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As Israel’s election day on 17 March 2015 approaches, there is one question on everyone’s mind: might Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually lose?
The polls are ambiguous. On one hand, the left-wing Zionist Camp has opened a tenuous lead of 26 seats to 23 over Netanyahu’s erstwhile Likud. On the other hand, in the kaleidoscope of Israeli politics, the race for largest party means little. Much more important is the potential to cobble together a coalition of parties that can yield the 61 votes (of 120) in the Knesset needed to form a government. Here, the math leans Netanyahu’s way. He can count on support from right-wing and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) lists that bring his automatic support above the 50-seat mark and then haggle with one or two other lists to reach the majority he needs.
Still, elections in Israel, as elsewhere, are not only a time to count winners and losers; they also provide a chance to take the pulse of the electorate, to check in on social trends, and understand popular attitudes. In Israel’s freewheeling system of proportional representation, parties constantly sprout and wilt, split and merge. The new combinations reflect new social currents and political priorities. In this cycle, many of the most compelling storylines have emerged within the various parties. For that reason—and because the ever-changing party landscape in Israel confuses outsiders—a summary of the competing parties may be the best introduction to the Israeli politics of 2015.
Likud (23 seats) in a poll by Israel’s Channel 2: The largest of Israel’s right-wing parties, the Likud styles itself as Israel’s ruling party—which, indeed, it has been for the last six years. The party’s coalition once embraced security hawks, secular nationalists, free-market liberals, and working-class Mizrahim (Jews with family roots in the Arab world). Especially in this election cycle, smaller, more nimble parties have nibbled at that coalition. The party is aiming to win back voters by stressing the need for a strong ruling party, led by the experienced Netanyahu, to avoid an unstable coalition of multiple, squabbling right-wing and centre-right political parties. A campaign video portrayed the smaller parties as petty-minded kindergarteners, with Netanyahu, the responsible adult, watching over them.
Bayit Yehudi (15 seats): Party leader Naftali Bennett has big plans. Leading what was once a staid party of the religious-settler right, the charismatic Bennett is again vying to bring young, mainstream Israel into his tent. The efforts are yielding some results. Leveraging his charisma, Bennett has produced creative, cutting-edge campaign videos with tongue-in-cheek jibes aimed at middle-of-the-road secular voters. Those videos have helped Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) maintain a strong showing of 16 seats in the polls. Bennett’s success in reaching beyond his national religious base reflects a shift in Israeli society in which increasing numbers of secular or traditional (i.e., partially religiously observant) voters identify with the national religious sector. That said, Bennett’s hipster campaign has also created a backlash. Coverage of the hardline, religious presence in the party’s Knesset list and in its stance toward gays threatens to tarnish the image Bennett has so carefully crafted.
Stances on the conflict with the Palestinians have traditionally demarcated right from left on the Israeli political spectrum, but more than a million Israeli voters will cast ballots for parties that are neither right- nor left-wing. For these voters, other concerns predominate. Many affiliate with the Haredi sector and choose parties whose goal is to advance that sector’s interests.
United Torah Judaism
United Torah Judaism (7 seats): The party of the Ashkenazi Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews with family roots in Eastern Europe), UTJ has a simple mission: to safeguard the interests of its sector, especially exemptions from military service and stipends for yeshiva students. On one hand, that agenda generates resentment among many secular Israelis. On the other hand, though its voters lean right, the party is willing to sit in government with right or left—as long as the exemptions and stipends keep flowing.
Shas (7 seats): Shas represents Mizrahi Haredim, but, as with other parties, its ambitions go far beyond that. Like religious movements in the Arab world, Shas has broadened its base by providing social-welfare services to the poor, thus earning their loyal backing. This election season has brought particular drama. Last year saw the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the movement’s spiritual patriarch and the most influential Mizrahi rabbi in centuries. The race to claim Rav Ovadia’s mantle produced a bitter civil war in the party. The charismatic Aryeh Deri has taken over Shas.
Yahad Haʾam Itanu
Yahad Haʾam Itanu (does not currently meet the electoral threshold of 3.25% support among voters to enter the Knesset): Deri’s rival, Eli Yishai has split to form a new party. Yishai’s party is struggling to meet the threshold, and it may unite with a small, far-right faction in order to do so. Commentators have noted that the fusion of Haredim (traditionally anti-Zionist) with religious nationalists is the outcome of a trend in Israeli society years in the making.
In the summer of 2011, half a million Israelis took to the streets to protest social and economic concerns, especially the high cost of living. Those protests attracted a higher proportion of Israel’s population than did France’s gigantic Charlie Hebdo protests. After-effects of the 2011 social-protest movement have given shape to an Israeli centre focused on bread-and-butter, middle-class issues.
Yesh Atid (9 seats): Led by Yair Lapid—another of this election season’s charismatic figures—Yesh Atid represents middle- and upper-middle class voters who prioritise good governance; reforms in housing, education, and health; and the entry of Haredim into the military and the work force. The star of the 2013 elections, Yesh Atid earned 19 Knesset seats, enough to secure for Lapid the powerful portfolio of finance minister. Like Barack Obama, Lapid is dashing and smooth-talking; like Obama, he has disappointed his electorate’s high expectations. Still, thanks to Lapid’s strong campaign skills, the party is holding its own in pre-election polls.
Kulanu (8 seats): A new party, Kulanu focuses squarely on the cost-of-living issue. Its leader, Moshe Kahlon, was born to immigrants from Libya and grew up in a poor immigrant neighbourhood. He rose through the ranks of the Likud, and, as communications minister, broke up the oligopoly that controlled Israel’s mobile-telephone market and lowered Israelis’ mobile bills by some 90%. In the wake of the cellular reform, Kahlon rode a wave of popularity and broke from the Likud, which Kahlon contends has abandoned its working-class Mizrahi base. To lower the cost of living, Kahlon advocates both reforms in the housing market (where prices have shot up in recent years) and anti-monopoly policies in other sectors.
Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats): Not a cost-of-living party, Yisrael Beytenu aims to attract some voters with centrist views on the conflict with the Palestinians in order to add to its base of aging immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the personal following of leader Avigdor Lieberman. The party has been rocked by a spreading corruption scandal that has reduced its support. Lieberman has unveiled a new, young Knesset slate in his attempt to reach beyond the party’s natural base and the right-wing voters Lieberman has traditionally attracted (particularly with barbs aimed at Israel’s Arab parties).
Zionist Camp (26 seats): The joint list of the Labour Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua has emerged as the definitive leading contender in Israel’s centre and left. Though often overshadowed by more charismatic rivals, Labour leader Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog has seen his personal standing improve. Herzog and Livni often focus on policy toward the Palestinians and right-wing domestic policies by the outgoing government. Meanwhile, the party’s activist base is concerned primarily with social and economic issues and elected a slate stacked with young activists and supporters of social-democratic economic policies. Critics have decried the slate as too extreme for more centrist voters, but Herzog and Livni will try to broaden the base as much as possible.
Meretz (6 seats): Again in 2015, Meretz is campaigning on unapologetic support for a secular, left-wing agenda. That full-throated support appeals to a loyal segment of the Israeli electorate. Some commentators contend that the resurgence of the Labour Party threatens the support for Meretz, which doubled from three seats to six in 2013. Party leader Zehava Gal-On has argued that only with her party can left-wing voters be assured of ideological consistency and steadfast opposition to Israel’s right.
Joint List (12 seats): In 2014, the Knesset amended Israeli law to require support from 3.25% of voters (instead of 2%) for a party to enter the Knesset. That move endangers—and was intended to endanger—Israel’s three small Arab parties. The raised threshold led the three parties to run as a joint list that could easily meet the test. Commentators have speculated that the new law may prove a blessing in disguise; shorn of the internal, intra-sector squabbles, the joint list could galvanize the Arab voting base and increase its turnout on election day. Leading Arab politicians have indicated that the party would not be willing formally to enter a government with the Zionist Camp but could support it in no-confidence votes to keep a Likud-led bloc from holding power.