Election primer

The Knesset expects lots of Labor and one or two Bibis

Communists, Kahanists, annexationists, Hasidic rabbis and the social protest movement — the race for seats in the next parliament features colorful figures from across the ideological spectrum

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The Knesset in Jerusalem (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)
The Knesset in Jerusalem (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)

More than a dozen different factions sat in the 18th Knesset, which dissolved itself early Tuesday morning, and a few new parties are expected to join the 19th Knesset, which the Israeli people will elect on January 22, 2013. America somehow gets by with two political parties for its 300 million-strong population. We fewer than eight million Israelites, with our over-abundance of political democracy, evidently need dozens of choices.

It’s been nearly four years since the last elections (which took place on February 10, 2009), when dozens of parties competed for the 120 seats — including rank no-hopers like the taxi drivers’ party, the battered husbands’ party, and the combined legalize marijuana/Holocaust survivors’ party (really). This time, one or more convicted criminals are planning comebacks, established parties are coping with new challenges (Labor after Ehud Barak’s breakaway, Kadima after its voters’ breakaway…), several new parties have been founded, and more are doubtless on the way.

It’s a political landscape as diverse and unpredictable as Israel itself.

In our still unreformed electoral system, MKs are elected by pure proportional representation. If a party gets half the votes nationwide, it wins half the seats in parliament (though no single party has ever managed to win a majority), with no constituency accountability for its MKs, who are chosen by the parties by various, more and less democratic means. (A party needs to clear a 2% “threshold” to gain representation in parliament — 2%, that is, of the national vote.)

Here, at the beginning of the campaign, is an overview of the 14 parties that were represented in the outgoing Knesset and will woo voters again in January — examined in order of their current Knesset seats.

In a separate piece later on, we’ll take a look at the newbies elbowing for Knesset space alongside or instead of these groupings.


Seats in 18th Knesset: 28 (22.5% of the popular vote), opposition

The outgoing Knesset’s largest faction, Kadima — Hebrew for “forward” — is going backward fast, and might even be wiped out on Election Day. In a leadership battle at the start of the year, members ousted former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, punishing her for preferring to sit in the opposition rather than making what she considered untenable coalition compromises. They placed her archrival Shaul Mofaz at the helm — but the switch only accelerated the downhill slide of the centrist party, which was founded by Ariel Sharon in 2005. Mofaz made a fool out of himself when, days after pledging not to join Netanyahu’s government, he did exactly that in May, for nothing more than the title of vice prime minister and no ministerial portfolios for his colleagues, only to leave the coalition less than three months later with promises of universal conscription and election reform unfulfilled.

Only a comeback (improbably) by Livni or (really improbably) by former party chair and ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert could rescue Kadima now. Both were said to be considering returning to the political limelight, but Livni has her wounded pride and Olmert a host of legal problems to overcome.

In the meantime, a three-strong panel, headed by Mofaz, will determine the party’s Knesset list for the elections. Several Kadima MKs have jumped ship, however, and are now seeking a spot on the Likud slate. Besides Avi Dichter, who left the Knesset to become a minister in Netanyahu’s government a few weeks ago, and ex-minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who stepped down in 2010 after the courts labeled his misdeeds “moral turpitude,” the list of would-be defectors to the Likud ranks includes Otniel Schneller, Yaakov Edry and Arye Bibi, a former Jerusalem police chief who, if successful, would give us two Bibis in the Likud.


Seats in 18th Knesset: 27 (21.6% of the popular vote), 13 ministers

After heading a relatively stable government for four years — unheard-of in Israel for decades — the Likud is expected to become the largest party in the Knesset in the upcoming elections. According to all recent polls, the center-right party will come in with eight or nine seats more than the second-place party, securing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a safe reelection and plenty of coalition options. But while he faces no serious competition for the top job, Netanyahu is worrying about the Likud’s Knesset list, which will be determined in the party’s primaries on November 22.

Danny Danon, left, attends a Knesset debate regarding the Sudanese refugees in Israel. To his right, the consul from Ivory Coast Consul seems exasperated. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Danny Danon, left, attends a Knesset debate regarding Sudanese refugees in Israel. To his right, the consul from Ivory Coast seems exasperated. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Likud (Hebrew for “consolidation”) is the political home of both Dan Meridor, who believes Israel should stop building in the West Bank outside large settlement blocs to safeguard the two-state solution, and Ze’ev Elkin, who calls for Israel to annex the West Bank. The ultra-hawkish Moshe Feiglin is again irritating Netanyahu with a Knesset bid, and has considerable support among party members.

In May, Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon and the rest of the party’s right flank torpedoed Netanyahu’s attempt to get elected president of the Likud Central Committee. Feiglin’s effort to challenge Netanyahu for the party chairmanship failed, but his far-right spirit is gaining track. If the Likud’s list ends up with too many heavily right-wing names, it might turn off more moderate voters and drive them to centrist parties.

Meanwhile, one of the government’s most popular figures, Communications and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon, has surprisingly announced that he’s not running for reelection, much to Netanyahu’s chagrin. Kahlon is widely credited for opening up the cellphone market, drastically reducing prices, which made him the Likud’s best answer to critics from the left who blame Netanyahu for the high cost of living.

Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Our Home)

Seats in 18th Knesset: 15 (11.7% of the popular vote), 5 ministers

According to political forecasts, Avigdor Liberman’s ultranationalist party, which attracts mostly secular Russian-speaking immigrants, can expect to retain its current standing or perhaps slightly improve. Liberman doesn’t share Netanyahu’s worries over the makeup of his party’s Knesset list as there are no democratic internal party primaries to choose the Knesset slate — it is Liberman alone who determines who’s on the slate, and in what spot (well, formally, it is a panel of three that decides the party’s Knesset lists. Liberman doesn’t even officially sit on the panel, but rest assured, no one will end up on the list who doesn’t suit the boss…)

MK Anastasia Michaeli (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
MK Anastassia Michaeli (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Indeed, the Moldova-born politician is expected to fire several MKs, including former model and TV journalist Anastassia Michaeli, who are deemed to have underperformed or embarrassed the party. During her first (and apparently last) Knesset term, the mother of eight made headlines by becoming pregnant and giving birth, throwing a cup of water at an Arab MK, saying that “most gay people suffered sexual trauma at a young age,” and claiming that abortions turn women into lesbians.

Liberman is going into these elections, as in the past, with the threat of a prosecution for corruption hanging over him. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has reportedly promised a decision in the near future on whether to press charges in a case involving alleged fraud, money laundering, breach of trust and witness tampering. The case has been rumbling along for years, however, and it would be a real political bombshell if Weinstein brings it to a head now.


Seats in 18th Knesset: 11 (8.5% of the popular vote), 4 ministers

The “Union of Torah-Observant Sephardim,” better known as Shas, will be one of the more interesting parties to watch during the campaign. All important decisions are still being made by 93-year-old former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the most revered Torah scholars of this generation, who is currently trying to fit two would-be political leaders — the dull but dependable current chairman (and Interior Minister) Eli Yishai, and the returned political wunderkind and ex-convict Aryeh Deri — into one top slot, a test of Solomonic proportions for even this wisest of sages. But it seems he succeeded, by adding in current Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias. By creating a troika to lead the party and eliminating a clear hierarchy at the top, Yosef was able to promote the Moroccan-born Deri, who sat in jail for three years for accepting bribes but is a big potential vote-winner without embarrassing Yishai.

Eli Yishai, right, and Aryeh Deri participate in a circumcision ceremony for the great-grandson of Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, on October 14, 2012. (photo credit: Oren Nahshon/Flash90)
Eli Yishai, right, and Aryeh Deri participate in a circumcision ceremony for the great-grandson of Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, on October 14, 2012. (photo credit: Oren Nahshon/Flash90)

It will also be interesting to see whether renegade Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem has a political future. After a falling out with Shas due to his (relatively) modern views, especially regarding the ultra-Orthodox’s need to enter the military and workforce, he has founded his own movement, Am Shalem.

But Am Shalem — which means “A complete people” but also subtly (well, not so subtly, actually) reminds people of his last name — has not taken off with the voters so far, the polls say. One possible way for Amsalem to return to the Knesset would be to run with TV anchor-cum political superstar Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party. Such a move would be mutually beneficial: it would help Amsalem survive politically while at the same time boosting Yesh Atid’s Haredi and Sephardi credentials. Popular US-born “modern Haredi” rabbi Dov Lipman, of Beit Shemesh, had first considered running with Am Shalem but has since joined Yesh Atid. (A professional wordsmith, former journalist Lapid, too, alluded to himself in his party’s name: Yesh Atid alliterates and rhymes with Yair Lapid.)


Seats in 18th Knesset: 8 (was 13, before Ehud Barak and 4 others split to form the Atzmaut faction), opposition

Led by former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, the Labor Party stands to be a big winner in the upcoming election. Pollsters predict between 18 and 21 seats for the party, which governed Israel for its first three decades, probably making it the Knesset’s second-largest party. Traditionally a center-left party, Yachimovich has signaled that she will focus on socioeconomic issues, where she is viewed as stronger and more credible than on security issues.

Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, two of the best known leaders of the social protest movement that last year brought tens of thousands of Israelis to the streets to protest the high cost of living, will be competing for spots on Labor’s Knesset list. “Today, everyone knows that we have already conquered the streets. But the most important decisions are made in the very place that my generation has deserted,” Shaffir said in announcing her candidacy on Sunday. “This coming election is critical. It will determine where our country is headed — whether to the same policy that does not protect the public’s interests — or to politics that put the citizens’ social welfare and economic dignity as its top priority.”

Yachimovich, Shaffir and Shmuli might attract middle-class voters who care foremost about the economy. But Israelis also worry about security, and with Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut breakaway, Labor lacks a recognizable personality from the security establishment who would lend the party more clout and gravitas in this area.

Yachimovich says she has “a reasonable chance” of becoming prime minister — which she doesn’t — but has also indicated she’d consider joining a Netanyahu government. That has drawn the ire of leftists, who also fault her for saying last year that she does not “see the settlement project as a sin and a crime.”

Atzmaut (Independence)

Seats in 18th Knesset: 5 seats, 3 ministers

In late 2010, several Labor MKs tried to force party chairman Ehud Barak to leave Netanyahu’s governing coalition. But Barak wanted to remain defense minister, so on January 17, 2011, he split his former political home into two and Atzmaut was born. Israel’s most decorated soldier, a former army chief of staff and prime minister, Barak hopes that his record and persona will suffice to help the new party clear the 2% threshold needed to enter the Knesset. The polls suggest a tough battle.

Are they discussing their political future? Ehud Barak chatting with fellow Atzmaut party members last year. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Are they discussing their political future? Ehud Barak chatting with fellow Atzmaut party members last year. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

If Atzmaut failed to make it, Barak may have hoped that Netanyahu would have him back as defense minister anyway — theirs was an improbable but close alliance, their differences on settlements and Palestinians outweighed by their shared belief in the need to strike at Iran sooner rather than later. But Barak caved to the Americans on Iran, in Netanyahu’s view, and that prompted a recent spat between the two. Strong opposition to Barak from within the Likud also makes his return to the defense post unlikely. “I am certain that our next coalition will reflect the mainstream Israeli views, devoid of Ehud Barak and his cohorts who consistently undermined our principles,” Likud hawk Danny Danon said last week. And unlike Labor, the Likud is overflowing with battle-hardened potential candidates for the defense portfolio (led by ex-chief of staff and Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon).

United Torah Judaism

Seats in 18th Knesset: 4 (4.4% of the popular vote)

Led by the German-born, US-raised Yaakov Litzman, this ultra-Orthodox party — which represents both the interests of Hasidic grand rabbis and non-Hasidic Lithuanian leaders — is expected to retain its current power in the Knesset. (Litzman, a follower of the Gerer Rebbe, serves as deputy health minister because, formally, his party does not want to be part of a Zionist government ruling the Holy Land.)

Like no other segment of Israeli society, the ultra-Orthodox make sure to get the vote out on election day. While Zionist politics is generally frowned upon, there will be very few ultra-Orthodox citizens who do not take advantage of their right to vote. Issues of importance are mostly related to retaining the status quo regarding the Haredi place in society, such as fighting any proposal to draft yeshiva students. If Netanyahu cooperates with Haredi demands, they will loyally support his policies in other areas they care less about. That’s why United Torah Judaism politicians are regarded as the most “natural” of Netanyahu’s “natural allies.”


Seats in 18th Knesset: 4 (3.4% of the popular vote), opposition

Ahmad Tibi addresses the Knesset on May 21, 2012 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Ahmad Tibi addresses the Knesset on May 21, 2012 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

This faction, comprising the United Arab List and the Arab Movement for Renewal, which merged in 2006, is probably best known for the often controversial statements and actions of its leader, Ahmad Tibi. A physician by profession, Tibi has been an MK since 1999 and currently serves as deputy Knesset speaker. Tibi was an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and is arguably the ultimate opposition politician in a system which sees the Arab factions as opposition parties by default anyway. No Arab party has participated in any of the 32 governments that have ruled this country since 1949, and that is not going to change in 2013.

National Union

Seats in 18th Knesset: 4 (3.3% of the popular vote), opposition

Headed by Yaakov “Katzele” Katz, this list — a consortium of various ultra-nationalist parties — is currently mulling a merger with Habayit Hayehudi, which is more moderate but shares most of the same political goals, notably preventing a Palestinian state, preferably by annexing parts or all of the West Bank. In the 18th Knesset, MKs from both factions occasionally tabled laws that would de facto declare Israeli sovereignty over the territories, which never passed but often got close to passing, and embarrassed Netanyahu, who professes to believe in a two-state solution.

Two of the National Union’s most hawkish politicians — the secular Arye Eldad and the skullcap-wearing Michael Ben Ari — may leave to run on a separate list. A follower of the extremist Meir Kahane (whose Kach party was barred from the Knesset for inciting racism), Ben Ari is always good for a scandal in the Knesset. He loves to interrupt speakers not to his liking (about 119 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs) and he has lately made headlines with his politically very incorrect fight against migrants in Israel. “Wherever I go [politically], I bring with me 40,000-50,000 votes,” he said this week, confident that his anti-African slogans will guarantee his political success, whichever party he chooses to run with.


Seats in 18th Knesset: 4 (3.3% of the popular vote), opposition

Hadash — which means “new” in Hebrew but is also an acronym for Democratic Front for Peace and Equality — is an Arab-Israeli non-Zionist party that seeks to rebuild “an effective, radical left within Israeli society,” according to MK Dov Khenin.

MK Dov Khenin (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Dov Khenin (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The party calls for a total Israeli withdrawal from territories gained in 1967, full civil equality of Arabs and Jews, women’s and workers’ rights and economic reforms. The biggest faction making up this list is Maki, Israel’s Communist party, yet Hadash’s parliamentary work doesn’t focus on disseminating the teachings of Lenin and Marx. Rather, it engages in environmental and societal matters. For instance, Khenin is credited with the law that extended maternity leave to 14 weeks. Two years ago, Khenin, who in 2008 unsuccessfully ran in the Tel Aviv mayoral race, received the Knight of Quality Government Award from the Movement for Quality Government in Israel. Chaired by Deputy Knesset Speaker Mohammad Barakeh, the party is expected to maintain its current strength in the next Knesset.


Seats in 18th Knesset: 3 (3.0% of the popular vote), opposition

Led by Zahava Gal-On, Meretz (Hebrew for “energy”) considers itself the Knesset’s only Zionist left-wing party, since Hadash doesn’t consider itself Zionist and Labor has signaled a readiness to join a right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu’s Likud. Yet Meretz may have a hard time clearing the Knesset threshold, according to the polls. The party’s glory days, when it had 12 MKs — including Naomi Chazan, Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid — are unlikely to return. Interesting for Anglos: US-born Laura Wharton, who represents Meretz in Jerusalem’s city council, is running in the party’s primaries, to be held on November 11.

Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home)

Seats in 18th Knesset: 3 (2.9% of the popular vote), 1 minister

The successor to the National Religious Party, which had 16 MKs right after the Six Day War, may merge with the National Union, which is further to the right. The party’s current chairman, first-time MK and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, is being challenged for the leadership by veteran MK and ex-minister Zevulun Orlev and Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and high-tech millionaire (but political greenhorn) Naftali Bennett. For the first time in the party’s history, the chairman and the Knesset list are being determined by the party members through elections and primaries (November 6 and 13, respectively).

Jeremy Gimpel and Ari Abramowitz, two American-Israelis known in English-speaking right-wing circles for their pro-Israel advocacy, are running for spots on the party’s list. Gimpel and Abramowitz are the hosts of “Tuesday Night Live in Jerusalem,” which they say is the “largest English-speaking TV show broadcast from Israel internationally.” Extremely media-savvy, the duo managed to sign up thousands of new party members (mostly Anglos), many of whom will place them first on the list when they vote in the primaries; Gimpel has a realistic chance to make it to the Knesset.


Seats in 18th Knesset: 3 (2.5% of the popular vote), opposition

Founded in 1996, Balad (an acronym for National Democratic Assembly) is another Arab-Israeli party that will never make it into the government. Its founder Azmi Bishara coined the phrase “a state of all its citizens” — calling for equal rights for Jews and Arabs — but some of the party’s MKs are known for more antagonistic attitudes. Hanin Zoabi, for example, caused more controversy in her first Knesset term than many lawmakers manage in an entire career. In 2010, she was aboard the Mavi Marmara, the flagship vessel of the Gaza-bound flotilla that tried to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. (After IDF commandos tried to board and intercept the vessel and found themselves under attack, they killed nine Turkish activists, which in turn almost destroyed Israeli-Turkish relations.) This year, Zoabi reportedly blamed “the occupation” for the death of five Israeli civilians who were killed by a terror attack in Burgas, Bulgaria. “Israel is not a victim, and even when civilians are killed, the occupying Israeli policy is to blame,” she was quoted as saying. Likud MK Ofir Akunis has appealed to the Central Elections Committee to bar Zoabi from running for the 19th Knesset.


Find Raphael Ahren on Twitter.

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