Insider’s guide to the Israeli elections

 

As Israelis head to the polls today (September 17) for the second time in five months, here’s a quick guide to follow activity in Israel’s various political parties since April’s election as well how they have framed their campaigns. This blog post follows my article in the September edition of the Australia-Israel Review which identified “Ten wildcards which could decide the election”, an analysis which substantively remains very much relevant now on Election Day.

What to watch: Will the emergent theme of this election – tension between the secular and ultra-Orthodox regarding the character of the Jewish state – spur voter turnout and end the stalemate that prevented the formation of the last government?

Some potential election outcomes:

  • Centre-right government: Possible only if the Likud plus its nationalist right-wing partners and the ultra-Orthodox parties reach a Knesset majority of 61 seats on their own. Yisrael Beitenu, ordinarily grouped with the right-wing, has ruled out joining a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox, so it can’t be part of the equation unless Yisrael Beitenu decides to break its promise.
  • Secular unity government: Yisrael Beitenu and Blue and White’s stated preference, this would bring the Likud, Blue and White and Yisrael Beitenu together to form a core government without the ultra-Orthodox parties. Labor-Gesher would also be a likely inclusion, Yamina more problematic but not impossible. However, Blue and White has ruled out sitting with Likud as long as Netanyahu remains in charge, so unless Blue and White breaks its promise, it would require the Likud to remove Netanyahu as leader. It’s also unclear who would be prime minister under this scenario.
  • Centre-left government: Possible if Blue and White, its partners on the Left, and the ultra-Orthodox, or, less likely, Yisrael Beitenu, can reach a 61-seat majority on their own, with the direct or indirect support of the Arab parties (the Joint List). This currently looks very unlikely.
  • Party splits: It is not necessary for an entire party to agree to join a government. Factions can split off in order to facilitate the formation of a government and have in prior years. Depending on the outcome of the election, this could lead to the eventual formation of a government of some variant of the above even if such a route is not evident in the final tally.
  • Nobody can form a government and a third election is called.

 

The elections for the 22nd Knesset, by party

 

Likud

Seats in 21st Knesset: 35; projected seats in next Knesset according to an aggregate of last polls: 32

Slogans: “Only a big Likud can prevent a left-wing government”; “Bibi: Right, strong, proven leadership”.

Changes to party list: At the end of May, Moshe Kahlon agreed to fold his four-seat Kulanu party into Likud – Kahlon’s original political home. In return, he was guaranteed safe spots on the Likud list.

Commercials: Much like the last election, the Likud has run positive and negative ads, including the use of light entertainment and comedy to get its point across. One early such ad scripted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a chef on a cooking show, connecting Israel’s culture of innovation today under his leadership with the country’s development of the wheat-based rice-substitute known as “Israeli couscous” in the 1950s out of practical necessity.

Another light-hearted commercial cast Netanyahu as a beach lifeguard, and still another as a bushwalking guide, each recreating the same type of cinematic metaphor of Netanyahu as a trusted and experienced person of authority keeping the country on the right path and out of danger.

Likud attack ads have focused on Blue and White, portraying them as weak and potentially dependent on the support of anti-Zionist Arab parties to form a government. Other ads further blamed the ill-fated Oslo Accords and the Second Intifada on left-wing governments.

Strengths: Israel’s economy has been growing steadily since Netanyahu took office in 2009. Unemployment is a remarkable 3.6%. Netanyahu is acknowledged by most supporters and opponents alike as an expert at maintaining Israel’s deterrence while avoiding war. Terror attacks from the West Bank have been low, while rocket attacks from Gaza have been largely confined to brief escalations that have not required putting IDF soldiers in harm’s way. Israel is enjoying blossoming diplomatic relations with India, east Asian countries and even some Gulf states. Netanyahu may be the only world leader with excellent relations with US President Donald Trump as well as a working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Israelis generally approve of his handling of the Iranian nuclear threat as well as containing Iranian encroachment in Syria and Lebanon. Likud convinced the Zehut (“Identity”) party not to run in the current election in return for a promise of a ministry for its leader Moshe Feiglin, which will help prevent wasted votes on the Right.

Weaknesses: Netanyahu is facing pre-indictment hearings next month over several corruption investigations. His biggest moves in this campaign – a press conference on the Iranian nuclear program, a proposal to extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and an attempt to force the placement of cameras at voting stations allegedly to deter voter fraud – have gone over like a lead balloon. However, the Likud’s biggest concern is potential voter apathy among its base.

 

Blue and White (“Kachol Lavan”)

Seats in 21st Knesset: 35; projected seats in next Knesset: 32

Slogans: “Only a big Blue and White will form a secular unity government”; “Only a big Blue and White will prevent an extreme government”

Changes to party list: None

Commercials: Blue and White’s messaging has been consistent with the previous election, running positive and negative commercials. There has been a greater focus on establishing Benny Gantz as overall leader, with the commercials of Yesh Atid faction leader Yair Lapid focusing mainly on economic issues. Other party leaders Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, who appeared in commercials in the last election, have disappeared in this round. Mid-campaign the party decided to support the formation of a “secular unity government” (i.e. a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox) as an outcome of the election, and the party messaging was adjusted accordingly.

Blue and White’s negative ads hammered the Likud’s reliance on support from parties to its right, focusing on the more unpopular and controversial ones, which it portrayed as “extremist”. They have attacked Netanyahu as caring only about protecting his own interests at the expense of the country. As before, Blue and White’s commercials continue to focus on the “Submarine Affair” (also known as Case 3000) which is a reference to one of Netanyahu’s alleged corruption cases.

Strengths: Israelis have been given more opportunity to get to know Benny Gantz, and he has handled himself well in interviews. The party’s decision to support a secular unity government aligns itself with the political trend du jour.

Weaknesses: If the ultra-Orthodox parties do well in the election, Gantz may have burned that bridge and is less likely to be recommended by them for prime minister. Blue and White was criticised for being very passive in opposition since the last election, which may have lost them votes to more vocal parties on the Left. Lapid’s insistence on demanding a rotation as prime minister with Gantz in the event of a win by Blue and White has been a gift to the Likud, which ridicules the idea in campaign ads.

 

Israel Beitenu (“Israel Our Home”)

Seats in 21st Knesset: 5; projected seats in next Knesset: 8

Slogan: “Jewish state, yes. A state of Jewish law, no”

Changes to party list: None.

Commercials: Secular rightist party leader Avigdor Lieberman’s refusal to agree to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties in order to form a government after the April election is the reason for the current election, and he has reshaped his campaign commercials and messaging to reflect that. His campaign has largely avoided right-wing rhetoric that might alienate left-leaning secularists and he has vowed not to join a government that includes the ultra-Orthodox while promising to deliver a secular unity government.

Strengths: Lieberman’s stand for the secularists and his softening of right-wing rhetoric has made him more palatable to some voters, particularly some supporters of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction of Blue and White, and he is polling strongly.

Weaknesses: Blue and White’s decision to echo Lieberman’s call for the formation of a secular unity government has pulled the rug out from under his number one election promise. Lieberman’s decision to campaign almost entirely on this one issue is potentially risky.

 

Yamina

Seats in 21st Knesset: 5 [its New Right faction received the equivalent of almost 4 seats in a failed bid to enter the Knesset]; projected seats in next Knesset: 9

Slogan: “Pulling rightward”

Changes to party list: The August merger of the New Right with Union of Right Wing Parties has seen a major shakeup to the party list, with former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked leading the slate.

Commercials: Yamina has been running an almost entirely positive campaign based around classic Zionist and nationalistic rhetoric that showcases Shaked’s charisma, with the exception of a fairly tame satire portraying a left-wing voter minimising the negatives of a left-wing government.

Strengths: Shaked, who is well-liked by voters on the right, has found her voice as party leader and has injected some new energy into party politics on the right. The party has run a clean campaign in contrast to the Likud, which may appeal to right-winger voters tired of the mudslinging.

Weaknesses: Yamina’s campaign has been hamstrung by recent and past controversial statements by its other key figures Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich which has limited its wider appeal. Its proposals regarding extending sovereignty to Area C in the West Bank are beyond the current Israeli consensus. Netanyahu has been working to undermine support for Yamina in an attempt to expand support for the Likud.

 

United Torah Judaism (UTJ)

Seats in 21st Knesset: 8; projected seats 8

Slogan: “At the moment of truth”

Changes to party list: None

Commercials: The ads for the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party UTJ focus on promoting Sabbath observance and maintaining the religious status quo on issues like public transport on the Sabbath. While initially hewing close to its previous campaign, UTJ’s ads have taken on an increasingly defensive tone against perceived incitement against the ultra-Orthodox community.

Strengths: A highly motivated voter base that sees itself as under attack by Yisrael Beitenu and, at least partially, Blue and White.

Weaknesses: UTJ did very well in the last election and may have tapped its well of potential voters dry. This may limit the party’s ability to substantively improve on its number of mandates, particularly if the turnout for other parties does not shrink as much as expected.

 

Shas

Seats in 21st Knesset: 8; projected seats 7

Slogans: “Your voting slip for Judgement Day”; “The social strength in government”; “Bibi needs a strong lion” [‘Aryeh’ referring to party leader Aryeh Deri].

Commercials: Shas – the party representing the Sephardic and Mizrachi ultra-Orthodox communities – has produced three types of commercials: Firstly, it has associated voting for Shas with the increase in traditional religious awareness in the High Holiday season; secondly, it is promoting its focus on providing social services, and thirdly, it has unabashedly promised to stand behind Netanyahu as leader – and keep him on a path that continues to support the status quo on religion and state.

Strengths: The anti-religious sentiment that has fuelled Yisrael Beitenu’s campaign resonates less with the Sephardic and Mizrachi secular communities, which are more likely than their Ashkenazi secular counterparts to respect, if not venerate, their rabbis and sages. The confluence of the elections ahead of the Jewish new year Rosh Hashanah and day of repentance Yom Kippur could potentially lead to a last-minute windfall of votes from traditionalists that polls have not discerned.

Weaknesses: Shas’ allegiance to Netanyahu may alienate supporters who want to see Netanyahu replaced. Shas, like UTJ, did very well in the last election and may find it hard to locate new voters among its own ultra-Orthodox base.

 

Labor-Gesher

Seats in 21st Knesset [running alone]: 6 [Gesher received the equivalent of fewer than 2 seats worth in a failed attempt to enter the Knesset]; projected seats 4

Slogan: “A Social Iron Dome”

Change to party list: Between elections, Labor replaced leader Avi Gabbay with Amir Peretz, merged with Orly Levy-Abecasis’ Gesher Party and saw the defection of popular MK Stav Shaffir to the Meretz-Barak Democratic Camp union. (Barak’s decision to reenter politics may have also siphoned some votes away from Labor.) With Shaffir’s departure, Itzik Shmueli took the role of the party’s number three candidate by default.

Commercials: In its campaign, Labor-Gesher has ignored virtually all of the rest of its platform to focus solely on economic and social justice issues. In this way, Labor has adopted Gesher’s campaign strategy as its own. It has attacked the Netanyahu government for losing touch with the people but otherwise has kept its message positive.

Strengths: Labor’s smaller party footprint has made it more agile and given Peretz the flexibility to make bolder moves and pursue votes from unlikely places – like dyed-in-the-wool Likud and former Kulanu voters looking for a party pushing for better social services and welfare net than the Likud offers. Its focus on social issues makes it unique among the parties in the election.

Weaknesses: Labor-Gesher’s poor showing in April has made it harder to make headlines in the current election and obtain desperately needed publicity. Labor-Gesher’s focus on social issues is an especially risky gamble when you consider that Gesher did not come close to crossing the electoral threshold in April. If the polling is correct, Labor-Gesher’s campaign has failed to connect with voters and the party of Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion is, astonishingly, in imminent danger of failing to enter the Knesset.

 

Joint List

Seats in 21st Knesset [running as Hadash/Ta’al and Bal’ad/Ra’am]: 10; projected seats 10

Slogan: Joint Struggle, Joint List

Changes to party list: After splitting before April’s election, the Joint List has reunited for the current election.

Commercials: Besides a social media campaign in Arabic aimed at its own community, the Joint List has rolled out new, bilingual election commercials on Hebrew channels aimed squarely at Left-wing Jewish voters in an attempt to attract their support to an extent never seen before.

Strengths: While Arab parties supported a minority Rabin government from the outside in the 1990s, party leader Ayman Odeh surprised many by saying he would be prepared to go further and actually accept ministerial portfolios in a government led by Benny Gantz, provided his government promised to address imbalances between Jewish and Arab communities and actively pursue a “just peace” with the Palestinians based on two-states (but not two states for two peoples as his party does not endorse Israel as a Jewish state).

While Odeh’s interpretation of these conditions is vague and the other factions in his party distanced themselves from his statements, many Israeli Arabs do support it. It is a potentially significant shift in politics for the Arab parties and could potentially increase turnout for the party.

According to polls, Israeli Arabs are expected to increase their voting percentage by almost five percent, while voting in the Jewish sector is expected to drop by three percent. If this eventuates, the Joint List stands to benefit from both trends.

Weaknesses: PM Netanyahu’s recent push for a law to place cameras at polling stations to deter potential fraud is widely perceived in the Arab community as an attempt to intimidate them and suppress their vote. Despite the fact the law failed to pass, and would have likely been rejected by Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit anyway, there is speculation the whole controversy could nevertheless have a dampening effect on the Joint List’s performance.

 

Democratic Camp

Seats in 21st Knesset [running as Meretz]: 4; projected seats 6

Slogan: “Without the Likud – that’s for sure”

Changes to party list: Between elections, Meretz, the main faction behind the Democratic Camp (which includes former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak, former Labor MK Stav Shaffir and retired general Yair Golan) replaced its leader Tamar Zandberg with Nitzan Horowitz.

Commercials: Its campaign ads have a combative spirit, hammering away at Blue and White, which they believe will use Left-wing votes to join forces with Likud after the election, and Netanyahu, juxtaposing him with slain Jewish demagogue Rabbi Meir Kahane, his disciples, and his racist ideologies.

Strengths: In this election, the Democratic Camp has positioned itself as the only Zionist party that refuses to be part of a Likud government under any circumstances, which gives it an edge over other parties on the Left. Meretz’s merger with Barak and Shaffir has revitalised the party and is now comfortably safe from falling under the electoral threshold. It stands to pick up a couple of more seats than it received in April.

Weaknesses: Meretz, which received about a seat’s worth of votes from the Arab sector in April, risks losing them by embracing Barak, whom many Israeli Arabs blame for deaths during clashes with Israeli police in 2000 at the start of the second intifada. The Democratic Camp is vulnerable to vote-siphoning from the Joint List and its appeal for Leftist votes. The Democratic Camp’s pledge not to enter a coalition with the Likud makes it highly likely it will sit in the opposition after the elections, which limits its appeal to voters seeking to use their vote to influence government.

 

Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”)

Seats in 21st Knesset: 0; projected seats 0-4

Slogan: “Only Otzma Yehudit can ensure a right-wing government”

Changes to party list: The far-right party saw candidates disqualified from running in the current election on the basis of their extremist views.

Commercials: Otzma Yehudit has used its commercials to focus on the “soft” treatment of convicted Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails, including their access to chocolates and other treats. It has ruled out joining any government that isn’t right-wing. It has also attacked Yamina as being too weak on right-wing issues.

Strengths: The agreement between the Likud and Zehut that led to the latter’s departure from the race, and the decision by the social reactionary Noam party to retire from the race left Otzma Yehudit as the only address for far-right voters, which has given it hope of crossing the electoral threshold, and some polls have suggested it might. A low overall turnout would mean Otzma will need to attract fewer votes to enter the Knesset.

Weaknesses: In the last election, Zehut missed entering the Knesset by a considerable margin despite faring better in polls than Otzma has. Beyond its extreme politics which have highly limited appeal, PM Netanyahu has directly appealed to right-wing voters not to vote for Otzma Yehudit, telling them such a vote would be wasted. It’s unlikely the party will be able to overcome this stigma.