Divisions within Israel’s right-wing could cost more than an election

In a tragic irony, just at the moment a right-wing government could have finally secured the Israeli settlement enterprise, ill-will among right-wing faction leaders is preventing it.

Ayelet Shaked, Rafi Peretz, Naftali Bennett and Betzalel Smotrich at the launch of a housing plan of the Yemina Political alliance, ahead of the upcoming Sept. 17 general elections on Aug. 21, 2019. Photo by Ben Dori/Flash90.
Ayelet Shaked, Rafi Peretz, Naftali Bennett and Betzalel Smotrich at the launch of a housing plan of the Yemina Political alliance, ahead of the upcoming Sept. 17 general elections on Aug. 21, 2019. Photo by Ben Dori/Flash90.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

This week, just 48 hours prior to a deadline for submitting Knesset candidate lists ahead of Israel’s March 2 general election, the once dominant left-wing Labor Party and the far-left Meretz Party announced they would unite under a single ticket. With both parties currently receiving low numbers in pre-election polls, the move essentially guarantees that neither mainstay falls under the minimum vote threshold for entering the next Knesset.

For Blue and White, the Labor-Meretz alliance also ensures that Israel’s larger left-wing bloc will not lose critical mandates in its quest to remove embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office.  Votes for parties that fail to cross the 3.25 percent threshold are disqualified, and those Knesset seats are then distributed among parties that pass the threshold. In short, votes for parties that don’t enter the Knesset are wasted, and approximately half of the seats from votes a party on either fringe would have netted wind up on the other side of the political spectrum.

The left’s unity bid should serve as a wake-up call to Israel’s small right-wing parties, which for years have been plagued by power struggles and an inability to unite.

Recent decisions by right-wing parties to run independently have not only cost the right valuable seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament, they have also contributed to Netanyahu’s inability to form a stable right-wing government.

In April, during the first of the current series of elections, longtime ministers and Jewish Home Party leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked abandoned the national-religious party they had led since 2012 to form the New Right Party, aimed at drawing secular right-wing votes. The move was backed by certain polls that showed that two nationalist right-wing parties could score more electoral mandates than a single party.

The defection sent a shock wave through the national camp. In an effort to make sure Jewish Home would not fall below the threshold without its popular leaders, the party joined forces with the fringe right-wing Otzma Yehudit Party, with Netanyahu helping serve as a broker. The merger was widely panned, but proved valuable for Jewish Home, as it crossed the threshold with five seats in April.

Yet the defection backfired for Bennett and Shaked. The New Right failed to cross the threshold by a mere 2,000 votes. This essentially meant that four seats’ worth of right-wing votes were disqualified. After the tally, parties pledging their support for Netanyahu accounted for only 60 mandates, exactly one seat short of a parliamentary majority.

Had New Right received 2,000 more votes, or had the party not split to begin with, the right would have quickly formed a government and remained in power, averting second and third elections.

Prior to the September second election, Bennett and Shaked crawled their New Right Party back into a technical union with Jewish Home. But as part of the realignment Jewish Home jettisoned Otzma Yehudit, which then ran as an independent party. In the September elections, the Jewish Home-New Right alliance received six mandates, but Otzma failed to cross the threshold, sending approximately two right-wing Knesset seats’ worth of votes to the trash bin.

Now, prior to the third—and hopefully, definitive—election, New Right has pledged once again to go it alone. To make matters worse, Jewish Home risks imploding. Itself a combination of the veteran National Religious Party and National Union factions, Jewish Home’s relatively new leaders are at odds with each other, as well as with Otzma.

Such political disagreements among ideological allies are a decades-old theme of the national-religious camp. Running as separate entities will likely doom one or more—or all—of these factions to electoral failure, and to a further weakening of the recently dominant right-wing.

To make matters worse, the primarily Russian and secular right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman now refuses to sit in a Netanyahu-led government. Their resignation from the right-wing majority government in November 2018 set the path to early elections in motion. Regardless of the mistakes of the national parties, the refusal of Yisrael Beiteinu to sit with its former right-wing and religious allies, despite incredibly generous offers from Netanyahu, have sent the nation into political chaos.

Had the right-wing parties been willing to set aside political grievances and egos and sit together with Netanyahu’s Likud Party, they would easily have secured the mandates to keep the country on a center-right course. Instead, Israel is in an electoral nightmare, with a veteran world leader under indictment and no obvious path toward a right-wing, left-wing or centrist government.

The political impasse has held Israel back immensely after an impressive period of economic growth and relative security under the previous right-wing government. Budgets are stalled, legislative committees have been cancelled, and the transitional government led by Netanyahu has severe limits placed on its executive authority.

And yet the constituents with the most to lose from the impasse are those who repeatedly vote for the misaligned right-wing parties.

Nearly half a million residents across Judea and Samaria vote nearly unanimously for the right-wing and religious parties that formed the previous government. For decades, these voters have pressed the Israeli government to strengthen settlement communities and exercise sovereign rights over the biblical territories at the center of the dispute with the Palestinians.

And yet, even right-wing governments have been unable to effectively change the status of the disputed territories in Israel’s favor, due to immense diplomatic pressure and the prevailing but false narrative that Israeli settlements represent a violation of international law.

Ironically, it is just as Israel’s right threatens to come apart that a U.S. administration, led by U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has reversed a decades-old U.S. policy rejecting the legality of settlements. Under the direction of Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, the United States has similarly prepared a new peace outline that will shatter the failed Oslo Accord paradigm and recognize Israeli sovereignty over key strategic territories and Jewish communities in the West Bank.

Just at the moment in which a right-wing government would finally be able to secure and strengthen Israeli settlements well into the future, by annexing key territories, ill-will among faction leaders is preventing a mostly right-wing nation from finally achieving one of the most important goals on its political agenda.

Israel’s right-wing parties must set aside their differences to take advantage of an unprecedented period of U.S. political goodwill, that may not last under a future administration.

The inability of Israel’s right wing to unite in this critical moment could result in much more than an electoral failure.

Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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