Israel’s political scene was all a flutter Thursday, as desperate lawmakers and frantic politicians dashed to sign last minute deals or announce dramatic splits, with the midnight deadline for the submission of final party lists ahead of the March elections for the Knesset, or parliament, fast approaching.
Less than 50 days remain until Israelis head to the polls yet again, for the fourth time in two years, after the “unity government” formed last year by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz lasted barely six months.
Thursday was the final day for any eleventh-hour mergers between parties and individuals running in the general elections. From Friday, parties are not allowed to join forces, add or drop candidates from their lists, or reshuffle in any way.
The parliamentary system in Israel calls for voters to elect parties, not individuals, with the chair of the largest party usually given the mandate from the nation’s president to form a ruling coalition following the elections.
Over the past month, ever since parliament was dissolved and elections were called over Netanyahu’s refusal to pass a budget, new parties and Knesset hopefuls have emerged like mushrooms after the rain.
On the Knesset’s left wing, already splintered because of Gantz’s May decision to join Netanyahu’s government and desert his bloc partners, no less than seven new lists emerged, each one promising to represent the forgotten and forsaken Israeli liberals.
On top of the established Labor, Meretz, Yesh Atid and Arab Joint List parties, voters were presented with new lists headed by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, former Yesh Atid lawmaker Ofer Shelah, former Accountant General Yaron Zelekha, and former defense secretary – and another Yesh Atid veteran – Moshe Ya’alon, among others.
As the hours ticked away Thursday, many were still adamant about running separately, despite polling well under the four-seat threshold needed to enter parliament. Others were more practical.
If a party fails to gain four-seats, all the ballots cast for it are discarded, essentially helping the larger parties and especially those on the other side of the political spectrum. While no merges are allowed in the remaining weeks, parties can still drop out of the race until Election Day, if they deem their chances hopeless.
With just a handful of hours before the midnight deadline, Huldai announced in a post on Facebook that he would not run in the upcoming election.
“The most responsible move on my part is to take a step back, quit, and let others lead the effort on behalf of all of us to rehabilitate the country,” he wrote. “I will continue to help as much as I can to replace this evil government,” he added.
Shelah also announced that he and his party would drop out of the race, after failing to reach a merger deal with the Labor party.
“Most of these guys are polling so low, they’ll probably drop out soon,” Lior Chorev, a prominent strategic adviser who in the past consulted for then-prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, told The Media Line.
On top of the cluster of tiny parties, Israel’s left wing also includes Gantz’s Blue and White party. After netting a whopping 35 seats in the 2019 elections, public opinion polls now show it barely clearing the required four seats, after bleeding public support and losing nearly all its members to retirement or to other parties.
“They already filed their list, so they can’t merge with anyone, but I see them dropping out in a couple of weeks, once they consistently see they aren’t making it the polls,” Chorev said of Blue and White. “Public pressure on Gantz will be so high, he’ll have to quit, so as not to waste any votes.”
The Arab Joint List, after garnering a record 15 seats in Knesset last year, also is headed for rough waters.
The list, consisting of four smaller Arab-majority parties, appeared destined for divorce on Thursday, with hours left until final registration. One of the parties, Raam, which is expected to struggle to pass the threshold if it runs alone, promised to contend separately and be the true representative of Arab voters. The remaining three factions — Hadash, Balad, and Ta’al, appeared to agree to continue to run together as the Joint List.
While the slew of shattered parties was expected to somewhat coalesce before midnight Thursday, egos proved to be too much of a challenge, as the newly revived Labor party, headed by recently elected Merav Michaeli, refused to absorb those with identical ideologies and platforms, forcing them to quit the race.
The concern about wasted votes among the fractured center-left is exaggerated. With those parties either quitting the race or polling so low, it ensures nearly everyone will vote for the two-three larger parties in the bloc
“Shelah, for example, isn’t a vote magnet, but he is a talented parliamentarian that could have helped them lead the party,” Itzik Elrov, a former Labor strategic and communications adviser, said of the Yesh Atid co-founder, who last year decided to go out on his own after clashing with party chair Yair Lapid, and on Thursday called it quits. “Both sides would’ve benefited from that merger,” he added.
Chorev agrees that Labor, currently riding high after last week’s primaries bump, might fade as that boost subsides. Still, he said, “I don’t see the party taking any of the smaller fragments onboard. Why take a valuable seat from a party member who was just democratically elected in the primaries, and hand it to an outsider without any apparent electoral value?”
“The concern about wasted votes among the fractured center-left is exaggerated. With those parties either quitting the race or polling so low, it ensures nearly everyone will vote for the two-three larger parties in the bloc,” he said.
Over on the right wing, things seemed much simpler.
Netanyahu on Thursday breathed a sigh of relief, when his efforts to fuse two right-wing parties finally succeeded.
After failing in his mission in the past three rounds of elections, the prime minister guaranteed no right-wing vote will be wasted this time, when he convinced Bezalel Smotrich, chair of the Religious Zionism Party, to join forces with the Otzma Yehudit party, headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir a highly controversial figure who espouses the ideology of Rabbi Meir Kahane, banned from the Knesset in the 1980’s for his racist platform.
To his right, Netanyahu also will have the two ultra-Orthodox parties, long a steady and constant feature in the prime minister’s bloc. Unlike the previous three cycles, no other party will have an ultra-Orthodox candidate.
Also a relative rarity in Israel, no party will feature an Anglo-Saxon member on its list either.
The embattled prime minister, who next week will arrive for his second court appearance as he stands trial for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, must still overcome some challenges from his right flank.
Former prominent Likud lawmaker Gideon Saar, and popular right-wing member of Knesset Naftali Bennet are both running independently on anti-Netanyahu platforms, promising to unseat the long-termed prime minister.
The two have attracted several high-profile names to their lists, including the son and granddaughter of two Likud prime ministers, and a string of right-wing mayors and public officials, all opposed to Netanyahu’s policies or personal conduct.
As the final lists were filed to Israel’s Central Election Committee Thursday evening, hopefuls and longshots eyed their next target date – March 23, Election Day.