image Photo: Flash 90

Israel’s Upcoming Elections Will Be Historic

By: Erin Viner

Update 16 September 2019: On the eve of the national Israeli elections, the race continues to be very competitive. These are the results of the final public opinion polls reflecting the number of seats expected to be gained by both major parties: Likud 32 – Blue & White 32 (Channel 13),  Likud 33 – Blue & White 32 (Ma’ariv), Likud 33 – Blue & White 31 (KAN), and Likud 33 – Blue & White 31 (Israel HaYom).

(Eds. initially published 12 September 2019)  In just five days, Israel’s 5.8 million eligible voters will make electoral history.

First, they will be going to the polls twice in one year, for the first time in the nation’s 71 years. The September 17th balloting will also mark the tenth consecutive time national elections have called early.

The current round was mandated when the previous 21st Knesset voted to dissolve itself just two months after being elected April 9th, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable form a governing coalition. The country’s longest-serving premier – in history – disbanded his fourth government December 2018, largely over its failure to garner majority support for legislation over the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men into national military service, that is compulsory for the rest of the Jewish population of both genders. This is the same issue that obstructed Netanyahu’s attempts to coalesce a new government five months ago, due to refusal for any compromise on the bill by Avigdor Liberman, whose rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu party is seen as natural partner of the Prime Minister’s ruling Likud faction.

An unprecedented 47 separate parties ran for office in the last elections. This time, 31 separate factions will be competing for the 120 member, 22nd Knesset; and submitted their membership rosters to the Central Elections Committee in accordance with electoral guidelines. Many smaller factions have merged into united blocs, in hope of garnering sufficient constituent support to pass a 3.25% electoral threshold of the final count necessary for qualification. Those efforts have narrowed the number of contending parties down to just 10 major lists currently campaigning for office.

The two top contenders remain unchanged, namely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing off against political newcomer, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz of the centrist Kahol Lavon (“Blue and White” party, founded in 2019). The two latest public opinion polls conducted by Channel 12 and Channel 13 indicate there is only a margin of difference between the expected votes each will receive, marking little significant change from the outcome of the April elections.

Kahol Lavan is currently expected to garner 32 seats, according to both channels. The party is co-chaired Gantz and Yair Lapid, whose center-left Yesh Atid (“There is a Future,” 2012) merged with Gantz’s centrist Hosen L’Yisrael (“Israel Resilience,” 2019) and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s rightwing Telem (“Movement of National Statesmen, 2019). The two leaders have agreed to rotating premierships if their party succeeds in forming the next government. They are followed on the roster by Ya’alon and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Members identify themselves as secular Zionists at the center of the political map, who favor economic, social, and national liberalism. The party is interested in pursuing peace negotiations with the Palestinians involving possible territorial concessions while preserving Israel’s security interests, but has avoided taking a stance on Palestinian statehood.

Both voter surveys have the Likud (“Consolidation”) at 31 seats. It was founded in 1973, and advocates right-wing, conservative views and a free market economy. Netanyahu tops the party list, followed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, third is Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan is fourth, and the fifth slot is held by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon – whose center-right, socio-economically focused Kulanu (“All of Us,” 2014) party merged with Likud this past May.  The party takes a tough stance on security policies with regard to Iran, Syria and the Palestinians – with several members openly opposing the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has also vowed to annex Israeli settlements if he wins an unprecedented fifth premiership.

Channel 13 found that The Joint List is the next frontrunner, with 11 mandates; although Channel 12 projected 9. The ideologically-diverse political alliance was founded in 2015 by the four primarily Arab parties: Balad (“National Democratic Alliance,” 1995), Hadash (“The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality” far-left, Communist coalition, 1977), Ta’al (“Arabic Movement for Renewal,” mid-1990s) and Ra’am (“The United Arab List,” a political wing of the Islamic movement’s southern branch, 1996). The umbrella group represents Israeli Arab interests, and incorporates anti-Zionism, Arab nationalism, communism, socialism, Islamism and secularism; favoring a 2-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The top four politicians are Ayman Odeh, Massoud Ghanayam, Jamal Zahalka and Ahmed Tibi.

Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home)” is running fourth, and expected to gain 9 mandates in both surveys. The party held strong attraction for Russian immigrants when founded by Liberman in 1999; combining a right-wing stance on foreign policy, security and fiscal matters with a secularist platform. Liberman has said that he would be willing swap Arab villages on Israeli territory for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in the event of the establishment of a Palestinian state. He is followed on the slate by Oded Forer, Evgeny Sova and Eli Avidar.

Tying at 9 seats is the new Yamina party, headed by former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. It is a political alliance of rightwing to far-right parties, comprised of HaYamin HaChadash (The New Right, 2019,  representing the more “liberal” Religious and Secular right), HaBayit HaYehudi (“The Jewish Home,” 2008, claiming to represent “mainstream” Religious Zionism) and the Tkuma (“National Union,” 1999, representative of nationalist, Orthodox and Chardal Religious Zionists). Leaders on the roster following Shaked are Rafi Peretz, Bezalel Smotrich and Naftali Bennet.

7 mandates are expected to be won by Shas, according to Channel 12; although Channel 13 puts the number at 6. The party’s name is an acronym for “Shomrei Sefarad,” (the “Sephardic Guardians,” 1984). The party formed to represent the interests of ultra-Orthodox Jews of Sephardic descent (i.e., traced to Spain and the Iberian Peninsula). It is identified as a Zionist, religiously-conservative party that holds centrist economic views, and a primarily hawkish stance on security and politics. Its chairman is Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, with Yitzhak Cohen, Meshulam Nahari, Yaakov Margi and Yoav Ben Tzur topping the roster.

7 mandates are also expected to be garnered by Yadut HaTora (“United Torah Judaism), according to both channels. It is a joint list formed by the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel (“Union of Israel,” established in Poland, 1912, as a means to preserve traditional Jewish observance against modernity and Zionism) and Degel HaTorah (“Banner of the Torah,” a Lithuanian, non-Hassidic stream of Ashkenazi [of European descent] Haredim, founded in 1988). Despite being considered rightwing, UTJ’s lack of ideological roots has permitted members to serve as partners in both Likud- and Labor-led coalitions, although they have refused cabinet positions due to the faction’s official rejection of political secular Zionism. It is generally supportive of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria (i.e. the West Bank), and also conservative on security issues. UTJ is led by Deputy Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, followed on the registry by Moshe Gafni, Meir Perush, Uri Maklev and Yakov Tessler.

Both surveys found that the next in line is the “HaMachanei HaDemocrati” (“Democratic Union,”) at 6. This center-left political alliance was formed by the 2019 merger of Meretz, Atzma’ut and the Green Movement. Meretz adheres to a secular, social democratic, environmental platform; and identifies itself as representative of the peace movement in Israel. It supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, liberal education platform, and separation of religion and state; and is led by the first openly gay individual ever elected as a party head, Nitzan Horowitz. The Atzma’ut (“Independence,” 2019) faction was founded by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak upon his return to political life after a 7-year absence. The party favors the establishment of political borders for Israel within two years, rehabilitation of social services, free education and enactment of civil marriage. Members include the granddaughter of slain Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin, Noa Rothman. HaTnu’a HaYeruqa (“The Green Movement,” 2008) is led by former Labor Member of Knesset Stav Shaffir, and promotes the advancement of the Green New Deal, a pluralistic lifestyle, human and animal rights. The Democratic Union roster is headed by Horowitz, followed by Shaffir, Yair Golan, Tamar Zandberg and Ilan Gilon.

The new HaOvodah -Gesher alliance is also predicted to win 6 seats, according to the findings by Channel 12; while 13 revealed just 5. HaOvodah (“Labor,”1968) is a leftist, social democratic party headed by Amir Peretz. Gesher (“Bridge,” 2018) is a liberal, centrist faction, established by Orly Levy-Abekasis, heavily focused on economic and social inequality issues. Both factions favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two faction heads are followed on the roster by Itzik Shmuli, Merav Michaeli and Omer Bar-Lev.

Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Strength,” 2012) is a far-right religious party headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir. Both of the most recent polls found it may gain 4 seats; a significant rise over last week’s showing which revealed the party would attract just 2.5% of the vote, far short of the electoral threshold. The faction advocates religious Zionism, a one-state solution, social conservatism and ultra-nationalism. Otzma briefly merged with nationalist ultra-Orthodox Noam (“Pleasantness,” 2019) faction earlier this year, based on adherence to similar far-right positions; but the two ultimately decided to run independently. Ben-Gvir is followed on the roster by Baruch Marzel, Adva Biton, Yitzhak Wasserlauf and Benzi Gopstein.

The pro-marijuana far-right faction called Zehut (“Identity,” 2015) withdrew from the race. The faction was founded by Moshe Feiglin, and holds a right-libertarian platform that advocates economic liberalism, a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nationalist ideologies. Other prominent member were Gilad Alper, Ronit Dror and Arkady Mutter.

The bottom line of the Channel 12 survey shows support for current Prime Minister Netanyahu stands at 58 mandates, while Channel 13 indicates 57.

A coalition opposed to continued governance by Netayahu is 53 according to Channel 12, and 54 according to Channel 13.

Both surveys indicate public support for a national unity government is only 9.