More Intrigue in Israeli Elections

Ehud Barak (The World in HDR via Shutterstock)

by Mitchell Plitnick

A familiar face has introduced something new into the upcoming Israeli elections in September. Former prime minister Ehud Barak has formed a new party ahead of those elections and is working to unite the most left-wing Zionist parties behind him.

Barak characterized his new party as a challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and for the moment, that’s what it is. But it is also an effort to unseat Avigdor Liberman from his position as kingmaker. Liberman has thrown the Israeli electoral system into disarray by essentially demanding that Likud, without Netanyahu, and Benny Gantz’s and Yair Lapid’s Blue and White coalition form a unity government.

Barak’s new party will draw support away from Blue and White, but recent polls—both before and after Barak declared his candidacy—show that Likud stands to lose even more in new elections. The New Right party (HaYamin HeHadash) of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked barely missed the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset in April. According to new polls, it will crossing the line and get in.

Liberman’s scuttling of the last election has won him a few more seats as well, and the hope of thwarting this comeback is one likely reason that Barak has returned. As a result, most polls now show that Likud’s four-seat advantage from April has disappeared, and many more scenarios have opened up, most of them involving the forced departure of Netanyahu even before he is officially indicted.

Uniting the Israeli Center-Left

Barak claims that his polling shows that his party will get as many as 13 seats if elections were held today, but that is surely a wildly inflated number. Initial polling after his announcement showed his party getting six seats, and this seems more realistic.

The 77-year old former prime minister is hoping to pull the tattered remains of the Labor Party as well as the more left-leaning Meretz into a bloc ahead of the next elections. His ambitions got a boost on Thursday when Meretz voted for Nitzan Horowitz to replace Tamar Zandberg as its leader. Horowitz is known to be open to joining with Barak, although he has not made any commitments in that direction. Zandberg had been trying to blaze a trail toward a groundbreaking Arab-Jewish partnership.

Avi Gabbay, whose leadership was a disaster even by Labor’s recent standards, stepped down as head of the once-dominant party on June 12. Elections for the next leader will be held on July 2. Itzik Shmuli—who rose to prominence in the 2011 “social justice protests,” and has since become a prominent leader in Labor—is considered the favorite to prevail over fellow social justice activist Stav Shaffir and former Labor leader Amir Peretz. Shmuli has indicated that he would be open to joining forces with Barak’s new party.

A union between Barak, Labor, and Meretz could reasonably hope to win 15-20 seats in September, making it a formidable third party after Likud and Blue and White. Together with Blue and White, they could have 50 seats before even considering other parties.

But Barak knows how this works. It is highly unlikely that the union of these parties can come any closer to the 61-seat majority they would need to form a government, as there would be no natural allies left among the other parties. Even if they managed to entice Liberman to join them, they’d still likely be well short of 61 seats.

The centrists would then have two options: offer Likud the chance to form a unity government or invite the re-formed Joint List to join them.

The Joint List Returns

In 2015, the Joint List—composed of the Jewish-Arab Communist party, Hadash, and the Arab parties, Balad, Ta’al, and Ra’am—became the third largest party in the Knesset. It was born out of necessity—while the parties are grouped together in many minds, they actually have very sharp ideological differences—after Israel raised the threshold for parties to qualify for the Knesset, stirring fears that some of the parties would not qualify and the already marginalized votes of Palestinian citizens of Israel would be lost completely. Although it remained isolated politically in many ways, the sheer size of the Joint List’s bloc afforded a platform for some of its members—most notably its leader, Ayman Odeh—to raise the voice of Palestinian citizens of Israel in a way that had not been seen in decades.

But infighting tore the list apart prior to the April elections, and the List split into two factions. Due to decreased turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel, the two factions combined for three fewer seats than the Joint List had won in 2015, when it secured 13 seats. Current polls project that the reformed Joint List will gather 12 seats.

The centrists face the same dilemma that has bedeviled every potential ruling party that is to the left of Likud: the taboo against including the Arab, non-Zionist parties in a governing coalition. Once Blue and White and the Barak bloc come together, all the remaining parties aside from the Joint List are right wing or religious. It’s not impossible that some of the religious parties could be convinced to join with the centrists, with the right incentives, but it would be difficult as one of Blue and White’s leaders, Yair Lapid, has a hostile relationship with the religious groups. Similarly, the centrists could probably entice Liberman to join them, but that would probably cost them Meretz, so there would be little, if any, gain there. And even if they could make one of these things happen, they’re likely to still find themselves a few seats short without the Joint List.

Disarray On the Right

All is not well on the right-wing side of the political class in Israel either, so Likud, even without Netanyahu and like Blue and White, will have trouble forming a coalition with its natural partners alone. Therefore, some think Barak may eventually be the bridge between Likud and Blue and White.

The Jewish Power party, which caused some controversy when Netanyahu engineered its union with two other small, far-right parties, felt that it was not getting the respect it deserved. Through a combination of circumstances, the party did not end up with a seat in the Knesset, though it had been guaranteed one by the coalition. So, it left.

Jewish Power doesn’t have enough support to reach the Knesset on its own. Although likely to cost the United Right one seat, it is part of a general decline in support for the right-wing and religious parties. Current polls have all those parties losing seats, save two: The New Right, which now appears to qualify for the Knesset, and Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu faction, which is currently expected to gain two or three seats.

Likud appears significantly weaker. Netanyahu managed to lead Likud to 39 seats in April, but between his failure to form a government and his clear prioritization of his own interest in staying out of prison above forming a right-wing government, the tide is turning against him. Though he remains in control of Likud, that could change quickly if his continued leadership again prevents the formation of a government.

This chaotic threat to Netanyahu’s long rule is exactly what Liberman was hoping for when he refused to join Netanyahu’s right-wing government after the last election. He has put himself in a stronger position to squeeze Netanyahu out and make way for a new right-wing government where, he hopes, he will have considerably more influence. Although Liberman has held numerous high-profile positions under Netanyahu—deputy prime minister, foreign minister, and defense minister—his views and plans were largely ignored in the Israeli cabinet, and he has grown increasingly resentful of Netanyahu because of it.

All of this can change very quickly, and it is far from certain that these conditions will be the same by the time the election takes place in September. But for now, a government of national unity without Netanyahu at the head of Likud seems more likely than it was in April. In that case, there will be competition among the smaller parties to join the government rather than the norm of recent years where the bigger parties had to scramble to win support so they could form a governing coalition.

Barak Disrupts Liberman’s Plans

Liberman did not count on Barak’s return, which could prove highly problematic for him. Barak’s new party is polling close to Liberman’s and if these machinations do lead, finally, to Netanyahu’s ouster, the conditions will be set for a government of national unity between Blue and White and Likud. It becomes even more likely if Blue and White wins the most seats in September, since it would be unable to form a government with only the left-of-center Zionist parties. Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid are not the type to break with tradition and embrace partnership with the Joint List.

Should these maneuvers force Netanyahu out, but still lead to a Likud victory, Liberman would certainly try to leverage a center-right coalition without the religious parties he so despises. But now Barak is in the mix. His party could join a center-right coalition, possibly bring Labor with him, and, with the ultra-orthodox parties, potentially freeze out some of the farther right parties, including Liberman’s.

The bottom line is that Barak’s entry opens up more possibilities and gives either of the largest parties an alternative to Liberman as a top coalition partner. But all those possibilities hinge on Netanyahu’s departure.

The pressure for him to leave has never been greater. With Netanyahu leading Likud, Liberman would sustain huge political damage if he joins him. Barak has the option to join a Likud-led coalition. But even if it were possible to assemble a majority in the Knesset, Labor likely would not join with Netanyahu for that would mean Barak once again giving cover to a far-right government,.

But Netanyahu is tenacious in the extreme, and the prospect of indictment without the cover of the prime  minister’s office terrifies him. He won’t go quietly, and a recent parliamentary rule in Likud committed the party to back him in the next election. Although not insurmountable, such a rule makes it harder to push him out. This round of elections is promising to be much more intriguing than the last.

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.

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