With less than a month left until the election, polls show that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t have the 61 seats he needs to form a majority right-wing government with his ultra-Orthodox allies. According to the average outcome of the most recent polls (as of Aug. 21), a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox coalition would win only 57 seats — four less than it needs.
The Likud believes that they can win those missing seats. They base this assumption on the results of the April election, in which two right-wing parties — the New Right of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut — failed to pass the electoral threshold, and “wasted’’ 256,000 votes, enough for roughly seven seats. Some of those seats are expected to transfer to the Rightward party (Yamina), the new merger of parties on the right, which includes Shaked and Bennett, but others will likely be lost. This is because Zehut wants to run alone again, with most polls giving it two seats, which is well below the electoral threshold of four seats (3.25% of all valid votes).
The Likud’s problem is that there are two other parties on the far right that are unlikely to get past the electoral threshold stumbling block. According to the polls, the two parties together would win two to three seats in total. The parties are far right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), made up of followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and Noam, which represents the ultra-Orthodox Zionist sector. The latter party refused to join the other right-wing parties because it does not want to be part of a list with women or secular candidates.
“We are heading toward another round of elections and they are totally unnecessary,” said Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi in a radio interview Aug. 15. “One reason is that more than 250,000 people went to the polls on April 9 … and their votes got tossed in the garbage. Their votes weren’t counted. We worry that the same phenomenon will repeat itself. … It is hard to see how people who already voted once — and whose votes were lost — would repeat the same mistake a month from now.”
Once the lists were finalized, the Likud focused on Feiglin’s Zehut party, most of whose voters are from the religious Zionist sector. This is a diverse group, with relatively liberal views on civil and religious matters. In other words, its supporters could potentially vote Likud. A report on Channel 13 claimed that Netanyahu sent messengers to Feiglin, suggesting that he drop out of the upcoming election in exchange for help in covering his party’s debts, which amount to some 3 million shekels ($850,000).
An investigation by Al-Monitor found that the offer was far more generous and extensive than that. The messengers told Feiglin that he would be brought back into the Likud, which he quit over four years ago. Similarly, his people would be integrated in the party’s institutions, and the Likud would discuss incorporating some of the principles that feature in the Zehut party platform.
In any case, Feiglin rejected the proposal, explaining that “It should be obvious to everyone that we will not trade the vision and message of Zehut for some seat or other, in exchange for covering our debts, or any other political benefit. … The first person who should support Zehut running is Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, he is well aware that Zehut’s votes are not in the pocket of the right. … The party’s voters [— should it leave the race —] would switch allegiance to [Avigdor] Liberman or [Benny] Gantz, or just go to the beach on election day. Without Zehut, there will be no right-wing government!”
Having failed in his attempts to get Otzma Yehudit to merge with Rightward, the Likud began to cooperate with the party’s representatives. The Likud supported Otzma Yehudit before the Central Election Committee, when the left demanded that it be disqualified from the upcoming election, and it partnered with Otzma Yehudit in a petition to the Supreme Court to disqualify the Joint List, which consists of four Arab parties.
In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir, who heads the Otzma Yehudit party, explained that the Likud realized that most of the party’s supporters would not vote for another party. He said that one poll showed that 80% of the party’s voters are not even considering voting for another party, and that if their party is disqualified, they simply will not vote. “That's why it is important to strengthen us — to make sure we pass the voter threshold,” he added. “The way things look in the polls, the only chance Netanyahu has to form a right-wing government is if we pass the voter threshold.”
While Hanegbi doesn’t seem too happy about bolstering Otzma Yehudit, he is aware of the significance of that party failing in the election. “We don’t agree with their opinions. In fact, we are repulsed by them. They have nothing to do with us,” he said in a radio interview. “On the other hand, we don’t want to lose the government because people voted for parties, when their votes will not count. We are very pleased that all the polls show that Otzma Yehudit is unlikely to be in the next Knesset. There is no chance that they will get elected, but what is true is that the votes of their supporters will not be brought before the Central Election Committee either, and that infuriates us.”
The Likud also sent out feelers to the Noam party to see if it really plans to run in the election. Among other things, Netanyahu sent messengers to the party’s spiritual leader Rabbi Tzvi Tau. One of the rabbis close to Tau told Al-Monitor that there was a possibility the rabbi would, in fact, instruct the party to drop out of the election. On the other hand, Rabbi Dror Aryeh, who heads the list, told Al-Monitor that the party’s campaign to restore Jewish values to the Israeli public space has been getting excellent reactions. ‘’We don’t take the polls into consideration,” he said. “We are going all the way. All these attempts to convince us otherwise will not divert us from our path.”
Given the unlikely possibility that the Likud will succeed in convincing Zehut, Otzma Yehudit and Noam to drop out of the election, the party’s campaign is focused on the religious Zionist media with the message that a vote for these parties would bring the left to power. Hanegbi believes that the next government might actually be formed by the Likud with parties on the center-left. In other words, it is quite possible that the Likud has given up on the possibility of a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox coalition.
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