Ultra-nationalists join forces ahead of Israeli elections as liberal and Palestinian blocs splinter

Jonathan Ofir – February 22, 2019
Yesterday night was the deadline for Israeli parties to present their slates towards the April 9th parliamentary elections.

In order to strengthen their blocs, several leaders worked hectically this week to join forces with those they perceived as possible allies in prospect of creating future government coalitions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked hard at having the ‘David Dukes’ of Israeli politics – the Jewish Power party – join with the Jewish Home party and secure a far-right bloc that would be part of his future coalition (the fear was that votes would be lost under the 3.25% electoral threshold).
Netanyahu’s main rival contender, centrist Benny Gantz, chided him for it, using the occasion to tarnish a Palestinian party that promotes equality in a secular state, as equal to Jewish Power (positing that he would have nothing to do with either).
As news was coming out about the Netanyahu lobbying to the right, Gantz called upon centrist leader of Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid, to meet with him immediately – “tonight” (Tuesday), even though they had already announced their separate lists. They met, and created a new centrist party, called “Kahol Lavan” – “Blue and White” (referring to the colors of the Israeli, and earlier Zionist, flag). The militaristic aspect was bolstered by featuring two former military chiefs of staff in the leadership profile – Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashenazi. Allison Kaplan Sommer of Haaretz points out:
The political landscape of 2019 is looking very military, very male and really puts the ‘general’ in ‘general election’.
The centrist Blue and White party is now the main contender against Netanayhu’s Likud. Various polls suggest that Blue and White hold a significant lead over Likud: Channel 12’s poll showed the party would get 36 seats in the next Knesset, while Likud would receive 30; Channel 13’s poll predicted it would get 36 seats, compared to 26 for Likud; public broadcaster Kan’s poll predicted 35 seats, Likud following up with 32.
In Israeli politics, the leader of the largest party can have a first go at creating a ruling coalition, and that becomes the existential matter – because the coalition needs to have a minimum 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset. That’s why securing potential coalition partners, like Netanyahu did with Jewish Power, is crucial for political survival. But the counter-move from the center seems to have forged a real possibility of unseating Netanyahu. Yossi Verter of Haaretz believes that unseating Netanyahu is the one and only goal of this alliance.
Challenge from the Zionist left?
On the left of the centrist Blue and White party are parties like Labor, which has now lost many votes (especially to Gantz’s center party), and has been hovering dangerously closeto the electoral threshold. Its leader Avi Gabbay shamed his centrist ally, and one time Zionist Union coalition partner, Tzipi Livni by severing ties with her without warning, nearly two months ago. Livni, who was once the great hope of liberal Zionists, recently announced her exit from politics.
Further left is Meretz, which attempted to form an alliance with Labor in response to the move by Likud to bring Jewish Power in. Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg said the two parties had a “historical opportunity to build a large left-wing party against the Likud-Kahanist government” (Referring to Meir Kahane, whom the Jewish Power leaders are adherents of). Zandberg also noted the danger of the new centrist bloc:
In light of the union on the center, it’s time for a union on the left in order to establish a center-left government. Meretz will turn every stone to make this happen. We have 12 hours and we’re inviting Avi Gabbay to the discussion table immediately.
Zandberg’s fear is clearly also about losing votes to a level of erasure. If Meretz and Labor do not merge, they could both fall below the electoral threshold.
But Labor leader Avi Gabbay would not have the alliance, and instead opted to acquire a General as his second slot: Tal Russo. Gabbay unveiled the new star on Wednesday. Meretz leader Zandberg bemoaned Gabbay’s decision: “We did everything we could to unite and create a significant force in the left opposite the joining of the Likud and the Kahanists. Gabbay refused,” she said.
It is yet to be seen whether Gabbay’s bet on the more exclusively militaristic direction will bear fruit, or perhaps lead what remains of the Israeli Labor Party into oblivion. 
Palestinian parties and the end of the Joint List
And then there’s the Palestinian parties, which are known as the Arab parties, which are always left out of governing coalitions. Their presence is also relatively little noted in Israeli press.
In the last elections in 2015, they joined together in order to ensure their survival above the electoral threshold and won an impressive 13 seats in the Knesset. But there have been tensions there, as the alliance represents very different ideologies, from Islamic to Communist. In early January, Ahmed Tibi of Ta’al decided to split from the coalition, to the chagrin of Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh (also head of Hadash), who said:
More than anyone, (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu wishes to see the disintegration of the Joint List. The radical right wing wants to divide and conquer the Arabs and I am proud to be part of a party that knows how to put ideology ahead of personal interest.”
Tibi’s departure threatened to bring a complete dissolution of this alliance. The other three parties considered running separately, but at the last minute created a dual union: a joint ticket of Hadash with Ta’al, and a union of Balad with the United Arab List. Yet even this partial union contains a risk, especially if many Palestinian voters decide to boycott the elections altogether, in response to last year’s passing of the racist Nation State Law. Hadash-Ta’al is polling relatively well, around 10 seats, while Balad-UAL is around the electoral threshold.
Clash of the ultra-nationalists
In the overall political spectrum, the situation to the left of Blue and White is not looking very stable: Meretz and Labor are not strong. Although Ta’al Hadash is polled relatively well, it is questionable whether Gantz and Lapid would really consider an alliance with them as viable, even though Netanayhu is chiding them for counting on the ‘Arab parties’ to create a blocking majority. Even if this unlikely union were to happen, it’s not enough for a majority. The centrist Kulanu could potentially make it a majority, but it, too, is hovering just at the electoral threshold. To the right of Likud, is Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel is our home), Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett’s New Right, the Union of Right Wing Parties (that’s the recent merger with Jewish Power), and the religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. Even a collation of all these, with a centrist Kulanu, would apparently bring to a similar majority as the former mentioned center-left potential bloc. 
How this will end is thus not clear. It bears additional mentioning, that Gantz has not completely ruled out a possibility of a partnering with Netanayhu, if the latter is not indicted. There are many unknown factors here. But with all these details and polls, there seems to be a one general constant that we can count on: That Palestinians will be marginalized.
Ben White reminds us, in his excellent coverage for Al Jazeera titled “Israeli ‘centrism’ and what it means for Palestinians”, of Gantz’s speech where he laid out his politics:
“The Jordan Valley will remain our eastern security border,” Gantz declared. “We will maintain security in the entire Land of Israel, but we will not allow the millions of Palestinians living beyond the separation fence to endanger our security and our identity as a Jewish state.” Such a vision – one where Israel remains in effective control of the entirety of the occupied West Bank but without granting its Palestinian inhabitants Israeli citizenship – sounds not only similar to the status quo, but also like Netanyahu’s own proposal for a Palestinian “state-minus”.
Gantz’s Zionist status-quo vision has now been coupled by Yair Lapid, the ‘liberal’ whose principle is “maximum Jews on maximum land with maximum security and with minimum Palestinians”.
Indeed, none of this suggests any agency for Palestinians – whether it’s the more overtly racist Zionists who are elected, or the slightly less overtly racist ones.
Gantz and Lapid, with their accompanying generals, may possibly succeed in unseating Netanyahu – but they will not unseat Zionist ultra-nationalism. They are running on that ticket too.
H/t Ofer Neiman