Israeli Election 2015: Guide for the Perplexed

Monty Python on Israeli Politics

I don’t know much about the current highly interesting politics of the Montgomery County School Board. (Fortunately, Lou Peck over at Bethesda Magazine does). However, Israeli politics are famously fractious and complex, so I thought it could be useful to present this guide to the lists competing in March’s Knesset elections. (Note: as with everything involving Israel, someone invariably with vehemently disagree. This is my take.)

The System

Israelis elect MKs (Members of the Knesset) off of closed party lists within a single national district by the d’Hondt method of proportional representation. Parties must receive 3.25% of the vote to qualify for seats–up from 2% at the time of the last election. Put another way, seats are distributed proportionally to parties above the threshold, though d’Hondt (called Bader-Ofer in Israel) has a  bias toward larger parties.

Left-Wing Zionist

The major left-wing Zionist parties favor the two-state solution and fall on the secular side of the secular/religious divide. Their other key commonality is that none would join a Netanyahu government, even though all but Meretz have in the past.

A coalition of Labor and Hatnuah, Zionist Union is the major mainstream left list. Labor was Israeli’s dominant party for decades after independence in 1948. No more. It came in third in the 2013 elections. Labor continues its struggle to reinvent itself, mainly by focusing on bread-and-butter economic issues. Appealing to Sephardim remains a problem for this party identified with its historically Ashkenazi leadership.

Hatnuah (The Movement) has an unintentionally ironic name as the party is really Tzipi Livni’s one woman show. Originally a member of Likud and then centrist Kadima, Livni continues her hegira to the left by forming an alliance with Labor. Hatnuah is most closely identified with support for peace negotiations and the two-state solution.

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) was traditional flash in the pan success story in 2013–Israeli elections nearly always feature one–and is expected to lose roughly one-half of its MKs in March. While favoring the two-state solution, this center left party (i.e. to Labor’s right) is more known for its strident support of secularism and focus on economic issues.

Strongly dovish and secular, Meretz (Vigor or Energy) is the most clearly left-wing primarily Jewish party. Heavily Ashkenazi, Meretz has had trouble broadening its support.

Right-Wing Zionist

These parties range from center right (Kulanu) to the extreme right (Bayit Yehudi). Excepting Kulanu, none would join a coalition led by Labor/Zionist Camp.

The leader of the mainstream right, Likud (Unity) has moved steadily rightward. Mirroring the RINO phenomenon in the US, the party has dumped party stalwarts like Dan Meridor–someone hardly identified with the left–for more right-wing candidates. As a result, Netanyahu now is among the most left-wing Likud MKs. Historically, Likud has received more support from Sephardim.

Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) is a very successful extreme right party that favors settlements and opposes the two-state solution. This religious (but not Haredi) nationalist party has experienced growing success under tech businessman Naftali Bennett, whose ambition is to displace his former boss–Netanyahu–as PM.

Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) is led by Avigdor Lieberman and appeals foremost to Russian immigrants. Lieberman is well-known for his anti-Arab comments and hawkish views. However, he has taken a new tack in this election in suggesting that it could be time for Netanyahu to go and that Israeli needs a peace deal. Mired in a corruption scandal, Yisrael Beitenu will lose seats this year.

A former Likud minister best known for having brought down cell phone costs, Moshe Kahlon founded Kulanu (All of Us) for the 2015 election. Expected to be this year’s flash in the pan party, the polls suggest that Kulanu is steadily losing support, though it should still enter the Knesset. Much like Yesh Atid, it focuses on middle class concerns and leans secular.

Religious Parties

The religious parties are most keenly interested in funding for their school systems and religious observance (e.g. preventing El Al from flying on Shabbat). They bitterly opposed the narrowing of draft exemptions for yeshiva students.

Shas is the major Sephardic religious party but has now split into two parts due to the defection of former leader Eli Yishai. The party is now led by Aryeh Deri, who suffered recent embarrassment upon the release of tapes showing Shas’ spiritual leader, the now deceased Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, criticizing him. Deri served time in prison for corruption while he was Interior Minister. Shas has usually taken a more right-wing stand on the conflict but seems more open to aligning with the left under Deri’s leadership.

Ha’am Itanu (The Nation is with Us) is Eli Yishai’s new party. Unlike Shas, it would only join a right-wing coalition. At this point, it’s unclear if the party can pass Israel’s new, higher 3.25% threshold to enter the Knesset.

United Torah Judaism (UTJ), the Ashkenazi religious party, unites two Haredi (i.e. very strictly Orthodox) parties, Degel HaTorah (Torah Flag) and Agudat Israel (Union of Israel). While Agudat gains its support from Hasidic Jews, Degel HaTorah receives support from non-Hasidic Haredi Jews associated with the Lithuanian yeshivas.

Arab Parties

The new 3.25% threshold has forced the three major Arab lists to unite in order to evade the possibility that one of more of them might fall short of the necessary share of the vote. United Arab List encompasses Hadash, Balad (National Democratic Assembly), and Ra’am-Ta’al (the eponymous United Arab List).

Hadash is rooted in the Communist Party and claims to be the only bicommunal party. Balad supports the two-state solution with Israel being a binational state. United Arab List brings together the Islamic Ra’am with Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al.

Next Up: To Bibi or Not to Bibi.