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Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset on May 29.(Photo by: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Think About It: The unification season
By SUSAN HATTIS ROLEF
07/21/2019
The first merger being discussed is among the various National-Religious parties.
Within the next nine days, the current unification season among the Israeli political parties – including parties that were left out of the short-lived 21th Knesset – will come to an end. The deadline for the registration of lists intending to run in the elections for the 22nd Knesset is August 1, and all the lists are doing their best to make sure that they get through the 3.25% qualifying threshold, or maximize the number of their voters.
 
Already we have seen the merging of Kulanu into the Likud, and an agreement between Labor and Orly Levy-Abecassis’s Gesher, to run together in the September elections. According to opinion polls (that aren’t in the least accurate, but do indicate trends,) the first merger has not increased the number of the Likud’s voters, since Kulanu’s voters appear to have scattered elsewhere
The agreement between Labor and Gesher creates a Moroccan-led social list, which its leaders hope will bring over some right-wing social votes. However, the price is that Labor has already informed Meretz that it does not intend to continue negotiations with it for a merger between the two (objected to by the mildly right-wing Levy-Abecassis) and an agreement with Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party seems farther away than ever.
 
The current phenomenon of mergers is the direct result of Avigdor Liberman’s initiative towards the end of the 19th Knesset to raise the qualifying threshold from 2% to 3.25%, allegedly in order to improve the governability in Israel by reducing the number of small parties, but apparently also because he wanted to get rid of one or more of the Arab parties. All three major unifications on the political agenda today are connected to the qualifying threshold, and the interest of the various political blocs to avoid losing votes because of failure of splinter parties within the bloc to pass it.
 
The first merger being discussed is among the various National-Religious parties, only one of which – the New Right, which failed to get into the 21st Knesset by 1,400 votes – has any chances of passing the qualifying threshold if it runs on its own in September. In the April election, several religious splinter parties failed to pass the qualifying threshold, losing at least five Knesset seats for the Right.
 
The problem with the current efforts is that the only National-Religious list that did get into the 21st Knesset (Bayit Yehudi/National Union/Otzma Yehudit) is currently led by Rabbi Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich – both of whom have been appointed to ministerial positions in the current temporary government, and both of whom have recently made extremely controversial public statements that even moderate members of the National-Religious camp find inopportune and embarrassing. Peretz spoke in favor of Israeli annexation of the occupied territories without granting their Palestinian population any political rights and “conversion therapy” for gay men, and Smotrich in favor of the Torah law from the period of King David and King Solomon turning into the law of the land (with adaptations) and the Third Temple being constructed on the Temple Mount. Another problem is that the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit has suspended its membership in the joint list due to dissatisfaction with the attitude of the other two parties towards it.
The leadership problem of the union manifests itself in the fact that the largest percentage of National-Religious voters would prefer to see a non-religious woman – former justice minister Ayelet Shaked – as head of the united religious list, while some of the movement’s rabbis abhor the thought. Whether or not Shaked will be chosen to lead the list, or will rejoin Bennett as leader of the New Right, is yet to be seen (this article was written before the outcome of a meeting between the two on Saturday night was made known). However, it seems unlikely that all the National-Religious parties will end up running in a single list.
 
IN THE APRIL ELECTIONS, the four Arab parties – which had run in the 2015 elections in a single list in reaction to the 3.25% qualifying threshold – ended up running in two lists, and losing three Knesset seats (10 compared to 13). At the time of writing efforts to reestablish a single list have failed – apparently because Balad was dissatisfied with the places allotted to it in the list, but possibly also because of ideological issues. It should be noted that what the four parties have in common is that they are all Arab parties (though Hadash is formally a joint Arab-Jewish party with a Jewish member on its list) that have very little in common ideologically – from communist to Islamist – and with very different approaches on how to achieve the interests that they hold in common: The establishment of a Palestinian state, and attaining equality in the State of Israel.
 
Whether or not the four will finally run together (it has been reported that Balad is considering staying out of the Knesset altogether) is yet to be seen. However, it seems unlikely that they will manage to return to 13 Knesset seats (potentially, they could get 19-20 seats if the Arab citizens of Israel would come out to vote at a similar rate to the Jewish voters).
 
The possibility of a left-wing list – including Labor, Meretz and Barak’s Israel Democratic Party – seems at this point to have suffered a death blow. Last week, I was still optimistic about the prospect, but in the last week two developments changed the scene altogether. The first was the agreement between Labor leader Amir Peretz and Levy-Abecassis. The second is the current Barak affair. Though most left-wing voters are unlikely to believe that Barak was in any way involved in Jeffrey Epstein’s pedophilic exploits and believe that his visit to Epstein’s mansion in New York on the same day on which four young women were seen entering it was fortuitous, there are deep reservations concerning his direct and indirect financial relations with Epstein.
 
The new situation leaves Meretz in a dilemma with regards to how it can ensure passing the qualifying threshold in September without Labor or Barak. Former Labor Knesset speaker, Avrum Burg is offering an alternative in the form of a joint Jewish-Arab list, which could be joined by several deserters from the Labor Party, but it is difficult to see how all this can be organized within nine days.
 
It is also unclear what Barak will decide to do – continue to run on his own, possibly trying to join forces with Tzipi Livni and others, or withdraw from participation in the elections altogether.
 
Be all that as it may, though political mergers in themselves are generally a positive development, the process would be much healthier and effective if they were designed to create a more stable and coherent political reality in Israel, rather than save the skins of splinter parties representing an excessively divided society. The fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approaching indictment (following a hearing) and political survival is the main cause for the new elections and all the hullabaloo surrounding them, currently sweeps aside any serious treatment of the deeper problems concerning governability in Israel.
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