The Israeli political system has been in turmoil for the past week, ahead of the September 15 UKTN for parties to submit their lists of candidates for the upcoming general election. Reports of mergers and splits of parties have monopolized the headlines.
Everyone has been watching to see if the two parties on the Zionist left – Labor and Meretz – decide to work together. Prime Minister Yair Lapid has made every effort to unite the two parties.
Last night the drama came from the Arab parties.
In its heyday, the Joint List, a coalition of four parties, won a total of 15 seats. Then it started to fall apart. The first to leave were Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am party, who withdrew from the Joint List just before the March 2021 elections. It appeared that the remaining three parties would continue to operate together, but yesterday Balad withdrew from the agreement it had signed.
It was a devastating blow just hours before the UKTN for the parties to submit their candidate lists. Only two parties, Hadash and Ta’al, remained in the once mighty bloc. They will continue to run together, while Ta’al will remain independent, with no certainty that it will pass the electoral threshold. Ra’am has already announced that it will also run separately.
As the UKTN approached, the various factions opposed to Netanyahu got into an argument. The Arab parties were split, as were the parties on the left. The Labor party led by Merav Michaeli and Meretz, led by Zehava Gal-On, failed to reach an agreement to work together, as Lapid had hoped.
Yesterday it became clear that not only was Lapid incapable of uniting the left, but he had another problem. The possibility that Balad will fail the electoral threshold greatly increases the chances of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu winning the 61 seats he needs to form a right-wing ultra-Orthodox coalition. He has managed to unite all parties in the right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc under his leadership. In addition to his own Likud, his bloc has two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as Religious Zionism.
Meanwhile, in the opposing bloc, there is no universally accepted leader and divisions are growing. Lapid and Defense Secretary Benny Gantz are vying for the bloc’s candidate to form a new government, and there are concerns that at least one of the parties will fail the electoral threshold and bring down the entire bloc.
At present, five parties are balancing on the electoral threshold: Labour, Meretz, Yisrael Beitenu, Balad and Ra’am. According to polls, they will win just four to five seats each and also predict turnout in the Arab sector will be low. Arab-Israeli society has been largely indifferent to these elections after the current group of elected representatives failed to raise the community’s key issues despite an Arab party being a member of the ruling coalition.
Still, some see the new situation as favorable for the center left. Balad rejected any cooperation with the government on ideological grounds, claiming that it violated the party’s belief in a state of all its citizens. However, it gives Hadash and Ta’al more flexibility in their dealings with the government. Politics can be deceiving. Perhaps this is Lapid’s big chance to partner with Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi in exchange for their support in forming a coalition.
The breakup of the Joint List has cemented the race. A total of 40 parties will participate, but since most of them have no chance of reaching the electoral threshold, they are seen as nothing more than a gimmick.
There are now four stable parties and the vote will be close. Interior Secretary Ayelet Shaked insists on running as leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, but polls indicate she will not win voters from the Netanyahu camp and her party is far from over the electoral threshold. The current estimate is that if she fails to recover, she will withdraw from the race in the days leading up to the election.
Netanyahu can now campaign within his own bloc to convince voters of Religious Zionism, which is expected to win at least 10 seats and still pass the threshold even if Netanyahu robs some of his electorate.
By contrast, the internal battles within Lapid’s bloc are sure to be tough. The Arab parties will compete with each other for the same electorate. Meretz and Labor are also battling for left-wing votes, while Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the largest party after the Likud, is battling for the Russo-Israeli vote with Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Defense Secretary Gantz’s National Unity party. The possibility of this bloc conducting a coordinated campaign against Netanyahu, as they did in the previous election, is slim.
In addition, the anti-Netanyahu camp cannot agree on their candidate to form a new government. Lapid has the support of his own party and probably Meretz, but it is not at all certain that he can count on the PvdA. The National Unity party will certainly recommend its leader, Gantz.
The Arab parties are expected to recommend Ra’am Lapid or Gantz, while Hadash and Ta’al still have no plans to recommend anyone. They say they will investigate the situation after the election and then make a decision about their candidate. Should Balad pass the electoral threshold, he will not recommend anyone.
On the eve of the 2022 elections, there is not much left of the so-called “coalition of change” founded by Naftali Bennett, Lapid and Gantz. So many of its members, including several ministers and Bennett himself, have stepped out of politics that instead of presenting a united front, the opposite has happened.