As Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government gradually takes shape, Israel’s outgoing government led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid is bracing itself to land in the opposition, ending a historic political experiment that united factions from the right, left, and center and included an independent Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history. As the country autopsies the so-called government of change and its parties’ election campaign over the past several months, most fingers are pointing to the left of the political map as responsible for the outgoing government losing the election. The failure of Meretz and Labor to consolidate and Balad’s split from Hadash-Ta’al led to Meretz and Balad failing to cross the 3.25% electoral threshold, wasting 288,789 votes combined for parties opposed to Netanyahu. As these parties’ leaders, supporters, and strategists transition from eulogizing to strategizing in the coming weeks, the obvious lesson from this electoral defeat is that less is more when it comes to political parties. 

But the left-wing and Arab sectors of the political map are not the only ones who ought to do some post-election soul-searching. While not starkly and obviously reflected in the election results to the same degree, the leaders of what is imprecisely considered Israel’s center-right—the right-wing flank of the outgoing government—made their own incredibly costly blunder in this election that meaningfully contributed to the meteoric rise of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir’s far-right, neo-Kahanist Religious Zionism alliance. In contrast to the left, this segment of the political spectrum carried out a merger that ultimately hurt the outgoing government’s bloc and played into the hands of the far right. In seeking to encompass too broad and poorly defined of an ideological constituency, this anti-Netanyahu center-right alliance failed to achieve its goal of peeling moderate right-wing voters away from Bibi’s political camp.

That ill-advised political project, the National Unity Party (known in Hebrew as HaMachane HaMamlachti, which roughly translates to “the stately camp”), began in July as a merger between Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s right-wing New Hope parties, with Gantz at the head of the slate. After much anticipation and fanfare, former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot made his debut in Israeli politics by joining National Unity as the third-highest candidate on its list in mid-August, when the party officially launched itself as National Unity. At its launch ceremony and in its political messaging throughout the campaign, the new political alliance sold itself as a moderate center-right party committed to preserving Israel’s political institutions, restoring stateliness to politics, healing the country’s political rifts, and forming a stable government that would serve all segments of Israeli society.

A National Unity election banner in Tel Aviv, October 2022

National Unity sought to transform the election from a contest between Lapid and Netanyahu into a three-way race, with Gantz being a candidate for prime minister supposedly positioned to peel voters, parties, and politicians away from Netanyahu’s camp. Gantz, Sa’ar, Eisenkot, and their colleagues’ preference for this approach was understandable. To begin with, Sa’ar’s New Hope party consisting primarily of Likud defectors was polling consistently at around 4 seats and there was a legitimate fear that Sa’ar running solo could succumb to the electoral threshold. Gantz also has a history of spearheading big-tent, centrist political alliances, most notably the original incarnation of his Blue and White party that rivaled (and, after the September 2019 elections, even surpassed) the Likud in size, positioned Gantz as the most viable alternative to Netanyahu, and relegated the more politically experienced Yair Lapid to the second slot. Gantz has never stopped dreaming of Balfour Street since and believes himself to be destined for it. Moreover, with Lapid’s bloc regularly polling six or seven seats shy of 61, National Unity argued that Gantz could bring in the Haredi parties and form a far broader government than Lapid, long persona non grata in Haredi politics, could ever dream of.

National Unity, Labor, Yesh Atid, and Meretz election banners on November 1, 2022

Naturally, Gantz and Sa’ar wanted to maintain the support of those who voted for them previously and won them eight and six seats, respectively, in the 24th Knesset. But the core of National Unity’s strategy was to expand the party’s support by becoming the political home of the moderate anti-Bibi and Bibi-skeptic right, specifically those who would never identify with Avigdor Liberman’s staunchly secular right-wing brand. Naftali Bennett and his Yamina party delivered six king-making seats to the change bloc after the previous elections, but Bennett’s departure from politics and the implosion of his party left Yamina voters without a political home. Many of these former Yamina voters belong to the more mainstream, moderate side of the National Religious (dati leumi) or religious Zionist community—politically right-wing, but not necessarily pro-Bibi and certainly wary of the populist extremism espoused by Smotrich and Ben Gvir. National Unity explicitly catered to this community in its messaging and elevated former Yamina Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, a member of the National Religious community, as a prominent face of the party. Through this approach, the National Unity Party saw the potential to build meaningful support among former Yamina voters and disaffected Likudniks who are ideologically part of the right but crave an alternative to the now slavishly pro-Bibi Likud.

This strategy, intended to turn National Unity into Israel’s ruling party and convert right-wing, National Religious voters into a new base that would mobilize to deliver Benny Gantz the premiership, ended in failure. National Unity finished with 12 seats—two fewer than Gantz and Sa’ar had held separately in the previous Knesset and half as many as Lapid’s Yesh Atid. National Unity’s failure is most starkly reflected in Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s success. The Religious Zionism party’s size increased from 6 seats to 14, becoming the third-largest in the Knesset partially by winning the votes of National Unity’s target demographic: former Yamina supporters and politically homeless National Religious Israelis. Many of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who cast a vote for Religious Zionism did so reluctantly and despite their discomfort with Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s extreme rhetoric, feeling that the political map left them without a political home that truly represented them. The perception among a significant number of National Religious Israelis that Religious Zionism was their only option is reflected in the election results. The town of Giv’at Shmuel, a predominantly moderate National Religious suburb of Tel Aviv, went for Yamina in 2021 with 24% of the vote, followed by 21% for Likud and 15% for Religious Zionism; this time, Religious Zionism was the big winner in Giv’at Shmuel with 23.95%, and National Unity finished a dismal fourth with just under 12% of the vote, essentially the same proportion won by Blue and White and New Hope in 2021. This pattern is reflected in other moderate National Religious strongholds that Yamina carried in 2021, most notably in less hardline West Bank settlements like Efrat, Neve Daniel, Kfar Adumim, and Elkana. Even before the election took place, it was clear that National Unity was failing to make inroads in the National Religious community. Despite Gantz, Sa’ar, and Kahana’s best efforts, that constituency fell into the lap of the far-right, even if many of those voters felt that Smotrich and Ben Gvir did not entirely represent their values. Reluctant voters count just as much as eager ones.

The West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim by Moshe Marlin Levin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

There was also the Ayelet Shaked factor: Naftali Bennett’s erstwhile political partner assumed the leadership of Jewish Home, which siphoned off Smotrich- and Ben Gvir-skeptic soft-right and moderate National Religious votes into the electoral threshold abyss. Shaked’s somewhat contradictory positioning as an advocate for a right-wing Bibi-led government who lacked a Bibi kosher stamp, and a high-ranking minister in a government she publicly apologized for supporting yet would not resign from, alienated most of her former supporters and meant that she could never hope to pass the electoral threshold. But she did compete with National Unity for moderate National Religious votes and likely ate into their pool of potential voters. 

But ultimately, National Unity failed to sell itself as a viable political home for National Religious voters primarily because it was never positioned to do so. National Unity is a party that lacks a cohesive ideology, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is still the primary issue that defines left and right on the Israeli political spectrum. Gideon Sa’ar is arguably to the right of Netanyahu in terms of his pro-annexation stance. Gadi Eisenkot’s rhetoric about the importance of separating from the Palestinians and preventing a one-state reality, however, put him at odds with the vast majority of National Religious voters. And despite ambiguous posturing on the future of the West Bank—at times supporting various annexation plans, at times emphasizing the need for a “Palestinian entity”—many on the right consider Gantz a leftist. A party whose candidates for prime minister and defense minister are “leftists” is a poor fit for a community that is largely supportive of West Bank settlement and opposed to territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Gantz’s constant messaging against Lapid by insisting the Yesh Atid leader could never form a government did not attract any new right-wing voters, but certainly contributed to weakening the outgoing government’s bloc by forcing Lapid to campaign on two fronts. 

Most voters who cast their ballots for Naftali Bennett’s Yamina in 2021 did not believe that they were enabling the formation of a government with Lapid, Mansour Abbas, and the left. Indeed, by handing a government to Lapid’s bloc, Bennett broke a promise to his voters, many of whom thought that their vote would ultimately serve Netanyahu. While an independent Sa’ar-Kahana party could have sold itself as a credible alternative to the Bibi-skeptic right wing, Benny Gantz was too left-wing a pill to swallow. Polling at four seats several months before Election Day is hardly a death sentence, and with the right strategy, there is a good chance that Sa’ar could have significantly grown his base of potential voters and cut into Religious Zionism’s ballooning support.

Then-President Reuvlin Rivlin holds consultations with Ayelet Shaked and Matan Kahana of Yamina following the March 2021 elections by Mark Neyman / Government Press Office, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

Consolidating smaller parties onto unified lists may be the antidote to the electoral threshold, but not all political marriages are meant to be. For all the talk about Bibi versus anti-Bibi being the new feature of Israeli politics, this election showed that ideology and sectoral identity still matter a lot to the Israeli electorate. The notion that Gideon Sa’ar and Gadi Eisenkot belong in a single party but Merav Michaeli and Zehava Galon do not is entirely detached from reality. If the politicians and political movements of the outgoing government ever hope to return to power, ideology ought to take precedence over ego when determining the makeup of parties.