Israel Is Holding Elections, Again
A meeting of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, on Nov. 4, 2021. (Gil Cohen Magen/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Israel Is Holding Elections, Again

As the country heads to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years, The Media Line takes a look at the main parties vying for seats in the 120-member Knesset on Nov. 1

On Nov. 1, Israelis head to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years, to elect members for the 25th Knesset (parliament) and thereby choose a new government.

With a national vote taking place on average almost every 2.5 years, Israel has since 1996 led the world in terms of election frequency.

Israeli elections operate under a system of proportional representation, whereby the parliamentary seats each party receives reflect the number of votes cast for that party as a proportion of the total number of votes. To enter the Knesset at all, a party must exceed the threshold of 3.25% of the total vote, which would grant it the minimum of four seats. The higher the proportion of the vote a party receives, the more seats it has in the Knesset.

A forklift arranges ballot boxes at the headquarters of Israel’s Central Elections Committee, near the central town of Shoham, ahead of the March 23, 2021 general elections. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

A government in Israel is formed by different parties coming together to form a 61-seat majority coalition. The leader of the largest party in that coalition tends to become prime minister, although this is not always the case. The outgoing government, for example, had Naftali Bennett as its first prime minister even though his New Right party was not the largest party. But in order to secure its crucial support, Yair Lapid, the head of the coalition’s largest party Yesh Atid, agreed to forgo the right to become prime minister first.

Some parties, such as the right-wing Likud and centrist Yesh Atid, are strong enough to run on their own and are expected to receive dozens of seats in the next Knesset, while other smaller parties must unite to run on the same list in order to ensure that they pass the threshold.

This time around, there are a dozen parties realistically competing for the 120 Knesset seats and not one is expected to win an outright majority of 61. In fact, the final opinion polls taken before the election predict that Likud, which is expected to secure the most votes, could win as few as 30 seats. That’s a quarter of those in the Knesset and not enough to form a government solo.

Technically, 61 seats are enough to establish a coalition, but most would-be prime ministers want more – around 65 or 66 – so they can put together a stable and strong government that will be able to withstand any turmoil and several defections.

In Israeli politics, it often comes down to one or two of the smaller parties in the race to decide which way an election goes. And because they sometimes can have that influence, these smaller parties are called the kingmakers – deciding who gets to sit in the prime minister’s chair and who doesn’t.

This election will also attempt to answer many questions, including whether former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can regain the premiership after over a year in opposition, how influential the smaller parties can actually be and if caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid will be able to retain the seat he has only occupied for the last three months?

Let’s have a look at the parties in the race:

Likud is arguably Israel’s most prominent political party.  The center-right to right-wing party has dominated national politics for over a decade and at its center is former Prime Minister and current Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

At the heart of its agenda is the right of Jewish settlement in the West Bank. In the past, Likud formally rejected the idea of a Palestinian state; but it does not explicitly dismiss the two-state solution in principle.

Its position on religion and state is viewed as more moderate compared to its fellow right-wing parties and includes supporting the status quo – a political understanding between secular and religious political parties going back to the foundation of the state not to alter the communal arrangement in relation to religious affairs.

Israeli Likud party leader and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu votes with his wife Sara in a primary for the party’s parliamentary slate, in Tel Aviv on Aug. 10, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

In almost all recent polls, Likud comes out on top but is still short of hitting the magic number of 61 and being able to form a government.

Yesh Atid (There is a Future) is the other party at the center of Israeli politics and is led by former journalist and current caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Lapid formed the centrist party in 2012 to represent the secular middle class. Civic, socioeconomic and governance issues are at the center of its platform agenda, including government reform and ending military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

Yesh Atid has been running in the parliamentary elections since 2013 and has become a formidable competitor to rival Likud, whose insistence on keeping Netanyahu as head of the party has ruled out the possibility of a unity government that includes both of them.

Lapid seeks to preserve his partners on the political left, primarily the Labor and Meretz parties. He is also courting the Arab vote and is open to the idea of including Arab parties in his government, as happened in 2021 with the United Arab List under Mansour Abbas.

The National Unity party is led by current Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who in July merged his Blue and White centrist alliance with the right-wing New Hope party of former Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar.

During the March 2019 campaign, the Blue and White platform focused on fighting government corruption, including imposing term limits on the prime minister and several other pledges such as protecting Israel’s Jewish identity and investing in education. His agenda also includes a plan for peace with the Palestinians.

New Hope was formed by Sa’ar in 2020, and also supports term limits and sees Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

In an attempt to strengthen National Unity’s chances, a new figure has joined the party – Gadi Eisenkot, who like Gantz is a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.

(L to R) Israel’s former army chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, Defense Minister and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, and Justice Minister and New Hope party chief Gideon Sa’ar pose for pictures during a joint press conference in the central city of Ramat Gan on Aug. 14, 2022. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, the extreme right-wing parties that are becoming mainstream in Israeli politics, are currently running together as Religious Zionism and are headed by its leader Bezalel Smotrich.

Religious Zionism, like Otzma Yehudit under Itamar Ben-Gvir, calls for one state on all Israeli and Palestinian land and is opposed to territorial concessions with the Palestinians, with some members supporting annexation of the entire West Bank. It is also against freezing the construction of Jewish settlements, opposes recognition of same-sex marriage on religious grounds and advocates for increased funding for religious studies and education.

Religious Zionism, including Otzma Yehudit, is part of the right-wing national camp along with several other far-right alliances.

This extreme right-wing pact relies on Israel’s settlers for its electoral power. It stresses the Zionist project and the Jewishness of the state and calls for the expulsion of Palestinians and anyone who opposes the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Otzma Yehudit faction head Itamar Ben-Gvir greet supporters at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, March 19, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Another key party is Shas, an ultra-Orthodox religious political party led by Aryeh Deri.

This party primarily represents Sephardic and Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox Jews and aims to work to end prejudice and discrimination against these communities. Unlike other ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas enjoys support from moderately religious Mizrahi Jews.

Originally, Shas was more moderate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict but has moved further to the right. The party now opposes any freeze on constructing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Shas is anti-LGBT, and especially opposes Pride Parades in Jerusalem. However, it condemns violence against the LGBT community. Shas is currently part of the national camp.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (Sapir College/Wikimedia Commons)

United Torah Judaism is an ultra-Orthodox religious political alliance consisting of Agudat Yisrael (Union of Israel) and Degel HaTorah (Banner of the Torah), led by Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, respectively.

Unlike similar religious parties such as Shas, United Torah Judaism is non-Zionist and has no formal opinion on increasing settlements in the West Bank.

Agudat Yisrael maintains a base demographic of the Hasidic community, whereas Degel HaTorah has a non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox demographic.

The two parties split in 2004 before reuniting again a year later. United Torah Judaism is also a part of the Likud-led national camp.

Arab citizens in Israel comprise about one-fifth of the population and technically could be poised to gain a larger voice in the country’s domestic affairs and be a force politically.

Members of the Joint List (L to R) Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at his residence in Jerusalem after national elections, September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s majority Arab parties – Balad, Hadash, Ra’am and Ta’aljoined forces in 2015 to form the Joint List, in an effort to stave off extinction after Israel raised its threshold to enter the Knesset to 3.25%.

That show of unity was well-received by Israel’s Arab citizens, as they had their best showing ever in any Israeli elections, winning 15 seats. But that unity didn’t last long.

The Joint List collapsed when the Islamist party Ra’am (aka the United Arab List) currently led by Mansour Abbas and the political wing of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, choose to run separately in the last elections.

And in a historic, yet controversial decision, it was the first Arab party ever to join a governing coalition, led by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennet.

The other three parties couldn’t maintain their unity. The far-left Hadash, led by Ayman Odeh, and center-left Ta’al, headed by Ahmad Tibi stayed together amid the dismantling of the Joint List.

Hadash leaders were among the first to support a two-state solution, with voters that are primarily middle-class and secular Arabs along with far-left Jewish voters. The party supports a socialist economy and the evacuation of all Israeli settlements.

The secular Ta’al party supports the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. It has not run independently since 1999, running with Ra’am three times over the past two decades.

The left-wing Balad party, led by Sami Abu Shehadeh, elected to run alone; it opposes the idea of Israel as a Jewish state and supports creating a new binational state. Of the four predominantly Arab parties, it is the one that seems most unlikely to make it into the next Knesset.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli speaking at the Channel 12 News Influencers Conference, March 7, 2021 in Jerusalem. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s Labor party, known in Hebrew as Ha’avoda, is a center-left party headed by former journalist Merav Michaeli.

The party ruled Israel unchallenged until 1977 when it was beaten by Likud under Menachem Begin. Until then, all Israeli prime ministers were affiliated with the Labor party or its previous incarnations.

Labor supports a mixed economy with strong liberal political and social views. On the Palestinian issue, it backs a two-state solution and the creation of an independent, demilitarized Palestinian state – while supporting Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Yisrael Beitenu, a right-wing, nationalist Zionist party was founded in 1999 by the current finance minister, Soviet-born Avigdor Liberman. The party, whose name translates to Israel Our Home, still relies on immigrants from the former Soviet Union and has been a partner in the majority of government coalitions.

Liberman is a strong advocate for a unity government from across the spectrum and has expressed his willingness to join any coalition government with Likud, on the condition that Netanyahu resign as leader of that party.

Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman (Photo by Sander de Wilde/Corbis via Getty Images)

Meretz, which means “vigor” in Hebrew, is Israel’s most prominent left-wing party, now led by party veteran Zehava Galon.

The party identifies as social-democratic and secular with a platform that advocates for peace moves between Israel and the Palestinians and freezing settlement construction in the West Bank.

Its stated principles also include LGBT rights and environmentalism as well as the separation of religion and state.

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