Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party’s merger with Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope has altered the dynamics of the election. There are now three large parties with a serious candidate for prime minister: the Likud with Benjamin Netanyahu, Yesh Atid with Yair Lapid and the new party with Gantz.
Is Eisenkot a factor?
A poll published on Monday evening had the joint party receiving 14 seats, the Likud received 34, Yesh Atid 23, Religious Zionist Party 10, Shas eight, United Torah Judaism seven, Joint List six, Labor five, Yisrael Beytenu five and Meretz four. Yamina under Ayelet Shaked received only 1.9% of the vote, far below the electoral threshold of 3.25%.
If former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot joins Gantz and Sa’ar’s party, they will grow to 17 mandates, according to the poll. However, two of those seats come at the expense of Yesh Atid, which would then receive 21 seats.
With or without Eisenkot, after the Netanyahu bloc reached 61 seats in a poll published on Friday, Meretz’s passing the electoral threshold now means that if the election were held today, neither side would receive an absolute majority. The Netanyahu bloc would receive 59 seats, and the current coalition parties would receive 55.
The main difference is that Gantz might now be able to form a government while breaking down the current pro-Bibi versus anti-Bibi divide.
Gantz and Sa’ar have an advantage over Yesh Atid in that the haredi parties have not ruled either of them out. This might give them the best chance of forming a government, even though they are expected to finish third. Assuming that the ultra-Orthodox parties would reject Yisrael Beytenu, such a coalition could begin with the Gantz-Sa’ar party, UTJ, Shas, Yamina and perhaps Labor, Meretz and Ra’am (United Arab List).
That is still far less than the required 61. However, neither Gantz nor Sa’ar have ruled out sitting alongside the Likud in a government not headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. The two might decide to enter a rotation with the Likud if Gantz serves first as prime minister. In that case, with Netanyahu only expected to take over after two years, the opposition leader’s legal status should be clearer, causing him to either step down or to continue as before with broader support.
Where did the Palestinians go?
The joint party, called “Blue and White – The New Hope,” held its first meeting on Monday afternoon. Both Gantz and Sa’ar reiterated messages they spoke about during Sunday’s press conference, when they first announced the merger. The messages included the importance of founding a broad, unified, functioning government that would deal impartially with the most important issues at hand, such as the high cost of living, national security and personal safety.
Gantz and Sa’ar said they had agreed on most issues, but noticeably absent from their speeches was any talk about the Palestinians and the West Bank, as well as questions regarding religion and state.
In addition, the question of Yamina now comes into sharper focus.
In a poll by Maariv published on Friday, Yamina did not pass the electoral threshold. The Gantz-Sa’ar merger could further attract right-wing voters to the new party. On the other hand, it might cause the opposite: Non-Likud, right-wing voters who would have voted for Sa’ar but are uncomfortable with the merger could shift to Shaked.
In the meantime, Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir called on Monday for the parties on the far Right to merge based on research conducted by an objective agency about which list will bring the most votes. While Ben-Gvir only mentioned the Religious Zionist Party, Otzma Yehudit, Noam and Habayit Hayehudi, Shaked at some point might consider merging with this group as well.
Although the chances of this happening are slim, Shaked might prefer that to a merger with Gantz and Sa’ar. The far-right bloc might not offer her a chance to join since she was part of the current government and sat alongside “terror supporters.” But neither Ben-Gvir nor Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich have explicitly ruled the option out.
Rather than shift to the Right, Shaked might choose to add Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and his political ally MK Zvika Hauser.
Shaked and Hendel met on Monday. They did not reach any agreements but were optimistic that they would work out their differences, N12 reported.
Hendel successfully oversaw the installation of fiber-optic fast Internet cables throughout the country, leading to a significant upgrade in Israeli telecommunication infrastructure. He also spearheaded the privatization of the country’s postal service.
Gantz and Sa’ar decided to keep Hendel and Hauser off their new list for two reasons. First, Gantz holds a grudge against Hendel and Hauser for vetoing his desire to rely on the Arab Joint List after the second of the recent four elections as a way to become prime minister.
Second, Hendel has been at odds with the haredi parties over his ministry’s pursuit of reforms to the “kosher cellphone” market. The haredi parties have not ruled out joining a government led by Gantz, but they would be far less likely to do so with Hendel on board.
This same problem exists for Deputy Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana. Kahana irked the haredi parties by installing women on municipal religious councils. He also pushed through a substantive reform that ended the Chief Rabbinate’s long-held monopoly over the kashrut supervision industry and enabled independent kashrut authorities to issue kashrut certificates to restaurants and other food businesses.
If Gantz and Sa’ar reject him, Kahana might naturally choose to remain with Shaked for lack of a better option.
Hendel and Kahana are both seen as moderate members of the religious-Zionist camp, and if Shaked adds them and Hauser, she will most probably not need or want to join the far-right bloc.
Possible Meretz-Labor merger
The remaining issue is a possible Meretz-Labor merger.
On July 18, Labor members will choose between their incumbent leader, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, and her sole challenger, Eran Hermoni, a lawyer and the party’s long-time secretary-general.
Michaeli ruled out a merger with Meretz. However, Hermoni’s slogan is “Labor in the center.” He explicitly called for the creation of a broad camp on the Left that will fight to lead the country and not one that “fights for crumbs of votes against Meretz,” according to a statement by Hermoni on Monday. He also deemed Michaeli’s vision for the party as “niche” and “enclosed.”
Both main candidates for leadership of Meretz, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan, said they supported a merger with Labor.
If Hermoni wins the Labor primary, the two parties will almost certainly merge. However, if Michaeli wins, Meretz will remain in a difficult position, as it continues to poll under or barely over the election threshold.