“Bibi,” “Bennett,” “Tzipi,” “Shelly.” The way names of major candidates in the Israeli elections have been bandied about by international observers and media analysts, you would think Israeli voters are only electing the prime minister.
Not so. When they enter the “Kalfi” (Hebrew for ballot box) Jan. 22, Israelis will decide the composition of the 19th Knesset (Israel’s parliament) by casting votes for whole parties—not specific candidates.
Each party, which presents candidates for membership in the Knesset, must win at least 2 percent of the total vote to get two members in. The government will be established based on how many seats each party wins, and the president will appoint the prime minister, usually the leader of the party that won the most votes. That candidate must then form a coalition with other Knesset-elected parties, and those parties that are not included become the opposition.
Thirty-four parties are competing in this election, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly formed Likud-Beiteinu party favored to win the most Knesset seats, which would mean the re-election of the prime minister.
Despite a radically different elections system from the U.S.—at least technically speaking—over the past decade Israeli elections “became personalized,” Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) researcher Dr. Ofer Kenig told JNS.org. “Some even call this phenomenon ‘the Americanization of elections/politics,’” he wrote in an email.
Israeli election results, however, still only “determine the balance of power between parties in the Knesset,” according to Kenig, who explained that the elections “never produce a party with an overall majority.”
In the last election, Kadima beat current Netanyahu’s Likud, but Netanyahu still formed the government. This time, the right-religious bloc of parties could gain the most seats, but Netanyahu may still leave parties from that bloc out of his future coalition.
“When Israelis go to the polls they don’t really know what kind of government/coalition they are going to end up with. And so, a considerable part of the campaign revolves around questions such as ‘which party will consider cooperating with other parties following the elections,’” Kenig wrote.
Below, JNS.org highlights the key players in this year’s race.
An alliance formed between the center-right Likud (Hebrew for “unification”) party led by Netanyahu and the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (Hebrew for “Israel our home”) party. Likud is a conservative party that seeks a capitalist free-market, supports Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria and affirms Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It places a priority on Israeli security against attacks when it comes to negotiating with the Palestinians. But previously, Likud politicians have gone against their own party’s traditional views on the Middle East conflict through offering concessions to the Arab side. In 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin led Israel to a peace treaty with Egypt, and in 2005 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (before leaving the Likud party) led the disengagement from Gaza. Netanyahu himself recently announced support for a demilitarized and peaceful Palestinian state.
Yisrael Beitenu is a nationalist party founded by recently resigned Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It initially tended to represent Russian-Jewish immigrants, but has expanded to other Israelis. The party is focused on security and stipulates that the core goal of the Palestinians is not the achievement of peace through negotiation but to completely destroy the Jewish state. “We extend our hand in peace to our enemies, but as long as they choose the path of war, we must be diligent and fight back,” states the party’s official online description.
Habayit Hayehudi (Hebrew for “The Jewish Home”) is a national religious party currently led by 40-year-old software tycoon and veteran of an elite IDF unit, Naftali Bennett.
Bennett, whose family is American, has become a phenomenon in Israel. The party seeks to strengthen the identity of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist state while upholding “the rights of Israel’s minorities, among them the Arab minority,” according to its official website.
“My positions are very clear: I never hide the fact that I categorically oppose a Palestinian state inside our country,” Bennett said in a recent TV interview. The party proposes the full Israeli annexation of Area C in Judea and Samaria, granting full citizenship to Arabs who currently reside there. The party also wants to invest in the building of infrastructure that will improve the daily lives of both Arabs and Jews in the entire region, and it wants to integrate ultra-orthodox citizens into the Israeli workforce and military service.
Habayit Hayehudi is “probably the only party in this race that will not agree with any further [Palestinian] land deal,” and it does not agree with a two-state solution, said Uri Bank, the party’s Knesset candidate and U.S. native in a teleconference hosted by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Jan. 10.
Shas (a Hebrew acronym that roughly translates to the Sephardic Torah Guardians Movement) is an Orthodox religious political party that primarily caters to Sephardic religious Jews in Israel. Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai is the current chair. On domestic issues, the party supports the current exemption of military service for ultra-orthodox Jews and promotes various social welfare projects. On the conflict with the Palestinians, Shas has tended to have centrist views, which has allowed it to form a coalition with nearly any ruling party. Recently, though, it has begun to lean more to the right on the Palestinian issue, opposing any Likud freezing of construction in Judea and Samaria.
Avoda (Hebrew for “Labor”) is a social-liberal political party led by former Israeli journalist and writer Shelly Yachimovich. The party follows the social democratic principle by calling for a free-market economy and minimal government interference as long as the government protects the basic social needs of its citizens such as the needs for housing, health and education.
The party wants to negotiate a political solution with the Palestinians and opposes Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria. Several well-known Israeli politicians came from this party, such as Israel’s only female prime minister, Golda Meir, and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.
According to MK Nachman Shai, a member of Labor who spoke on the Jan. 10 JFNA teleconference, said the party’s aim is “to preserve the Jewish and democratic character” of Israel.
Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who was defeated by Shaul Mofaz for that party’s chairmanship in May 2012, founded a new centrist party, Hatnua (Hebrew for “The Movement”). In a November 2012 press conference announcing the new party, Livni vowed to fight for a “democratic Israel.”
“The government enters dialogue with those who support terror and avoids the camp that has prevented terror, that fights for two states,” she said. In terms of domestic issues, Livni wants “young people to have homes, earn a living, and live with dignity without always fearing for the future.” Hatnua is also committed to pass a law that would require the ultra-orthodox to serve in the IDF, from which they are currently exempt. “I’m in favor of a Zionist party — a liberal, secular, and democratic party,” Livni said.
Yesh Atid (Hebrew for “There is a Future”) was founded in 2012 by Israeli journalist Yair Lapid, who left that career to enter politics. This party is primarily focused on domestic issues. One of its major platforms is reforming the Israeli government by reducing the number of political parties that can form a coalition and the number of ministers that can serve in the Knesset, so that the overall system is more like the governments of European nations such as Germany or the United Kingdom. The party believes that many issues on its agenda, such as the reform of education and the need for equality in military service, could in this manner be dealt with more efficiently. The party also proposes an economic program to help small businesses and the middle class.
A poll commissioned by Yedioth Ahronoth from the Mina Tzemach polling company in November showed that Kadima (Hebrew for “Forward”), a major party in past elections, wouldn’t likely make the 2 percent threshold required to get Knesset seats in the upcoming election.
The Pirate Party
Although it has little realistic expectation of winning any Knesset seats, the Israeli Pirate Party may garner some votes from Israelis disillusioned with larger and more conventional parties.
The party was founded by ponytailed 33-year-old Ohad Shem-Tov, who showed up at the Knesset to register the party wearing a scarf on his head and a hook on his hand. But the party isn’t all about fun and games. As part of a larger movement of international pirate parties that began in Sweden in 2006, the party is connected to concerns over the freedom of information, including reforming international copyright and patent law related to the controversial yet popular Bit Torrent file-sharing platform.
“Dressing up is a gimmick, it’s a way to draw attention,” Shem-Tov told the Associated Press. “But this party is serious, even if we use a little humor and do it with a smile.”
Additional material for this article was collected from Mako.co.il, The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Haaretz, Knesset.gov.il, Electionguide.org, MyJewishLearning.com, Israel Hayom, Judaism.about.com, Maariv, Baityehudi.org.il, Myisrael.org.il, Yeshatid.org.il, The Forward, Time, and Front Page Magazine.