Israel is heading into the home stretch for the third election within one year, this time on March 2. I am somewhat exhausted by the unprecedented situation, after elections last April and September failed to produce a government with a working majority.
I would not bet on the outcome of the next election, but last week’s deadline finalizing party slates brought some clarity. There are 29 parties or blocs of parties on the ballot, including fringe parties. When I mention blocs of parties, that’s because parties can run together on a joint slate, which is particularly important because, to make it into the Knesset, the slates need a minimum of 3.25% of the vote and if they combine forces, it is the combined slate and not the individual parties that are subject to the threshold.
None of the fringe parties really has a chance, but the award for the most bizarre party has to go to the Fair Trial party, led by Larissa Trimbobler-Amir, the wife of Yigal Amir – the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – who is serving a life sentence. The party is seeking to obtain retrials for what it claims are innocent people convicted of crimes, most importantly, Amir.
The leader of a small party who has gotten the most attention is Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former disciple of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Ben-Gvir has a picture in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, the American immigrant who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994.
Ben-Gvir recently struck a deal with the Jewish Home Party to run on a joint slate, an important achievement, because in September, Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party fell short of the 3.25% threshold.
But last week, pressure mounted, notably from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to have all of the parties to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud run on one slate so all of the right-wing votes would translate into Knesset seats rather than some being wasted. That’s important to Netanyahu because it’s these parties, along with the two ultra-Orthodox parties, that are his natural partners to build a government commanding a majority in parliament.
In the end, Naftali Bennett, the son of immigrants from San Francisco, who heads the New Right party, forged such a coalition, but he excluded Ben-Gvir, saying he would never agree to share a slate with someone who has a picture in his house of a murderer of 29 innocent people. In a somewhat comical response, Ben-Gvir said he would take down the picture. Apparently lost on him was that it wasn’t the picture, but the ideology behind it that was at issue.
On the left of the political spectrum, the Meretz party, which I voted for in September, and the Labor Party, the remnant of the movement led by David Ben-Gurion that founded the country, are running together. They will get my vote.
There is no doubt the two largest parties will remain Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, and Netanyahu’s Likud. It is also clear Netanyahu’s political star is fading and he is heading into this election facing indictment on charges including bribery. He may eek out another term in office, but he has no long-term political future.
I don’t see the agony of the past year as a failure of the political system. Israel’s proportional representation system, in which parties get the same share of seats that they got at the polls, is pure democracy. It is not the fault of the system the country is so divided between those supporting Netanyahu and those who want him out of office.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel. To read more of Savren’s columns, visit cjn.org/savren.