The Israeli election: A guide for the perplexed

Political consultant Jodie Cohen explains who’s who and what’s what in the upcoming election.

EARLY elections were called when the coalition government, led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, collapsed after failing to agree on the 2013 budget. Although most people expect Netanyahu to form the next government, the make-up of the Knesset could change significantly. Thirty-four parties have filed to run, including several new parties.

The traditional parties

In a surprise announcement in October, Netanyahu and Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman announced they would run on a joint ticket. With a combined 42 seats in the last Knesset, the parties have campaigned on a platform of strong government. Polls have suggested that together they could lose as many as eight seats, but Likud-Beitenu is still expected to win.

Spokesman Ashley Perry said, “The pressing issues are the price of housing, reforming the government system and equalising the national burden. Shas has led to sweeping extremism and we will prevent them from retaking the Interior Ministry. In terms of the Palestinians, there is no one to talk to right now. Any party who would be a partner on our priority issues is welcome to join us in a coalition government.”

Labour, led by Shelley Yachimovich, is expected to increase its seats from eight to 18 following a campaign focusing on its socioeconomic platform of collecting more tax from the rich and lowering the cost of living. “I am not going to join the extreme-right government of Netanyahu and Lieberman. I aspire to be elected prime minister, but if I’m not, I will head the opposition,” she announced in a press conference last week. Labour’s greatest opportunity lies in undecided voters, half of whom are known to think favourably of Yachimovich.

Kadima, led by former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, is expected to fall dramatically. Having won 28 seats in the last election, polls are now predicting two. Kadima favours a long-term interim agreement of withdrawing from Palestinian areas of the West Bank, and then withdrawing to final borders following negotiations.

Secularist party Meretz, led by Zahava Gal-On, is expected to increase slightly from three to four seats. Spokesperson Shay Even said, “Meretz believes that we cannot separate peace from social justice, and democracy from human rights. They are all part of being a social-democratic party. We support human rights, the separation of state and religion, civil marriage, gay rights, and public transportation on Shabbat. The only way to solve the conflict with the Palestinians is with a two-state solution and we do have partners on the other side. Our generation is losing faith, we are getting more extreme and need a stronger Meretz.”

Sephardi party Shas, under the new combined leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Housing Minister Ariel Atias, is predicted to go from 10 to 11 seats. Candidate Menachem Shemtov said, “For real peace we would give up land but wherever we leave we get missiles. We want Charedim in the army, there are already 10,000, but the right infrastructure isn’t there to support more at the moment.”

United Torah Judaism is expected to rise from five to six seats. They call for maintaining the status quo on all matters of religion and state. The influence of the Charedi parties will depend on the majority party’s need to include them in a coalition, and Shas has been indicating that it would be happy also to work with Labour in a coalition government.

Habayit Hayehudi, under new articulate leader Naftali Bennett, has been the surprise of the election. Combining Jewish Home and National Union, their combined seats are expected to rise dramatically from five to 13. Candidate Jeremy Saltan said, “We are in a deadlock with Labour as the second-largest party. Netanyahu is attacking us because he is afraid of our popularity with young voters. Our priority is to return modern Zionist Jewish values and policies from Charedi control. We also say no to a Palestinian state. One out of 10 Israelis lives over the Green Line and it would be impossible to throw them out of their homes.” Habayit Hayehudi is likely to have control of the religious-affairs ministry if Shas is kept out of the coalition, which secular and more moderate religious Israelis would welcome.

Finally, the Arab parties – the United Arab List, Hadash and Balad – are expected roughly to maintain their seats with predictions of four, four and two respectively. Their platforms focus on a future Palestinian state and the rights of Israeli Arabs.

New parties

VETERAN journalist Yair Lapid launched Yesh Atid. The son of former secular Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, Yair has appointed two national religious rabbis to his list, which also comprises 50 per cent women.

Candidate Rabbi Dov Lipman said, “Our list represents real unity. We are here to address five things – equality of national service, education, affordable housing, economic issues and electoral reform. We have to separate religion from politics. Free will is an important Jewish value and that will strengthen Judaism. With the Palestinians we need to explore a solution. We are not looking for a happy marriage, but a necessary divorce and need to find a partner we can work with, and Jerusalem must remain ours. We will only join a coalition if we can pursue our agenda.” Predicted to garner 11 seats, the party will also only join the coalition with another centrist party (expected to be Kadima) and without Shas.

Another surprise from this election is Hatnuah, the Tzipi Livni Party, formed after she lost the Kadima leadership. Predicted to get 11 seats, Livni is aiming to form a centre-left coalition to block Bibi.

Candidate Alon Tal said, “Our number-one priority is to jump-start the peace process again, perhaps the last opportunity to establish a two-state solution with the Palestinians. We have a very ambitious agenda for social justice and Israel’s environment as well, but there will never be funds for this unless we are able to cut our enormous defence budget. If I had to describe Hatnuah in one word it would be hope.”

Maverick MK Rabbi Chaim Amsalem set up Am Shalem after he was ousted from Shas for holding moderate positions on issues such as conversions to Judaism, Charedim in the workforce and the status of women. Targeting Shas voters, he is predicted to win two seats.

Finally, Otzma Leyisrael was set up by MKs Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben-Ari when they didn’t win realistic spots with Habayit Hayehudi.

Predicted to get two seats, candidate Dr Nily Shiryon said, “Our number-one policy priority – and the issue that differentiates most between us and the other parties – is seeing to it that the entire area of western Israel, that is between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, is a Jewish state, the State of Israel. We believe the state of Palestine already exists across the Jordan River and that the Palestinians should be given Jordanian citizenship. To have an enemy state inside ours doesn’t make sense. What other country in the world would agree to it?”

Jodie Cohen is a UK-based political communications consultant.