Israel’s Right Resists Unity At Its Own Risk

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"Shooting in the halftrack," an Israeli phrase connoting friendly fire, was the term used to describe the behavior of Israeli right-wing politicians and pundits, who spent last week sniping at one other. Israeli history is rife with examples of right-wing divisions leading to left-wing victory, a lesson its politicians struggle to learn.

One needn’t delve deeply into Israel’s past. In April, a multitude of parties split the right-wing pie into smaller pieces—the electoral threshold is set at 3.25 percent. Each party needs at least that percentage of the general vote to win four seats in Israel’s Knesset. If a party doesn’t make it, all its votes are lost.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw the danger, which is why he knocked heads together in February, convincing the Jewish Home and National Union parties, which had already made an alliance, to bring into the fold the more extreme Otzma Yehudit ("Jewish Strength") Party. They went into the election under the ticket "United Right."

It wasn’t enough. A quarter-million votes were still lost due to the failure of two parties, the New Right and Zehut, to cross the threshold. This is what gave Avigdor Liberman of the Israel Beiteinu Party the ability to torpedo Netanyahu’s coalition efforts. Liberman withheld his party’s support over a law concerning military recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox. Netanyahu couldn’t muster a majority to govern. Back-to-back elections were called, a first in Israel’s history.

Liberman hopes to become the go-to address for anyone unhappy with religious influence in society. Although the other parties on the right would love to punish him by pushing him below the electoral threshold, current polls have him gaining three to four more seats over the five he won last time. That means he might again be the deciding factor—Netanyahu’s nightmare. The right needs a cushion to cancel out Liberman, so that they won’t need him to form a coalition.

A Friday poll shows Israel’s right-wing bloc winning 68 seats. Such polls give the right confidence, but it may also feed a belief that they have the luxury to take potshots at one another. The last election shows just how easily votes can vaporize.

The New Right cost its side over 130,000 votes. It was formed prior to the last elections by then-education and justice ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. They had led Jewish Home before abruptly abandoning the party.

On June 12, Jewish Home’s Moti Yogev, still smarting from their departure, accused Bennett of treason. He said the Jewish Home wouldn’t take Bennett back. Using a rather tasteless analogy, Yogev said, "Does a dog return to its vomit? No."

Even more eyebrow-raising was Bennett’s response. First, he accused Yogev of leading the Jewish Home "far from the values of the religious-Zionist public"—an odd assertion given that the Jewish Home won five Knesset seats and the New Right none. Then he boasted that the New Right pulled in 138,000 votes and that "many others regret that they hadn’t voted for it."

Boasting that his party won 138,000 votes when, in fact, it wasted that many votes is startling, particularly with the debacle still fresh in everyone’s minds. Up to then Bennett had been sounding all the right notes. On June 1, he said, "Israel finds itself stuck in another election campaign.… There’s an opportunity here for all of us to approach it wiser, more serious and with more humility."

Moshe Feiglin, leader of Zehut, a party that mixes libertarianism with religious-Zionism and cost the right 117,587 votes, was quick to announce he’s running again. He, too, promised this time to be "more modest." But while he appears open to merging with Bennett, his "modesty" ends there.

In a June 12 Facebook post, Feiglin announced he wouldn’t merge with the United Right as it’s made up of "sectarian" parties. "Zehut doesn’t see itself as part of religious-Zionism or any other sector.… The secular ‘religious' concepts—and to a certain extent the dichotomy of right and left—are no longer relevant in Zehut’s space."

If he’s opposed to sectarianism, Feiglin could just as easily have argued the opposite. "As a non-sectarian party, I’m willing to merge with any and all parties. We’re a big tent. As long as we agree on certain principles," Feiglin could have said.

Potentially most damaging was last week’s friendly fire directed at Netanyahu.

"Does Benjamin Netanyahu really promote the worldview of the national camp?" ran the headline of a June 9 op-ed written by Kalman Liebskind, one of the most influential right-wing pundits. On June 3, Shimon Riklin, another well-regarded right-wing commentator, also took a shot at Netanyahu, asking, "Is the man bigger than the idea? Than the need for change?"

Both were reacting to the news that Netanyahu, in a last-ditch effort to form a coalition, had reached out to Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay with generous offers of ministries and concessions. "Without apologizing and not even a tingling of discomfort, he was on his way to give a resounding slap in the face to the voters of the national camp he leads," Liebskind wrote.

While they have a point, such attacks strengthen the opposition, which for years has directed all its fire on the prime minister. The central plank of the Blue and White Party last election can be boiled down to "Anyone but Bibi." Netanyahu is the focus because he’s the right’s greatest asset. For the right to start in on Netanyahu only justifies left-wing attacks, which are frankly off-the-wall, describing him as a danger to democracy, an Israeli Erdogan.

Riklin appeared to regret his remarks, sending a conciliatory tweet on June 11, in which he proposed "a cease-fire in the right-wing camp from now until the end of the election." Even right-wing columnist Karni Eldad, who on June 10 called Netanyahu "a megalomaniacal prime minister, who is drunk on power," concluded, "I don’t have a replacement for Netanyahu." She recommended voting for one of the smaller right-wing parties, "to balance and to block him."

Eldad here gives the essential position of the parties to the right of Likud. They support Netanyahu but see their purpose as keeping him honest and ensuring that his government will be right-wing. It’s the pitch they make to their public.

As two recent polls show, the religious-Zionist public is eager for their leaders to unite. But their patience is wearing thin. Channeling the public mood, Motti Karpel, a well-known figure on the right, wrote in Friday’s Makor Rishon, "Our public leaders need to remember that they work for us, not the other way around. The public makes the demands of the officeholder, the requirements to be accepted into the job. Your task is to get together, and it doesn’t interest us how you do it. That’s why you get a salary. Find a way. After you unite, in a united list, a technical bloc, or some other way that hasn’t been found yet, call us. Until then we’re simply not interested."