Surprise! It’s election season again, two years early!
The Israeli Knesset has 120 members who are elected for a four year period. But in a multi-party parliamentary system, keeping a coalition together is hard. It’s hard enough fitting so many egos into one room, but when there are four or five ideological blocs involved, it becomes almost impossible.
Israeli political divides in the Knesset are based along for main axes.
- Hawkish (Rightwing)-Dovish (Leftwing)
- Socio-economic Left – Socio-economic Right
- Religious- secular
- Jewish- Arab
These axes give us 4-5 blocs of political parties in the Knesset: The Right, the Left, the Center (some may argue that there’s no such thing), the Ultra-orthodox and the Arab parties. Currently there are 12 parties represented in the Knesset.
So what happened? The current ex-coalition of the 19th Knesset, which was elected in January 2013, was made up of a weird mixture of parties from the Right (Netanyahu, Lieberman and Bennet), Left (Livni) and ‘Center’ (Lapid). Some say that the ideological differences were just too great. The official reason for elections is that Livni and Lapid, while serving as ministers in Netanyahu’s government, approached leaders of opposition parties and offered to form an alternative coalition without Netanyahu (members of the Ultra-Orthodox parties have confirmed this, but refused the offer). Netanyahu found out and sacked them, thus breaking up the coalition. The remaining three parties hold only 43 of the 120 Knesset seats, which means that they either have to find new coalition partners and reach 61 seats, or hold early elections.
Before I discuss the different parties involved, it’s also important to point out that during the 19th Knesset, the election law was changed so that the threshold for a party to enter the Knesset is no longer 2% of the votes (2.4 seats), it is 3.25% (roughly 4 seats). The change was aimed at lowering the number of parties in the Knesset, and thus making it easier to form coalitions (will it actually do that? Nobody knows…). It also means that some of the smaller parties must merge together or perish.
One more disclaimer: Israel’s media is highly political, and most of it is Leftwing. Recently, a prominent Rightwing journalist, Kalman Libskind, offered a challenge to all journalists covering the upcoming elections: tell us who you are supporting. The public have a right to know this straight out, instead of getting it veiled behind seemingly unbiased media coverage. As a simple blogger, I will also take up the challenge. At the moment I am leaning between Likud and the Jewish Home party. Nevertheless, I will try to be fair in my analysis.
So who’s who?
Likud + Yisrael Beiteinu – 31 seats
The two parties ran together, but split up during the summer war in Gaza. Together they received 31 seats, 20 of which were Likud and 11 Yisrael Beiteinu. But the two parties’ number of seats has been in flux ever since:
Reuven Rivlin (Likud) was elected as President and replaced by Carmel Shama-Hacohen (Likud).
Carmel Shama-Hachohen (Likud) was appointed as Israel’s ambassador to the OECD and was replaced by Alex Miller (Yisrael-Beiteinu), bringing Likud down to 19 and Yisrael Beiteinu up to 12.
Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) decided to leave politics (temporarily?) after his newly-wed wife, who is a leading news anchor on channel 1 was told that she cannot remain in her position, because she is no longer impartial. He was replaced by Leon Litinzky (Yisrael Beiteinu), bringing Likud down to 18 seats and Yisrael Beiteinu up to 13. The result is that Likud is no longer the largest party in the Knesset.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party is considered to be moderately Right-wing. According to most polls (until yesterday), it looked like Netanyahu was sure to come out on top for a third time running. Polls give him 20 something seats in the 20th Knesset.
Who else is interesting?
Moshe Feiglin- the only new member of Likud in the 19th Knesset. He’s been trying to get in for many years, but was continually blocked by Netanyahu. Feiglin is considered to be more hawkish than most Likud members, and is possibly the only true libertarian in the Knesset. He is an orthodox Jew, but is very supportive of all freedoms, including calling for the legalization of cannabis. He has a wide support base within Likud and has run against Netanyahu for the leadership of the party over and over, without success.
Likud is one of three parties which hold open primary elections, in which all party members can vote (approximately 200,000 members).
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party is also considered to be moderately Right-wing, although they are more hawkish towards the Israeli-Arab minority. The party was originally formed in order to represent the large Russian-Israeli community, which came to Israel in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Who else is interesting?
No one. Lieberman makes up the party lists himself and the party does not hold primary elections (which are not required by law). Last election, anyone who had embarrassed the party in any way was crossed off the list. Who embarrassed the party this time? Police Minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who has been severely criticized for his inadequate handling of the recent violence in Jerusalem. Will he be continuing on the 20th Knesset?
Yesh Atid- 19 seats
Yair Lapid’s party is now the largest party in the Knesset. What does he stand for? Nobody really knows. Lapid is an ex-journalist who is very good with words about the high cost of living and helping the middle classes and very bad at actually doing something about it. In a video of him interviewing Netanyahu a few years ago, which has been circulating through Facebook recently, he admitted to knowing nothing about finances. Nevertheless, until last week, he was Israel’s minister of finance.
Lapid’s pet project during his short tenure as Finance Minister, was the “Ma’am Efes” (0% VAT), which was supposed to allow young couples to buy their first apartment free of VAT tax, which is normally 18%. Many authorities on finance disagreed with this plan, including Netanyahu, claiming that instead of lowering the prices of housing, which have skyrocketed in the past few years, it would actually increase demands and raise prices. The program was expected to cost 3 billion NIS (765 million USD). Netanyahu eventually scrapped the plan when he sacked Lapid last week.
Lapid’s party was one of the more interesting phenomena of the 19th Knesset, which was characterized by a high number of ‘civilians’, i.e. new members of Knesset, who had not been previously involved in politics. Lapid’s party, as well as Naftali Bennet’s (coming next), were made up almost entirely of people who were new or nearly new to the political scene. It is often said that politicians are corrupt and disconnected from the people that they serve, and it was interesting to see what happens when non-politicians are brought into the Knesset. Lapid handpicked the party list himself and did not expect to get so many seats. The result was 19 new members of Knesset, of which 12 were pretty much anonymous until then. These new uninitiated MKs were expected to be the fulfillment of Lapid’s promise for “new politics”. However, in the two short years since they were elected, many of them have remained anonymous and the promise for “new politics” remains unfulfilled.
According to polls, Yesh Atid (which literally means “there is a future”) will be saying goodbye to half of its strength and 9-10 of its members will be fading back into anonymity.
Who else is interesting?
Rabbi Shay Peron-was Minister of Education. As a former school principal, he led an educational policy of being more student-friendly. He cancelled many exams, including the psychometric exam which is used as the main method of acceptance to universities. He also gave public support to high-school students who complained about the system, backing the students and raising the wrath of teachers.
Rabbi Shay Peron. Source: wikipedia
Jewish Home – 12 seats
The second big surprise of the 2013 elections was Naftali Bennet, another new player who took control of the ailing Orthodox (Rightwing) Jewish Home party (formerly Mafdal), renewed the ranks, opened it up to new publics and tripled its power. The Jewish Home under Bennet is striving to become one of the major players. Polls currently predict 15-19 seats in the upcoming elections. The party also includes members of the former Ichud-Leumi (National Unity) party.
The party is now open to non-orthodox members (such as Ayelet Shaked) as well as non-Jews (at least two Israeli Arabs are running in the upcoming primary election). Jewish Home is considered more hawkish than Likud and is now the most hawkish party in the 19th Knesset, after Michael Ben-Ari’s extreme-Right party did not pass the 2% threshold.
As a result of Bennet’s success in the elections, 10 of the party’s 12 members are new to the Knesset, including Bennet himself, who was once an advisor to Netanyahu, but not an MK.
Jewish Home is one of the three parties which hold open primary elections in which all members (approximately 50,000) can vote.
Who else is interesting?
Ayelet Shaked is the only non-orthodox member of the Jewish Home. She also served as an advisor to Netanyahu, along with Bennet, and the two of them founded “My Israel”, a rightwing grassroots organization. After a few years of running the organization together, the two of them decided to go into politics. Shaked headed the committee on drafting the Ultra-Orthodox community and has been the author of a number of rightwing bills, including one version of a recent bill which proposed to anchor the Jewish identity of Israel in basic-law (the Israeli equivalent of a constitution).
Labor- 15 seats
The Labor party has been a major party in its different forms since the foundation of the state in 1948. For many years, the party held approximately a third of the Knesset seats, but it has been steadily falling since its first lost elections in 1977. The current leader of the party is Yitzhak (Buzhi) Hertzog, who won the primary election against Shelly Yachimovitch last year. The Labor is considered to be moderately Left-wing. Until yesterday, polls predicted that the party would remain at approximately 15 seats.
Labor is the third party which holds open primary elections, in which all party members (approximately 70,000) can vote.
Who else is interesting?
Stav Shafir and Itzik Shmuli rode the wave of the worldwide social protest of 2011. Shmuli was head of the Student Union and Shafir was one of three main leaders of the social protest. Shafir (29) and Shmuli (34) are two of the youngest MKs ever. Shafir has been active in a struggle to bring more transparency to the government budget, which is often voted on without MKs knowing enough about.
Hatnua– 6 seats
Livni’s party’s name literally means “the movement”. She founded the party just prior to the previous elections, after leaving her previous party Kadima crumbling and in extreme debt. Livni calls herself “Center” but she is actually on the Left (dovish), despite starting out in Likud. Until yesterday, polls predicted that she would not pass the 3.25% threshold.
On Wednesday night (Dec 10th) Livni signed an agreement to merge her party with the Labor party. In return, if the Labor party is able to form a coalition, Livni and Hertzog will rotate as Prime Minister. Somehow, in the most recent poll, 15+ 0 seats makes over 20, giving the Labor party the first glimmer of hope for replacing Netanyahu.
I’ll be blunt: Livni is a political whore. In 10 years, she has been in 4 different political parties (Likud, Kadima, Hatnua and now Labor). She is as bad as her #2, Amir Peretz, who is now returning to the Labor party, making this his 4th party switchover in his 26 year political career (Labor, Am-Echad, Labor, Hatnua, Labor). I have absolutely no tolerance for politicians who constantly hop from political bed to political bed, just so that they can keep their seat. It is dishonest and although I said I would try to be fair with the parties I don’t support, I have my standards and there are lines that should not be crossed. If you want to change parties, be honest about it: Step back, take a break for a few years, apologize to the people, admit that you have had a change of political values and then ask the people for a renewed mandate on the basis of honesty. Political bed-hoppers will get no good reviews here.
And speaking of political bed-hoppers- Kadima – 2 seats
Kadima was founded in 2005 by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (1928-2014), who left Likud after carrying out the Disengagement from Gaza, which was counter to Likud ideology. Kadima under Olmert won the 2006 elections with 29 seats. In 2009, the party won 28 seats, one more than Likud, but was unable to form a coalition, while Likud was able to do so. In 2013, the party crashed down to 2 seats (Shaul Mofaz and Yisrael Hasson) and party members scrambled to hop into new political beds. There are currently six Kadima refugees in the Knesset- 2 in Kadima, 2 in Hatnua, 1 in Likud and 1 in Labor.
Kadima was founded as a “Center” party, but in reality it was based on ‘refugees’ from Labor on the Left and Likud on the Right and lacked a clear ideology, which is probably one of the reasons for its eventual collapse, as other similar parties did before it (“The Center Party” and “The Third Way”).
I recently read that Kadima, having no prospects of passing the 3.25% threshold, is joining either Labor or Yesh Atid (I don’t remember which, and I have been unable to locate the article). In this way, Mofaz can save himself a seat without having to show the public any achievements over the past two years, and his new host party will get Kadima’s election funding.
Mofaz himself is a former member of Likud. As I said, political bed-hopping. You know the rest.
Shas- 11 seats
The future of the Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox party is unclear, after the founder and spiritual leader of the party, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef (1920-2013) died last year, leaving a leadership vacuum and a political struggle between Arie Deri, who returned to the party in 2012 after an exile of 12 years, due to his being sentenced to 3 years in jail for corruption charges, and Eli Yishay who headed the party during Deri’s absence.
According to the party charter, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef handpicks a committee of himself and two other rabbis, which in turn handpick the party list. After Rabbi Yossef’s death, he was succeeded by Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who was a member of the three-rabbi committee.
With Arie Deri in the leadership, it is unclear whether Eli Yishay will remain in the party, or whether they will go their separate ways.
Polls predict approximately 8 seats for Shas in the upcoming elections.
Who else is interesting?
No one. The party is controlled by a 3 man committee. Being Ultra-orthodox, there are also NO WOMEN AT ALL in the party.
Yahadut Hatora- 7 seats
The Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox party is nothing new. They cater to a specific community and do not attempt to attract other voters. The party list is elected in a similar way as in Shas- a committee of rabbis, no women, just without the jail time.
The leadership of the party is behind the scenes- the rabbis that instruct the MKs on all issues.
Polls predict 7-8 seats for the party in the upcoming elections.
Meretz- 6 seats
The party on the far Left of the political spectrum is headed by Zehava Gal’on. The party, which has a membership of 13,000 people, elects a 1000 member body of electors which vote on the party list.
Polls predict 6-9 seats for the party in the upcoming elections.
The Arab bloc- 4+4+3 seats
There are currently three Arab parties in the Knesset, which individually may or may not pass the 3.25% threshold. That is why all three parties are likely to merge before the elections and run as one party.
Hadash, the communist party is currently headed by Muhammad Barake and includes also Jewish members. Of the 4 seats the party holds, one member is Jewish.
Raam-Taal is currently headed by Ibrahim Sarsur.
Balad is currently headed by Jamal Zahalka.
Raam-Taal and Balad are quite controversial among the Jewish population because they consistently support the Palestinian side in the Israeli-Arab conflict and members of the party have even praised the actions of Palestinian terrorists.
It is unclear how a merge between the parties will affect the number of seats they receive in the elections, or who will lead this merged party.
And one more- Kulanu
Kulanu, which literally means “All of us” (I think politicians are running out of names for parties. “The movement”, “All of us”, could we have that with some more kitsch?), is a new party run by Moshe Kahlon. Kahlon left the top echelons of Likud right before the 2013 elections, without giving any explanation. He was expected to become #2 in Likud, after a very successful term as Minister of Communications, during which he opened up the mobile network market to competition, breaking the triopoly of Orange, Cellcom and Pelephone, and effectively lowering mobile network prices by at least half. Now he’s back at the head of his own party. He hasn’t really said much about what the party stands for or who’s in it, but the polls are giving him 8-10 seats already. Presumably he’ll be somewhere on the Right-hand side of the political spectrum, but somewhat Left of Likud.
According to my political bed-hopping rule (above, see Hatnua), he has fulfilled the prerequisite time-out from politics, but I’m still waiting on that explanation to the public on why he left his previous party, how he was wrong in the past, and why he’s founded his new party now (other than political ego, of course).
So to sum up the 4-5 blocs:
Right: Likud (Netanyahu), Yisrael Beiteinu (Lieberman), Jewish Home (Bennet), Kulanu? (Kahlon)
Center: Yesh Atid (Lapid), Kulanu? (Kahlon)
Left: Labor+Hatnua (Hertzog+Livni), Meretz (Gal’on)
Ultra-Orthodox: Shas (Deri), Yahadut Hatora
Arab parties: Hadash+ Raam Taal+ Balad- as one list.
More updates to follow, either here or on my Facebook page. You can see current posts on my FB page in the righthand panel on this page.
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