Disbanding of the Religious Zionism Faction

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Joint lists that fall apart quickly often do more harm than good, heightening political divisiveness and instability

The Knesset Arrangements Committee today approved the split of three parties from the Religious Zionism faction: the Noam party, headed by Avi Maoz; and the two parties that represent Otzma Yehudit—the National Jewish Front, headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Eretz Yisrael Shelanu, represented by Yitzhak Wasserlauf.

When the dust settles after all the divisions and mergers, it is likely that instead of a single medium-size faction with 14 seats, representing the Religious Zionism list that was elected to the Knesset, we will end up with three small factions: Religious Zionism, headed by Smotrich; Otzma Yehudit, headed by Ben-Gvir; and Noam, headed by Maoz.

This development is not surprising: The Religious Zionism electoral list, and subsequently- faction, was formed from three main parties—National Union-Tkuma, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam. Before the elections, the list's leaders declared that this was just a bloc formed for technical reasons, that was likely to break up after the elections, and indeed-the three parties did -for the most part- run quite separate campaigns. The Arrangements Committee’s approval of the requests to leave the faction is also in accordance with section 59(2) of the Knesset Law, which states that a faction comprising several parties (that is, a joint faction, such as Religious Zionism) can split into its constituent parties at any time and with no conditions or sanctions attached.

And yet, this is a problematic event. In general, separate parties standing for election as part of joint lists is a positive phenomenon, as it reduces political fragmentation and can help ensure the representation of different population groups in the political system—such as the particular national Haredi public that is represented by the Noam party (which would likely not have passed the electoral threshold if it had stood alone). This has been one of the main justifications for raising the electoral threshold over the years: the desire to encourage separate parties to form joint lists.

But in order for joint lists to fully realize their potential, they must be based on long-term cooperation between the parties; that is- coordinated parliamentary work within a joint faction throughout the Knesset assembly, running at the next elections under the same joint banner, or even full unification of the constituent parties. An example of this is the continuous collaboration since 1992 between the two Haredi parties- Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah, as part of the United Torah Judaism list and faction. In Israel's political history there are also notable examples of parties that stood for election in joint lists and eventually united into a single party: This was how the Likud party was created, as a unification of (among others) the Herut and Liberal parties; Labor, formed from Mapai, Ahdut HaAvoda, and Rafi; Meretz, from Ratz, Mapam, and part of Shinui; and the National Religious party (Mafdal), which eventually became Jewish Home, combining Mizrachi and Hapoel HaMizrachi.

By contrast, joint lists that fall apart quickly do more harm than good. They heighten political divisiveness and instability, and deal a blow to the public’s trust in the politicians they voted for. Recent years have provided several examples of joint lists that disbanded shortly after the elections. This was particularly evident after the 2020 elections, when -among others- there were splits in the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list and the Blue and White list (which included Gantz’s Israel Resilience party, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem).

In fact, the case of Religious Zionism is even more problematic: The disbanding of Labor-Gesher-Meretz and Blue and White stemmed from a fundamental disagreement over whether to join a unity government with Netanyahu (Labor and Gesher joined, while Meretz did not; and Israel Resilience joined, while Yesh Atid and Telem refused). There is no such argument within Religious Zionism, as all of its constituent parties, including Noam and Otzma Yehudit, are in favor of the formation of a right-wing and Haredi government led by Netanyahu.

But it is difficult to blame the parties. The law as it stands, allows them to secede from joint factions very easily, unconditionally and with no sanctions. This is not the case with other types of splits in Knesset factions: In general, only if one-third of the members of a faction, or at least four MKs who are members of the faction, request to break away, is this considered a legitimate split , and even then specific sanctions are applied to those who leave in terms of party funding-that is, if the split occurs during the first two years of the Knesset assembly, then those who break away are not eligible for regular party funding. If these conditions do not apply, then this is considered to be not a split but rather-a defection, in which case far more serious sanctions apply to the defectors—for example, they are not allowed to serve as ministers or deputy ministers during the current Knesset assembly, cannot join another faction or create a new faction in the course of the assembly, are denied ongoing party funding, and face restrictions at the next Knesset elections (they are banned from standing in the same list with any party represented in the current Knesset). By contrast, splits such as the current case of Religious Zionism, or previously- of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz faction and the Blue and White faction, are exempt from all of these consequences.

Raising the electoral threshold to 3.25% before the 2015 elections created a clear incentive for smaller parties to run as part of joint lists in order to pass the threshold. But at the same time, the law continues to allow them to easily secede from those lists after the elections. As a result, the current situation encourages the creation of technical blocs, thus undermining one of the main goals of raising the electoral threshold.

The solution should be a change to the law, so as to make it difficult for joint factions such as Religious Zionism, Labor-Gesher-Meretz, or Blue and White to split up, at least at the beginning of the Knesset assembly. It is impossible, and unnecessary, to entirely ban the splitting up of factions: sometimes there are indeed fundamental differences of opinion within a faction that justify a breakup, and there is no reason to force factions in turmoil to continue to operate in a dysfunctional partnership. But it is possible, and necessary, to incentivize the members of joint factions to continue working together.

One possible step in this direction would be to restrict the possibility of seceding from a faction during the first six months of a Knesset assembly. According to this proposal, anyone leaving their faction during this period—including cases in which a party leaves a joint faction, or in which a third of the members of a faction leave —would be defined as a defector, and would then be subject to the severe sanctions applied by the law to defection. Such an amendment may encourage factions such as Religious Zionism to continue working together at least a bit longer, and not to dissolve immediately after the elections, as is currently the case.

But this proposal comes with a warning attached: The Knesset is tending more and more toward rapidly changing the rules of the game in order to serve immediate political interests. It did so when it amended the Basic Law: The Government, to allow the formation of the “alternate” government following the 2020 elections, and has done so also with regard to the splitting up of factions and party funding—for example, at the dissolution of the previous Knesset, when it increased electoral funding for parties in light of their financial deficits. Unfortunately, even-as proposed here- if the conditions for faction splits are made tougher, we can presume that the coalition majority will not hesitate to amend the law again in order to make such splits easier, if that will serve their coalitionary interests. To address this danger, there needs to be another-more significant- amendment: A change in Israel's political culture that will restore respect for the rules of the game.

The article was published in the Times of Israel.