Mergers, reshuffles ahead of tonight’s Israeli election deadline

Labor leader Amir Peretz and Meretz Leader Nitzan Horowitz celebrate their election pact.
Labor leader Amir Peretz and Meretz Leader Nitzan Horowitz celebrate their election pact.

In the lead-up to Israel’s March 2 election – its third in the past year following two successive failures to achieve a government coalition – political parties are scrambling to finalise their lists ahead of the January 15 filing deadline (that is, 10pm this evening Israel time).

In a major development intended to eliminate the possibility that either party will fail to cross the 3.25% (or four-seat) electoral threshold, the two parties that form the backbone of the Israeli left, Labor-Gesher and Meretz, have agreed to run together, it was announced on Monday.

In the current Knesset, the two parties (Meretz as part of the Democratic Union) hold 11 seats, and Labor-Gesher will hold six of the first 11 spots in the new unified slate while Meretz will have five.

Labor leader Amir Peretz will lead the list, followed by Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abekasis, Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, Tamar Zandberg, Labor’s Itzik Shmuli and Merav Michaeli, Democratic Union’s Yair Golan, Labor MKs Omer Barlev and Revital Swid, and Meretz’s Issawi Frej.

The merger has left MK Stav Shaffir without a viable path to a seat in the next Knesset. Shaffir, once a rising star in Labor who was a contender for that party’s leadership early last year, burnt her bridges when she bolted to run with the now-defunct Democratic Union.

While applauding the strategy behind the move, commentary on the left following the announcement lamented a lack of representation by Arab MKs in the top ten spots on the combined list.

Polls are conflicted as to whether a merged Labor-Meretz list would outperform the result from September’s election, although consolidation is widely acknowledged as the safest way to avoid squandering votes on parties that ultimately fail to cross the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset.

It is for this reason that, on the other side of politics, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and top officials within his Likud party have been urging the various right-wing parties to merge as well.

On Monday, however, it appeared that this would not happen, when Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked announced their New Right party would run alone, ruling out the creation of a united right-wing list.

Bennett and Shaked, frustrated by the religious conservatism of some of their colleagues in the Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) party, left that party to form the New Right party in December 2018. It was a risky move, considering that New Right narrowly missed crossing the electoral threshold in the elections of April 2019. Its leaders joined in a right-wing bloc, led by Shaked, to enter the Knesset in September. This uneasy union was dissolved by mutual agreement on election night.

Jewish Home viewed the merger as something of a disappointment, garnering a smaller fraction of the vote in September than Jewish Home and New Right had running separately in April, and it is doubtful they would have offered Bennett and Shaked safe seats in another merger.

Meanwhile, Jewish Home’s recent decision to run together with the far-right Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudi) party – a move anathema to New Right, made it even harder to bridge the widening gap.

New Right’s painful lesson of having been shut out of the Knesset in April 2019 by just a few thousand votes must have weighed heavily on Bennett and Shaked, since on Tuesday – just a day after calling a press conference to celebrate their decision to run alone – they backtracked and worked out an agreement with Betzalel Smotrich’s religious hard-right party National Union to run together.

Following that unexpected twist of fate, while Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz has downplayed reports that suggest Jewish Home-Jewish Power’s chances of getting enough votes to enter the next Knesset are marginal at best.

With only hours before tonight’s (January 15) deadline, it remains to be seen whether the fragmented parties to the right of Likud can set their differences aside once again and fully reunite – and if so, whether the highly contentious Jewish Power party will be in, or out.

In other election developments, Kulanu party leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has announced he is retiring from politics and will not contest for a seat in the March election, marking the end of the road for his party. Kulanu was formed in November 2014, peaked at 10 seats in its first election the following year and dropped to four seats in the April 2019 election. Following that election, Kahlon merged Kulanu with the Likud party.

According to Israel’s national broadcaster Kan, as of Tuesday morning 42 parties had requested forms to submit lists for the election, although not all parties that take forms actually run.

In the April 2019 election, 60 parties requested forms and 40 ran in the election – a record high. In the September 2019 election, 42 took forms and 30 parties actually ran, with only nine parties crossing the electoral threshold and entering the Knesset.

In another political development that is likely to have an impact on the election, the Knesset House Committee will hold hearings to discuss Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s request to receive immunity from prosecution for corruption charges.

While there are already enough votes in the committee to deny Netanyahu’s request, opposition parties, led by the Blue and White party, would like to use the opportunity of the hearings to call up damaging witnesses and keep the story in the headlines as long as possible.

The Likud has made clear it will now use every legal means to delay and prevent the House Committee from voting on the immunity request during the current Knesset, with the objective of delaying proceedings until after the election in the hope that ideally the House Committee of the next Knesset would look at an immunity request more favourably.

Netanyahu’s indictments can be formally filed to the Jerusalem District Court and thus allow his case to proceed to trial only after the committee rejects an immunity request in a proper vote.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges on November 21. Subsequently, Netanyahu’s Likud party registered a minor drop in the polls, and a further drop after he announced he would ask the Knesset for immunity from charges.

Some polls now show the Likud dropping several seats behind Blue and White, although the same polls still cast doubt on whether a Blue and White-led bloc could form a 61-seat coalition after the next election despite the weakening of Likud – meaning a repeat of the stalemate that followed the September 2019 election still remains a likely outcome.