Back to the future with another political merger

The merger of the parties led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid is by no means a first in Israeli politics. And the longstanding results of previous significant mergers suggest that the Gantz-Lapid union has the potential to impact Israeli politics for decades to come.

Menachem Begin founded his Herut party in June 1948 as the political continuation of the Irgun paramilitary group. The party won 11.5 percent of the votes in Israel’s first election, giving it 14 seats in the Knesset. Herut went on to win eight seats in 1951, 15 seats in 1955 – making it the second-largest part in the Knesset – and 17 seats in both 1959 and 1961.

Begin insisted on heading the opposition, and declined offers from the ruling Mapai party to explore working together in a coalition. It became clear that Begin’s right-wing party did not have the potential to defeat the left-wing Mapai (Workers Party of the Land of Israel), which won anywhere from 40 to 47 seats in all previous elections. So, in 1965, Begin merged his Herut party with the Liberal Party (which itself was a merger of two parties) to form Gahal (Hebrew acronym for Herut-Liberal bloc).

To counter this merger on the Right, and the threat to the rule of the Left, David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party and the Ahdut Ha’avoda Party merged. That merger netted 45 seats, more than enough to handily defeat the 26 seats won by Gahal. Despite the loss, this was the first serious challenge which the Begin-led Right presented to the Left, and began the process of combining smaller parties into two larger blocs.

Ben-Gurion was upset with some of the platform issues that were agreed upon as part of this fusion, and formed a new party called Rafi. After Rafi won a disappointing 10 seats in the 1965 elections and the extreme left-wing Mapam party (forerunner for today’s Meretz party) was reduced to eight mandates, all four parties merged for the 1969 elections under the name “Israeli Labor Party” and won 56 seats, the most a party has ever won in an Israeli election. (It should be noted that there were previous mergers and splits among these three left-wing parties in the pre-State and early State years). That merger is the reason why Israel’s Labor party is often referred to as “Ha’ma’arach,” meaning “the Alignment.”

(Mapam formally left this alliance in 1984, and after winning just three seats in the 1988 elections, joined with the Ratz and Shinui parties to form Meretz – using the anacronym of the first letters of each party’s name – for the 1992 elections in which they won 12 seats and were the third-largest party in the Knesset.)

Some members of Begin’s new Gahal bloc broke away and formed the Free Center party, but in order to create an even more serious challenge to the Alignment in advance of the 1973 elections, numerous small right-wing parties – Free Center, the National List, and the Movement for Greater Israel – merged with Gahal to form what they called “the Likud,” meaning “the Consolidation.”

The Likud won 39 seats in those elections, losing to Labor (the Alliance), which won 51 seats. But those elections cemented Labor and Likud as the foundation blocs that would go head-to-head for three decades, with Likud winning for the first time, 43-32, in the 1977 elections.

Over the last few decades, Israel has shifted to the Right. There is no longer a strong following for the Left, although two parties, Labor and Meretz, still represent the Left’s ideology. I believe they lost an opportunity by not joining together to form a clear, small, Left bloc for these elections.

The merger of Center parties is an excellent step forward as a strong Center bloc develops. This will also almost certainly strengthen the Likud, as more right-wing voters will vote Likud to make sure that the Right wins the election. The merger will also force the Likud to present Israel with its many accomplishments, its plans for the future, and its crystalized ideology in order to differentiate it from the Center, which has already sought to blur the lines between Right and Left.  I hope it will also lead to a counter-response in future elections, with smaller parties merging with Likud to form an even larger right-wing bloc.

Just as Likud and Labor were formed as a result of political mergers of smaller parties, and subsequently developed party institutions including a primary system for party leader and Knesset candidates, I hope the new Blue and White list does the same. If its leaders take this approach and prevent it from being a one-time phenomonon, this could set us on a path for Right vs. Center elections for decades to come between two strong, established, democratic parties: Likud vs. Blue and White. Such a development could even pave the way – under mature and responsible leadership – for national unity governments that would marginalize the influence of the remaining small sectorial parties and enable the overwhelming majority of Israelis to work together to solve the pressing issues of the day.

Regardless of what happens in the future, the Gantz-Lapid merger has ignited new life into the 2019 elections and, just like the major mergers of the past, this is a healthy and welcome development for Israeli democracy.

About the Author
Dov Lipman was elected to the 19th Knesset in January 2013. He is the author of seven books about Judaism and Israel, and holds rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a masters in education from Johns Hopkins University. He has been at the forefront of combating religious extremism in Israel and is a leader in efforts to create Jewish unity both in Israel and around the world. Former MK Lipman is invited to speak on behalf of the Jewish state both in Israel and around the world and serves as a political commentator for i24 News and ILTV.
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