Political Mergers for Knesset Runs on the Right and Left

Israeli political parties are confusing. They also work in trends, sometimes merging and sometimes splitting. In the bigger picture, Israel has basically three axes for parties: religious, political, and ethnic. How much any given party leans in one direction or another in each of these axes determines their platform. This is how it works in theory; in reality, the political scene is much messier.

For example, on the secular, Jewish right-wing, we have five parties: Likud, headed by Bibi Netanyahu; Yamina, headed by Naphtali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked; New Hope, headed by Gideon Saar; Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman; and Telem, headed by Bogie Yaalon. In theory, all of these parties support settlement building, limited agreement with the Palestinians, conservative fiscal policies, etc. So why are there five parties?

In Lieberman’s case, it mostly boils down to the tendency of the largest right-wing party, Likud, to form governments with the Chareidi parties. Such agreements involve laws that allow for religious exemptions or coercion that Lieberman’s secular Russian base finds unpalatable (for good reason).

For the most part, however, the reason for this split into parties is Netanyahu. Every single leader of the four other parties was once part of Likud but left because of Netanyahu. Sometimes they left because of ideological clashes (Bogie), other times, because of personal clashes (all four including Bogie). Right wing voters are thus left in the confusing situation of having to choose between five ice cream cones with the same flavor, only a different brand. Why none of the non-Bibi parties are merging with each other, I can’t really understand.

The center and left is more confusing, on one hand, but easier to navigate on the other. First, the far-left Meretz party has more or less maintained its niche position as a small party of around 5 seats. It will be the same this round.

The Labor party, what was once the colossus of the moderate left, has all but disappeared. If they do not merge with somebody, they will not be in the Knesset. (I can’t even figure out who leads the party now; I wonder if they themselves know.) The situation with Labor is not really new; already in the previous three elections—which all happened in the same year—Labor was not a force to be reckoned with. Instead, the big party in the center-left was Blue and White.

The problem with Blue and White—which I supported—is that it turned out, sadly but not shockingly, to be a chimera. In February 2019, when merger between Gantz’s Israel Resilience party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid party was in the air, I wrote about how “Expedient Alliances Must Still Make Sense.” My point at the time was simple:

Yesh Atid, founded in 2013, has a clear and well developed platform, with an ideology about virtually every core issue facing Israel. The Israel Resilience party, which was an entirely new player on the scene, had no platform at all, and its leader, Benny Gantz, didn’t seem interested in articulating one. As the only thing we knew about the party was that it early on merged with Bogie’s Telem party, it seemed as if they were leaning right.

My thoughts were that if, somehow, Israel Resilience were to adopt the principles of Yesh Atid, then the merger could work, but would it really make sense? Were Gantz and Lapid really on the same page? And why should Gantz, who had never held political office and whose party had no infrastructure at all, lead it?

In the end, many people supported the merged party under Gantz’s leadership, only to see Gantz bolt before the race was won. Clearly, the ability to lead troops and conduct military operations is a different skill set than the ability to navigate political complexity, and Gantz demonstrated that he lacked the latter skill.

In fact, that is something that Lapid himself seems to have foreseen early on. I remember hearing an interview in which Lapid was asked about merging with Israel Resilience. He thought that the idea could be good, but Gantz should think about aiming for the role of defense minister as opposed to prime minister, since he was new to the game, and some seasoning would be helpful. To Gantz’s detriment, and the country’s, he took the plunge as a Prime Ministerial candidate. Like many playing the big stakes game on their first try, he will end up going home penniless.

As it stands now, Blue and White (Gantz kept the name of the merged party, an unpalatable move in my view) is barely polling above oblivion. Moreover, it has very little to offer. Israel Resilience still doesn’t have a platform, and trying to run on a “not Bibi” agenda is ludicrous coming from the one “not-Bibi” politician who capitulated to Bibi and formed the government. I doubt many voters will give him a free do-over.

In theory, this leaves just Yesh Atid as the party that should command the center-left vote, but just in the past month a gaggle of new moderate left-wing parties have come onto the scene. Most are polling below threshold, but one, Ron Huldai’s The Israelis party is polling at around 6. Like Meretz, it is enough to get into the Knesset, but not enough to be a serious contender.

Since Yesh Atid on its own is polling only in the mid to high teens, if things stay as they are, Likud remains ten seats or more ahead. Here is where, again, merger needs to be considered. This time, however, it needs to be done in a way that makes sense.

First, Yair Lapid needs to be the unanimous candidate for the left and center. Even for those, like Meretz, who will run independently (as they should), Lapid needs to be the PM pick.

Second, as many of the parties as possible should dissolve, with their leaders being given a seat or two on Yesh Atid’s list. An exception can be made for Labor, because of its historical importance, and perhaps for Huldai’s party, since it has enough steam to pass threshold.

No such exception can be made for Gantz’s party, however. Gantz should probably bow out altogether, at least for now, but if (a big if) he can bring a few seats to Yesh Atid, it cannot be as the co-head of a merging party but as an individual. The principle of “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” needs to be paramount, and Israel Resilience/Blue and White, needs to be closed down for good.

If all the center and moderate voices go to Yesh Atid, it will become the second largest party by far. Soon after, centrists will begin to leave Yamina and New Hope, because of their hard right stances, and it will be a new ball game for the center left… at least until Bibi leaves the playing field and the right reorganizes entirely.

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of TheTorah.com and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.