With yesterday’s deadline for parties to register and submit their candidate lists to Israel’s Central Elections Committee, the breakdown of the field for the third Israeli election in eleven months is now set. As with the previous two elections, Likud and Kachol Lavan are the two heavyweights anchoring opposing electoral blocs, with smaller contenders sitting at the left and right poles, the Haredi parties and the Joint List commanding their respective constituencies, and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu floating in interstellar space. While nobody expects the ultimate outcome of this election to be any different than the deadlock that reigned after the first two, the maneuvering that took place this week between the smaller parties at the ideological edges says something about the Israeli right and left, how they balance principles with politics, and how they view their future prospects.
In the previous election, there were mergers on the left that resulted in two parties competing over similar pools of voters. Labor under Amir Peretz merged with Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher to create a party that touted its appeal to Israelis concerned with socioeconomic issues, while Meretz under Nitzan Horowitz merged with Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party to create the Democratic Union in an effort to capture the traditional left. In reality, there was no evidence that Labor-Gesher actually drew more right-wing voters concerned with social issues, and the result was six seats for Labor-Gesher and five for the Democratic Union with not much to distinguish the two parties on policy.
In anticipation of the third election and despite Peretz’s repeated public reticence, Labor and the Democratic Union decided to join forces and merge, foreclosing the possibility that one or both parties would fall below the Knesset electoral threshold and waste left of center votes. While the move makes complete sense politically, it does indeed create some friction within the enlarged faction akin to some of the internal tension that plagues Kachol Lavan. Peretz’s partnership with Levy-Abekasis was intended to draw right of center votes away from Likud and toward Labor on the theory that Levy-Abekasis’s right-wing bonafides and orientation toward social issues would give voters who fit that mix a comfort level in voting for a traditionally left-wing party. One of the reasons that Labor and the Democratic Union ran separately last time and waited until this week to merge this time was reportedly over Levy-Abekasis’s objection to joining with the leftist Meretz party.
Bridging the divide between Gesher (no pun intended) and Meretz was not the only compromise involved in uniting the Jewish parties to Kachol Lavan’s left. In agreeing to the larger combined list, Arab Meretz MK Issawi Frej was placed in the eleventh slot after having been fourth on the Meretz list in the April election and sixth on the Democratic Union list in the September election. Meretz has traditionally included Arab lawmakers relatively high on its list and has always drawn votes from Arab citizens, yet in agreeing to merge with Labor, the Democratic Union calculated that not risking wasted votes was the priority. In addition, erstwhile Labor and Democratic Union MK Stav Shaffir was left off the merged list entirely – most likely the cost of her leaving Labor after the first election – and announced yesterday that she would take a timeout from politics and put her personal ambitions aside rather than run independently and risk wasting votes that would ultimately give Netanyahu a potential edge.
The left’s clear choice to set aside ideological differences and put politics over policy principles is a reflection of its recent electoral fortunes. Not only is the left dealing with a decades-long era of right-wing dominance, it is unanimously agreed on the necessity of replacing Prime Minister Netanyahu with anyone else. The famous political science dictum that you stand based on where you sit is behind nearly every decision that Kachol Lavan and parties to its left are making. It is far easier to stand on principle when your political situation is not one of constant frustration and being relegated to what feels like the permanent opposition. This is magnified by the fact that the seats held by Labor and Meretz have fallen to historically low levels due to Kachol Lavan’s dominance, and after two disappointing elections within the span of six months, both have inevitably come to the conclusion that the time for standing on principle is over.
The opposite dynamic took place this week on the right, though it is not the clear victory of principles over politics that it may seem like at first glance. Much like the pressure on the smaller parties on the left to merge so as not to waste votes, pressure has been building on the four religious nationalist parties to Likud’s right to run together. These four parties – Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right, Rafi Peretz’s Bayit Yehudi, Bezalel Smotrich’s Tekuma, and Itamar Ben Gvir’s Kahanist Otzma Yehudit – have engaged in a complicated dance since the first election in April, when New Right ran independently and missed the Knesset threshold while the other three ran together as the Union of Right-Wing Parties. While Bayit Yehudi and Tekuma took enormous heat for allowing the fascist descendant of the banned Kach party into the fold, New Right was chastened for its independence after wasting around 130,000 votes in the first round. This led these three to run in the second election as Yemina, with Otzma Yehudit left to run on its own and thankfully fall well below the Knesset threshold.
In preparation for this election, Peretz oddly approached Ben Gvir and negotiated an agreement for Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit to run together before any other agreements were reached. Peretz’s reasoning is hard to fathom; he may have wanted to get an edge over his rival, Tekuma leader Smotrich, or he may have mistakenly thought that rehabilitating Otzma Yehudit before anyone else had a chance to weigh in would make the four parties running together a fait accompli. Whatever his thinking, the move backfired as Bennett elected to run with Smotrich – who is popular in his own right within Bayit Yehudi and will likely draw some of their voters – and categorically ruled out any association with Otzma Yehudit. In a particularly pointed and strident Facebook post yesterday, Bennett blasted Ben Gvir for infamously hanging a picture of notorious Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein in his living room and Otzma Yehudit for supporting violent lawlessness against Palestinians and against Israeli state institutions.
Bennett’s stance came in the face of pressure from Netanyahu, who tried his best to cajole the four parties to run together and reportedly even threatened to fire Bennett as defense minister if he did not acquiesce. In the end, Bennett stood strong while Peretz was the one who ultimately blinked, pulling out of his agreement with Ben Gvir just minutes ahead of the filing deadline and again joining up with Bennett and Smotrich, replicating the Yemina list from the second election and again leaving the Kahanists standing isolated. There is no question that this resolution will again lead to wasted votes on the right, as despite the fact that Otzma Yehudit will not cross the threshold on its own, it is running anyway and may command as many as 90,000 votes. In this instance, the politically smart result lost to the more principled result, and is the kind of decision that gets made by parties that are used to being in the government and do not feel the same kind of win-at-all-costs desperation (though notably, the same cannot be said for Netanyahu, who may be the most desperate actor of all and consequently pushed for the Kahanists to be included with open arms).
With that said, there is another element at play here. Bennett has a history of standing up for more liberal principles, but unlike Peretz, Smotrich, or the execrable Ben Gvir, Bennett also harbors higher prime ministerial ambitions. Sharing a slate with Kahanists is not only morally reprehensible but also politically damaging to Bennett’s future hopes. The truth is that when it comes to their actual viewpoints, not much distinguishes Ben Gvir from Smotrich, who would have been a likely Kahanist had he been born twenty years earlier. But there is a difference between partnering with someone who talks like a Kahanist and partnering with someone who actually is a Kahanist.
With the slates for the third election now set, the real electioneering will begin, and we will get a chance to see which of these bets pays off. With the margin between the two sides as thin as it is, these decisions made in January may have real consequences come March 2.