Israel Pulse

Will political merger mania save or topple Netanyahu?

Article Summary
In Israel, the goal of toppling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has driven center and left-wing parties to unite through"technical linkages," but with no guarantee their alliance will survive the day after March 2 elections.

Anyone picking up a jar of mayonnaise on a supermarket shelf can find a detailed list of ingredients on its label, including the percentage of fat, sodium and number of calories per 100 grams. The law that requires manufacturers to provide consumers with this information was passed to enable them to buy the products best suited to their health needs and taste. On the other hand, Israelis entering the voting booth on March 2 will find 30 party ballots from which to choose, some 22 of them fly-by-night organizations that they will encounter for the first and last time on that occasion. There is no law or even a regulation obliging political parties to present potential “consumers” of their brand with their ingredients. In fact, even those that bother to formulate a party platform simply offer voters a collection of meaningless cliches.

The right-wing voter, whether secular, religious or ultra-Orthodox, who believes prosecutors have indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on trumped up charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, will obviously pick up the slip of paper with the name of one of the parties comprising the right wing-ultra-Orthodox bloc (Likud, Yamina, Otzma Yehudit, Yahadut HaTorah or Shas) and stuff it into the ballot box. All of these parties are standing by the accused Netanyahu.

For more than a decade, Netanyahu has delivered the goods most in demand by voters of the Likud and company — more settlements and less peace, an abundance of narcissism and heaps of xenophobia. Congested highways, overcrowded hospitals, record-breaking poverty, a huge budget deficit and foreign policy and security problems all pale in comparison to the existential threat that Netanyahu and his chorus dub a “left-wing regime.”

On the most critical issue, the Arab-Israeli conflict, even a magnifying glass could not help in discerning a gap between the positions of Netanyahu’s wannabe Likud successors — Israel Katz, Gideon Saar, Gilad Erdan and Nir Barkat. All support annexation of the West Bank or parts of it and oppose a two-state solution. That is why the parties considered the Likud’s “natural partners” will easily find a common denominator with whoever succeeds Netanyahu.

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Those casting their ballot for the Likud or one of its satellite parties can be certain that they did not inadvertently lend a hand to territorial concessions or a permanent agreement with the Palestinians based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offers withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for peace. Right-wing voters have no reason to suspect that when their elected officials say “no” to peace, they actually mean “maybe.” Anyone who has slightly deviated from the path, such as former Likud Knesset members Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan and Ronnie Milo, has found himself in a ditch, politically marginalized after opposing the radicalization of the party.

Right-wing voters, including settlers sick and tired of Netanyahu and his band, have the option of casting their ballot for the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beitenu, led by the hawkish former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. On Jan. 18, Liberman even expelled Culture Minister Miri Regev from the family of man, refusing to say hello to her on live television, explaining that he only greets “human beings.” It is a fairly safe bet that Liberman will not be joining a coalition government if it includes the Arab Joint List, whose members he considers “terror supporters.” On the other hand, it is also safe to assume that Joint List Chair Ayman Odeh would not sit alongside Liberman, a settler who has called for the transfer of Israel’s 21% Arab majority to other countries. Voters for the Joint List are obviously at no risk of having their ballots used to perpetuate Netanyahu’s rule.

The lives of right-wing voters are paradise, as Liberman likes to say, compared to those of Zionist left-wing voters who never lose faith in the prospect of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s removal from power has turned from being a means to regime change into the ultimate goal and an alternative to ideology. Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, who is second on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket, expressed it well. “The linkage between myself and [Labor Party leader] Amir [Peretz] is not one of interests; it is a true ideological connection,” said the one-time Knesset member for Yisrael Beitenu and former Gesher chair whose party failed to cross the electoral threshold in the April 2019 elections, leaving her out of the legislature. As for the recent alliance between Labor, Gesher and the left-wing Meretz, Levy-Abekasis added, “There is a chasm between Gesher and Meretz on diplomacy and security issues.”

How does Levy-Abekasis bridge the abyss over this teeny-weeny discrepancy? “[By forming] technical linkages far removed from ideological linkages only in order to bring about a change in policy on important issues,” she said, conceding that this technical link served only as a stopgap insurance policy to protect all three parties against possibly failing to cross the electoral threshold if they ran separately. In other words, left-wing believers who vote for the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance on March 2 should keep in mind that on March 3, Levy-Abekasis might sever her “technical linkage” with Meretz and leverage their votes to link up with her true ideological partners. She already has a mentor who can give her pointers in this regard. In 1992, David Levy, her father and a former Israeli foreign minister, easily flitted from the Likud to Yisrael Ahat, one of the temporary names adopted by Labor.

The 2014 law raising the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%, which was intended to keep Arab parties out of the Knesset, inadvertently gave birth to a “technical linkage” among four diverse Arab parties and to the Joint List emerging as the third largest Knesset faction. A Jewish Meretz voter wishing to protest the absence of Israeli-Arab representation in Labor-Gesher-Meretz would have a hard time voting for the Joint List instead, as the alliance also includes Islamist movement activists and Balad representatives.

“Technical linkages” is also a euphemism that can be used to describe the currently fashionable concoction constituting the Blue and White, which pretends to be a centrist party but would rather establish a government with the settler-supported right wing than cooperate with the Arab parties in a government coalition it hopes to form. A left-wing voter considering casting his ballot for Benny Gantz’s Blue and White to boost his support and help him unseat Netanyahu should consider which of the following is worse: that Gantz’s own views were reflected in his Jan. 14 visit to the City of David, the bastion of the Elad settler organization, and the declaration he made at the site — “Jerusalem will remain unified for eternity” — or that the former army chief is uttering false declarations to pick up votes on the right.

There is no room within Blue and White for left-wing voters even on non-defense issues. On Dec. 25, party senior Yair Lapid dissociated himself entirely from remarks by his Blue and White colleague Ofer Shelach, who dared to publicly support negotiations with the Palestinians on a two-state solution. Lapid instead promised Likud voters who switch allegiance to Blue and White, “We will not bring back Oslo [the 1993 accords between Israel and the Palestinians], there won't be a second withdrawal [like the 2005 pullout from Gaza], we will not restore socialism and you will not even be leaving the national camp.” Missing from Lapid's remarks is what there will be if his party takes the reins. He should remember that even the producer of a jar of mayonnaise has to reveal its contents.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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