Campaign notebook

From powerhouses to Pirates, parties file for March vote just under the buzzer

Thirty factions register to run in third straight election, matching September total, though roster features a few newcomers as some small niche parties bow out

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Pirate Party representatives register their slate for the March 2, 2020, election, at the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset on January 15, 2020. (Raoul Wootliff/The Times of Israel)
Pirate Party representatives register their slate for the March 2, 2020, election, at the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset on January 15, 2020. (Raoul Wootliff/The Times of Israel)

A total of 30 political parties registered to run for the Knesset as a filing deadline expired Wednesday night, from powerhouses like Blue and White and Likud to tiny niche factions seen as having little to no chance of entering parliament.

Amid a frenzy of last-moment drama, religious, right-wing parties Yamina and Otzma Yehudit squeezed in to submit their faction slates ahead of the midnight registration deadline, literal minutes before the Knesset doors slammed shut.

The 30 parties to register matches the number of slates in September elections. In the 2019 April election, 39 parties ran, the most in Israel’s election history. Twenty-five parties ran in the 2015 election.

The top of the roster of parties is mostly unchanged from September, save a Labor-Gesher-Meretz merger and the demise of the Democratic Camp. Meanwhile, a number of newcomers filed to try their luck with Israeli voters, while some parties that failed to clear the threshold in September bowed out.

According to Israeli election law, Wednesday was the last day for parties to register their slates, 47 days before the March 2 ballot. Party representatives who entered the Knesset, where the election committee is based, by 10 p.m., were allowed to complete negotiations until midnight.

Starting on Tuesday morning, parties presented their lists to the committee’s chair, Supreme Court Judge Neal Hendel, one by one, filing details on each candidate and requesting a letter or letters from the Hebrew alphabet that will represent them on ballot slips come April.

In an antiquated and at-times bizarre process, new parties compete for the free letters not already in use by existing parties, which are given out on a first come, first served basis. The last of the parties to register are therefore forced to take obscure pairings of letters that make little sense and have no relation to their party name.

Ballots lie on a table at a voting booth in Rosh Ha’ayin in Israel’s parliamentary elections, September 17, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The discussions over the letters are also significant, given that each paper ballot slip for each party must be printed as many times as there are eligible voters, with extras printed to make sure no one is prevented from voting for their preferred party. With approximately 6,300,000 Israelis eligible to vote, the spokesperson for the Central Elections Committee said that some eight million slips would be printed for each party. And with 30 slates, that’s a whopping total of 240 million ballot slips to be printed.

Likud and Blue and White are expected to dominate the March vote, with polls predicting at least 30 seats for each.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the list for his Likud party, followed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and MK Gideon Sa’ar. Culture Minister Miri Regev, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Agriculture Minister Yoav Gallant, MK Nir Barkat and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel round out the top 10 for Likud.

Filing the Likud list, Tourism Minister Levin said that this election, unlike the last two, will see a decisive win for the current ruling party.

“At the end of the best decade in the history of the country, we seek the public trust to continue the way we are going, which has brought Israel to unprecedented achievements in all areas,” he said.

“It is no secret that many did not go out to vote in the previous election because they were sure that we would win anyway. Many did not believe that Blue and White would work closely with the Joint List and try to form a government with it,” Levin added. “This time we cannot be deceived. This time we will not give up on anyone and make sure that all Likudniks come out to vote. We’ll win this time!”

Likud party members speak to press at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Hours before filing, Likud gained a surprising new addition to its electoral list: Blue and White MK Gadi Yevarkan

Following a Blue and White announcement earlier Wednesday that it was removing Yevarkan from its list of candidates after he threatened to move over to the rival Likud, the ruling party confirmed that Yevarkan would be placed as No. 20 on its own slate.

Blue and White then announced that it would fill Yevarkan’s vacated slot with “a new candidate to represent the Russian sector,” Andre Kushnov, a former journalist for the Russian-language Channel 9. In addition, Michal Cotler-Wunsh from the Telem faction, the faction Yevarkan represented, was bumped from slot 46 to 36.

Blue and White MK Gadi Yevarkan. (YouTube screenshot)

Other than the admission of Yevarkan and the addition of Kushnov, the electoral ticket submitted by Blue and White remained almost identical to the one that competed in April’s elections, with changes made only to the order of candidates below number 40 on the slate. Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi occupy the top four slots.

Lapid, who merged his Yesh Atid party with Gantz’s Israel Resilience to form Blue and White ahead of the the April 2019 election, recently announced that he would give up on a rotation deal to share the premiership with Gantz if Blue and White forms the government.

Drama on the far right

In a repeat of the filing deadline ahead of September’s vote, the biggest flurry of drama came courtesy of the far-right, with tense negotiations lasting almost until  the committee finally closed its doors at 11:59 p.m.

Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz agreed to merge his faction with Naftali Bennett’s New Right late Wednesday night, breaking his agreement with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party in the final minutes before the party filing deadline for the upcoming March election.

Otzma Yehudit, a party of self-described disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, submitted its slate on its own in a scene that was reminiscent of the last filing deadline before the September election. Then, too, last-minute deals left Otzma Yehudit to run on its own. It ended up below the electoral threshold.

Earlier Wednesday evening, after talks snagged, Netanyahu invited Bennett and Peretz to his Jerusalem office along with prominent national religious rabbi Chaim Druckman. The sit-down is believed to be what brought the parties over the merger finish line.

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Peretz in recent days had vowed not to break the agreement he reached last month with Otzma Yehudit, but came under immense pressure from Netanyahu’s Likud party as well as other right-wing officials who were worried the Jewish Home-Otzma slate would not cross the electoral threshold.

Bennett had similar misgivings regarding the New Right’s chances, which ultimately led him to break a similar vow to run independently in March. The defense minister had expressed hope that the national religious camp was large enough to support two parties — one being his slightly more liberal New Right and the other a conglomerate of the far-right Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit parties. But on Tuesday he caved to concerns regarding the electoral threshold and inked a deal with National Union.

In the end, Otzma Yehudit filed with around 15 minutes remaining until the deadline, while the new alliance, to be named Yamina, filed with just 6 minutes remaining, receiving a dressing down from Justice Hendel as the lights literally went off at midnight.

Reluctant unity on the left

On the other side of the political spectrum, Labor-Gesher-Meretz filed its reluctantly united slate without any drama.

Heads of Labour-Gesher-Meretz Nitzan Horowitz (L) Amir Peretz (C) Orly Levy-Abecasis at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The list we are now submitting is the social conscience and political compass for Israel,” said party No.1 and Labor chairman Amir Peretz after filing the joint slate. “This list will will steer the next government and double the strength of the ‘hope and change camp.’

Gesher head Orly Levy-Abekasis, placed second on the slate, said that, “We are joining hands for the children, for the elderly, for the entire Israeli society. We will do everything we can to promote the really important things. Together we will bring these issues to the forefront.”

The merger between the center-left Labor-Gesher and hard-left Meretz is seen as a marriage of convenience between parties that differ on ideology, but which polls have shown hovering at between four and six Knesset seats each, in danger of falling below the threshold and endangering the left-wing bloc.

Of the union, Levy-Akekasis said, “We did what was needed and now we are looking forward. “Meretz chair and No. 3 Nitzan Horowitz says, “Today we bring big hope to everyone who dreams of the left-center government. The joint run will bring us back to the table of government and the left to state leadership.”

Left out of the celebration was veteran MK Stav Shaffir, the Green Party chairwoman, who announced Wednesday that she would not be running in the upcoming March election after the left-wing alliance formed without her.

Green Party chair Stav Shaffir holds a press conference on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv announcing she will not run with her party in the upcoming Israeli elections, on January 15, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I won’t run in this election, but I will stay in the race for our country. Today we’re taking the Green Movement out [of the Knesset] and instead to the streets, to the cities, to the neighborhoods, in order to build our tomorrow and come back stronger,” she said at a press conference on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv — the swanky pedestrian boulevard where she first rose to prominence as a leader of the 2011 cost-of-living tent protests.

Shaffir had weighed the possibility of an independent run with her Green Party, but ultimately reached the conclusion that it would not cross the electoral threshold and risked wasting thousands of left-wing votes.

Also disappointed by the merger was veteran Arab Meretz member and former Meretz MK Issawi Frej, who was given the 11th slot on the unified slate.

“Arabs want to be partners. Not decorations,” Issawi Frej told The Times of Israel this week. “If the agreement holds, Arabs definitely will not cast ballots for us in a significant way. What I am going to tell them? Vote for a party that does not put them in an important spot on its list?”

The Joint List of predominantly Arab-Israeli parties, filing its own slate, said that it expected to receive at least 15 seats in the national poll, partially thanks to Meretz tilting rightward.

The union between Meretz and Labor, “makes 15 seats for us very possible, almost certain,” said Party No. 3 Ahmed Tibi.

In the September election the party gained 13 seats.

Tibi, speaking to press after filing the party slate, said that a strong Israeli Arab representation is needed “to prove that Netanyahu‘s incitement against us will not work.”

“We are more united than ever. We have brought together four parties, again, and we are united in our goal,” party chair Ayman Odeh said.

Joint List present their party slate to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On the margins

As well as the main parties, which also included the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Untied Torah Judaism, the Central Elections Committee saw its fair share of smaller, niche parties, each with its own specific goal.

On Tuesday, the wife of Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally 24 years ago, officially registered a new political party calling to free her husband.

Larissa Amir, wife of the prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, arrives to the Central Elections Committee to register a new party to run for the upcoming Israeli elections, January 14, 2020. (Yonathan Sindel/Flash90(

Filing forms for the Mishpat Tzedek (Fair Trial) party, Larissa Trimbobler-Amir called for a retrial for her convicted husband and “all other innocent people unjustly incarcerated.”

Amir, now 49, is serving a life sentence for the assassination of Rabin. He remains in solitary confinement, though he got married while in prison in 2004 after a protracted legal struggle.

The first to file Wednesday was the newly formed Kol HaNashim (Voice of the Women), a party made up entirely of women.

“Our aim to is increase the representation of women in the Knesset and to tackle all of the issues facing Israeli society from the perspective of women,” party chair Dr. Mazal Shaul told The Times of Israel after filing the new party’s 102 candidates.

Filing the party’s papers with the Central Elections Committee, The Pirate Party chairman Noam Kuzar, wearing a tricorne hat said that his party represents “all the people that think the current public discourse doesn’t represent them.”

The party registered its full name as “The Pirate Party: Click Here” because “in the next election, after we are elected, you will be able to vote by Internet. In fact, you will be able to vote by internet for each law,” Kuzar says.

The Pirate Party has run in every Israeli election for the last 15 years. It has never won a seat in the Knesset.

Pirate Party representatives register their slate for the March 2, 2020, election, at the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset on January 15, 2020. (Raoul Wootliff/The Times of Israel)

Below are all parties set to run in the election, in the order in which they registered:

1. HaHazon (The Vision)
2. Ani V’ata (Me and You)
3. Otzma Liberalit Kalkalit (Liberal Economic Power)
4. Da’am – Green Economy, One Country
5. HaGush Hatanachi (The Bible Bloc)
6. Zechuyoteinu Bekoleinu (“Our Rights Are in our Vote/Voice”)
7. Halev HaYehudi (The Jewish Heart)
8. Mishpat Tzedek (Fair Trial)
9. Manhigut Hevratit (Social Leadership)
10. Mitkademet (Advanced)
11. Shas
12. Kol Hanashim (Voice the Women)
13. Yisrael Beytneu
14. Seder Hadash (New Order)
15. Peula L’Yisrael (Action for Israel)
16. United Torah Judaism
17. The Pirate Party
18. Adom Lavan (Red White)
19. Kama – Advancing the Status of the Individual
20. HaBrit HaMeshutefet (The United Covenant)
21. Kavod HaAdam (Respect for People)
22. Blue and White
23. Shema (Listen)
24. Tzomet (Junction)
25. Joint List
26. Likud
27. Labor-Gesher-Meretz
28. HaKoach L’Hashpia (The Power to Influence)
29. Otzma Yehudit
30. Yamina

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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