With polls continuing to show Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud running neck-and-neck with Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Blue and White party ahead of the Sept. 17 election – and with Avigdor Liberman holding on to his coalition kingmaker status – it’s merger season in Israel, as political parties across the spectrum scramble to shore up their positions. Facing a 3.25 per cent voter threshold, for smaller parties and blocs, choosing the right running mates can mean the difference between coveted entry into the next Knesset and being left on the outside (not to mention the practical nullification of tens or even hundreds of thousands of votes).
There was a flurry of merger activity on the left in the last days of July as the Meretz party joined up with former prime minister Ehud Barak’s fledgling Israel Democratic Party and ex-Labor stalwart Stav Shaffir. That deal followed the announcement of Labor’s partnership with the Gesher party, led by Orly Levy-Abecassis, which effectively ended any chance of Labor uniting with Meretz to form a super-left bloc – Levy-Abecassis, formerly of Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, is persona non grata to many on the Israeli left.
Right-wing political parties are getting into the game, too, with the Union of Right-Wing Parties, headed by Rafi Peretz, agreeing to run on a joint slate with Ayelet Shaked’s New Right (see page 20.) Shaked will get top billing in the bloc. (By the time you read this, she and Peretz may have decided whether or not to welcome Otzma Yehudit, the modern-day Kahanist party, into their coalition.) Arab parties are also merging, with the Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad parties moving to run on a joint list.
Behind the scenes, Netanyahu was said to be urging further consolidation on the right, but in public, Likud and the prime minister are touting a different kind of relationship. Last weekend, a trio of massive banners were unfurled across three sides of the Likud’s 15-storey headquarters on King George Street in Tel Aviv, featuring Netanyahu with U.S. President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The ads feature the campaign slogan Netanyahu: In Another League.
It’s an accurate tagline for a man who, quite literally, is in a league of his own when it comes to the history of Israeli politics, after recently surpassing David Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest-serving prime minister. (To give you an idea of just how far ahead of the pack that pair are, the next two names on the list of Israeli prime ministers by time spent in office – Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, respectively – don’t even add up to Ben-Gurion’s final tally.)
None of this changes the fact that Netanyahu currently finds himself in a political bind, squeezed by Liberman and Blue and White, nor that the upcoming election is shaping up as a referendum on his continuing leadership (not that previous ones weren’t, to varying degrees). There is also the not-small matter of the fraud and breach of trust charges he is still facing. Win or lose, though, there’s simply no denying Benjamin Netanyahu’s place atop the Israeli political pyramid. The numbers don’t lie.