As many of you know, Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a 120 seat legislative assembly, the "Knesset." Like in other similar systems (Canada, Britain, to name a couple), a party is required to cobble together a majority in order to govern. A governing coalition requires more than 61 seats to hold the confidence of the Knesset.
The challenge in Israel, of course, is that each Israeli believes that he or she can and should run the country. New political parties are constantly being formed, old ones disbanded and new coalitions arranged. Things are very volatile, to put it mildly.
Following the last election in 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put together a very stable coalition (by Israeli historical standards). The numbers ranged from 66 to 74 over the course of this term in office but the coalition was never really threatened. The government was made up of a multi-party coalition which included the Likud party, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Yisrael Beitenu party lead by Avigdor Lieberman (who has now been indicted), some religious and ultra-religious parties and the leftist Labour Party. It is interesting to note that some of the most vociferous condemnation of the current government has come from the leader of the Labor Party, even though Labor was an integral part of the governing coaliton.
|Prime Minister Netanyahu|
The "Right Wing" Parties
The two major right wing or right centre parties are Likud and Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel, Our Home"). Founded by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1973, Likud has been one of the two dominant Israeli political parties for more than 30 years. Its membership includes members with a range of view points from those who support a negotiated two-state peace solution with the Palestinians to those who favour annexation of much, if not all, of the disputed territories (Judea and Semaria or the West Bank). On its own in the last election, Likud won 27 seats.
Likud and Yisrael Beitenu have now merged and are running as one party for the current elections. Most recent polls estimate that they will win anywhere from 32 to 37 seats. The combined total will almost certainly be lower than the 42 that these two parties won in the 2009 election.
One of the big surprises of the campaign to date has been the newly named party Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home). Its leader Naftali Bennett, a youthful and successful entrepreneur oversaw a merger of the Jewish Home and National Union parties and won more than 60% of the combined leadership race. The party has an avowedly right wing platform, favouring annexation of the disputed territories, even though Bennett himself lives in the wonderful city of...Ra'anana. Bennett has used a mixture of facebook advertising, carefully produced videos and his own energetic appeal to build growing support. While many might characterize Bennett's views as extremist, current polls have estimated that Bennett may win between 13 and 18 seats in the Knesset.
Overall, the "right wing" parties, which are not characterized as "religious" are projected to win anywhere from 45 to 59 seats. This is quite a variance and will have a tremendous impact on the type of government that is formed. If the combined numbers are closer to 45, the group will almost certainly be forced to combine with some of the centrist parties to form a fairly broad coalition. If the group is close to, or even over 60, it could combine with some of the religious parties and produce a very stable, very right wing government, politically and even economically.
The Religious Parties
Shas is an ultra-religious party dedicated to furthering the interests of observant Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews. It has formed governments with the right and the left over the past 20 years - and has been willing to bend on some of its principles, as long as there is lots of money available for its constituents. Several Shas Knesset Members have been convicted of offences including fraud, forgery and bribery. One of those convicted, well known member, Aryeh Deri is now the number two candidate on the Shas list and will almost certainly be elected in the coming elections. Polling numbers for Shas have been quite consistent. Estimates range from 9 to 12 seats, with most polls at 10 or 11.
United Torah Judaism, another ultra-religious party, is estimated to win between 5 and 6 seats.
So the ultra-religious block is expected to have somewhere between 14 and 18 seats, which would position it well to join a government in exchange for all kinds of concessions.
Throughout Israel's history, left wing and right wing governments have been prepared to make major concessions to this religious block to bolster their governments. Some of the resulting policies have included exemptions from the army for Yeshiva students, exclusive legal jurisdiction for the religious over personal status matters including weddings and funerals and control of many other aspects of Israeli life, ranging from limitations on public transportation on Shabbat to laws prohibiting the sale of Hametz (leavened bread) on Pesach. Of course the flip side is that at least some of these laws enjoy fairly widespread public support, even among non-Orthodox Jews.
The Centrist Parties
There are currently three centrist parties that are expected to win seats in the coming election - Kadima, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah.
Formed in 2005 by moderate Likud members, Kadima reached a high point of 29 seats in the 2006 elections, with a policy platform emphasizing efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. In the 2009 election, the party won 28 seats under the leadership of Tsipi Livni. Rather than join a coalition with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Livni opted to remain in opposition. In 2012, Livni lost a leadership race to Shaul Mofaz. Following Israel's history of politicians founding new parties, Livni left Kadima and set up her own party, arrogantly named "Hatnuah" - "the Movement." The party's campaign has featured some fairly bizarre advertising slogans. Tsipi Livni herself has been viewed as ineffective as an opposition leader. Nevertheless, it looks like many of the Kadima supporters have deserted Mofaz and flocked to Livni. The party's platform has emphasized peace, social justice, environmental protection and religious pluralism. Current estimates suggest that Livni's party may win between 7 and 10 seats.
If these two parties, which should be natural allies, combine for between 16 and 21 seats, they could be part of a government and have substantial power. Lapid has already suggested that he would like to be part of a Likud led government if Likud wins the election while Livni has been more circumspect.
Though the Labor Party was one of Israel's two strongest parties and has been the governing party throughout much of Israel's history, it seems fairly clear that this has been a party on the decline over the past several years. Perhaps Israel's new economic realities, with a shift over time to more of a capitalist economy have been instrumental in creating this result. Or perhaps there has been disenchantment over Labor's role in participating in a staunchly right wing Likud coalition. In any event, under its current leader, Shelly Yacimovich, the party has emphasized social justice issues rather than national security and has tried to position itself as the party most willing to tackle issues of widespread Israeli middle class decline and increasingly high levels of poverty. Predictions have varied for the Labor Party, but most seem to estimate 16 to 21 seats.
Over to the left of the Labor Party is Meretz, a party that touts itself as "Israel's Left." Emphasizing human rights (especially in the area of sexual orientation), social justice, separation of religion and state, dismantling of most Israeli settlements, and humanism, the party is expected to win 3 to 5 seats.
If Labor and Meretz do well in the coming elections, they could have as many as 25 or 26 seats. This would either be a considerable opposition block - or it could elect to try to form a national unity government though that seems unlikely. Even if the political left and centre were to combine, the ceiling would probably be in the range of 40 to 45 seats. Given current Israeli political realities, it seems quite unlikely that the left wing parties will play a significant role in the next government.
The Arab Parties
Israel currently has three Arab or Arab-Socialist parties in the Knesset. UAL-Ta'al, Balad and Hadash. They currently have 10 seats between the three of them. The expectation is that they will be in a similar range following the coming election. It is unlikely that they will form part of the next government, though it is theoretically possible that these parties could bolster a left-centre coalition. Given the expected number of seats, it appears that even if the left and the centre combined with the Arab parties, they would still have less than 61 seats.
|Israeli MK Ahmed Tibi|
Finally, this type of survey article would not be complete without mentioning at least some of the "novelty parties" that are not expected to win seats.
There is the "Green Leaf Party" - I will leave it to you to figure out what they stand for...
How could I not mention the "Kulanu Haverim" ("We are all friends") party, whose members include follows of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev?
And finally - the "Pirate Party" whose members advocate the "freedom to copy" and promote the lifestyle of the piracy sector.
This list is not complete - there are many other parties running, including, for the first time, an Arab Zionist party (El Amal Lat'gir), led by Bedouin politician Aatef Karinaoui. But time limitations keep me from making this blog article more comprehensive.
I will see if I have time to add some additional information between now and the election date. I will want to be sure to research all of the issues thoroughly to make an informed decision.
For now, a couple of things seem fairly clear to me. Prime Minister Netanyahu will almost certainly be the next Prime Minister. Labor and Meretz will almost certainly be in the opposition along with the Arab parties. The real issue is whether Netanyahu will lead a broad right-centre or right-centre-religious coalition or whether it will be a much narrower right-religious government. Stay tuned and if you are in Israel and you are eligible - make sure to vote!!
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