Israel elections: With primary elections over, focus returns to mergers

Will Meretz merge with Labor? Will Religious Zionist Party fold to Itamar Ben-Gvir's demands?

 Zehava Galon, former head of the Meretz party. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Zehava Galon, former head of the Meretz party.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

With the primary election season over, Israel’s political parties are expected to focus on finalizing their Knesset lists ahead of the September 15 deadline, including possible mergers on the Right and Left.

Former Meretz chair Zehava Galon returned to lead the left-wing party, defeating Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan in its primary election with 61.6% of the vote on Tuesday night.

But will Meretz and Labor merge to ensure neither drops below the electoral threshold of 3.25% of the national vote. In the most recent poll published in Maariv on Friday, Labor receives only five mandates and Meretz scrapes by with the minimum four and 3.7% of the vote.

Will Meretz merge with Labor?

Labor chair and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli strongly hinted that she still opposed a merger with her sister party.

 Head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich and attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir attend Otzma Yehudit party's election campaign event in Bat Yam on April 06, 2019.  (credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90) Head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich and attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir attend Otzma Yehudit party's election campaign event in Bat Yam on April 06, 2019. (credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)

“Congratulations to my friend Zehava Galon on her return to the leadership of Meretz. Zehava, I am sure that you will lead the party to a safe place, as an independent, strong body, and as the left flank that Meretz always was,” she wrote on Twitter.

Polls taken a number of weeks ago showed that Meretz would win more seats with Galon at the helm. But many of the additional votes will come at the expense of Labor, and push it closer to the election threshold. The two parties seem to command 9 or 10 mandates between them, but if they are not divided evenly one of them may fall and that could bring down the entire anti-Netanyahu bloc.

What about Israel's Right wing? 

On the Right, the question of a merger between the Religious Zionism Party and Otzma Yehudit was prominent during their primary elections on Tuesday. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called on them that day to to run together to ensure a “strong, stable, national government for the next four years.”

“Only a joint [election] run will ensure that both parties pass the electoral threshold,” Netanyahu said.

Smotrich agreed. “I [call] on Itamar [Ben-Gvir] – my hand is extended in unity. Let us meet tomorrow already, until white smoke emerges, to agree on a [joint] election run, along with the wonderful team we chose today,” he said in a speech after the primary results were announced.

In his response on Wednesday, Ben-Gvir said, “Bezalel my dear, we do not need closed doors or white smoke. We were there too many times, and you did not really come to close the deal. If you changed your mind, sign … if not, say it clearly to the public, do not hide it,” he said.

Ben-Gvir then circulated a document that he had already signed, with a space left open for Smotrich’s signature. The document called for shared leadership of the party, which includes changing its official name to “Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir”.

The proposal gave Ben-Gvir five spots out of the first ten in a “zipper” alignment, meaning Smotrich would be first, Ben-Gvir second, and then alternating members of each party. It also said that the merger would be a “technical bloc” only, meaning that each party will operate independently following the general election. It also included a commitment to add the anti-LGBT party Noam to the list.

The Maariv poll gave Otzma Yehudit seven mandates and RZP five, but RZP’s popularity is expected to grow after the attention it received during its primary election, so it is unclear what the final version of their merger agreement will look like, assuming they heed Netanyahu’s will.