This past Tuesday, February 5, the 19th Knesset, Israel’s parliament, convened for its inaugural session in Jerusalem, and all 120 members pledged their allegiance to the State. The composition of the new Knesset can reveal, and for some affirm, a change in priorities in the national agenda among the Israeli public.
There are 53 new members of Knesset, almost half of the legislators (according to Knesset sources, on average, about a third of the Knesset is replaced after every election). While five of them are returning Members of Knesset (MKs), 48 of them have never held a parliamentary seat. The high number of fresh faces in the Knesset suggests that Israelis are looking for new politics and innovative policies and therefore have voted for parties and people who appear to represent such change. President Shimon Peres expressed the same sentiment in his speech, saying that he:
“Calls on members of the house to undertake the effort to curb the deficit and achieve new growth. The great challenge standing before you, members of Knesset, is to answer the nation’s expectation for social reform. You voiced a commitment, almost unanimously, that this Knesset will be the most social one we’ve known, that you will bridge the divide between the wealthy and the poor, for equal share of the burden.”
This change in priorities is also evident when taking into consideration the parties with the greatest electoral achievements; Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Naftali Bennett’s Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi. Both parties are either new or reinvented, led by first-time MKs and with slates intentionally full of new faces in the Israeli political landscape. The intention was to lead, or at least signal, a change to a “new politics”, one which places the priorities of the middle-class voter on top (The notion of “new politics” was, in fact, a main feature in Lapid’s campaign, and his justification for entering politics). Both parties emphasised socio-economic issues in their election campaigns.
By looking at the backgrounds of the Knesset’s new faces, this reinvigoration and re-focussing on domestic and socio-economic issues is apparent: The new MKs represent a wide variety of cultural groups and minorities and many live in Israel’s rural areas – development towns and the “periphery” (the Negev, Galilee, etc); their average age is significantly younger than previous parliaments; many were involved in education, in dialogue between communities (religious-secular, Jewish-Arab etc) and in social work. Some were social activists, advocates for civil, human and women rights or worked with underprivileged communities such as new migrants, refugees, people with disabilities and so on.
The 19th Knesset also includes the highest number of women MKs – a total of 27 (six more then in the outgoing Knesset). In two of the parties, Yesh Atid and Meretz, about half on the MKs are women. Women also head three parties- Labor’s (Ha-Avoda) Shelly Yachimovich, Ha-Tnu’ah’s Tzipi Livni and Meretz’s Zehava Ga-lon.
Who are these ‘newbies’? Here is a list of the fresh faces in the 19th Knesset:
• Yair Shamir – Former PM Yitzhak Shamir’s son. Former head of National Roads Company of Israel and chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries.
• Shimon Ohayon – Professor of education at Bar-Ilan University and head of the Association for Persons of Moroccan Origin in Israel.
• Moshe Feiglin – Head of the Likud’s ‘Manhigut Yehudit’ (Jewish Leadership) faction and one of the founders of the ‘Zo Artzeinu’ (This is our Land) movement.
• Yair Lapid – The son of the late Tommy Lapid, a former MK and minister who headed the Shinui (change) party, and was a major political force following the 2003 election. Journalist, author and television personality, Lapid founded Yesh Atid in January 2012.
• Rabbi Shai Piron – As the head of religious-Zionist Petach Tikva Yeshiva, Chairman of the ‘Hakol Hinuch‘ (Everything is Education) movement to promote education in Israel, Piron is an educator-turned-politician. Piron is also dedicated to efforts to bridge the gap between secular and religious communities, and for this purpose the helped found Tzohar.
• Yael German – The popular Mayor of Herzliya since 1996 was formerly affiliated with Meretz.
• Meir Cohen – Mayor of Dimona in Israel’s south since 2003, during which time he led efforts to improve the economic and environmental conditions in the city, placing Dimona on the top-10 list of cleanest cities in the country. Cohen has a master’s degree in Jewish philosophy and background in education.
• Yaakov Peri – Former head of the Israeli Shin-Bet (during the first Intifada), CEO of Cellcom (one of Israel’s largest cellular network operators) and chairman of the Board of Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank. Peri studied and then taught at Harvard University and recently he appeared in the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers.”
• Ofer Shelah – Shelach was a political and military commentator and a sports journalist for leading daily newspapers Yedioth Ahronoth, Maariv and other media outlets. He served as a company commander in an elite Paratroopers unit in the IDF and lost an eye in the first Lebanon War.
• Aliza Lavie – Orthodox artist and researcher of Jewish culture, Lavie is a professor at Bar-Ilan University focusing on gender issues and multiculturalism in Judaism and Israeli society and a well-known author. She won the National Jewish Book Award for the English translation of her 2008 book “A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book.”
• Yoel Razvozov – Razvozov’s family immigrated from Azerbaijan when he was 11 years old. At 16, he was a judo champion and he represented Israel in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Before entering politics, he was a member of Israel’s Olympic Committee and a city council member at the city of Netanya.
• Adi Kol – A social activist, Kol received her doctorate from Columbia University, and established a project to help underprivileged youth pursue university studies and worked to promote educational opportunities for underprivileged youth and women. In 2011 she was awarded the Knesset Speaker’s Prize for Quality of Life.
• Karin Elharar – Elharar is an attorney specializing in the rights of seniors, the handicapped and Holocaust survivors. Holds a master’s degree in statutory law from the Washington College of Law at the American University in Washington DC and is the manager of the legal practice department at Bar-Ilan University, including the legal clinic for people with disabilities. Before joining the Knesset, Elharar, who is disabled herself and uses a wheelchair, was active in promoting legislation to advance the rights of people with disabilities.
• Miki Levy – Former Israel Police commander in Jerusalem from 2000 to 2003, during the second intifada, and police attache to Washington, DC. He was also an international public security consultant.
• Shimon Solomon – In 1980 Solomon made aliyah from Ethiopia with his family at the age of 12. They set out on foot from Ethiopia to Israel through Sudan. Solomon served in the Israeli Defense Forces’ paratroopers unit and is a reserve officer. He later became a social worker and social activist in the Ethiopian community. From 2005 till 2007 he returned to Addis Ababa and worked in the Israeli Embassy and was later director of an immigrant absorption center in Beersheva. He also works with Physicians for Human Rights as an advocate for refugees and is a former educational director of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, a center for traumatised orphans of the Rwandan genocide.
• Ruth Calderon – Calderon holds a doctorate in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a Jewish scholar, educator and researcher, dedicated to the advancement of interreligious understandings. She played a role in the secular and egalitarian Beit Midrash movement and founded the Elul Beit Midrash in Jerusalem in 1989, one of the city’s first Jewish study centers where secular and religious Israelis can study and discuss Judaism, and Alma: The House for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv with a mission to combine Jewish, Israeli and universal culture.
• Pnina Tamano-Shata – She immigrated from Ethiopia at the age of 3 and is an attorney and social activist. Worked as the legal reporter for Channel 1. Pnina is the first female MK of Ethiopian origin.
• Rina Frenkel – Immigrated from the former U.S.S.R. in the 1990s. Frenkel, who lives in Nahariya, is an industry specialist who worked in vocational training and as the assistant-director of a government-run training and employment institute in northern Israel.
• Yifat Kariv – Social activist in the field of education. Kariv is a social worker and the former head of the youth division of the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee. Kariv, who previously lived in Beersheba, sat on the Hod-Hasharon city council since 2008.
• Rabbi Dov Lipman – a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi and a social activist working against religious coercion. He’s been an advocate for coexistence in Beit Shemesh. Lipman holds a masters degree in education and is a blogger for Times of Israel. He’s the first American-born member of Israel’s Knesset since 1984, after making aliyah with his family in 2004. Lipman believes that there’s no contradiction between working, serving the country and being haredi.
• Boaz Toperovski – Former Chairman of the National Union of Israel Students and of the student union at the University of Tel Aviv. He also served as a consultant for the Minister of Social Affairs Isaac Herzog, in charge of welfare and social services. In 2008 Toporovsky was one of the founders of Tzabar, a youth political movement with seats on the Tel Aviv City Council.
• Ronen Hoffman – Expert in foreign policy, crisis management, conflict resolution, and anti-terrorism policy and political psychology, Hoffman was one of the founders of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the IDC in Herziliya, where he is a senior lecturer. Hoffman has also worked for the Ministry of Defense and was a personal aide to the late PM Yitzhak Rabin.
• Merav Michaeli – Celebrity journalist and feminist-activist, and part of the Labor peace camp.
• Stav Shafir – One of the leaders of the summer 2011 national social protests, and the youngest member of Knesset at the age on 27. Shafir served as a military journalist for the IDF newspaper Ba-Machane after transferring from the IAF academy’s flight course. She studied journalism in the City University of London and worked as a journalist while taking part in many initiatives to advance Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and the two-state outcome.
• Michal Biran – Lecturer and doctoral student in political science at Tel Aviv University and Head of the youth wing of the Labor party, Biran was also an assistant to Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich
• Erel Margalit – High-tech entrepreneur and founder of the Jersualem-based venture capital fund Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), has been declared “king of the exits” by The Marker, Haaretz’s business magazine. However, despite being a successful hi-tech businessman, Margalit, who also earned a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, has a strong social conscience – in 2002 he founded JVP Community, a fund to address social issues in Jerusalem. One of its main programs is Bakehila (in the community), which organises educational programs for disadvantaged Jewish and Arab children.
• Itzik Shmuli – Former head of the National Union of Israeli Students and one of the leaders of the summer 2011 social protest movement.
• Yehiel ‘Hilik’ Bar – Labor party Secretary-General and former member of the Jerusalem City Council.
• Omer Bar-Lev – Son of IDF Chief of Staff and later government minister Haim Bar-Lev, Omer Bar-Lev is a former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) and colonel in the IDF reserves. Bar-Lev is also a Hi-tech entrepreneur. He is the founder and chairman of the Aharai! (follow me!) movement, established in 1997, which operates projects to reduce social gaps in Israel’s less-developed areas by running preparation programs for military service and matriculation exams. He was one of the founders of Peace Now and was active in Dor Shalom (‘peace generation) movement.
• Miki Rosenthal – Investigative journalist and researcher, often focusing on various socio-economic topics, and maker of the film “The Shakshuka System” which exposed the relationship between wealth and power in Israel.
• Moshe Mizrahi – Former head of the Israel Police Investigations Unit. Founder and first chief of the International Crime Investigations Unit and leader of the struggle against corruption.
• Naftali Bennett – Served in Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) and Maglan, another elite commando unit. Bennett was a hi-tech entrepreneur, specializing in anti-fraud software. From 2006 until 2008 he worked as Benjamin Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff while Netanyahu was opposition leader. From 2010 until 2012 Bennett served as the Director General of the Yesha council, the umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In 2011 he co-founded (with fellow party member Ayelet Shaked) the Yisraeli Sheli (‘my Israeli’) organisation. In 2012 he was elected as head of Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi (“Jewish Home”) party.
• Rabbi Eli Ben Dohan – Captain in the IDF reserves and former Director-General of Israel’s rabbinical courts.
• Ayelet Shaked – Secular activist. Chairwoman and founding member, together with Bennett, of the My Israel movement. Shaked served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s former bureau manager when he was Opposition Leader.
• Zvulun Kalfa – Former educator in the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and former member of Hof-Aza regional council before the 2005 disengagement plan. He became community leader for those evacuated from Gaza and was elected to Bnei Shimon regional council.
• Avi Vartzman – Educator and Deputy Mayor of Beersheva, where he was in charge of welfare and social services in the city.
• Moti Yogev – Deputy head of the Binyamin Region Local Council and former secretary general of the Bnei Akiva youth movement.
• Orit Struk – Struk lives in Hebron, where she runs the Jewish community’s legal and diplomatic division. She also heads the NGO, the Human Rights Organization of Judea and Samaria.
• Yoni Chetboun – Major in the IDF reserves. Served in the Golani Brigade and earned a Chief of General Staff merit citation after the battle of Bint Jbeil in the second Lebanon war in 2006. Chetboun founded Ra’ananim – the Religious Zionist Youth movement.
• David Tzur – Tzur was born in Turkey and made aliyah with his family at the age of six. He served for 28 years in the police, starting at the Counter-Terrorism Unit. He also served as former Israel Police Tel Aviv District commander in 2004-2008, and Border Guard chief between 2002-2004.
• Elazar Stern – Major-General in the IDF reserves. Former head of the IDF Personnel/Human Resources Directorate. As head of Human Resources, Stern has overseen a conversion program for non-Jewish IDF troops and led the integration of hesder units for ultra-Orthodox male soldiers (combining Yeshiva studies with military service), into mainstream units.
• Michal Rozin – As CEO of “The Association of Rape Crisis Centres” in Israel, Rosin led a coalition of nine organizations to promote legislation and action to fight sexual violence and advance sexual assault victims’ rights.
• Issawi Frej – Frej is a resident of the large Israeli Arab town of Kfar Qasim. He has been Meretz activist for 25 years, served on the secretariat of Peace Now and took part in the Geneva Accord initiative.
• Tamar Zandberg – From 2003 to 2008 she worked as a parliamentary aide to Meretz member Ran Cohen. Since then, she sat at the Tel Aviv City Council on the Meretz list, where she promoted an initiative to introduce public transport on Shabbat.
United Torah Judaism:
• Yaakov Asher – Mayor of Bnei Barak since 2008, after sitting in the city council for 19 years.
Ra’am-Ta’al (United Arab List):
• Taleb Abu Arar – Abu Arar is a Bedouin Israeli. He worked as a teacher and deputy headteacher. Between 2000 and 2004 he served as Head of the Ararat an-Naqab local council.
Balad- National Democratic Assembly:
• Bassel Jatas – Founder of a number of Arab civil-society organizations such as Atijah: Haifa Civil Society. Former head of the Rameh Council in the Western Galilee and of the Galilee Society. Jatas is a founding member of Balad.
The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon summed up the message of the Israeli public to their representatives from this election and the many fresh and diverse new faces added to the Knesset:
“Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, political novices, are the country’s poster boys for change – and they did astonishingly well. However, a look at the initial results shows that the change the country is looking for is not necessarily a change in external policy, but changes within.”
He explained that had the public voted for a dramatic change in the country’s foreign policy or security doctrine, they would have voted for a different diplomatic position to Netanyahu, such as Livni’s Ha-Tnu’ah, Meretz, or Kadima.
“No, these three candidates ran primarily on domestic matters: Lapid on a more equitable distribution of the army and tax burdens; Yacimovich on creating a more affordable state; and Bennett both on the cost-of-living issue and on inculcating the country with Jewish and Zionist values.”
He suggests that while the Israeli public is concerned about external challenges such as Iran’s nuclear weapon aspiration, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the volatile situation in Syria, and the stalemate in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, voters feel that Israel’s influence on any of these issues is limited.
“But internal matters, well, those are different. Tuesday’s results indicate a country that has turned inward, but not in an isolationist sense. Rather, the results bespeak a nation that has accepted the things it cannot change, and is now focusing on what it believes it can.”