Why the splitting of the Joint List is so important to Netanyahu - opinion

A stable government is unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future and a sixth round of elections cannot be ruled out.

 Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to tesitfy before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2022 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to tesitfy before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2022
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Last Thursday at midnight, it seemed that the chances of a Netanyahu victory in the approaching elections had received a serious boost, as it was announced that at the last minute the Joint List had split in two, and that Hadash-Ta’al and Balad would be running in two separate lists.

There is no chance that Balad – the Arab party founded in 1995 by former MK Azmi Bishara, and is the most extreme in its demand for Israel to turn into a state of all its citizens rather than a Jewish state – will pass the 3.25% qualifying threshold if it runs on its own. In addition, unless Hadash-Ta’al get their act together in the next 42 days and manage to significantly increase the number of Arab voters planning to go out to vote on November 1, what remains of the Joint List might also fail to enter the 25th Knesset. 

Why did the Joint List split?

On Thursday night, it was explained that the last-minute split occurred against the background of two issues: Balad’s demand that after the elections the Joint List should not declare its preference for any of the candidates for prime minister and a disagreement about a rotation among the sixth, seventh and eighth candidates on the Joint List in the course the term of the 25th Knesset (even though most of the recent polls predict that the List is unlikely to attain six seats).

This explanation seems ridiculous from an Arab point of view, especially because the split is certain to lead to the end of Balad’s membership in the Knesset. On the other hand, most if not all of the Jewish parties in the Knesset will be delighted if this should happen due to Balad’s position vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, even though the center-left parties are likely to lose from the fall in the number Arab MKs.

To complicate matters even further, soon after the split, Balad announced that Prime Minister Yair Lapid had been involved in the split in order to try to prevent a situation in which the Joint List will avoid declaring its preference for the premiership after the elections. Some media sources went so far as to describe the alleged list of policy demands made by Hadash-Ta’al to Yesh Atid in return for supporting Lapid’s candidacy for the premiership after the elections a totally implausible list of demands (including the cancellation of the Nation Law), which Lapid could not possibly agree to, even if he were inclined to do so.

 MK's Sami Abu Shehadeh and Ahmad Tibi seen during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, February 23, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) MK's Sami Abu Shehadeh and Ahmad Tibi seen during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, February 23, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Since there have been conflicting announcements from Yesh Atid on whether Lapid was or was not involved in trying to generate the split, at the time of writing we have no way of determining what is true and what is false on this matter. On the one hand, it had been announced by Yesh Atid previously that Lapid would avoid trying to meddle in the decisions of the Arab parties, since if he were to do so it would be used by the Likud against him. On the other hand, if the United List will avoid recommending any candidate to the president of the state after the elections, this would give Benjamin Netanyahu a decisive advantage.

Netanyahu's way

What this whole episode proves is that in the current political divisions in Israel, the two decisive elements that will determine whether Netanyahu will be able to break the political stalemate and form his dream government (Likud – ultra-Orthodox – Religious Zionism) are his success in getting the two Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties to run in a single list and all the extreme right-wing religious Zionist lists to run together in another single list, and what happens in the Arab sector. The smaller the number of Arab MKs who are not members of Zionist parties, the better for Netanyahu.

Since the April 2019 elections, Netanyahu has improved to perfection his skills for bringing together even the most reluctant potential partners and has done away with any moral scruples he might have had in the past while doing so. Among the prices he has been willing to pay are a promise to the ultra-Orthodox parties of full-state financial support for their separate education systems, without these parties undertaking to introduce a core program of non-religious studies (the so-called ‘Liba’) in their schools, in return, and getting Noam – the most racist, homophobic, misogynistic national religious party in Israel – once again into the Religious Zionist list, even though the number of its voters is quite insignificant.

Sixth time's the charm?

IN COMPARISON, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid was unsuccessful in his one attempt to get two parties in his center-left bloc – the Labor Party and Meretz – to run together in a single list in the approaching elections, for fear that one or both of them might fail to pass the qualifying threshold. It was reported that Lapid was actually willing to secure one slot for a Labor Party candidate and another for a Meretz candidate in the Yesh Atid list if the two parties were to unite, at least technically.

One cannot help wondering whether these rather insane political manipulations in both political camps are here to stay or whether they are merely the result of very specific circumstances: the inability of either political bloc to form a stable government due to a numerical stalemate and Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, from which he is trying to extricate himself at almost any cost.

If it weren’t for Netanyahu’s trial, and if it weren’t for the fact that there are many right-wingers, including former Likudniks, who refuse to have anything to do with him because of broken promises in the past and totally self-centered conduct on his part, there is no earthly reason why the Likud, Yesh Atid and the National Unity Party (Gantz’s party), which polls predict will command together close to 70 Knesset seats in the 25th Knesset, cannot form a stable, Liberal-Conservative, security-minded coalition, including quite a few Hovshei Kipot.

This is a feasible dream but only for a post-Netanyahu era and only if Netanyahu will be replaced as leader of the Likud by someone who agrees with the recent statement by the head of the General Security Services, Ronen Bar, that the schisms within the Israeli society today, are as great, if not greater a threat to Israel’s security and well-being than is Iran.

Of course, it is highly desirable that both the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs (who together constitute 30% of the population) will be represented in the Government but neither group should be in a position to dictate policy.

But for the time being, we are in a different reality and Netanyahu’s goal is a government made up of the Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties and the extreme-right national religious parties, a government which is unlikely to command more than 61 or at most 62 Knesset MKs, and this only if the Arab representation in the Knesset will fall below the 10 Knesset seats it currently holds. 

That is why what happened last Thursday night is of such major importance to Netanyahu, who hopes to return to Balfour Street, and to his opponents, who hope he will fail to realize his ambition. Either way, a stable government is unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future and a sixth round of elections cannot be ruled out.

The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book is Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, published by Routledge.