In the first significant development in the campaign for the September election, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman declared that his party intends to promote a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, in order to exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Prior to the mid-June announcement, Liberman had stressed the importance of a right-wing coalition, despite the fact that his rift with Netanyahu appears permanent.
After failing to cobble together a working coalition following the April election, Netanyahu termed Liberman a “leftist, obsessed with preventing the formation of a Netanyahu-led government.”
Polls in June showed that without Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to form a government based solely on right-wing and religious parties.
The polls also show that Likud and Blue and White would win a total of almost 70 seats, meaning they could theoretically form a coalition without the need for Yisrael Beytenu, or any other party. However, Blue and White is standing by its refusal to join a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces a pre-trial hearing in October on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Blue and White responded to Liberman’s statement, saying that if the former defense minister had reached this conclusion before his party voted to dissolve the Knesset, “the people of Israel would have been saved from a redundant election.”
Likud attacked Liberman, saying “he is willing to force a left-wing government. Whoever wishes to see a right-wing government must vote for us.”
Realizing that any attack on Liberman is liable to boost his popularity, the Haredi parties adopted a different tactic: emphasizing that in previous years he has cooperated with the ultra-Orthodox on a number of issues, such as joint support for Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion in the last municipal election.
The public was showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm ahead of the next election, as the parties engaged in drawing up their slates and considered new alignments and mergers.
Many of the parties, on both sides of the political spectrum, were showing clear signs of anxiety, concerned over the possibility that they would fail to pass the 3.25%, or four-seat minimum threshold required for securing Knesset representation. The memory of the New Right led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut and Orly Levy-Abecassis’s Gesher – three parties that failed to pass the threshold in April – continues to haunt the smaller parties.
Most of the early jockeying for position was taking place among the parties to the right of the Likud, where there was much rhetoric about the need for unity but few signs of politicians willing to compromise in order to bring about a united bloc.
Ayelet Shaked, considered the biggest vote-winner on the Right, was considering her options after it was reported that Sara Netanyahu made it clear to her husband that Shaked joining the Likud was not an option.
Newly appointed Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz, chairman of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, offered Shaked the No. 2 spot on a list that would unite all the parties to the right of the Likud, including Naftali Bennett, Otzma Yehudit and Moshe Feiglin. At the same time, Peretz’s party agreed to maintain its list as is until any merger agreements are finalized.
Shaked was reportedly holding out for the top spot on a united list that would guarantee half the places for New Right candidates, raising the interesting prospect of a secular woman heading the right-wing list.
However, significant obstacles remain ahead of the formation of a joint list.
Union of Right-Wing Parties MK Moti Yogev made it clear that as far as he was concerned, the calls for unity did not encompass Naftali Bennett. He described Bennett’s decision to leave the Jewish Home before the last election as “treason,” saying he would oppose Bennett’s return.
On June 20, the National Union, the party of newly appointed Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, launched an Internet campaign with the slogan, “We Run Together Now, We Argue Later.”
“The divisions among us are important but marginal compared to the heavy responsibility on our shoulders to bring victory to the Right in the election,” explained Smotrich, who came in for widespread criticism himself after stating that he wants a halachic state in which Israel is governed in accordance with Torah law.
There were also reports of major disagreements within Blue and White.
Moshe Ya’alon, who is third on the list, reportedly criticized the rotation agreement between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid as “damaging” to the party’s electoral chances. Despite reports that ending the agreement could result in Blue and White emerging as the largest single party, Lapid was determined that the deal remain in place that would see him replacing Gantz as prime minister after two years and eight months if the party heads the next government.
Channel 12 reported Ya’alon as saying that Lapid had made a mistake by repeatedly attacking the ultra-Orthodox.
“Lapid has become a burden,” Ya’alon was quoted as saying.
A mid-June poll also found that if former top general Gabi Ashkenazi, No. 4 on the Blue and White list, were to head the party in the upcoming election, the center-left bloc would win a majority and would win the election. According to the poll, under such a scenario the party would win 35 seats, whereas the Likud would win 33.
The disarray on the Left continues.
With both Labor and Meretz hovering perilously close to the threshold, there were growing calls for the two parties to run on a joint list. However, much depends on who will emerge as the party leaders and what impact this will have in the respective parties’ showings in the polls.
Following the decision by Labor leader Avi Gabbay to quit politics, Labor was set to hold its leadership contest in early July, with Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli challenging former leader Amir Peretz for the top spot.
“Israel’s Labor Party is in danger of not even surviving the upcoming elections,” former MK and party secretary Eitan Cabel warned. “We are now in the battle for our very existence.”
In Meretz, leader Tamar Zandberg was facing a challenge from former Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz. Both back an electoral merger with Labor.
In the Arab sector, the main development was the return of the Joint List.
Representatives of Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad promised to run in a single list in the upcoming election, as they started talks to formulate a political platform acceptable to all four factions.
Hadash-Ta’al Chairman Ayman Odeh said their strength was in their unity.
“We have a common past, a common vision and as of today, a common party,” he said. “We will fight for the rights of Arab society in Israel, peace and democracy for all.”
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