Tel Aviv — A visitor to Tel Aviv would be hard-pressed to tell that Israel is getting ready to hold a parliamentary election in less than two months. Political banners are almost nowhere to be seen. There are no election rallies in the streets.
But despite the outward appearances, Israeli parties have been awash in politicking and negotiations that could very well determine the outcome of the Sept. 17 vote — the second general election in less than six months.
Ahead of an Aug. 1 deadline for the competitors to submit their candidate lists, the political map has seen three major mergers — one on the right, one on the left and one among Arab parties — to shore up voter support.
In this do-over election, politicians are aiming to try to avoid what is perceived as the mistake of the first round — the sin of the go-it-alone political bid.
Some 336,000 votes, or 8.5 percent of the total, went to splinter parties that failed to make the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. Israelis say they were “wasted” ballots because the votes aren’t counted when dividing up the 120 seats among the parties that got more than this threshold.
Those wasted votes would have commanded 10 seats — most of which would have gone to parties to the right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
And so, on Monday, the splinter party from the last round of voting, The New Right, led by former Education Minister Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, agreed to come back and reunite with the Zionist religious Jewish Home party that they broke off from a few months ago.
Despite narrowly failing to clear the electoral threshold, The New Right’s Shaked will head the united party, and Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the leader of the Jewish Home party who riled public opinion with comments on intermarriage and the so-called “conversion therapy,” for people who are gay, will be the No. 2. (Peretz referred to intermarriage in the diaspora as “a second Holocaust.”)
“We’ve united the right-wing parties for a joint run in order to ensure that precious votes don’t get thrown in the trash,” Shaked declared on Twitter.
In a first, a secular woman from Tel Aviv will lead a political party that draws from Israel’s religious Zionist constituency, which prioritizes expanding settlements in the West Bank.
“It’s a big achievement [for Shaked]. All the polls show she’s very popular. Rafi Peretz and the others can’t ignore it anymore,” Tal Schneider, the political correspondent for the Israeli financial daily Globes, told The Jewish Week. “She is seen as resilient and very disciplined. She is straightforward, unapologetic and ideologically clear. Her constituency really appreciates her straightforwardness.”
Following the merger, the parties focused on including Jewish Power, a radical party composed of disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, which supports enacting Jewish religious law and encouraging the emigration of Arab Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank.
Despite the move to consolidate the ideological right wing, Netanyahu opposed Jewish Home’s reunification with Shaked and Bennett. For one, the unified party could help spur enthusiasm on the right at the expense of the Likud. At the same time, Netanyahu doesn’t like Shaked and Bennett and would prefer to negotiate a coalition deal with Peretz — who is seen as more deferential, said Schneider.
Netanyahu has also been focusing on outreach to Russian-speaking Israelis in a clash with Avigdor Lieberman. This week, Likud unveiled a gigantic poster of Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu welcomed a plane with immigrants from Ukraine, and scheduled a meeting with Russian bloggers.
The former defense minister leads a party of former Soviet Union immigrants and balked at joining Netanyahu’s coalition after the last election, accusing the prime minister of being too deferential to the ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman has warned that Netanyahu’s coalition would result in a government that institutes halachic law.
The last week has seen mergers on the other side of the political map as well. The left-wing Meretz party and newly minted leader Nitzan Horowitz announced a union — the Democratic Camp party — with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s party and Stav Shaffir, a young luminary of the Labor Party. Shaffir left the party after newly elected leader Amir Peretz forged a union with the center right Gesher party, which failed to pass the electoral threshold during the last election.
Meretz was dangerously close to missing the election threshold in the first round of voting, and was saved by an influx of Arab voters.
On Tuesday, Barak made an appeal to join forces with Blue and White, the centrist party that tied Likud in the last election with 35 seats. However, a joint bid between Blue and White, which includes former Likud aides, and Meretz seems unlikely.
“It’s simple math — there aren’t enough voters to go around for all the parties that are out there,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert who is advising the new party. “That’s why Meretz is always on the verge of going under. That’s why it was impossible to have three parties running to the left of Blue and White.”
Another important merger occurred among four leading Arab parties, who reformed their Joint List alliance this week after running in two separate parties for the first round of voting. Frustrated Arab voters punished the party both by staying home and voting for Jewish parties like Meretz in higher numbers.
In a poll of Arab residents released on Tuesday, only 42 percent of respondents said they would definitely vote and 36 percent said they were undecided.
Many among Israel’s one-fifth Arab minority and the Israeli opposition hope that the reunification of the Joint List will boost Arab turnout from the all-time low of 49 percent in the last election. The Joint List went from 13 seats in 2015 to a result of 10 seats in the last election. Boosting Arab turnout would strengthen the bloc opposing Netanyahu (even though the parties refuse to endorse Blue and White for prime minister).
Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that the Arab vote could potentially command 20 seats in the parliament if there were comparable turnout to Jewish Israelis.
“The question of the Arab vote is: Why didn’t they come out to vote last time?” he told The Jewish Week. “Was it because of the Joint List, or is it because of frustration with Arab politicians, or alienation from Israeli politics in general?
“They have to find a way to get out their vote.”