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A Note from Michal Sella: A Note from Michal Sella: After Mergers Focus on Issues
Analysis from Michal Sella, Director of the Shatil Center for Policy Change
With the August 1 deadline approaching, when parties will need to decide on any mergers or joint lists, this election is beginning to take shape. Until now, the left-wing and right-wing blocs as well as the Arab-majority parties have been dealing endlessly with the question of unification. Today, we finally have some (quite dramatic) answers.
This week, the Meretz Party, headed by Nitzan Horowitz, announced a dramatic merger with Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel along with the Labor Party’s Stav Shaffir, who has broken away from the party where she got her political start to serve as this new party’s number two. The new list, which is being provisionally called the Democratic Camp, will be headed by Horowitz. Together, they are courting Amir Peretz, the new Labor leader, who last week joined with Orly Levy-Abekasis, formerly a member of Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu. The Demoratic Camp wants to be the address for the Israel’s left.
While Peretz earlier was dismissive of a broader unification between the Labor Party and Barak’s new party, due to the Democratic Camp’s emergence, he may reconsider his dismissal of that possibility. The Labor Party must decide what they will do in the face of a unifying left bloc. They have lost some of their most reliable political talent, with Shelly Yachimovich announcing her exit from the political scene, and with MK Itzik Shmuli ‘considering his next steps’ if his party fails to unite with the Democratic Camp. (The Meretz-Barak-Shaffir agreement has reserved an additional seat for a Labor MK of Shaffir’s choosing). Barak, for his part, has surprisingly, taken the tenth spot on the new party list, putting two of his subordinates ahead of himself on the list.
Meanwhile, the Arab-majority parties are still attempting to reach a still-elusive merger. A planned press conference last week was meant to announce a renewed “Joint Arab List.” But it fizzled at the last minute, apparently due to disagreements over the distribution of seats to each party on the list. This week the leader of the Ta’al Party, Ahmad Tibi, announced his party would accept a proposal of the Reconciliation Committee, as the basis for reconstituting the Joint List, a coalition of the four Arab-majority parties in Israel, leaving Balad as the only party yet to accept the committee’s proposal. Without formalizing an agreement to merge, the Arab-majority parties risk failing to pass the electoral threshold to make it into the 22nd Knesset.
Finally, a union between two or more parties on the far right is expected, though not yet clinched. Such a union — between the Jewish Home headed by Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who Benjamin Netanyahu recently appointed as interim Minister of Education, the Kahanist party known as Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut Party and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right — has yet to emerge. What is clear however is that former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who assumed the top spot in the New Right Party on July 21, is emerging as the key player. The remaining question is whether she will be able to cement a bloc of right-wing parties under her leadership or whether the parties to the right of Likud will remain divided — and hover near the electoral threshold.
Far be it from me to understate the significance of these mergers, but so much ink has been spilled over the questions of will-they-won’t-they that it feels as though the only relevant question in Israeli politics is the composition of the parties. It’s as if this election were taking place somewhere else – in another country where elections were not held mere months ago; as if its incumbent prime minister were not facing three separate criminal indictments; as if the candidates on the ballot were not promising to steer Israel down the road of annexation and apartheid. It’s as though there were no issues of consequence facing the Israeli public. Instead we’re just discussing who will run with whom.
Now, as the first of August will soon pass into our collective rearview mirror, perhaps we will actually get around to talking about the issues Israelis care about — and that we expect our government to address: How our democracy is on thin ice. How our justice system is under threat from a prime minister facing indictment and seeking immunity at all costs. How there are any number of social crises roiling beneath the surface of our politics. We have a housing crisis. Families face rising living costs while salaries are frozen in place. Our health system, our education system, and fundamental divides over matters of religion and state–all of these issues demand our attention.
On the one hand, all Israelis know that these are the issues that matter most in our everyday lives, but our political conversation too rarely reflects that. If our democratic process is going to truly address the needs of Israelis, we have to make sure our public agenda reflects that. And we only have several months to change the script.
The Run-Down: Shifts and Splits in Party Politics
With the August 1 deadline looming when parties’ official lists must be finalized, attention is focused on party mergers. Here is what we have seen so far.
- MAJOR MERGER — DEMOCRATIC CAMP: Since former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak launched his new center-left party Yisrael Democratit (Democratic Israel) in June, he has positioned the party to broaden the left wing bloc. This week, there was a major breakthrough: the Meretz Party, headed by Nitzan Horowitz announced a dramatic merger with Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel along with Labor’s Stav Shaffir, who has broken away from the party to assume the number two slot in the new party. The new list, which is being provisionally called the Democratic Camp, will be led by Nitzan Horowitz. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak will occupy the tenth position in the joint list, and one seat will be left open for a Labor MK of Shaffir’s choosing.
- LABOR AND GESHER MERGE: Amir Peretz, the newly elected head of Labor, held a press conference this week alongside Orli Levi Abekasis, whose Gesher Party did not break the electoral threshold during the previous election. Together they announced that they would be running in the September elections under a joint list. While Peretz earlier had reportedly made progress with Meretz towards formalizing an agreement allowing them to run jointly, no such agreement was reached. Following his party’s merger with Gesher, Peretz announced he was stopping merger talks between the Labor Party and Meretz. Peretz has reportedly said privately that no further merger agreement would be pursued, but that remains to be seen.
- BLUE AND WHITE: The largest opposition party, Kachol Lavan (Blue and White), led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, will run again with its list intact. Tensions were aired within the party over the rotation agreement between Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, which were the terms of the party’s merger ahead of the previous elections. For now, it appears the agreement between Gantz and Lapid will remain in effect. Gantz earlier endeavored unsuccessfully to bring Orli Levy-Abekasis into his party, and welcomed her party’s merger with Labor.
- NEW RIGHT: The New Right Party selected former Justice Minister MK Ayelet Shaked as chairperson, replacing Naftali Bennet. She has entrusted Bennett to lead negotiations with the Union of Right Wing Parties, as she seeks to unite a broad right wing bloc under her leadership. No such agreement has been reached.
- UNION OF RIGHT WING PARTIES: On the right, the question remains whether the Union of Right Wing Parties, a list orchestrated by Prime Minister Netanayhu to expand the size of the right wing bloc, will run again in its current form and under its current leadership. The leader of the Jewish Home Party and head of the Union of Right Wing Parties, Rafi Peretz, has come under increased public pressure following his incendiary public statements. Earlier, Ayelet Shaked was offered second place in the Union of Right Wing Parties and her choice of portfolio, however, as the newly elected head of the New Right, she is holding out assume leadership of any united right wing bloc that includes her own party, New Right, her former party Jewish Home, as well as Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union Party and Itamar Ben Gvir’s Kahanist faction, Otzma Yehudit. Prime Minister Netanyahu is keen to prevent a fracturing among the right wing parties, due to the risk that smaller factions may fall below the electoral threshold.
- JOINT ARAB LIST: While the Arab-majority parties were expected to formally announce their re-unification under a Joint List, last week their joint press conference was cancelled, due to a dispute between the parties over allocation of spots on the joint list. This week the leader of the Ta’al Party Ahmad Tibi announced his party would accept a proposal of an independent Reconciliation Committee as the basis for reconstituting the Joint List, a coalition of the four Arab-majority parties in Israel, leaving Balad as the only party yet to accept the committee’s proposal. Many credit the poor performance of the Arab-majority parties in the last election to the breakup of the 2015 Joint Arab List combined with the potent effect of voter suppression and delegitimization of Arab political participation. Speculation is that the remaining disputes will be resolved before the August deadline.
NIF Issues in Play
OCCUPATION AND ANNEXATION
In an interview with journalist Dana Weiss on Channel 12 last week, interim Education Minister Rafi Peretz (Jewish Home) openly endorsed the idea of an apartheid-syle regime in the West Bank, endorsing Israel’s unilateral annexation of the West Bank without granting citizenship or voting rights to the Palestinians who reside there. Peretz said, “I want to extend Israeli sovereignty to the entirety of Judaea and Samaria [the West Bank]. If it’s in stages, I don’t care, I want it to happen. That’s our land.” Asked whether under such a scenario, he would intend to grant citizenship to Palestinians residing there, Peretz replied: “We will take care of all their needs; we’ll make sure that they prosper [lit. that it’s good for them]; but we will not give them the ability to interfere politically.”
When Weiss pointed out that extending Israeli sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank without granting voting rights for Palestinians is “called apartheid,” Peretz answered, “We find ourselves in a complicated reality in Israeli society and in the State of Israel, and we need to find solutions….[But of] course they will not be able to vote.”
While Peretz’ comments regarding conversion therapy for LGBT youth were met with widespread uproar and condemnation even from Prime Minsiter Netnayahu, no such uproar ensued over his endorsement of apartheid in the West Bank.
Netanyahu Pledges To Advance Settlements
Meanwhile, at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly recommited and expanded upon his campaign pledge from the last election not to remove a single settlement or settler. Netanyahu said: “Here’s a commitment for you. Write it down. It isn’t limited in time or at all—settlements in Israel won’t be uprooted. Neither Jewish nor Arab settlements. We don’t uproot people. We’re done with that folly… there are several principles that guide me on the issue of Judea and Samaria:
- This is our country and homeland.
- We will continue to develop it and to build it.
- In any peace plan, not a single settlement and not a single settler will be uprooted.
- The IDF and the security forces will continue to control the entire territory up to the Jordan [river]. Nor do I distinguish between the settlement blocs and the isolated settlements. Every settlement point of that kind is Israeli from my perspective.
- I am acting to secure international consent to those principles. Look what we got done on the Golan Heights, what we got done in Jerusalem.”
Read: Netanyahu says he’ll never evacuate West Bank settlements, by Akiva Eldar (Al Monitor)
Meanwhile, since 2017, according to a report released this week by Peace Now, at least 16 new outposts have been established in the West Bank since 2017 — while a total of 31 such outposts have been established since 2012.
EQUALITY AND INCLUSIVE CITIZENSHIP
There was an uproar last week over comments made to Channel 12 News by Education Minister Rafi Peretz (Jewish Home) endorsing the practice of “conversion therapy” as a legitimate “treatment” for LGBT youth. Peretz, a follower of Rabbi Tzvi Tau, the spiritual leader of the Haredi-nationalist stream ensorsed the discredited practice, saying “I think it is possible [succesful conversion therapy]. I can tell you I have a very deep familiarity with this type of education and I have also done this.”
The Israel Medical Association (IMA) has banned conversation therapy, citing evidence of psychological harm it causes, and has warned that doctors who use it may be expelled from their membership. Peretz’ comments were met with widespread condemnation outside his own camp. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from his own minister’s comments saying that the remarks by Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz were unacceptable to him and do not reflect the position of the government under his leadership.
READ: Israeli Education Minister Advocates Debunked Gay Conversion Therapy, by Isabel Kershner (New York Times)
READ MORE: Gay Conversion Controversy Reveals Seismic Shift in Israeli Politics, by Anshel Pfeffer (Haaretz)
As a result of the public outcry, Education Minister Rafi Peretz sent a letter yesterday to high school principals in Tel Aviv, who threatened to strike at the start of the school year, in which he repudiated gay conversion therapy as “unacceptable and grave.” Meanwhile a new anti-LGBT political party, NOAM (A Normal People in Our Land) was registered to run in the September elections.
Police Violence Against Ethiopian Israelis
The lethal police shooting on July 1, 2019 of Ethiopian-Israeli youth Salamon Taka in Kiryat Haim led to massive protests of police brutality and the discriminatory targeting Israelis of Ethiopian descent. The officer who killed Teka is on forced leave but will face reduced charges which carry a maximum sentence of 12 years imprisonment. The case will be transferred to the State’s Attorney’s Office. Israel’s Attorney General and Police Commissioner have pledged to set up a joint team to “ensure effective treatment by the Israel Police and the police investigations department of Ethiopian Israelis’ complaints.” The team pledged to look into recommendations in a 2017 report by the state comptroller on police brutality.
Ethiopian-Israeli citizens continue to protest in front of the Knesset demanding the formation of a Knesset commission.
A special plenary session of the Knesset was called by Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) on the matter of discrimiantion and police violence against Israelis of Ethiopian descent. MK Pnina Tamano-Shata (Kachol Lavan), the first woman of Ethiopian descent to hold a seat in Knesset, said, “The last two weeks for me have been hell,” and urged Netanyahu to open up an investigation into structural discrimination against the Ethiopian community and barriers to success. MK Benny Gantz, leader of Kachol Lavan presented plans to address the issue of discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis, referring to “dismantling the isolated neighborhoods of the immigrants.”
Read: Blue and White Begins Campaign for the Ethiopian Vote, by Jeremy Sharon (Jerusalem Post)
Apology for October 2000
Amid talks regarding a potential merger with the Meretz Party, Democratic Israel Chairman Ehud Barak and former Labor prime minister, apologized this week for the death of 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel killed by Israel’s security forces in October 2000, while he was prime minister. The incident was a low-point in Jewish-Arab relations and remains a searing memory for Palestinian citizens of Israel. “I bear responsibility for everything that happened during my term as prime minister, including the incidents in which Arab Israeli citizens and another Palestinian from Gaza were killed in October 2000,” said Barak in an interview this week.
The apology was begrudgingly acknowledged by the Palestinian-Israeli political leadership, who noted the proximity to elections as the occasion for the mea culpa. Meretz MK Esawi Frej, responded to Barak’s overture by saying: “Barak’s remarks are an important start. Barak has opened the door to dialogue with Arab street, and it’s our responsibility to help him open that door and not to slam it in his face.” MK Ahmed Tibi, leader of the Ta’al faction said in an interview, “After 19 years, the speed and haste with which he acceded to the demand that was made by Meretz — it’s hard to shake the impression that this was an electoral apology that is connected to the elections. The wounds of the 13 people who were killed is still open.”
RELIGION AND STATE
Political conflict over religion and state continue to play a dominant role in the election discourse, emerging as a key splits within the right–and between the right and the left.
Reports this week indicate that during the coalition agreements that followed the April election, Likud formulated agreements with several of its putative partners to coordinate in advance with the Chief Rabbinate any major infrastructure work that would be carried out on the Sabbath. This would have represented a major concession to the religious parties, and a serious departure from the status quo. The Likud issued an official response, contrary to what the party reportedly agreed to in coalition negotiations, committing to protecting “the status quo on issues of religion and state” and stating that the authority over public work on Shabbat will remain under the purview of the Labor and Welfare Minister.
Trends We’re Watching
This unexpected election finds most political players exhausted. Political parties and civil groups spent money and resources on the last elections, and we can expect this weariness to influence the tenor of these déjà vu elections. Furthermore, a significant portion of the campaign will take place during the summer and Jewish high holidays, when many Israelis are abroad. But these new elections come after the right-wing camp suffered an unprecedented blow. Netanyahu’s failure to assemble a coalition can only be seen as his most magnificent failure. Netanyahu faces the most serious battle of survival in his political life. Israelis can expect to see a doubling down on the maneuvers they saw in the last month of the recent election including:
- Voter suppression targeting Israel’s Palestinian citizens;
- Political campaigns premised on racism, incitement against and political delegitimization of Arab participation in Israel’s democratic system;
- Bot networks activated to influence the election;
- Foreign meddling, fake news and other threats to Israel’s electoral integrity;
Democracies all over the world are figuring out how we can best protect democracy from these troubling trends. This time we know what to watch. As the leading defender of liberal democracy in Israel, the New Israel Fund will be watching closely for the telltale signs of anti-democratic practices to make sure Israelis have a free and fair election. We will be fighting back against the hallmarks of illiberalism and authoritarian populism. We know what we are fighting for — during the election and on the day after.