Israeli elections for dummies: Every party (2021)

Most countries only have a small handful of parties who make it into the legislature, and usually only two who could conceivably end up controlling the executive. This time around, Israel has four parties who could conceivably end up with a ruling coalition, 19 parties being polled for Knesset seats, nine additional parties of note who have not yet announced their intentions for the election, and numerous subfactions within those parties. Today, I am going to clear the confusion. In this article I will be going through each party, their history, their ideology, their platform, their internal factions, and their election prospects. Here we go:

Possible Coalition Leaders

Likud (The Consolidation)

Likud is a big-tent center-right party headed by incumbent Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Likud, officially HaLikud – the National Liberal Movement, has been the ruling party for the past 12 years under Netanyahu’s leadership and has been the dominant party in Israel for the last half-century. They are currently expected to again be the largest party in the Knesset by a wide margin although their path towards a ruling coalition is unclear. Their voting base is mostly working class, traditionalists, and young people.

Likud is the product between the merger of several conservative and classical liberal parties paired with the influence of neoconservative army commander Ariel Sharon. The founder of the party was Menachem Begin, the former head of the Irgun, the pre-state militia group.

Begin’s conservative wing was dominant from the party’s formation through Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, which was widely seen as a disappointment. After Likud’s 1999 election defeat, Netanyahu temporarily retired from politics, allowing Ariel Sharon and his neoconservative wing to finally take over after at least a decade of wrestling with Netanyahu and his predecessor Yitzhak Shamir for control. When Sharon and his followers left to form Kadima in 2005, Netanyahu and the conservative wing retook control.

With Netanyahu dominant and the neoconservatives gone, Likud’s liberal wing has become the largest semi-dissident wing in the party. From 2006-2015, Netanyahu fought off several takeover attempts by Moshe Feiglin and his nationalist, traditionalist, libertarian Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Traditions) faction, eventually forcing him to leave and create the Zehut Party, which is not running in this election. Other national liberals like Moshe Kahlon, Yuli Edelstein, and Amir Ohana have climbed very high in the ranks of the party.

With this upcoming election, Likud’s destiny is tied to Netanyahu’s perceived success against the coronavirus crisis. Although the party’s poll numbers took a nosedive over the summer as a result of the coronavirus second wave, the party’s numbers have been on the steady uptick due to Israel’s world-leading vaccine immunization efforts.

Yesh Atid (There is a Future)

Yesh Atid is a neoliberal party and the foremost leftwing party in Israel, chaired by former media personality Yair Lapid, the son of former MK Tommy Lapid. Yesh Atid has only been around since 2012, but has already eaten up almost all of the secular, middle/upper-middle class, Gush Dan voting base from the Labor Party. They are currently polling at 15-20 seats and trending up.

Ideologically, Yesh Atid is pretty monolithically neoliberal, although they typically portray themselves as centrist in their marketing. They advocate for a settlement freeze in the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian State there, the rollback of religious policies like bans on Shabbat public bussing and the authority of the Rabbinate, and the repeal of the Nation-State Law. Yesh Atid has a vote-surplus agreement with Yisrael Beitanu.

Tikvah Chadasha (New Hope)

New Hope is a big-tent conservative Likud split-off party founded by Gideon Sa’ar in December of 2020. Sa’ar had been seeking leadership in Likud for the past couple years, eventually creating his own party, citing Netanyahu’s iron grip on Likud and the accusations of corruption against him. Sa’ar has been joined by several other Likud members, including Benny Begin, the son of Likud founder Menachem Begin, and Michal Diamant, the granddaughter of former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. New Hope is currently polling around 14 seats and trending down.

In his youth, Sa’ar was an activist for Tehiyeh, another Likud split-off party founded by former Lehi member Geulah Cohen in opposition to Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula during the Israel-Egypt peace process. In 2005, Sa’ar, as a MK for Likud, was one of the more outspoken voices against Gaza disengagement. It seems like Sa’ar’s purely conservative New Hope is positioned to the right of Likud, which is currently and historically split between conservatives and national liberals, but conservative voters have been somewhat turned off by New Hope’s close relationship with The Lincoln Project and his determination to oust Netanyahu seemingly regardless of the cost.

Yamina (Rightward)

Yamina and New Hope are very similar. They are both big-tent, purely conservative parties founded by former Likudniks seeking to claim the premiership. They are both polling nearly evenly. They even had a voter-surplus agreement. Why aren’t they running together?

The answer is strategy. Sa’ar has committed his party to not joining a coalition with Netanyahu, while Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett is not willing to do the same. Bennett rejected a similar joint-list demand from Betzalel Smotrich, who demanded that the party rule out joining a coalition with Yisrael Beitanu, Yesh Atid, or any Arab party. Idealism is the folly of many political actors, and, simply put, Bennett is not willing to sacrifice the good in favor of a dream of the perfect. In this regard, by maintaining his principles and his flexibility, Bennett has placed himself in the ideal place to effect policy after the votes are counted.

In addition to strategic differences, Yamina has more of a religious bend, although it is running primarily on Bennett’s economic recovery plan for this upcoming election. Bennett embarked on a political renaissance in the past year, shining as Defense Minister for a brief stint before being dismissed in the creation of the unity government. Bennett was largely vindicated in his falling-out with Netanyahu as his unheeded warnings and policy suggestion in regards to the coronavirus crisis led to three separate lockdowns. Recently, Yamina added the Ani Shulman party, a movement founded in 2019 to represent disgruntled small business owners. Yamina’s base mostly consists of middle/upper-middle class religious Israelis as well as traditional Likudniks dissatisfied with Netanyahu.

Knesset Players

HaRishima HaMushutefet (The Joint List)

The Joint List as a party meant to represent Arabs. They are currently made up of three factions; Hadash, Ta’al, and Balad. Hadash is an openly communist party. Its chair, Ayman Odeh, is the chair of the Joint List. Balad and Ta’al are Pan-Arabist, leftwing, secular parties. Ra’am, the Islamic faction, left in 2021 to pursue an independent run. The Joint List is considered radical by most of the Jewish Israeli public with several members having been expelled from the Knesset in the past. They are currently polling around nine seats.

Shas (Six Series’ (reference to the Mishnah))

Shas was formed by Rabbi Ovadya Yosef in order to represent Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, specifically Haredim. Unlike their Ashkenazi counterpart UTJ, they are openly Zionist, against a Palestinian State, and in favor of increased settlement in the West Bank. Shas works mainly on issues of religion and the state, actively encouraging kiruv (Jewish outreach). Historically, Shas is foremost engaged with the protection and elevation of traditional Sephardic/Mizrachi culture in Israel. Shas is currently polling at around eight seats.

Yahadut HaTorah (United Torah Judaism)

United Torah Judaism, or UTJ, represents Ashkenazi Haredim. Made up of the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and the Litvish Degel HaTorah, UTJ mainly focuses on issues of religion and the state. Officially, they are non-Zionist and have no opinions on West Bank settlements or territorial concessions. In the past, they have made coalitions with both Likud and Labor coalition leaders, but today are firmly in the Netanyahu camp. The current chair is Degel HaTorah’s Moshe Gafni with Agudat Yisrael’s Yaakov Litzman at number two. They are currently polling at around seven seats.

Yisrael Beitanu (Israel is Our Home)

Yisrael Beitanu is a national liberal party formed by Avigdor Lieberman in opposition to Netanyahu’s negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in 1998. Although historically drawing primarily from first and second-generation Israelis from the former Soviet Union, Yisrael Beitanu is more an ideological party than a sectoral party. The two pillars of the party are nationalism and secularism, advocating for the death penalty for terrorists, increased settlement in the West Bank, and the stripped of citizenship from Arabs convicted of terrorism while also advocating for the opening of business on Shabbat, public bussing on Shabbat, and the decentralization of recognized marriage and conversion. Lieberman has previously worked for Netanyahu and has worked alongside him since, even running a joint list with Likud in 2013, but now is firmly in the anti-Netanyahu camp. Yisrael Beitanu is currently polling around seven seats and has a vote-surplus agreement with Yesh Atid.

Avoda (Labor)

The Labor Party is the historic standard-bearer of the Israeli left. From 1948 until 1977, they experienced nearly total political control. They experienced a brief renaissance in the 1990s before becoming a perennial second-place player. After several electoral defeats and years of mismanaged leadership they have become a shadow of their former selves. Rising leftwing star Merav Michaeli recently won party leadership and it seems like optimism for the party is slowly building before the election with polling showing at six seats.

Internal fighting between the factions and members that made up the early Labor Party dictated the leadership of the state itself. However, animosity began to form, specifically with Mizrachim and Sephardim who were being put in long-term living camps (ma’abarot) upon their arrival to Israel and discriminated against by the national recognized workers union (haHistadrut) when it came to finding employment. The Labor Party also established a land-for-peace stance after the Six Day War, alienating the Gush Emunim settler movement. The real turning point was the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was caught terribly off-guard and Golda Meir was accused by the public of extreme negligence. Meir ordered a Nation Commission Inquiry into her conduct, where she was found innocent, spurring accusations of corruption. Meir resigned in 1974 and her successor Yitzhak Rabin resigned in 1976 due to another, unrelated corruption scandal. By 1977, Labor had found itself engulfed in a cloud of racism, incompetence, and corruption in the eyes of voters that Likud, which had served three decades in the opposition, was able to win the premiership.

Over the next quarter-century, Labor was able to form somewhat of a comeback. Shimon Peres succeeded Rabin as party leader and, despite being undermined by Rabin who by that point formed a bitter rivalry, won unity governments with Likud in 1984 and 1988. In 1990, Peres sought to politically maneuver Likud out of the government with leftwing and Haredi parties in what would become known as “The Dirty Trick.” The Haredi parties dropped out of the plan after various rabbinical prohibitions from R. Eleazar Sach, R. Ovadya Yosef, and R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likud was able to maneuver Labor into the opposition with a majority coalition of their own. The fallout of this failed plan allowed a redeemed Rabin to win back party control and the premiership in 1992.

Rabin’s second stint as Prime Minister saw the passage of the Oslo Accords, a product of Peres’ labor more so than Rabin’s. The Peace Camp, led by Labor, was dominant. When Rabin was assassinated in 1995, however, Peres called an early election to secure a governmental mandate. Again, this political strategy failed and Likud was able to take control.

The fallout of this second large political failure led to the ascension of former Chief of General Staff Ehud Barak as party leader. Barak, ahead for the 1999 election, created a joint list with the religious peacenik Meimad Party and the center-right Likud split-off Gesher. This was an attempt to win back religious and Sephardi/Mizrachi voters that had fallen completely off of the Labor voting block, similarly to how Tony Blair won back lost demographics with New Labour in 1997. This was a success for the time being as Barak won 26 seats and was able to form a government.

Barak’s premiership was marked by failed negotiations with the PLO. At one point, Barak was willing to give away over 90% of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, but this offer was rejected. Seeing the need to sure-up his governmental mandate, Barak called a direct premiership election, which he handily lost to Ariel Sharon. Labor has not been able to form a government since.

It seems like the final nail for them was the Second Intifada, which began almost immediately after Sharon took office, and did much to discredit the Peace Camp argument. Since Barak left office, Labor has been in a leadership crisis. Peres got another shot in the leadership carusel before dramatically leaving in 2005 to join Sharon’s Kadima. The closest Labor got to regaining leadership was in 2015 with a joint list with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, a liberal split-off from Kadima, under the name “The Zionist Camp.” The two parties have since split, with Hatnuah going defunct, and Labor has lost almost all credibility because of electoral defeats and policy concessions.

HaTzionut HaDatit (The Religious Zionist Party)

The Religious Zionist Party, or RZP, is a religious conservative party founded by Betzalel Smotrich, a product of Smotrich’s National Union faction, the Hardal Noam party, and the Kahanist Otzmah Yehudit party.

As part of Yamina, Smotrich felt like focusing on Israel’s economic recovery and refusing to rule-out parties to sit within a coalition was abandoning Yamina’s mission of representing the national religious community, so he took his National Union faction and left for an independent run.

Otzmah Yehudit, who had joined with Noam, was soon to join the fold. Like their forebear R. Meir Kahane, they advocate for the removal of all Arabs from the land of Israel and the expansion of Israel’s borders to encompass the maximal biblical borders of Eretz Yisrael. They also advocate on matters of religion and the state. Their main base is Hardalim (nationalist Haredim) and they are polling just short of the electoral threshold. They will likely seek to merge with RZP.

Noam, the last and minormost faction in the party, is a Hardal (national Haredi) party founded on the wishes of Rabbi Zvi Thau, who wanted a non-Haredi religious party that held a stronger line on social issues than the religious parties that already existed at that point. The faction’s main issue is opposition to the LGBT agenda.

The Jewish Home faction was expected to join RZP but joined Yamina instead due to a combination of lack of representation in the proposed list, prioritization of Otzmah in negotiations, and the general inclusion of open Kahanists.

RZP has a voter surplus agreement with Likud.

On the Brink

Kachol V’Lavan (Blue and White)

Blue and White is a party created by former Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz to oppose Netanyahu’s premiership. Gantz is a former Likudnik and his party is seen as the heir to Ariel Sharon’s neoconservative Kadima Party. Although Blue and White won 35, 33, and 33 seats in the last three elections, it is now barely hanging on because of Gantz’s decision to form a widely unpopular unity government. Gantz is in favor of a Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and against the Nation-State Law at least in part. Blue and White is currently polling around the minimum four seats and have a vote-surplus agreement with NEP.

Meretz (Vigor)

Meretz is a social democrat party and the leftmost Jewish party in Israel. Meretz peaked in the early 1990s in terms of electoral success where it helped pave the way for the passage of the Oslo Accords. They advocate for a two-state solution, feminism, LGBT rights, a larger welfare state, total separation of religion and state, and secular education. They are currently polling around the election threshold and have a vote-surplus agreement with Labor.

Ra’am (United Arab List)

Ra’am is a Muslim conservative party that split off from the Arab Joint List for the upcoming election. Headed by Mansour Abbas, Ra’am has opened a warm relationship with Bibi Netanyahu, seemingly splitting with the Joint List for the purpose of aiding a Netanyahu coalition. Ra’am advocates for religious Muslims and enjoys popularity specifically among Bedouins. Ra’am is currently polling around the election threshold.

HaMiflaga HaKalkalit HaChadasha (The New Economic Party)

The New Economic Party, or NEP, is a technocratic neoliberal party founded by economist Yaron Zelekha. They are polling around the electoral threshold and have a vote-surplus agreement with Blue and White.

About the Author
Jesse Edberg is a spokesman for Yamina where he is specifically charged with running English-language youth engagement. While graduating from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in 2020 and studying at the Tulane University of Louisiana, Edberg has also served on several American campaigns, most notably Larry Hogan's successful 2018 gubernatorial reelection bid, and has written for several online publications.
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