Elect, defect, repeat: Could turncoat MKs turn the tide and unjam the Knesset?


On Wednesday, the day after Israel voted for the fourth time in under two years, Likud’s coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar informed the public that “it is our duty to do everything, and I mean everything, to prevent a fifth election.”

It was one signal among many that Likud was willing to make unprecedented compromises and seek previously unexplored alliances — with the Islamist Ra’am party, for example — to break the two-year political deadlock. It was a signal, that is, that Likud is willing to break the many promises it made about refusing to rely on the support of such parties.

Meanwhile, explorations are underway as to the possibility that someone else might break their promises instead: defectors.

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Defectors, individual MKs or small groups of them breaking free of the party that got them elected to join (or more rarely, leave) a ruling coalition, usually lured by promises of ministries or other goodies, have long been a mainstay of Israeli politics, and more than one Netanyahu government has relied on them, including the last supremely unstable one.

It’s a simple, cruel mathematical fact: Nobody has a majority, but both sides are just a few MKs away. So the race is underway to find a way to 61, by hook or, if needs must, by crook.

There are three options for breaking through the deadlock and securing such a majority.

Elect, defect, repeat: Could turncoat MKs turn the tide and unjam the Knesset?

File: Elections Committee director Orly Adas counts ballots of Israelis under home quarantine, at a tent in the central elections committee warehouse in Shoham, after the March 2020 elections. (Flash90)

Expensive options

First, one side can bite the bullet and sign a deal of support from a non-Zionist party.

Both Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid have scarcely hidden their interest in doing so, but the hesitation is palpable. And rational. It may turn out to be a costly move during the next round at the ballot box, a round that may come very soon if recent experience is any guide.

In part, the sheer novelty of this approach is holding it back. No one quite knows how a party like Ra’am will behave in a broad-based coalition with a diversity of views and loyalties. Will it be easily goaded by the opposition into politically costly fights on the Palestinians or other issues, or, like the Haredi parties, will it choose its battles carefully and generally eschew identity politics in favor of the stable partnerships required to deliver budgets and government attention to its neglected constituents?

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas has openly compared his new push for relevance in Israeli coalition politics to the Haredi parties. He wants to be a reliable partner — and to exact a high cost for that reliability in terms of funding for his community. But it’s an untested proposition.

Both Netanyahu and Lapid see that open door as a gamble, and not even Ra’am’s own lawmakers and institutions can really be certain how the party will handle the delicate balancing act required to become an influential partner within a Zionist coalition.

Elect, defect, repeat: Could turncoat MKs turn the tide and unjam the Knesset?

Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, speaks to a crowd in the northern town of Maghar on March 26, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

There’s a second option for obtaining that majority: A party that ran as part of one camp could cross the aisle and join the other.

For example, Shas, which vowed to back Netanyahu more fervently than Likud itself, could violate that promise and join a government under Lapid or Bennett. Or former Likud stalwart Gideon Sa’ar, whose basic campaign message was the promise to oust Netanyahu, could backtrack on his promise and join a Likud government.

There are reasons to do so, of course. They’d be saving Israel from a costly fifth election. They would hold the key majority vote in the next coalition and would be able to ensure their constituents’ needs are looked after.

But all these options share one characteristic: They’re politically costly. For right-wing Likud, cooperating with Islamist Ra’am risks dramatic blowback from right-wing voters at the next election. For parties like Sa’ar’s New Hope or Shas, switching sides would mean breaking each party’s central campaign commitment.

Those are high costs to incur at any time, doubly so when the possibility of an imminent fifth election remains extremely high.

Elect, defect, repeat: Could turncoat MKs turn the tide and unjam the Knesset?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters on election night, at the Likud party election headquarters in Jerusalem, March 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Defectors

All of which brings us back to the third option: winning over individual defectors from the other side.

The question of defectors was a constant irritant in the race.

Likud, trying to scare voters away from Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, repeatedly let slip during the campaign that it had good reason to expect Blue and White MKs would defect to Netanyahu after election day.

Shas, trying to avoid shedding its voters to Likud, said the same about Likud MKs. “If you vote Likud,” Shas leader Aryeh Deri told supporters in Tiberias on March 9, “it’s not certain that after the election a few [Likud MKs] won’t defect to a different party. In Shas I can guarantee that no one will defect to anyone else. Shas is a sure thing. A vote for Shas is a guaranteed vote for Netanyahu.”

Elect, defect, repeat: Could turncoat MKs turn the tide and unjam the Knesset?

Shas party head Aryeh Deri at the party’s election headquarters in Jerusalem on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

There’s a good reason parties are thinking now about attracting defectors — and good reason to think they will be unsuccessful.

It’s the scenario that carries the lowest electoral risk for the major parties. Who could blame Netanyahu if some member of Yesh Atid, Blue and White, or New Hope jumps the aisle? Who could blame Lapid or Bennett if a Likud or Religious Zionism MK does the same in exchange for a cabinet post or some other political benefit?

All the risk falls on the individual politician making the jump; the parties have nothing to answer for on election day.

No surprise, then, that Netanyahu is eagerly looking for defectors. Indeed, he’s announced it openly, saying on the day after the election that he’d appeal to any MK — not party, but MK — “who believes in Likud’s values.”

A Likud emissary has reportedly offered New Hope’s Yifat Shasha-Biton, number 2 on the party slate and an MK who once caucused with Likud, the education ministry in the next government. It’s an enticing offer for the ex-teacher and former deputy head of a teachers college who has a doctorate in education and makes no secret of her ambition to lead Israel’s education system. Indeed, it’s what Sa’ar promised her when she signed on to New Hope.

Elect, defect, repeat: Could turncoat MKs turn the tide and unjam the Knesset?

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Similar offers have been made to members of Gantz’s Blue and White list.

All those targeted with defection offers have thus far declined. And no wonder.

Low benefit, high cost

Defection carries little political cost for parties, but very high costs for the defecting politicians.

The Knesset has seen instances of politicians elected on one slate being enticed by another to switch sides in exchange for cabinet posts and other boons. It’s happened often enough for lawmakers to pass legislation seeking to disincentivize the practice.

Elect, defect, repeat: Could turncoat MKs turn the tide and unjam the Knesset?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in the Knesset, December 21, 2020 (Knesset channel screenshot)

The Basic Law: The Knesset thus imposes stiff penalties on MKs who jump ship. Among the penalties: They are prohibited from running in the next election on the slate of a party currently in the Knesset, they are prohibited from holding ministerial or deputy ministerial posts in the current government, and their public campaign funding is drastically curtailed. That’s a hefty punishment. For most MKs, a defection would spell certain political oblivion.

There are two exceptions to these limits. Lawmakers have sought to preserve the ability of a Knesset faction to divide in two in the middle of a term over a significant and meaningful difference of policy. So they kept penalty-free defections in the law in cases where the rebel group constitutes at least one-third of the original faction, with a minimum of two MKs.

In other words, Likud must draw two MKs at once from New Hope’s six-seat faction in order to make the move anything less than political suicide for the lawmakers involved. (The offer of the education portfolio to Shasha-Biton must have included an offer to another New Hope MK, or she would not have been able to serve as a minister.) From Blue and White, Likud must pull three.

There’s another exception. Separate registered parties that ran together on a shared slate can split apart along party lines without incurring any limits on their future political activity. Ophir Sofer of Likud, Itamar Ben Gvir of Religious Zionism, the Agudat Israel half of the United Torah Judaism slate, or the Ta’al faction in the Arab Joint List, for example, could all break away from their larger slates penalty-free, since they technically ran as a distinct party of their own on a unified list.

In addition, while ministerial posts are verboten, other important posts are not. One can imagine an MK considering the move in exchange for four long, fruitful, career-enhancing years heading a powerful Knesset committee.

Elect, defect, repeat: Could turncoat MKs turn the tide and unjam the Knesset?

New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar, center, alongside party candidates Yifat Shasha Biton, left, and Sharren Haskel, in red, at an election tour at Hatikva market in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Individual defections are possible, then. But they are exceptionally difficult to obtain. Even if a defector manages to avoid the legal penalties by fulfilling one of the exceptions noted above, future potential coalition partners and voters are likely to punish them for it. They are safe only as long as they are useful to those in power — which almost by definition is a period not exceeding the current term.

And neither Netanyahu nor Lapid can promise many good months before the Knesset dissolves itself, a constant worry in any coalition so narrow that it must rely on a defector.

Why, then, was Likud so chatty about purported defectors from Blue and White and New Hope during the campaign? Why is it dangling cabinet posts to New Hope MKs this week? What MK would be foolish enough to sacrifice everything for what pittance Netanyahu can promise?

The answer is simple. It has little to do with actual potential defectors. As the anti-Netanyahu factions led by Yair Lapid, Avigdor Liberman, Gideon Sa’ar and Benny Gantz this week begin the delicate political dance of attempting to piece together a unified coalition, Likud’s persistent and publicized appeals to their MKs are meant to sow distrust and make that work more difficult.

In the past, Netanyahu’s political wizardry earned him comparisons to a magician able to pull a majority out of what seemed like thin air, via defectors or otherwise. But the ongoing stalemate has largely erased that sheen. Now that it seems he won’t be able to even pull a volunteer from the audience, could he be resorting to trying to saw his opposition in half instead?