Israel Has Six Parties… Sort Of

The attempt to follow Israeli politics, with its dizzying array of political parties, can be overwhelming. This is especially the case for Americans who are used to a two-party system. Not only does Israel have a bevy of religious and secular parties, but new ones pop up all the time, old ones close down, and some merge to form new parties. That said, in the coming election, Israel basically has six overall political stances on the key issues of the day, each represented by one or more parties.

Three of these stances are general, and much of what divides them has to do with the approach to the Palestinian question:

Right wing—This group believes that little is to be gained from negotiations with Palestinians nowadays, and the most important thing is to strengthen Israel’s military stance, as well as its presence in key areas of the West Bank such as the Jordan Valley, and in East Jerusalem. This group tends to be relatively conservative on economic and social issues as well. The main party representing this position is Likud (Netanyahu), although Yisrael Beiteinu (Liberman) and Ayelet Shaked (New Right) are also of this mind.

Centrist—This group believes that although it is important to try to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for now, there is no clear way forward. Thus, a cautious, step by step approach needs to be taken, while keeping an open mind about final status questions. In place of a strong stance on the Palestinian question, the centrist groups emphasize other matters, especially domestic issues such as the collapsing health care system, cost of living, and social reform. The main party representing this position is Blue and White (Gantz, Lapid, Yaalon, and Ashkenazi), but Gesher (Levy-Abekasis) fits into this mold as well.

Left Wing—This group believes that a successful peace process, with a negotiated two-state solution is essential for Israel’s short-term and long-term viability, and wish this to be a main, if not the main, focus. At the same time, they strongly desire social reform, such as civil marriage (including gay marriage) and putting an end to coercive religious laws. Here they are in agreement with the centrists, only that the centrist party puts more emphasis on economic reform. The main parties that represent this group are Labor (Gabbay, for now) and Meretz (Zandberg).

In addition to these general stances, three specific sectors have their own parties.

Chareidi—The Chareidi sector has two main goals. On a national level, the goal is to ensure that certain Israeli institutions are compliant with their religious outlook. So, for example, who is a Jew for the purposes of marriage, divorce, burial, etc. should be determined by their rabbis; the government should not allow its services to run on Shabbat; kashrut should have government standards; the Western Wall should be run by their rabbis, etc. The Chareidi parties also have goals for their own sector, namely to avoid the draft, and to avoid secular subjects in their schools. The main parties that represent this are UTJ (United Torah Judaism) for the Ashkenazim (Litzman), and Shas for the Sephardim (Deri).

Religious Zionist—This group is most interested in maintaining Israel’s hold on Judea and Samaria (their preferred term for the West Bank), and for growing the Israeli presence there through increase in settlements. Their attitude to the Palestinian question is, if anything, more hawkish than the general right wing. At the same time, they are also interested in protecting their own institutions, but unlike in the Chareidi sector, their schools have secular studies and full bagrut, and their yeshivot have army programs (though women generally do national service and not army). The main party for this group is the United Right (Peretz, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir). Naphtali Bennet (New Right) is also in this camp, as is Zehut (Feiglin), though with its own unique spin.

Arab—This group, the only one that is not primarily made up of Jews, wishes to see an end to the occupation of the territories taken in 1967, and a fair (in their minds) settlement to the right of return for Palestinians locked out of Israel in 1948, and their descendants. In addition, they would like to see Arab-Israelis receive equal treatment in the country, have their neighborhoods invested in at the same level Jewish neighborhoods are, and end what they feel is the systemic racism in the Israeli system against their constituency. The parties representing this group are Chadash-Ta’al (Odeh and Tibi) and Ra’am-Balad (Mansour Abbas).

Although the above is an oversimplification, and these stances can certainly be subdivided, thinking about the divisions this way can be helpful, especially in considering next steps.

The very large showing of Likud and Blue and White in the previous election implies that in the current climate, large blocs are more successful than small niche parties. Moreover, a number of niche groups (Zehut, Gesher, New Right) didn’t make it in because they got less than four mandates, which is the minimal threshold for entering the Knesset. Thus, I predict that we will see mergers that produce almost what I outlined above as the six parties.

Beginning with the niche parties, it seems likely that the two Arab parties will merge again. In the previous Knesset, the United Arab List was the third largest bloc. In this Knesset, however, Ra’am-Balad almost failed to pass the threshold. The safest move would be to run together again, and this seems likely to occur.

The division of the Chareidi parties nowadays feels artificial. Whereas once Shas stood for Sephardic issues, religious and secular, they are now essentially the same as UTJ, with the only question being which yeshivot to support. Thus, even if they are not going to merge, and I imagine they will not, they are effectively running together.

As for the Religious Zionist party, rumor has it that the New Right will split into its Religious Zionist and secular elements. Already Naphtali Bennet has been speaking with the United Right and Zehut about creating one Religious Zionist party, and this would bring the United Right three more mandates from the get-go, returning them to the eight-seat party they had been before Bennet and Shaked split off.

Insofar as the general parties, Likud has already merged with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which was a right wing party focused on social welfare issues (especially the housing crisis). This was good for Kahlon, since his party barely passed the threshold this time, and very likely would not have in the next round. This gives Likud a padding of 3-4 mandates. Moreover, if the New Right does split into its religious and secular elements, Likud would do well to bring Ayelet Shaked back into the fold, as she would bring her supporters with her back to Likud.

On the left, the crisis is real. Labor had its worst showing in history and Meretz is a small party to begin with. Moreover, Labor’s leader Avi Gabbay made every mistake he could, alienating old supporters while attracting no new ones. There seems little question that he will be replaced and that Labor and Meretz will merge, if only to ensure that they both pass threshold in the next round. The hope would be that when combined under a charismatic leader, they can hit double digits and be an attractive coalition partner. As for the question of who should run the United Left, my vote is with Stav Shaffir of Labor. Certainly, a party led by Shaffir and Zandberg would be a refreshing alternative to what there is now.

Finally, as for the centrist party Blue and White, they would do well do join with Gesher, and offer Orly Levi-Abekasis a spot in their top five, with a promise to be health minister. For those of us who supported Blue and White in the previous election and will do so again in this one, it would be heartening to see a woman in the leadership. Moreover, the basic goals of both parties align well, and Levi-Abekasis would bring with her 2-3 mandates, offsetting Likud’s merger with Kulanu.

The only party that will remain alone is that of Avigdor Liberman. With its base in the Russian community, Yisrael Beiteinu is a right wing secular party, in theory, like Likud. Nevertheless, for a host of reasons, Liberman will not merge with Likud or even promise to make a government with them. This might mean that Liberman will again be the kingmaker (or king destroyer), but perhaps some realignment of the numbers will allow this round not to end in yet another stalemate.

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of TheTorah.com and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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