Ehud Barak (Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Mergers Shake Up Israeli Political Landscape

Newly formed Democratic Camp faction aims to shore up support on Left

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak has led his newly established Israel Democratic Party into an alliance with the left-wing Meretz party along with Stav Shaffir, a rising political star who recently lost her bid to lead the Labor Party.

Their new list, named the Democratic Camp, was formed as Barak’s Israel Democratic Party, Labor and Meretz were all – based on numerous, albeit premature polls – hovering on the cusp of the 3.25 percent threshold needed to enter parliament following the September 17 national elections.

Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz will be at the top of the new faction’s slate, followed by Shaffir. Barak, who is attempting a political comeback of his own, will be placed 10th. Nevertheless, the ex-prime minister reportedly will be granted his first choice of ministerial posts if the Democratic Camp is voted into Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and joins a governing coalition.

“Neither party was confident that it could pass the [electoral] threshold,” Dr. Chaim B. Weizmann, an expert on Israeli politics at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy at IDC Herzliya, told The Media Line.

He noted that in the recent April elections, Meretz had just managed to enter the Knesset.

“Barak is also on the border of the threshold and they hope that by joining forces, they will be able to pass [it] and not waste [left-of-center] votes,” he said.

The new list is hoping that with the presence of the popular and young Shaffir, it might further be able to increase its political representation.

“We have to bear in mind that usually, the first day after a merger announcement is the best day, so if they don’t get 11-12 seats [in opinion polls], the situation is not that promising,” Weizmann said.

With another close election expected, the real value of the new Democratic Camp is its ability to be a part of a larger left-wing bloc, he added.

“If they take one or two seats from [Benny Gantz’s centrist] Blue and White [list], it won’t matter – it is the same bloc,” he said. “In order to become prime minister, you need to form a coalition, and in order to form a coalition, you need allies. The Democratic Camp is a Blue and White ally, not an ally of [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ruling] Likud.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Labor, which recently merged with the centrist Gesher party, welcomed the formation of the Democratic Camp, writing in a statement: “We are happy that Ehud Barak is joining the Meretz list, which will prevent votes in the [left-wing] camp [from] being lost.”

Likewise, former Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg called the decision “a dramatic step to strengthen the Left” and reinforce “positions of justice and equality as an alternative to the corrupt and messianic right wing.”

Notably, as a prerequisite for the merger, Barak apologized for the shooting deaths of 12 Arab-Israeli demonstrators shot by security forces during riots at the beginning the Second Intifada in 2000, when he was prime minister.

Nevertheless, Prof. Gideon Rahat, director of the Political Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line: “I don’t expect anyone [in the Arab-Israeli] community to say they are happy with [the apology] but this enabled the alliance.”

By contrast, Hassan Aslih, whose 17-year-old son Asil was among those killed, said many families would protest Barak’s political comeback.

“To use the name of our children to cleanse himself is evil,” Aslih told The Media Line. “We will stand together to prevent Barak from entering politics again. We will do all that we can. He is simply a criminal.”

Meanwhile, Rahat said the latest development had left the Labor Party in “deep trouble,” noting that it was once one of the two largest political parties in Israel.

“They will have to react somehow. One way is to surprise us [with an unexpected move] and the other way is to join this new alliance,” he said. “I don’t know what [Labor Party leader Amir] Peretz will do. He is under pressure. I think it is a real threat.”

For his part, Weizmann contends that if Labor does not want to be sidelined, it will need to overcome the trend of young people leaving the party, which in part contributed to Shaffir’s defection.

Rahat, meanwhile believes that the merger was entirely meant to shore up support on the Left, but notes that it will nonetheless force Blue and White – which won the same amount of mandates (35) as the Likud in the April vote – to seek out new “soft-Right” voters.

“Now it will be easier for [Blue and White] to call itself a centrist party, but it will be hard to claim that they are a large party [that can win the elections],” Rahat said. “They will have to look to the right for more votes.”

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked has returned to the fray, announcing this week that she would head the New Right party.

Concurrently, Netanyahu has reportedly offered the United Right list made up of Rafi Peretz’s Bayit Yehudi and Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union parties two ministerial posts in the next government if they incorporate into their faction the ultra-Right Otzma Yehudit –  whose members are disciples of the late and controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from Israeli politics in the late 1980s.

If that merger goes through, Netanyahu is apparently considering overtures to Shaked as well in order to create a massive right-wing bloc that would hold more seats than the Center and Left combined.

Judith Sudilovsky contributed to this report.

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