, with the high vote-threshold, the system requires political mergers, otherwise both the politician and the voters of their not-quite-large-enough political camp risk political oblivion.

If the various politicians in the leftist camp are unable to get this through their heads, perhaps their voters are better off giving their votes only to parties that are certain to enter the Knesset. But this still needs to happen with all the voters from the camp; for all it takes is 1,400 wishful souls voting for a party that won’t pass the threshold to decide the outcome. Just ask the disappointed voters on the right.

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