Israel Elections: Can the Center-Left, Right find unity?

Whether on the Center-Left or the Right, Israel's political parties lack unity, raising doubts on who, if anyone, could form a coalition.

Ofer Shelah stands next to photographer Paul Goldman’s iconic image of David Ben-Gurion doing a handstand at the Tel Aviv beach in 1957. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ofer Shelah stands next to photographer Paul Goldman’s iconic image of David Ben-Gurion doing a handstand at the Tel Aviv beach in 1957.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“United we stand, divided we fall” is a slogan that both the Left and Right need to ponder before Israel’s March 23 election. However, while this is a matter of strategic maneuvering for the fairly large (for Israel) parties on the Right, it should be seen as an existential issue on the Left.
For most of the parties on the Center-Left, the choice is simple – unite or die. The last rites have already been pronounced over the corpse of Labor, the party with the most glorious past in the state’s history, which is unlikely to pass the electoral threshold. Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party imploded after a new election was forced on the nation once again. Gantz is left with the bare bones of a party after having provided the only serious challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the last three elections in two years.
The Center-Left is led by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, predicted to be the second or third largest party. Then there’s a neophyte contender on the national level, veteran Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and his Israelis Party, which recently burst on the scene with a bang, but seems to already be fading in the polls. Maybe he should resign as mayor, which would indicate some sort of seriousness about his dabbling in national politics. Meretz occupies the social-democrat spot on the Center-Left and is predicted to win five or six seats.
Then there is a motley bunch of new, or newly recycled challengers on the Center-Left: Danny Yatom’s Veterans Party, Ofer Shelah (after a bust-up with Lapid) and his Tnufa Party, Yaron Zelekha and his Economy Party. Labor could still run under its new leader, Merav Michaeli; it probably has sufficient people power and organization to do so.
However, none of the above has a hope in hell of making a discernible impact on the electorate if they don’t bury their egos and unite. They don’t have to look any further than the Knesset to see how it’s done. Until 2015, several Arab parties ran separately in the elections. After the electoral threshold was raised to 3.25% of the vote, they realized that each individual party was in danger of not passing the threshold. So, they formed the Joint List and won a record 15 seats. The point was made – join forces, curb your ego and you can double down on your power – ex unitate vires (from unity, strength).
So common sense (not always a prerequisite in politics) would seem to dictate that the center-left parties should set aside their differences, bury their egos and unite in a joint list (maybe called the United Party) around Yesh Atid, which has been a force on the Center-Left since Lapid founded it in 2012. Lapid has his drawbacks (not least of which that he has not bothered to hold primaries, which led Shelah to bolt), but he heads the largest party on the Center-Left and had a top ministerial role when he brought his party into Netanyahu’s coalition in 2013. His ego did not prevent him from stepping aside and accepting the number two spot when he formed the Blue and White bloc with Gantz, even though he was a seasoned politician and had an organized party behind him, unlike Gantz.
Those on the Center-Left who are not keen on Lapid could vote for niche parties if these were part of a joint list. In addition, there are a couple of heavy hitters worth a few seats, such as Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, who could be brought into the list. The die is cast on February 4, when the party slates are formally registered. The polls foresee Netanyahu’s Likud remaining the largest party, followed on the Right by arch-rival Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope), Naftali Bennett (Yamina) and Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu).
Seems a cinch, four parties, whose right-wing views hardly differ (but veer from religious-leaning to anti-religious), could easily form an alignment, except for their attitude toward the prime minister. Two are so anti-Bibi, which is practically the main plank of their manifestos, that they won’t join a government he leads. So, the Right also suffers from a lack of unity.
At present, even if Bennett joins a coalition together with Bibi’s faithful haredi (ultra-Orthodox) cohorts, Shas and United Torah Judaism (who are perennially guaranteed a good feed at the Treasury trough), the present prime minister can’t cobble together a coalition with the magic number (61) of seats in the 120-seat Knesset.■
The writer is a former managing editor of ‘The Jerusalem Report’