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Mass Protests Sprout New Political Party in Israel
Israel protesters participate in the weekly anti-government demonstration in Jerusalem on Jan. 9, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

Mass Protests Sprout New Political Party in Israel

With elections nearing, playing field of Knesset hopefuls getting more crowded by the day

With just over 70 days left before voters head to the polls to vote in national elections for the fourth time in two years, new political parties are cropping up on the Israeli landscape like mushrooms after the rain. The latest platform, officially launched on Saturday night, promises to be disruptive, if not unique.

The Israeli Democratic Party claims to be a truly grassroots organization, hatched over the past six months during the continued mass demonstrations that have at times overwhelmed the country.

Its members, leaders of the protest movement that has called for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s resignation, vow to introduce a new way of electing officials, crafting a platform and even voting on bills, things never before tried in Israel.

“We are first and foremost a fully democratic party, which in Israel these days is extremely rare,” Eran Etzion, a candidate running for a seat in the new party’s primaries and the former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, told The Media Line.

We are first and foremost a fully democratic party, which in Israel these days is extremely rare

“It’s a participatory democracy, [with] constant and meaningful connections between its members and the Knesset members and ministers that represent it,” Etzion said.

The party, which plans to give a voice to anyone who joins it and is willing to abide by its core principles of equality, freedom, solidarity and democracy, soon will hold primaries mostly via digital platforms and private smartphones, a far cry from the paper ballots still used in Israel’s general elections.

Tens of thousands of protesters have in recent months taken to the streets on a weekly basis, demanding Netanyahu step down for his alleged failed pandemic response and his standing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Having been consolidated and forged in these rallies, the candidates and party members unsurprisingly espouse nearly identical beliefs and ideologies, stressing the need for transparency, voicing anti-corruption views and advocating values such as trust and decency in politics.

“We want new politics. We believe we can deliver it,” Sadi Ben Shitrit, another candidate running in the party’s primaries and one of the more outspoken leaders of the movement, told The Media Line.

“My agenda is simple – bringing back truth to the public discourse. Right now, everyone is lying to everyone, all the time, the criminal at the top more than anyone,” he said, alluding to Netanyahu.

Pledging that at least half of its parliamentary candidates will be women, the Democratic Party also boasts a varied list of members, including Arab, Bedouin, ultra-Orthodox and other Israeli minorities.

“The protest is multifaceted, and so are we,” said Meli Polishuk-Bloch, a former member of Knesset and the only politician, past or present, currently in the party.

She notes that no other party in the country will hold primaries before the upcoming elections. “It may seem like a given to those abroad, but people in Israel have forgotten what democracy looks like,” she said.

The newest party is certainly not the only one hoping to draw voters to the polls on March 23.

Beyond the familiar parties such as the Likud, Yesh Atid, the Arab Joint List, and the ultra-Orthodox parties, a slew of fresh and not-so-fresh faces alike have formed new platforms and presented their candidacies on an almost daily basis since parliament was dissolved and elections called last month.

Longtime Likud lawmaker Gideon Saar left his political home to start a new party, accusing Netanyahu of fostering a personality cult inside the right-wing party. Also on the right, Naftali Bennet’s Yamina party seems poised for a split between its moderate wing and its more extreme faction.

Over on the left, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai recently formed a party claiming to pick up the pieces left by Blue and White and its leader, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who still remains in the race. Ofer Shelach, a former prominent member of opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, split to form his own list, as did another of Lapid’s partners, Moshe Yaalon.

Add to that a new “economic” party established by the former accountant general of Israel’s finance ministry, Yaron Zelicha; the left-wing Meretz; and the once-proud Labor party currently in tatters – and the muddled picture of Israeli politics is nearly complete.

My agenda is simple – bringing back truth to the public discourse. Right now, everyone is lying to everyone, all the time, the criminal at the top more than anyone

“None of us want to waste a single vote that could go toward ending corruption,” said Polishuk-Bloch, acknowledging a concern shared by millions of center-left voters who fear the multitude of parties will lead to many of them not reaching the required threshold to enter the Knesset.

“Polls don’t reflect the truth. The majority of voters don’t have anyone to vote for, and are undecided yet,” she said.

Etzion explains that due to his new party’s “democratic architecture,” party members can in the coming weeks simply vote to halt the party’s current bid, if they deem it a futile effort, or can elect to merge with other lists.

According to Polishuk-Bloch: “We can connect with all of [the center-left parties]. There is no substantial difference between them and us, except our democratic mechanisms. And if eventually we don’t run till the end – there is always next time.”

Ben Shitrit, who says he has turned down requests by several other parties to join their ranks, rejects the notion that forming yet another party is detrimental to the center-left’s cause.

“I won’t join any [other list], because they’ve all betrayed their duty. The whole lot of them. Who are they to lecture us about wasting votes, after they took millions of our votes and sat with Netanyahu despite their promise not to?” he said.

As to what they plan to do if they manage to enter parliament, the Israeli Democratic Party candidates did not hesitate to respond.

“I would want to enact a comprehensive anti-corruption law, that would ban anyone from running for public office once the police recommend to indict them,” Etzion said, referring to Netanyahu’s unprecedented status last year as under investigation, which has since evolved into a formal criminal indictment.

Polishuk-Bloch replied that, if elected, she intends to pass bills promoting transparency in government work, separation of state and religion, and a return to the abandoned peace process.

“Simply put – it’s time we do democracy, not just talk democracy,” she said.

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