First, let us start with a summation of how general elections work in Israel. The country has a proportional representation system, in which voters vote for their preferred political party rather than a particular candidate. Due to this system as well as a fairly recent promulgation of narrow interest parties (such as parties devoted to representing Russian secular Jews or ultra-observant Sephardic Jews, for example), it is incredibly difficult for one party to win a majority in the 120-seat parliament, called the Knesset.
The prime minister is the leader of the party that is able to form a stable governing coalition. Generally, this is the leader of the party with the most seats, but not always. For example, in the last general election in 2009, the centrist Kadima party won the most seats with 28 seats but could not form a working coalition. Likud, Israel’s primary right-wing party, came in second with 27 seats and was able to form an alliance with other right-wing parties, leading to a coalition government with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.
All Israeli citizens over 18 years old can vote.
There are over 30 party lists in the current election. Each party ranks its candidates by order of precedence on these lists, with leaders and other prestigious personages at the top so as to ensure the chances they will get a seat in the Knesset. Some of the most important parties running in this current election and their leaders:
Likud Yisrael Beiteinu
This is the current coalition governing Israel right now, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Going into the election, it holds 42 Knesset seats. Likud was founded in the 1970s as a union of conservative and liberal parties and became the first right-wing political institution to interrupt the Israeli Labor Party’s uninterrupted control of the government from 1968 to 1977. Likud governed Israel throughout most of the 1980s and finally merged into an actual party of its own in 1988. Netanyahu took over the party in 1996 and became Prime Minister, only to lose to Labor in 1999. The party split under the leadership of Ariel Sharon (see Kadima below) in 2005 over Sharon’s policies toward the peace process and economic reforms, with Sharon leaving to form his own party. Netanyahu won the subsequent leadership election and led the party to resurgence in the 2009 general election, following which it formed a coalition government despite coming in second place in terms of number of seats won. In October 2012, Likud merged with its main coalition partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, and is now running on a single ballot.
Ideologically speaking, Likud under Netanyahu has meant economic reforms that have largely disabled the once ample Israeli welfare state. A staunch neoliberal, Netanyahu has presided over the privatization of state assets, the liberalization of markets and deep cuts to social spending – the latter of which leading to widespread “social justice” protests over the high cost of living. In terms of the peace process, Likud initially opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, but Netanyahu gave a speech in 2009 stating he would accept a Palestinian state if it was demilitarized, did not include Jerusalem and made no claims upon East Jerusalem. (He also rejected a Palestinian “right of return.”) In religious terms, the party remains nominally secular, although it has increased its image in religious terms in this election – which is a general trend among the major parties.
Likud’s recent merger partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, had been a fairly new arrival to Israeli politics, having been formed in 1999 by Avigdor Lieberman, a close Netanyahu ally. The party started out as an advocate for Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union but became more widely known for Lieberman’s plan to create a separate Palestinian state that would contain no Jews and would see Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories transferred into Israeli hands (in addition, the process for Palestinians to acquire Israeli citizenship would demand a loyalty pledge). Lieberman served as Israel’s Foreign Minister from April 2009 to this past December, when he resigned after being charged in a corruption investigation.
Kadima is a centrist party and the party with the most seats in the Knesset, with 27 out of 120. Ariel Sharon and his followers, who left the Likud party over Sharon’s decision to resettle Israelis from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, created the party in 2005. Sharon suffered a stroke in 2006, after which the party advertised itself as the party of the peace process. It has performed well in its brief lifetime but now stands poised to be a major loser in this election. The party has seen a split of its own (more over personality than issues) and lacks a clear identity, as it has allied with every party on the political spectrum, from Labor to Likud.
The current leader is Shaul Mofaz, a Mizrahi Jew and former defense minister with a reputation as an opportunist. He was late to leave Likud to join Kadima and, most recently, went back on his 2012 leadership election pledge to never join a coalition with Likud. Mofaz gave Netanyahu a “super-majority” in May by agreeing to just such a partnership, but the alliance dissolved after 70 days over a failure between the two parties to reach an agreement on reforming a law that excuses ultra-Orthodox Jews from conscription.
Socialist Zionism once loomed large over Israeli politics and the party governed the country for most of its early history. Right now, however, the kibbutz movement is at a low ebb and the general rightward lurch of the electorate has meant a sharp decline for left-of-center Labor. The party has also had a host of internal problems. Ehud Barak, a former Labor Prime Minister, launched a political comeback in 2007 that saw him become the party’s leader for a second time. Barak initially aligned Labor with the ruling Kadima coalition at the time, earning him a spot as defense minister. When Likud and the right-wing parties supplanted Kadima after the 2009 elections, most Labor members wanted to stay out of the coalition, but Barak defied them, keeping his spot as defense minister. In 2011, Barak broke away from Labor, taking several of his followers with him so he could remain a part of the coalition and stay on as a minister (Barak plans to retire after this election). Pundits were writing eulogies for Labor afterwards, but the “social justice” movement brought renewed interest to the party. It will probably be the party that most sees its position in the Knesset improve after this election, but it will almost entirely do at the expense of Kadima, its main competition for center-left votes. It has just eight seats now but may become the second largest party in the Knesset.
Shelly Yachimovich filled the void after Barak’s departure, winning the subsequent leadership contest. She’s a former journalist and media personality who has emphasized social issues like employment law and Netanyahu’s economic reforms. She is generally seen as being more hawkish on national security issues than previous Labor leaders or at least less interested in the peace process. Her critics have accused her of being a populist poseur solely interested in elevating herself by playing to the Jewish poor even as Israeli Arabs and Palestinians are being exploited.
Look up “narrow interest political party” in the dictionary and you will see Eli Yishai’s face smiling back at you. Shas is basically a party that represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews and uses its political standing to protect that group’s interests. As the fourth largest party in the Knesset with eleven seats, Shas doesn’t care who it enters into a coalition with as long as it gets something in return. Presently, the party has four posts in the Israeli Cabinet. Yishai, the party leader since 2000, is one of the four Deputy Prime Ministers as well as the Minister for Internal Affairs.
The party is very conservative on social issues and supports a state run according to Jewish religious law. In terms of the peace process, the party has been moderate in the past, but as the entire electorate has moved toward a more hawkish position, Shas now supports the construction of settlements in the West Bank. (Yishai said during the most recent Gaza conflict that Gaza needed to be blown “back to the Middle Ages.”) The party is also well-known for the number of its members convicted of corruption. Aryeh Deri, the leader whom Yishai replaced, was recently let out of prison and now co-leads the party along with Yishai and another Shas member and minister, Ariel Atlas.
The Jewish Home
The Jewish Home is the breakout party of this election. It is an extreme right-wing party composed of religious Zionists who believe, unlike secular Zionists, that the settlement and expansion of Israel is a religious mission to reclaim the Promised Land. The party initially started out as the much more moderate National Religious Party, but radicalized when the Orthodox movement and the settler movement became intertwined. Some polls have suggested the party could gain as many as 14 seats in this election, meaning it could be a power broker in a right-wing coalition.
The party is led by its chairman, Naftali Bennett, a former special forces commando and software tycoon. He opposes any kind of Palestinian state and has proposed the annexation of part of the West Bank (an area that has 300,000 Israeli settlers) as well as transferring control of the Gaza Strip over to Egypt. The remaining Palestinian territories would remain under the control of the Palestinian Authority, but would essentially be “managed” by the Israeli military and security services. (Bennett dismisses any possible international outcry, saying the rest of the world would just get used to it.) It is unclear how many Israelis actually favor his policies or believe them feasible, but his sudden popularity definitely indicates that many Israeli voters want a tough approach to security issues.
Founded last November, Hatnuah is the party of Tzipi Livni, the former leader of Kadima who had been deputy prime minister as well as foreign minister in the 2006-2009 Kadima government. Many predicted her to emerge as the new prime minister following the 2009 elections, but her inability to form a working coalition consigned her to Opposition leader. She was once seen as a great hope for a possible two-state solution, but her support for Operation Cast Lead in the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict saw a good deal of whatever support she had erode among Palestinians. Kadima voted her out last year, and in response, Livni left with a half dozen of her supporters to form her own party.
The party has attracted a pair of former Labor leaders but generally the “party” is not all that different from Kadima: in favor of the free market but more dovish than the right-wing parties. It’s really just a Kadima faction that is loyal to Livni and a good indication of just how troubled and aimless the Israeli “left” is.
A brand new party that was surprisingly not created by a defection, Yesh Atid was founded by Yair Lapid, a former news anchor with “strong hair” and a bodybuilder’s physique. A centrist political party, the party’s interests all deal with social problems, and emerged largely from the recent “social justice” protests. The party’s platform promotes governmental and educational reforms, housing grants for young couples, increased assistance for small businesses and steps to enlarge the military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews who currently receive draft exemptions. His party will probably come in third or fourth in number of seats won. Unlike the other centrist parties, Lapid has not ruled out joining in a coalition with Netanyahu and may be given a ministry to provide cover for Netanyahu on domestic issues.
Here are some minor but nevertheless noteworthy parties participating in the election, including all of the Arab parties:
United Torah Judaism – A union of two small ultra-Orthodox parties, UTJ holds five seats. It’s similar to Shas, except whereas Shas looks out for religious Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, UTJ serves the interests of religious Jews of European descent.
United Arab List–Ta’al – Another alliance, this joint list caters to Arab Israelis and has four seats. The alliance supports the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as the capital. In the run-up to the 2009 election, the Israeli Central Elections Committee disqualified the alliance (along with Balad, see below) from participation on the grounds they did not recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland and because they allegedly support terrorist groups. Not long afterward, the High Court of Justice overturned the decision and the Arab parties were allowed to participate.
Hadash – Hadash is a non-Zionist socialist party with four members in the Knesset. It seeks to cut across cleavages by courting Jewish as well as Arab support. It advocates an end to all settlements, an end to the occupation and a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.
Meretz – A left-wing secular party with three seats, Meretz is a Zionist party that favors a two-state solution, the end of the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Needless to say, the party is not doing so well in the current political climate.
Balad – A secular Arab party with three seats. In December, one of its members, Haneen Zoabi, was disqualified from the election because she took part in the Gaza protest flotilla, but the Supreme Court overturned this ban. Like the other Arab parties, Balad favors the creation of a Palestinian state and equal rights for Arabs in Israel.
Social Justice – In the fall of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis participated in protests aimed at bringing awareness to the decline of the Israeli middle class and the hardships of the working class. The cause of the protests stemmed from economic reforms largely implemented by Netanyahu when he was finance minister under Ariel Sharon. Although the exact demands of the movement remain nebulous, the general themes have been a decline in the cost of living, an end to privatization, free education and increased state investment in housing and infrastructure.
The protests caused Netanyahu’s popularity to plunge and saw a resurrection of sorts for the Israeli left, with the main beneficiary being the virtually dead Labor Party. As a consequence, the Labor Party and other center-left groups have made social issues a large part of their platforms, with security issues and the peace process either taking a backseat or the parties moving to the right on those questions. The problem with all this is that, much like the Occupy movement, once the protests faded in momentum, so did the political capital. Netanyahu has since rebounded in opinion polls thanks to his opposition to UN recognition of a Palestinian state and his negotiation of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. Undoubtedly, “social justice” remains an issue that Netanyahu is vulnerable on, but it will not be the deciding factor of this election.
National Security/Settlements – Recent cross-border attacks along Israel’s southern border along with rocket attacks from Gaza have brought Israelis into a sort of “siege mentality,” leading many to be skeptical that the peace process is feasible. Many fear that a Palestinian state would be identical to Gaza, with a Hamas government hostile to Israel. In some ways, the entire electorate is adopting the attitudes of Israeli settlers, who by their very lifestyle have had a “siege mentality” where they perceive themselves as constantly being under fire in their homes. This goes some way to explain why the current Netanyahu government has approved a record number of new settlements in the West Bank. If The Jewish Home becomes the political player as the hype suggests, one can only expect that settlement construction will go on unabated, if not at an increased pace.
In the long-term, these settlements mean that a two-state solution is not feasible. The more Israeli settlements are built, the more credible claims become that lands with settlements should be absorbed into Israel. The more these lands are absorbed into Israel, the less credible claims by Palestinians become that such lands should be part of a Palestinian state. Unless there is a serious reversal on the settlement question, Israel seems to be a path toward regarding itself as an isolated fortress country. It was recently revealed that U.S. President Barack Obama said Israel “did not know what its own interests are” upon hearing news Netanyahu had approved the building of new settlements.
Tal Law – Before the election, the Supreme Court overturned the Tal law, which allowed religious students to defer military service. Secular parties like Kadima and Yisrael Beitanu oppose the law and want to keep it off the books, but the religious parties like Shas and UTJ want to bring it back. If Shas and the UTJ keep their position as kingmakers after the election, expect a coalition agreement of some kind to somehow keep religious students out of conscription.
According to the most recent poll, if the election was held today, the seat breakdown would look something like this:
Likud Beiteinu – 32
Labor – 17
Yesh Atid – 13
The Jewish Home – 12
Shas – 11
Hatnuah – 8
UTJ – 6
Meretz – 6
United Arab List–Ta’al – 4
Hadash – 4
Balad – 3
Kadima – 2