Clowns, stoners, pirates, religious hippies. All of them want to represent you in the next Knesset and are ready to take on the likes of the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid for the honor.
Arrayed alongside the powerhouse mainstreamers like the Likud-Beytenu, Labor and Shas are numerous smaller, frequently bizarre parties, with highly particularized special interests, no large backers and little to no chance of putting a representative into the halls of power come January 22.
As the deadline for registering with the Central Election Committee passed on Thursday night, no fewer than 34 parties had entered the battle for the Knesset’s 120 seats.
Take the Pirates. There are local branches of the Pirate Party movement all over the world — in Germany, Pirates sit in two regional parliaments and they are expected to enter the Bundestag next year — so why not in Israel as well? Leaders of the Israeli branch have remained mum about what exactly they’re fighting for, but the party’s registration with the Justice Ministry defines its goals as promoting freedom of expression, science, the individual and the right to take copyrighted material, as well as “development and promotion of the pirate sector.”
The political odyssey of Ohad Shem Tov — who heads the Israeli Pirate Party and on Wednesday arrived at the Knesset to hand in his candidature wearing a fake hook on his right hand — illustrates the exquisite silliness of some of Israel’s novelty parties. A career also-ran, Shem Tov started his political life in the Green Leaf party, which advocates for the legalization of cannabis, and then launched his own pro-weed party after failing to get enough votes with Green Leaf to make it into the Knesset. In 2009, hoping to boost his chances of clearing the 2% electoral threshold, Shem Tov teamed up with another no-hope party representing Holocaust survivors. And still only 2,346 people voted for the improbable merged list, which was called “Holocaust Survivors and Green Leaf Alumni.”
The “official” Green Leaf party is running again this time, along with an environmentalist party, The Greens. A second environmental group, the Green Movement, wound up joining forces with Tzipi Livni’s new Hatnua. It’s all
Greek Green to us.
It’s not just stoners and tree-huggers looking for votes, though. There are religion huggers as well.
Voters will be wooed by Ahim Anahnu (We Are Brothers), a party of Breslav Hasidim, and Koah Lehashpia (The Power to Influence), a list run by followers of Amnon Yitzchak, a popular rabbi who wants secular Jews to become observant. Then there is Brit Olam (Eternal Covenant), which on its Website describes itself as a movement “designed to allow citizens of Israel to say Yes! to the G-d of Israel,” and Ohr (Light), a party fighting for the strict separation of church and state.
Founded by American immigrants Danny and Benny Goldstein, Calcala (Economy) is a self-styled financial party, but in recent days it has made more headlines for its bizarre list of candidates than for its platform.
Yossi Bublil, whose claim to fame is his participation in the first season of the Big Brother reality TV program, was promised the number three slot. But fearing (with good reason) that he wouldn’t make it into the Knesset, he demanded to be placed second (where he still wouldn’t make it, but whatever). The Goldstein brothers refused and so Bublil withdrew his candidacy.
The party’s next coup was Yuval Shem Tov, a popular children’s entertainer better known as “Yuval Hamevulbal” (Yuval the Confused).
Initially, this confused Shem Tov (not to be confused with the other confused Shem Tov from the Pirate party up above) hesitated to trade his clown make-up and trademark yellow T-shirt with a big blue star on the front for the politician’s uniform of suit and tie. When Calcala offered him the third slot, he first responded that he was “happy blowing balloons.”
However, after seeing the party’s platform, which focuses on pro-business and family issues, he decided to “help them enter the Knesset.” Except that “Yuval” then worried that his kiddie performances and advertising could be considered illegal election campaigning, and quit the race, denying that he ever really intended to run. Confused? Aren’t we all.
Heroically, or something, former Kadima MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich joined the party Thursday night, minutes before the registration deadline, and was put at the top of the list.
It’s because of comic cases such as Shem Tov’s that the Knesset’s Central Elections Committee checks with every single person whose name appears on every party’s Knesset list. “It has happened in the past that a party listed someone but when we called, it turned out that he wasn’t interested in running,” said committee spokesman Giora Pordes.
Special interest and novelty parties have been around for decades, frequently adding humor and surrealism to the pre-election TV and radio advertising for which we must now brace, with a reassuring lack of success — except, that is, for the Gil Pensioners party in 2006. A typical lost cause, Gil defied all predictions and spectacularly won seven seats that year, with high support in Tel Aviv where voters disillusioned with politics as usual cast a protest ballot for a party led by people who reminded them of their grandparents. Predictably, Gil collapsed in an orgy of bitter in-fighting over the course of the next parliament, to disappear in the last elections.
Gil truly was a departure from the norm of novelty numbers. In 1999, 6,540 people, or 0.1 percent, voted for the Casino Party, which advocated the legalization of gambling. The Men’s Rights in the Family Party garnered 1,257 votes. Those are the kinds of figures the eccentrics can expect this time around.
‘The people demand social justice’ — not just since last summer
Think the social justice movement started last year, when almost half a million Israelis came out onto the streets one memorable summer’s Saturday night? Wrong! The 2006 elections had a whole slew of parties fighting piggish capitalism, such as the Party for the Struggle With the Banks (2,163 votes), Strength to the Poor (1,214 votes), Justice for Everyone — the successor to the Men’s Rights in the Family Party (3,819 votes), and Bread, a Hebrew acronym for United Social Fighters (1,381 votes).
This year, though, some of the protest leaders have joined the establishment: Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, most notably, are on the Labor ticket. But we also have independent new parties Tzedek Hevrati (Social Justice) and Eretz Hadasha (A New Country).
Nonetheless, almost all of the 5,659,560 Israelis who are eligible to cast a ballot on January 22 will doubtless vote for one of the established parties — such as the joint list of Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism, the merged right-wing National Union-Jewish Home, the leftwing Meretz or the Arab parties – or for one of the new parties founded by well-known politicians like Livni (Hatnua) and Rabbi Haim Amsalem (Am Shalem), or for Yesh Atid, the party of popular former news anchor Lapid. And according to all polls, the Likud-Beytenu list headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman is expected to become the 19th Knesset’s largest faction by far.
Still, anything is possible until the blue boxes are counted. This election season has already seen a lot of surprises — the Knesset’s strongest party imploded (Kadima), two unlikely alliances were formed on the right (Likud-Beytenu, Jewish Home and National Union), an almost marginal center-left party resurged (Labor), new parties sprang out of nowhere (Yesh Atid, Hatnua), and there were a number of surprising comebacks (Arye Deri, Tzachi Hanegbi), defections (Amir Peretz from Labor to Hatnua; Kadima MKs anywhere), ousters (Benny Begin and Dan Meridor from the Likud list, and Danny Ayalon from Yisrael Beytenu’s) and high-profile retirements (Ehud Barak, along with the demise of his Independence party, and Kadima’s Dalia Itzik and Ronnie Bar-On). For weeks, the country wondered whether Ehud Olmert or Shimon Peres would stage surprise comebacks (nope), or whether the crowded center-left field could manage to merge and present a united front against the predicted victory of the right (acrimonious nope).
Now the pre-race jostling is over. Parties can no longer add names to their Knesset slates or merge their lists. At least not officially. The real election campaign starts now — for the establishment and the pirates alike.
Gabe Fisher contributed to this report.