JERUSALEM—As election fever begins to hit the United States in preparations for next November, things have already reached a climax here in Israel as locals prepare to enter the polls on Tuesday to elect their 20th Knesset. Ever since elections were hastily declared when the government fell apart in November, candidates and parties have been pushing their messages to the masses, fighting for the precious votes that will allow them to meet the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset.
Even though most of our readers are not part of the 5,881,966 citizens that make up the Israeli electorate, it is often difficult, even for bystanders, to understand what is going on in elections in the Holy Land. To help clear up the murky mess that is Israeli politics, JLNJ has put together a short guide to a few of the different matchups that are running.
Centrist Faction: Likud vs. Zionist Union
Vying for the votes of the large centrist bloc of Israel’s population are Israel’s two largest parties. The right-wing Likud Party, headed by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, promises to keep up the current status quo of negotiations and reactive military action. Despite personal and professional jabs from both the left and far-right at their previous work, Likud is projected to win in the polls by a five-seat margin, according to a recent poll by i24News, and are in a good position to form a government with other right-wing parties.
Facing them is the new Zionist Union (HaMahane HaZioni, lit. The Zionist Camp), headed by former opposition leader Isaac Herzog and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Combining Herzog and Livni’s parties into one big alliance, Zionist Union has been trying to woo centrist voters to lean left with promises of a better economy and more open negotiations with the Palestinians. Their initial vague campaign call of “Anyone but Bibi” has given way to more specific campaign details, and their promise of reform has led HaMahane HaZioni to overtake other parties, projected as a close second to Likud. If Zionist Union wins the election and manages to build a coalition, party leaders Herzog and Livni will switch off filling the role of Prime Minister every two years.
Right-Wing, Religious Zionist Faction: Habayit Hayehudi vs. Yisrael Beitenu
For the smaller Religious Zionist bloc of Israel’s electorate, the main players are the fringe parties The Jewish Home (Habayit HaYehudi) and Israel Is Our Home (Yisrael Beitenu). The latter is headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian oleh and former Foreign Minister, and plans to continue its promise of “following the brave path of Zev Jabotinsky.” Despite charges of embezzlement and bribery, Yisrael Beitenu is projected to make it into the Knesset with seven seats, according to a recent poll by i24 News. Lieberman has been trying to promote his party as more right-wing than former alliance partner Likud, pushing for land swaps between Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria and Arab cities in Northern Israel instead of giving up parts of Jerusalem in exchange for a peace deal.
In contrast, The Jewish Home party, headed by outspoken former Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, had put forward a campaign line that they will not make any peace deal that recognizes a Palestinian State or gives up land in Jerusalem or beyond the 1967 lines. Putting forward a campaign slogan of “No more apologizing” (Mafsikim L’hitznatzel), Bennett promises to take a harder line than the current government, never apologizing to allies or enemies for military action, never hesitating to ensure Israel’s continued safety. In terms of domestic issues, such as the Israeli economy and housing issues, Bennett has said that his experience as Economy Minister and Uri Ariel’s, third on his party list, as Housing Minister, speaks for itself. His party’s popularity with the Religious Zionist world has enabled them to clinch a projected 13 seats on the i24News election poll, putting HaBayit HaYehudi the third largest party in the Knesset.
Neither Jewish Home nor Israel Is Our Home is projected to have nearly enough seats to be chosen to build a coalition themselves, but they will both be large and influential factions to be wooed into joining a government. Lieberman has already said that he would be willing to listen to a proposition for Yisrael Beitenu to join any government, while Bennett has promised that, for ideological reasons, HaBayit HaYehudi would only join a coalition led by Netanyahu’s Likud or another right-wing party.
Sefardi Haredi Faction: Shas vs. Yahad
For the more ultra-Orthodox voters, the decision will be between voting for Shas, headed by Aryeh Deri, and Yachad, a breakoff of the former headed by former Shas leader Eli Yishai. Both parties have a similar platform with one of the only major differences between them being who they believe Rav Ovadya Yosef, former Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of the party before his death last year, would say to vote for.
The Shas party was originally headed by Aryeh Deri since its founding 1984, but when Deri was convicted and imprisoned on corruption charges 15 years later, Rav Ovadia Yosef attempted to distance the movement from scandal by appointing Eli Yishai as the new party head, a move which many voters saw as a negative, unnecessarily bending to public opinion pressure of the so-called “political witch-hunt.” With Deri’s release in 2002, the Morocco-born politician decided to sit out politics for a few years, before rejoining the Shas party in 2011. Less than two years later, Rav Ovadia Yosef ousted Yishai and reinstated Deri as the head of the Sefardi political party, claiming that the party leadership position was “a deposit that he held, and now he can redeem it.”
Furious at the betrayal, Yishai left the fold to form his own party, against the advice of Haredi leadership, which he named Yahad (together), in the spirit of unity. With the recent release of a video by Channel 2 showing Rav Ovadia Yosef calling Deri “a wicked man and a thief,” many in the Sefardi Haredi world are unsure of whom to vote for, leaving a close race between Shas and Yahad, though recent polls project that Yahad will not have enough votes to meet the threshold to enter the 20th Knesset.
Even though there are several close races in Tuesday’s elections in Israel, it is important to remember that while the final tally of votes will determine the number of seats in the Knesset that each party will get, the power of deciding who will be allowed to build a coalition to form a government belongs solely to Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin. Even if a party wins the election, they will need to get the approval of President Rivlin and will need to build a government with at least 61 of the 120 Knesset members. Readers may remember the results of the 18th Knesset elections in 2009, when Tzipi Livni won the election but was not able to form a government, so Binyamin Netanyahu ended up with the Premiership. In Israel, a victory in the election does not guarantee national leadership.
When it comes to Israeli elections, very few things can be known for sure, but the world will certainly be holding its breath, waiting for the results of Tuesday’s critical election.
By Tzvi Silver, JLNJ Israel Correspondent