From the Editor: Campaign wheeling and dealing in Israel

By Michael Regenstreif, Editor

With Israel’s system of proportional representation and its many political parties – many of which are focused on a single issue or represent a specific cultural or religious community, and many of which come and go – it’s virtually impossible for any party to form a majority government without bringing together a coalition.

For example, Benjamin Netanyahu put together a governing coalition with the support of other parties in 2015 – mostly by promising control of certain cabinet ministries to other parties – after his Likud Party received 23.4 per cent of the vote to win 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Two deals between parties announced late last month could have major effects on the outcome of the April 9 Israeli election, and on the wheeling and dealing between parties that will take place after the votes are counted in order to assemble a governing coalition.

The first deal merges three centrist parties – two of them newly-formed – under prominent military and political figures to create the new Blue and White Party (named for the colours of the Israeli flag). Combining to form what could be the most significant new political force in Israel in many years were Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party (a former general, Gantz was chief of the Israel Defense Forces’ general staff from 2011 to 2015); Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party (a former journalist, Lapid served as Israel’s finance minister from 2013 to 2014); and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem Party (Ya’alon is also a former general and chief of the Israel Defense Forces’ general staff who served as Netanyahu’s minister of defence from 2013 to 2016).

Gabi Ashkenazi, another former general and chief of the Israel Defense Forces’ general staff, is also part of the Blue and White Party’s leadership team.

Under terms of the merger Gantz and Lapid would rotate the prime-minister-ship after two-and-a-half years.

The Jerusalem Post reported that polling immediately after the merger was announced suggested that the Blue and White Party could overtake Netanyahu’s Likud and perhaps win 36 seats to become the leading party in the race to form a governing coalition.

The other deal brings together two parties on the right and extreme right: Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit.

Jewish Home was part of Netanyahu’s 2015 coalition but its two most prominent members – Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – recently split off to form the New Right Party.

Otzma Yehudit (Jewish power) is an extremist party which advocates the relocation of West Bank Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to Arab countries – in other words, ethnic cleansing. The party is the successor to Meir Kahane’s Kach Party – a party that has been banned from running for the Knesset due to its racist ideology since 1988 and banned outright since 1994.

The electoral threshold for a party to obtain seats in the Knesset is 3.25 per cent of the popular vote – which would mean four seats. Polling has suggested that neither the current version of Jewish Home or Otzma Yehudit would crack the threshold on its own – but jointly they may win four or five seats.

And as the leading parties scramble to assemble a governing coalition after the election, those four or five seats would be crucial for Netanyahu’s chances. Knowing this, it was Netanyahu himself who reportedly brokered the deal by apparently promising two seats at his cabinet table to the joint ticket.

While it’s highly unlikely that a cabinet position would go to one of the Otzma Yehudit candidates, it’s frankly appalling that Netanyahu would broker a deal that would lend political legitimacy to a group that should never have moved beyond the fringe.

And there is still another wild card which could affect the outcome of the election as Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is widely expected to announce – possibly as early as this week – whether he will accept police recommendations that Netanyahu be indicted on several corruption charges. Although the prime minister denies the validity of the allegations against him and has said he will not stand down if indicted, it remains to be seen if his support will weaken significantly enough if he is indicted to change the outcome of the election. Some Israeli analysts suggest that it would.