Category Archives: Israel

Israel 2013

Legislative elections were held in Israel on January 22, 2013. All 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, were up for reelection. Israel uses a slightly modified type of d’Hondt proportional representation in a single national constituency with a 2% threshold for parties to qualify for seats. Israeli politics are remarkably convoluted, understanding the complexity of Israeli politics and the conflicting ideologies of the various parties are challenging for any casual observer. My preview post tried to explain every party, who they were, what they stood for and what was at stake for them on January 22.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seeking a third term in office and a second consecutive term. To boost his chances, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud allied with Yisrael Beiteinu, a right-wing nationalist party led by his controversial (now former) foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has often been described by his opponents as a racist, a xenophobe and hard-line radical nationalist. Netanyahu allied with Lieberman’s party in a move to secure support on his right. Netanyahu is often painted by the western media as an arch-nationalist, a hardliner opposed to any negotiations with the Palestinians and possibly the most right-wing leader which could come out of Israel. In Israel, however, Netanyahu is widely seen as a moderate within his party and certainly more moderate on the Palestinian question than many on the right. Many on the right were dismayed when, in 2009, Netanyahu endorsed – tepidly – a two-state solution for the first time; even if he has since done next to nothing to walk the walk on this issue. His attempt to secure his right by allying with Lieberman was unsuccessful, because Netanyahu found himself overwhelmed by a surge in support for the far-right Jewish Home coalition, led by the young ex-military software entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, whose tough, uncompromising stance on the Palestinian question attracted many right-wingers. Bennett’s surge forced the Palestinian issue back into the election, which Netanyahu and his main opponent – Shelly Yachimovich of the Labour Party – had wanted to be about the economy (and social policies).

The Israeli centre and centre-left – which tends to be more dovish on the Arab-Israeli conflict – was widely seen as being headed to a very disappointed election which would confirm that Israeli society is shifting to the right, favouring arch-nationalist hardliners. Labour expected to come a distant second, a mediocre result which would have allowed it to lick its wounds and slowly heal itself after a disastrous election in 2009. Kadima, the centrist party which governed between 2006 and 2009, was fighting for its political survival; while ormer Kadima leader Tzipi Livni hoped that her reinvention as a quite dovish peace-focused centre-leftist could allow her to return after losing the Kadima leadership in 2012. Finally, Yeir Lapid, a journalist who entered politics a year ago with his new centrist party, Yesh Atid, hoped that his campaign focused on socio-economic matters and targeting the middle-classes would propel him to a strong showing.

Turnout was 67.07%, up from 65.2% in 2009 and 63.2% in 2006. This is fairly high turnout, though it is lower than what was predicted from earlier turnout results throughout the day. Two hours before polls closed, turnout was up 4% since 2009 and it was expected that final turnout could reach 69-70%. Unlike in 2009 and 2006, there was not a substantial number of voters who voted in the last two hours. Turnout increased by only 3.5% in the last two hours, against 5.5% in 2009 and 6% in 2006. Interestingly, this was despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute plea to his supporters to turn out and vote. As the poll closing drew nearer, Netanyahu and the Likud openly voiced their worries about the result and feared that they were heading for a worse result than expected. On the other hand, Yair Lapid was optimistic about his chances.

The results currently stand as (votes compared to 2009, seats compared to dissolution and 2009):

Likud Yisrael Beiteinu 23.32% (-9.99%) winning 31 seats (-11)
Yesh Atid 14.32% (+14.32%) winning 19 seats (+19)
Labour (HaAvoda) 11.39% (+1.46%) winning 15 seats (+7, +2)
Jewish Home-National Union 9.12% (+2.91%) winning 12 seats (+7, +5)
Shas 8.75% (+0.26%) winning 11 seats (nc)
United Torah Judaism 5.17% (+0.78%) winning 7 seats (+2)
Hatnuah 5.17% (+5.17%) winning 6 seats (-1, +6)
Meretz 4.54% (+1.59%) winning 6 seats (+3)
United Arab List-Ta’al 3.65% (+0.27%) winning 4 seats (+1, nc)
Hadash 2.99% (-0.33%) winning 4 seats (nc)
Balad 2.56% (+0.08%) winning 3 seats (nc)
Kadima 2.10% (-20.37%) winning 2 seats (-19, -26)
Otzma LeYisrael 1.76% (+1.76%) winning 0 seats (-2, nc)
Am Shalem 1.2% (+1.2%) winning 0 seats (-1, nc)
Ale Yarok 1.15% (+0.76%) winning 0 seats (nc)
All others below 1% 3.0% (+0.29%) winning 0 seats (nc, nc)

Right-Religious Bloc 48.12% (-4.28%) winning 61 seats (-4 since 2009)
Centre-Left, Left and Arab Bloc 47.92% (+3.39%) winning 59 seats (+4)
including Arab Parties 9.20% (+0.02%) winning 11 seats (nc)

Results by sub-district (blue: Likud-YB, orange: JH) source: news.walla.co.il

As predicted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ‘won’ the elections on January 22, though he suffered a major setback. He comes out of these elections weakened, challenged both by a rejuvenated centre/centre-left led by a new face and by a slightly weakened but also more radical right (both inside and outside his party). Netanyahu is a winner and he will have his third term as Prime Minister of Israel, but these results are quite bad for his party. Netanyahu was ‘reelected’ only because he lacked an obvious credible challenger who could take him on. His main opponent throughout the campaign, Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich never really proved herself as a strong, credible alternative to Netanyahu; while the star of the hard right, Naftali Bennett, was too polarizing and too right-wing for the wider electorate to emerge as a serious threat to Netanyahu’s position as Prime Minister. Therefore, even if the electorate was eager for a change and many embraced new leaders or new parties, they could not find an alternative to Netanyahu and the result is that he remains where he is, even though he comes out quite roughed up.

Netanyahu and the Likud-YB’s campaign was uninspiring and unexciting, characterized by a general dearth of new ideas. In fact, Likud-YB did not even present an updated platform in this election. He stuck to mildly hawkish language about defending the settlements and presenting himself as the strong leader who would be best positioned to resist American pressure to freeze the construction of new settlements. He emphasized an economic record which he claimed has kept Israel out of the crisis. Voters to his left were looking for a new direction, more favourably inclined to real negotiations with the Palestinians and critical of Netanyahu’s economic and social policies. Voters to his right were unimpressed by his record in office since 2009 and were attracted by leaders such as Bennett who were more unequivocal in their opposition to a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s attempt to shore up his right flank was, as predicted, rather unsuccessful (and counterproductive?). His new ally, Avigdor Lieberman, is no longer the star of the hard-right (unlike in 2009) and he has lost his touch, in good part because of his indictment for corruption. Within his own party, Netanyahu had failed to dominate the internal primaries which saw his right-wing challengers do well and the old moderates decimated.

The real surprise was that Israel did not shift to the right as predicted. Netanyahu did even worse than the last polls had predicted (the lower end of his range in the final polls was 32 seats) and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home did not quite as well as had been widely anticipated. Despite regional tumult with the Arab Spring, a general pessimism amongst Israelis on the Palestinian issue and Iran’s nuclear program presented as an existential threat to Israel by the Prime Minister; the electorate did not shift to the right, in fact it shifted towards the centre. Israel is not, ultimately, the increasingly nationalistic and religious country it had become increasingly fashionable to portray.

The major winner of the election was Yesh Atid, a party founded only a year ago by Yeir Lapid, the son of a cabinet minister and anti-clerical politician and a popular journalist and TV host himself. Lapid’s party placed a respectable second, taking 19 seats, far more than it had been expected to win (8-13). Either the polls themselves were wrong or something happened in the final stretch (no polls could be published between January 18 and 22) which moved many votes towards Lapid and, seemingly, away from Netanyahu’s right and the far-right. Lapid was a popular, charismatic and consensual journalist and TV host who often focused his attention on the Israeli middle-class, which is often described as being left on the side of the road in the polarized and divided society between the left’s ‘peaceniks’, the hardline religious settlers and the ultra-orthodox Haredim. His campaign’s general orientation was vague, although he did offer some specifics on what he sought to change in the country – a welcome break from a campaign in which other candidates seemed more interested by gimmicky campaign ads than substance.

Yesh Atid’s centrist, consensual campaign appealed to the middle-ground, backed by the attractive notion of ‘change’ and a focus on the middle-class. Lapid’s party is secular, though not as secular as most had expected. Its list included some rabbis, some of which are orthodox or religious Zionist (although all quite moderate or liberal). It includes both a mayor formerly associated with the pro-peace left-wing Meretz (Yael German) and a former head of Shin Bet (Yaakov Peri). One of the cornerstones in Lapid’s platform was “equal sharing of the burden” – that is, extending the draft to the Haredim (and perhaps even Arabs) who can receive an exemption from military service to pursue full-time Torah study. Lapid either wants to draft them into the IDF or allow them to do a civilian ‘national service’ instead. But while his father had been the leader of a virulently anti-clerical, anti-Shas party; Lapid is far more consensual, even on this divisive subject. He has insisted that he is not hostile to ultra-orthodox Jews, but only wants to find a way to share the burden of military/service more equally, a position which resonated well with his middle-class and largely secular electorate.

Israel’s politically centrist, religiously secular or indifferent middle-classes often care more about domestic issues – such as the economy, the cost of living, housing prices and public services – than they do about the old Arab-Israeli conflict. Lapid’s campaign spoke to those middle-class voters with a platform and campaign focused more on those domestic priorities than on peace negotiations and a solution to the conflict. He vowed to fight the lower Israel’s notoriously high housing prices, build more apartments and improve the education and healthcare system. Lapid campaigned under the slogan of “change” and “changing things”, which has led to the inevitable comparisons with Obama in 2008. His message of change worked, because many of the voters he targeted – the middle-class – are unhappy with the existing parties and were eager for a fresh alternative.

Yair Lapid struck the middle-ground on most issues, from the economy to diplomacy; and this moderate, pragmatic centrism appealed to a good part of an electorate which is, after all, more moderate than many had assumed. Outside of the occupied territories, in central Israel, most voters are focused on ‘kitchen table issues’ rather than the conflict. A Haaretz (centre-left) columnist, Gideon Levy, wrote that Israelis “want nothing, only to be left alone” and that Lapid, for these middle-class centrists, was the perfect embodiment of what they wanted from their politicians:  “looks good and dresses well, (…) well-spoken and well-married, lives in the right neighborhood and drives the right kind of Jeep. With that, he doesn’t say much. He’s not extreme, heaven forbid, that’s not who we are, nor does he stick his hand in the fire, that’s not us either. He stays away from any divisive issues, just as Israelis prefer.” Levy writes that “voters want a quiet, good life, peaceful and bourgeois, and to hell with all those pesky nagging issues.”

It may be a very cynical commentary and one may take issue with the gist of the editorial; but it reflects an interesting perspective. In the foreign press, Israel makes headlines because of the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian nuclear threat or the attention-grabbing actions of a few more radical settlers or nationalists. Most would be led to assume that these issues are the first preoccupation for voters – after all, the left-right divide in Israel is built around such issues. However, Lapid’s success – but also the success of past centrist parties, most recently Kadima in 2006 – show that, for many (but not all) voters, domestic issues and concerns common to voters around the world are a top priority. The 2011 social justice protests in Tel Aviv and around the country showed the importance of issues such as housing prices, public services or cost of living to the urban middle-class, which often feels ignored by the major parties. Labour had hoped to benefit electorally from the protests, in fact, two of the protest leaders were on the party’s list. It appears that Yesh Atid, rather than Labour, may have benefited the most from these protests instead.

The attitude of a plurality of Israelis towards the conflict also reflect the prevalence of ‘moderate’ opinions. According to the December 2012 Peace Index, 60% of Israeli Jews support a two-state solution, 68% favour negotiations with the Palestinians and 58% support an independent Palestinian state “in the framework of a peace agreement that includes appropriate security arrangements.” At the same time, however, most Israelis (55%) define themselves as right-wing on the security issue, a bare majority of Israeli Jews (51%) agree that West Bank settlements should not be dismantled, 58% oppose ceding East Jerusalem to the Palestinians within the framework of an agreement and a huge majority (85%) oppose relinquishing control over the Golan. Most Israelis, furthermore, believe that there is no chance for progress in the foreseeable future.

Yair Lapid’s Palestinian-diplomatic agenda was similar. He says that returning to the negotiating table with the Palestinians and escaping Israel’s growing international isolation is urgent. However, he is security-oriented and also has hawkish positions – he supports targeted killings of Hamas leaders, has always advocated for a strong military response to violence from Gaza and vows that Israel must defend itself and its citizen. Similarly, he opposes a ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees, opposes ceding control of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state and states that large settlement blocs in the West Bank are a “fact on the ground” and will not be dismantled.

Labour had a very disappointing election with a mediocre result. The party, which was set to become the second largest party in the Knesset and form the main opposition to Netanyahu came out in third place, with only 15 seats – a gain of only two seats for the party since the 2009 election, which had been the party’s worst result in its history. Labour’s leader, Shelly Yachimovich, a journalist, ran a campaign focused almost exclusively on economic and social matters. She tried to benefit from the 2011 protests and middle-class discontent with Netanyahu’s record on social policies since 2009. By and large, it failed to do so. Her decision to leave peace and security issues on the side of the road alienated the doves within the party, who instead preferred a rejuvenated Meretz. Other, more hawkish Labour supporters, may have preferred Yair Lapid instead. In addition, her decision to rule out participating in a Netanyahu-led coalition was criticized by both Lapid and Tzipi Livni, who competed for left-of-centre secular middle-class voters with Labour. Voters did care about the social and economic issues which Yachimovich focused on, but they likely preferred to vote for a party which had a similar focus and promised to champion those policies and values within a government (Yair Lapid).

Yachimovich failed to become a credible opponent to Netanyahu. She will probably be facing an uphill battle to retain the party’s leadership after a dismal finish for the old traditional governing party. The party’s fortunes have been down the drain since 2001-2003, with a succession of mediocre or hapless leaders who could not turn the party back into a credible alternative for power. Ehud Barak’s decision to bring the party into cabinet in 2009 was disastrous, but even a stint in opposition (since 2011) under Yachimovich did not correct matters.

Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, which had very high hopes and expectations for itself on January 22, came out a bit deflated on election night. Predicted to (and expecting to) win some 15 seats and place a solid third if not second, the party came out with a respectable but disappointing 12 seats. It was nevertheless very good result for the party, which had only 5 seats in the Knesset when it was dissolved. But some in the party found it hard not to feel at least a bit disheartened by that performance, when polls had consistently given them around 14-15 and they were riding on a wave of local and foreign media attention. Bennett did not break through as expected, and he will be a less powerful actor in any governing coalition. Bennett’s goal in the election was to break through the old barriers of the Israeli far-right, transcend the religious Zionist and settler base of the old NRP and build a broader nationalist coalition which included more secular or traditionalist voters living outside the West Bank. In part, he was successful: he was quite popular with some younger voters. However, he did not fully achieve the goals he had set out for himself. The party (and its leader) were perhaps the victims of exaggerated expectations. Bennett is a significant political presence rather than a game-changing phenomenon.

Nevertheless, Bennett achieved a solid, respectable and even fairly remarkable result. With Avigdor Lieberman’s power and even influence much diminished, Bennett can become the sole major rival to the right of the Likud (excluding the ultra-orthodox parties which have a tightly knit electorate and a limited range). Even if he didn’t do as well as he would have hoped, Bennett showed himself to be a particularly successful politician – even if this was his first time running for elected office. His rather impressive biography, his charisma and his outsider profile all proved beneficial to him and his party. Compared to Lieberman, who is very much damaged goods by now (though one should not underestimate any Israeli politician’s ability to rebound from lows), Bennett is still a fresh, clean and energetic figure.

The two ultra-orthodox parties did quite well, especially United Torah Judaism (UTJ) which was able to grab two extra seats, giving it 7 members in the new Knesset. The Shas held their ground and their popular vote increased a bit, after a relatively poor performance in 2009. However, given how much noise and how big a fuss they had made about the high-profile return of their former leader, Aryeh Deri, to their list; this could also be seen as a fairly mediocre and underwhelming performance. The two ultra-orthodox parties, who represent Sephardic (Shas) or Ashkenazi (UTJ) Haredim, have a tightly knit electorate which has meant that their electorate has tended to be remarkably stable (less so in the case of the Shas, but especially so for the UTJ – which is even more ultra-orthodox in its electorate than the Shas) in the context of Israel’s famously unstable politics. I am not sure to what the Shas/UTJ’s strong performance this year can be attributed to. Turnout was very strong in their ultra-orthodox citadels, meaning that they likely benefited from the small increase in turnout since the last election. Maybe this increase in turnout/support for the ultra-orthodox parties could be chalked up to fears about being drafted?

Tzipi Livni’s new party, Hatnuah, founded just a few days right before the elections, won 6 seats. This result is slightly below its numbers in the final polls (7-8 seats), though a result in that general vicinity was expected. She might have might have suffered from what appears to have been a last-minute shift towards Yesh Atid by centrist middle-class voters, the demographic which both Yesh Atid and Hatnuah (but also Labour) were competing for. Her campaign’s heavy focus on the urgency for peace negotiations with the Palestinians might have turned off a few centrist voters, whose primary focus was on domestic rather than diplomatic/Palestinian issues. Centrist parties rise and fall in very quick succession in Israel, and Hatnuah’s fate might be no different. Nevertheless, Hatnuah enters the Knesset with a small but rather experience and/or distinguished caucus. Besides Tzipi Livni, her list had two former dovish Labour leaders (Peretz and Mitzna), a Kadima MK and General Elazar Stern, the IDF commander who supervised the Gaza pullout. Both Peretz and Mitzna might be tempted, depending on what Labour becomes in the next few years, to jump ship again to rejoin their old party.

Meretz performed well, winning 6 seats – doubling its horrible result in the 2009 election (3 seats). In the 2009 election, Meretz – like Labour – had suffered from a late anti-Bibi strategic voting push on the left. This late shift, undetected by pollsters, allowed Kadima – then led by Tzipi Livni – to finish narrowly ahead of the Likud, and meant that Meretz was left decimated with only 3 seats – whereas polls had given it up to 7 seats right before the vote. This strategic shift was quite perceptible on the kibbutzim – a core Labour and Meretz demographic – where Kadima and Labour tied with 31% apiece and Meretz trailed behind with 18%. In addition to recovering those losses, Meretz likely gained some left-wing dovish voters from Labour, alienated from the party by Yachimovich’s exclusive focus on economic/social issues and her reluctance to adopt an overly dovish position on the settlements or peace negotiations. Meretz’s success means that Issawi Frej, an Arab Israeli placed fifth on the party’s list, won a seat in the Knesset. Meretz’s result shows that, while the left-wing ‘peacenik’ camp is not as powerful as it was before the Second Intifada, it retains a small following within the Jewish population.

Together, the three Arab parties won 9.2% and 11 seats – more or less exactly what they had won in 2009, which had been a generally good year for all three parties. There were concerns that turnout would drop even further this year with Arab Israelis, after a prominent Islamic cleric had called on Arabs to boycott the election. However, from the results in various Arab towns, turnout actually increased by around 3% – that is to say, still low (around 56% in general) but over the halfway mark.

In detail, the three parties more or less won the same results as they had in 2009. The exception is Hadash, which lost about 0.3% from its 2009 result. I suspect that, in 2009, the party had won a bit of bicommunal Jewish support from particularly left-wing/pro-Palestinian Meretz voters (at the time, the party’s support for the 2006 invasion of southern Lebanon and the 2008-2009 operation against Gaza had been criticized by some). Once again, the Arab parties did relatively well but they did not achieve their full potential because of their disunity and low turnout. If Arab Israeli voters turned out in high numbers, and voted for a single Arab party, such a party could possibly be the second largest party in the Knesset and be in a far stronger position than the three disjointed parties at pushing for Arab interests. However, as long as Arab Israelis feel marginalized and discriminated against in Israel; as long as their parties feud among themselves and remain excluded from every government, they will have a hard time playing a more prominent role in Israeli politics.

Kadima was nearly wiped out, managing to extend its lease on life for some time again. With 2.09%, it managed to save two seats – one for the party’s hapless leader Shaul Mofaz and one for incumbent MK Yisrael Hasson. The party’s decline began under Tzipi Livni following the 2009 election, when her performance as opposition leader was so mediocre that her party voted her out of the leadership spot in March 2012 by a landslide. Unfortunately for them, Shaul Mofaz turned out to be an even worse leader. After vowing that he would not enter Netanyahu’s government in March, he joined (for two months) Netanyahu’s cabinet in order to push through a reform of the draft law (which the grand coalition was unable to do, leading to Kadima pulling out). This about-face destroyed Kadima’s image and its standing in the polls. The creation of Yesh Atid in early 2012 and Livni’s new party attracted many centrist voters who had backed Kadima in 2006 and 2009. Israeli centrist voters are notoriously volatile voters who have never had a single clear political home.

Shaul Mofaz, a stale and boring politician, could not compete against a media-savvy charismatic figure like Yeir Lapid (or even Livni and Yachimovich). Kadima awaited its fate, like an agonizing patient, throughout the campaign – it just hoped that it could at least save 2 seats rather than be totally obliterated. The party’s campaign was seemingly entirely about reiterating “Shaul Mofaz is not a complete idiot”.

The two new breakaway parties on the right,  Otzma LeYisrael (the most far-right party founded by two former National Union MKs) and Am Shalem fell right below the threshold for seats. Otzma LeYisrael’s appeal was limited to the most radical and extremist fringe of the settlers’ movement in the West Bank, where it performed best (by far). Other right-wing nationalist voters, less drawn by the party’s controversial far-right rhetoric, already had their own party: Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home. Am Shalem, the Shas breakaway faction led by the renegade rabbi and ex-Shas MK Haim Amsalem (who represents a less parochial and open type of Haredi Judaism), also fell short. Pilloried by the ultra-orthodox community for attacking the sacred precept of draft exemption, he was unable to break through with the very parochial and closed ultra-orthodox community. Like most new Israeli parties which try to attract voters who like none of the established parties (but most invariably fail at doing so), it will probably die out now.

Electoral Geography

You can find a great interactive map of the results, from the sub-district to the precinct level, here. Unfortunately, it’s entirely in Hebrew, but one can get the hang of it and what the colours mean fairly quickly.

Results by precinct in Tel Aviv and surroundings (blue: L-YB, gray: YA, red: Labour, lime green: Meretz, dark brown: Shas, dark gray: UAL-Ta'al)

Results by precinct in Tel Aviv and surroundings (blue: L-YB, gray: YA, red: Labour, lime green: Meretz, dark brown: Shas, dark gray: UAL-Ta’al) Source: news.walla.co.il

The election once again revealed the deep schism which divide’s Israel’s two largest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The former, the cultural and economic capital, is known for its more relaxed attitude. The latter, the political and religious capital, is a deeply conservative city with a large ultra-orthodox population. In Tel Aviv, Yesh Atid won 20.7% against 17.5% for Likud-YB and 16.8% for Labour. Meretz scored 14.3% and Livni won 7.3%. The results at a precinct level reveal that Yeir Lapid was, unsurprisingly, most popular in northern Tel Aviv: secular, Ashkenazi upper middle-class suburbs where the centre and Labour have always tended to perform well. He won nearly 30% in some precincts in northern Tel Aviv, where Labour and Meretz also polled well – but where Likud only polled in the low teens. In downtown Tel Aviv, a young, artsy and secular gentrified area, Meretz actually topped the poll in a good number of precincts, with Labour and Yesh Atid also doing well. Tel Aviv’s results also reflect a north-south polarization in the city. In the southern neighborhoods, which are poorer Sephardic/Mizrahi areas, Likud and the Shas dominated the polls while the centre-left parties polled quite poorly.

In Jerusalem, however, Yesh Atid placed fifth with only 7% of the votes. It was UTJ, the Ashkenazi Haredim party, which topped the poll with 22% of the vote. Likud-YB won 20.5%, the Shas won 15.6% and Bennett’s JH won nearly 12% of the vote. Jerusalem has a large and politically influential ultra-orthodox population, which makes it a very stark contrast with Tel Aviv, Israel’s more relaxed and secular cultural and economic centre.

In Haifa, northern Israel’s largest city which was once known for its socialist politics, the results more or less followed the national trends. Likud-YB won 26% against 18% for Yesh Atid and 15% for Labour.

Likud-YB did well in cities such as Ashdod, Ashkelon or Karmiel which have a large Russian population, Avigdor Lieberman’s primary electoral clientele. But it clearly was not successful in attracting every YB voter from 2009. In Ashkelon, where the two parties combined had taken a big 58% in 2009, they won only 42% against 14% for the Shas, 10% for Lapid and 9% for JH. In Ashdod, another city with a large Russian population, the Likud-YB polled 36% against 17% for the Shas and 10% each for UTJ and Lapid. The Russian population is heavily secular and very hostile towards the religious parties, therefore it is fairly certain that they did not jump ship to the Shas. They might instead have been attracted by Naftali Bennett’s JH for its nationalist right-wing tone or even Lapid’s Yesh Atid for its secular platform, just like many Russians had voted for his father’s party, Shinui, in 2003.

The Likud-YB, unsurprisingly, polled very strongly in the Negev, where the party has been very strong in the largely low-income and Sephardic/Mizrahi ‘development towns’. In Beersheba, the target of Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza late last year, it won 38% against 13% for the Shas and 12% for JH. In Sderot, the Israeli town closest to the Gaza Strip, Likud-YB won 37% against 16% apiece for the Shas and JH. Hatnuah, boosted by the presence of local favourite son Amir Peretz on its list, won 11% – Peretz’s Labour had won Sderot in the 2006 election. Even in Eilat, Israel’s Red Sea resort town (where Kadima had won by 10 points in 2009), Likud performed well with 30% against 18% for Lapid ans 12% for Labour.

In the Bedouin communities of the Negev, the United Arab List (UAL) was very strong, in some communities they polled over 80% of the vote. However, the Shas, who have made concerted efforts to appeal to Bedouin voters in the past, received a respectable share of the vote in some communities. The Shas also polled quite very well in Jewish towns in the south, often second behind the Likud-YB. In Netivot, the Shas took 44% of the vote. The low-income town located near Gaza is a major shrine and pilgrimage place for Sephardic Haredim; Sephardic Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira (Baba Sali) is buried there.

Likud-YB also performed well in less affluent larger cities (some of which have a large Russian immigrant population), notably Nahariya (37%), Hadera (34%), Netanya (34%) and areas to the south of Tel Aviv such as Holon or Bet Yam.

Haaretz, in December, described suburban Rehovot as Israel’s bellwether community. Located 20km from Tel Aviv in the populous central district, it includes lower-income areas, more bourgeois neighborhoods, immigrant areas, ultra-orthodox concentrations and the very prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science. Likud-YB won 27% against 16.7% for Yesh Atid, rather similar to the national result. Labour won 13%, the Jewish Home won 11% and the Shas won 8%. Meretz won a precinct around the Weizmann Institute of Science, and took 4% in the city. At 67%, turnout in Rehovot also matched the national average.

Yesh Atid performed best in upper middle-class towns, the traditional base for centrist parties in Israel. In the affluent suburban towns located north of Tel Aviv, for example, Lapid’s party often won in the mid to high 20s. In Kfar Shmaryahu, one of the wealthiest towns in Israel, Yesh Atid received 32% against 16% for Hatnuah and 15% for Meretz – Netanyahu’s party placed fourth with only 13%. In Ramat HaSharon, Lapid’s party took 29% against 17% for Labour and a paltry 15% for Likud-YB. In Hod HaSharon, the results were similar: 29% for Yesh Atid, 10 points ahead of Labour and Likud-YB. In Herzliya, Yesh Atid won 26% against 22% for Likud-YB and 16% for Labour. These patterns hold true outside the Gush Dan, throughout the country. Lapid performed best with the educated and well-off middle and upper middle classes, likely groups concerned more by domestic concerns like high housing prices or the cost of living than by security or diplomatic issues.

In heavily ultra-orthodox towns or precincts, the vote was divided almost entirely between UTJ and the Shas. In Bnei Brak, a major ultra-orthodox town on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, UTJ won 60% against 25% for the Shas; the JH and Likud-YB took 4% of the vote each. In Modi’in Illit, a major ultra-orthodox settlement in the West Bank (right across the Green Line), UTJ won 77% against 18% for the Shas. In Beitar Illit, a large and growing ultra-orthodox settlement southwest of Jerusalem, UTJ also won – with 59% – against 30% for the Shas. In Beit Shemesh, a major town outside of Jerusalem with a large ultra-orthodox population, the centre-left was a non-entity. UTJ won 28% in the city, against 23% for Likud-YB, 18% for the Shas and 14% for Naftali Bennett’s party. In all these ultra-orthodox communities, turnout was much higher than the national average (high 70s or 80s).

The results in ultra-orthodox towns show that, unsurprisingly, neither the Jewish Home nor Am Shalem were able to break through the walls of Haredi Judaism. Both parties, especially Am Shalem, performed poorly in ultra-orthodox towns or precincts.

The kibbutzim and moshavim, historically the cornerstone of the Labour Zionist ideology, backed the centre-left – especially Labour and Meretz. However, enthusiasm for either of those left-wing parties, which have dominated the kibbutz movement, is lower than in the past. The kibbutzniks no longer carry much weight within either of those left-wing parties, which have become heavily dominated by the urban middle-class elite. Nevertheless, even if the kibbutzniks will no longer have any of their own in the Knesset and a sense of indifference towards party politics, turnout remained high and most of the votes went either to Labour, Meretz, Yesh Atid or Hatnuah. It appears, from a cursory look through the results, that the centrist parties – Yesh Atid and Hatnuah – performed better in the moshavim, where the farms tend to be owned individually rather than collectively. The Jewish Home won the religious kibbutz communities, a smaller movement associated with religious Zionism.

The Likud-YB and Jewish Home dominated the playing field in the West Bank settlements. In the West Bank as a whole, JH received 28% against 21% for Likud-YB and 17% for UTJ. The largest centre-left party, Yesh Atid, took only 7% of the vote, placing fifth – while Labour’s attempts to appeal to the settlers by toning down their dovish rhetoric ended disastrously: only 4% for the party. Jewish Home also topped the poll, with 24% against 21% for Likud-YB, in the Golan Heights.

The Likud-YB polled best in the largest settlements: Ma’ale Adumim (pop. 31,700) split 42% to 21% with JH; Likud took well over 40% in Pisgat Ze’ev, a settlement in East Jerusalem; in Ariel, Likud-YB won 53% against 16% for JH. Settlers in Ma’ale Adumim or in East Jerusalem neighborhoods/settlements have tended to move there for economic reasons than ideological reasons, in search of cheaper housing and better living standards. As a result, their population often tends to be more secular, although some large settlements (Ramot Alon in East Jerusalem) have a large orthodox population. However, the Jewish Home was very strong in more ideological settlements (which tend to be located further out from Jerusalem), which are dominated by religious Zionism. In Efrat, a growing community with a large population of North American and European Jews, Bennett’s party won 59% against 22% for Likud. In Kiryat Arba, a large settlement bloc near Hebron, JH took 42% while the far-right Otzma LeYisrael placed second with 28%. In Karnei Shomron, it won 43% against 26% for Likud.

Otzma LeYisrael won 8% in the West Bank, performing best with the most radical and extremist factions of the settlers’ movement – those who might have found Naftali Bennett too moderate for their tastes. In Yitzhar, an Orthodox settlement which has the reputation of being the most extremist settlement, Otzma LeYisrael won no less than 72% of the vote against 17% for JH. No centrist or centre-left party appears to have received over 1% of the vote in Yitzhar.

United Torah Judaism (UTJ), as aforementioned, carried the ultra-orthodox settlements of Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit in the West Bank.

For an interesting sidenote, even if Labour won only 4% in the West Bank, it can pride itself on receiving 90% in tiny Niran, a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley where 50 voters turned out.

The Arab towns did not vote as bloc for any party, but in almost all major Arab towns the broad outlines are the same: turnout in the 50s, almost all votes for the three Arab parties with Meretz, Labour and sometimes the Shas taking the leftovers. In Rafat, a very poor Arab city in the south with a large urban Bedouin population, the UAL won 56% against 30% for Balad. In Kafr Qasem, things were a bit different. The UAL took 38% in the home base of Islamic Movement leader Ibrahim Sarsur, but Meretz received 35% of the vote, thanks to their new Arab MK, Issawi Frej, who is from the town. In nearby Tira and Taibe, however, the UAL received over 50% of the vote and the rest was split fairly evenly between Balad and Hadash, with Meretz being the most popular non-Arab party. Up north, in Umm-al-Fahm, Hadash took 50%, UAL and Balad split the rest evenly. Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth, remained a communist stronghold – Hadash won 49% against 27% for Balad.

The Druze vote, however, was nowhere near as homogeneous. The Druze in Israel have been much more pro-Israeli than the Arab Muslims, to the point that the Druze are drafted into the IDF and some Druze politicians have served in the Knesset for right-wing parties. In Maghar, a Druze-majority town in the Galilee, the Shas – who have at times vigorously canvassed for Arab or Druze votes – won 19%, roughly tied with Hadash which also won 19%. The Likud won 13%, the UAL won 12%, Labour took 8% and Kadima and Hatnuah won 7% each. Kadima actually topped the poll (with 47% and 36% respectively) in Daliyat-al-Karmel and Isfiya, two Druze towns outside Haifa (!).

Government Formation

Israeli elections only partly determine the shape of the next government. Given the massive fragmentation between parties and blocs in Israeli politics and the consistent lack of an absolute majority for any one party, every election is followed by coalition negotiations between parties and their leaders, negotiations which often tend to be long and tortuous as the smaller parties attempt to extract concessions and plum posts in cabinet from the leading party.

The one certainty in this year’s negotiations is that Benjamin Netanyahu will stay as Prime Minister. It was nearly impossible to form a coalition without the Likud-YB after the election, given that such a coalition would realistically need to include all the centre-left/left parties, at least one or two of the Arab parties and one of the ultra-orthodox parties. The Arab parties have never been invited to join any cabinet, their anti-Zionist positions are a huge non-starter and they themselves would not agree to be in a government with Zionist parties. The ultra-orthodox parties would certainly have a hard time being in the same government as unabashedly secular and left-wing Meretz. Yair Lapid, the kingmaker, nixed the idea of an anti-Bibi coalition on Wednesday.

Throughout the campaign, Yair Lapid made it clear that he wanted to be in Netanyahu’s cabinet, ostensibly to ‘moderate’ it and to be in a stronger position to implement his own domestic agenda. While Yesh Atid later clarified that it did not want to be in a coalition at all costs, it is quite clear that it will be in the next coalition alongside Netanyahu’s Likud-YB. The two leaders diverge on some issues, though in large part they’re not all that dissimilar. Netanyahu is more ‘outwards-looking’ than Lapid, meaning that his policy focus is on security and diplomacy issues; while Lapid is clearly ‘inwards-looking’ and focused on domestic issues. After the election, to signal that he had understood the election’s significance, Netanyahu said that he wanted to form a coalition which was as broad as possible and promised action on three fronts: affordable housing, government reforms and “sharing the burden” of military service (drafting the Haredim).

Lapid has apparently been offered the finance or foreign affairs portfolio. The former would be more tailored to his campaign’s platform and give him a chance to implement some of the economic and social policies he emphasized in his campaign. The latter would be less tailored to his platform (and would thus be a politically risky position for him, just like Amir Peretz was sunk by his decision to take the defense rather than economy portfolio in 2006), but the West would certainly welcome a more pragmatic and moderate foreign minister after four years of extremely tense relations with Avigdor Lieberman.

The next obvious coalition partner for Netanyahu would be Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, who had also clearly indicated that he wanted to join the governing coalition (in this case to move the government to the right). Israeli coalitions are never politically coherent and, out of political necessity, bring together parties with conflicting ideological orientations and goals. There are some major differences between Bennett and Lapid, especially on security/diplomacy policy – the former wants to annex over half of the West Bank, the other preconditioned his coalition participation on restarting peace talks – and these differences might make some of Lapid (or Bennett)’s supporters queasy if both are forced to live together in a coalition.

However, Bennett is not in a position to actually implement his Palestinian agenda and the annexation stuff is, while not a bluff, not the top priority on his agenda. Similarly, Lapid is not a peacenik and a far-left dove. He wants to open peace talks, but at the same time he’s clearly opposed to relinquishing Israeli control of East Jerusalem or evacuating the settlements. In the current regional context, no Israeli politician is sanguine about the chances of peace talks and they are not too eager to push any such talks extremely far. The broader electorate is pessimistic about the chances of substantive progress in that field in the near future.

The next obvious partners for Netanyahu would be the two ultra-orthodox parties, which he has described as his natural allies. The Shas have been  in all governments since 1984 except for Sharon’s 2003-2006 coalition and they would probably like to be in the next coalition. UTJ has not participated in as many coalitions, but it too was in the outgoing right-wing coalition and it would probably like to join the next government. Netanyahu has reportedly told them that he wants both of them in.

The problem, however, is that Yeir Lapid is making the extension of the draft to the ultra-orthodox one of his conditions for joining any government; and with 19 seats, it is in an unexpectedly strong position to push for this. Bennett, who has no interest in pandering to the ultra-orthodox either, also supports the extension of the draft. It is unclear where Netanyahu stands on this issue, because, naturally risk-averse, he has up until now preferred not to take any decisions which would squander his good relations with the ultra-orthodox parties. Now, he may be forced to take a decision, which might damage the partnership between the ultra-orthodox parties and the Likud-YB for years to come.

The ultra-orthodox parties have bonded together to oppose any changes to the ultra-orthodox draft exemption, and this appears to be one position on which both of the parties are particularly adamant about. Similarly, Lapid made extension of military service of the key tenets of his campaign and it is fairly certain that he will be insistent on this issue.

It is possible for Netanyahu to form a coalition which will exclude both ultra-orthodox parties. Likud-Lapid-JH have 62 seats, a majority albeit an extremely tight one. This majority can be expanded to include the annihilated Kadima, which has signaled that it is open to participating in a broad coalition (and bring it up to 64 seats). However, many believe that Netanyahu is extremely reluctant to break his long-standing solid partnership with the two ultra-orthodox parties, especially the Shas, in favour of an uncertain alliance with more demanding and potentially less reliable other parties.

Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, with 6 seats, is another potential coalition partner, but she might have become too dovish for Netanyahu to include her in a coalition. He understands that he still needs to secure his own right flank, which came out much stronger from these elections and would likely topple him if he lurched too much towards the left on peace negotiations. Netanyahu would apparently like to pad out his coalition with Labour, but for the moment Yachimovich is standing firm on her pre-election position that she would not join a  Netanyahu coalition. However, one Labour MK (Nachman Shai) has already said that his party should seriously look into joining the coalition. As of now, Labour joining appears unlikely (although Barak had the same position in 2009 until he changed his mind at the last minute and joined the coalition).

There have been rumours that Netanyahu might be considering excluding JH, to form a government with Lapid and the Shas – but I find that rather hard to believe, and such a coalition would be tough to hold together (not to mention that it would hold exactly 61 seats).

A coalition with Yesh Atid, JH and probably the Shas is the most likely. The issue of what this government will be able to do on the issue of the draft is a major question. Will they work out some sort of compromise, tolerable for most parties? Will the Shas act like their usual selves and adapt their positions to fit in the new coalition? Or, will either Yesh Atid or the Shas walk out of the coalition and make the government collapse as soon as the draft is brought up?

Many believe that the next government will have a short lifespan, because it will be hard to keep the future coalition – which will likely be more ideologically colourful than the last coalition – together, be it because of the draft or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Economic issues will also play a role. Despite Netanyahu’s campaign on the issue, Israel’s economy is not doing swellingly. Its deficit is bigger than expected, which – according to most analysts – means that budget cuts and austerity are inevitable at this stage. Already, Lapid’s advisers have urged him not to take the finance portfolio because widespread budgetary cuts in the upcoming months will likely hurt his image (which might explain why some Likud and YB figures are implicitly saying that the finance portfolio would be more ‘natural’ for Lapid).

Final Reflections

In every country, after every election, we are told that “the country” voted for or against something. In this case, we are told that Israel “voted for the centre” or “voted against the right” or “voted for change” or whatever. In reality, Israel didn’t vote for anything. The largest party barely won 23% of the vote, and the two large blocs – centre/left and right/religious – ended up more or less tied. The centre and the left performed better than it had been expected to, proving that we were all too quick to write their obituary. The right, in contrast, under-performed and lost seats compared to the last election; but it’s not as if the left is better shape. But, even more so than in 2009, the electorate’s verdict was inconclusive. Many certainly voted for change, but few agreed on what direction that change should come from.

The election did confirm that Israel remains a complex and very divided society, divided not only by ethnicity and religion (Jewish vs. Arab/Muslim) but also by ideology (hardliners, centrists, doves, peaceniks) or religiosity (ultra-orthodox, religious Zionist and secular Jews). As always, no one camp came out with a clear, resounding victory.

The phenomenon of this election turned out to be Yeir Lapid rather than Naftali Bennett as everybody had predicted. Every election, or at least nearly every election in Israel, a new centrist party emerges out of nowhere to capture disoriented and volatile centrist voters who often prioritize domestic issues and don’t like either the right or the left. There was Dash in 1977, the Center Party in 1999, Shinui in 1999-2003 and Kadima and Gil in 2006. Invariably, the new centrist party disappears almost as soon as it comes. This year may be no different. Kadima more or less died out, rather abruptly, though it still has a tiny chance of coming back. Yesh Atid and Hatnuah were the two new centrist party which came out of (almost) nowhere to replace Kadima in the centre.

Will Yesh Atid and Hatnuah suffer the same fate as all their predecessors? It is hard not to think that at least one of the two won’t die out by the time of the next election. Yeir Lapid is a charismatic and talented politician, but he’s also a novice. He’s not a career politician and he campaigned largely on being a moderate and changing things around. With little political experience and an electorate which will be expecting him to deliver from his spot in cabinet, he may find it hard to cope. If he gets the finance portfolio, he would be in a position to implement his agenda but that position is often political suicide in Israel, maybe especially so this year with inevitable budget cuts around the corner. As foreign minister, his voters might have a falling out because he will be focusing on things he did not emphasize, but it would be a safer position from which he could build a reputation and aim at becoming the next Prime Minister. Above all, his electorate will be expecting him to deliver the goods, which is always the toughest part – especially if you’re a junior partner whose strength comes from focusing on economic and social issues. Lapid’s fate will also be affected by what happens to the other parties, especially Labour and perhaps Hatnuah. They too are campaigning, more or less, for Lapid’s middle-class centrist/centre-left electorate.

What will this election change in term of Israeli foreign policy and its place in the region? Ultimately, not much. The two-staters came out a bit stronger from the election and they might hold a more prominent voice in the next government, but even then, the chances for a final peace settlement in the near future are very low and neither side appears all that willing to reach a settlement. Netanyahu may have to take notice of the two-staters a bit more, but at the same time he came out of this election with a much more right-wing caucus and an emerging bloc further to his right. He is walking on a tightrope, meaning that he cannot alienate either the centrists/security-oriented moderates or the hardliners to his right. This election does not provide any ‘hints’ about what Israel is going to do with Iran, given that Iran did not feature prominently in the campaign and because, even if it did, the election would not have changed Israel’s policy towards Iran.

This election confirmed that many of our preconceptions about Israel was wrong. Not everybody is a hardline religious settler in the West Bank whose sole preoccupation is preventing a Palestinian state; even if this sector remains influential, increasingly so. Instead, many voters were more concerned by domestic issues – the economy, jobs, housing, cost of living or public services. The Israeli right and hard right remains in a powerful position, and they are becoming even more right-wing; but they are not on an irreversible accession to the top which will fundamentally transform Israeli society and Israel’s place in the world. Similarly, the centre and the left are not dead, even if they are still in a fairly weak position at this stage. In conclusion, Israel remains a complex and divided country where nothing is as simple as black and white.

Election Preview: Israel 2013

A general election will be held in Israel on January 22, 2013. The Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, has 120 seats.

The Knesset is elected by party-list proportional representation (d’Hondt) with the entire country serving as a single constituency. The threshold for parties to win seats is very low in Israel, currently standing at 2%. This 2% threshold is, in fact, higher than past thresholds – it was previously 1% and then 1.5%. The very low threshold has had several effects on Israeli politics. From a partisan standpoint, the low threshold makes it fairly easy for small parties to win at least one seat and gain some degree of influence in the legislature. This has favoured the growth and survival of small parties, the creation of new parties by dissidents from other parties and the birth of new small parties every election. The low threshold has also made governing difficult, because no party has ever won the 61 seats required to win an absolute majority (the closest that a party came was 56 seats, but this was back in 1969). In the past two elections, the party which won a plurality of seats won only 22% of the popular vote. As a result, the larger parties must necessarily form coalition governments with the smaller parties, many of which cater to sectional religious or ideological interests and have a tendency to abandon their senior coalition partners very quickly. This has resulted in short-lived governments, very heterogeneous coalition governments which often includes parties with differing interests or political bases and has made the life of Israeli Prime Ministers quite difficult.

Electoral and political reform has been a long-standing issue in Israel. One attempt was to directly elect the Prime Minister, alongside legislative elections (in 1996 and 1999). It had been hoped that by personalizing the system and directly electing the Prime Minister (all three times in two-way races), the winning candidate could lead his party to a strong showing. Voters did not behave that way, and in all three cases the Prime Minister-elect needed to form broad coalitions with smaller parties. The system was scrapped after the 2001 prime ministerial election and Israel returned to the old system. Others have proposed to modify the electoral system by raising the threshold, using the German MMP system or switching to FPTP in single-member constituencies. However, small parties, which are necessary for every governing coalition, have resisted any such changes which would likely hurt them or force them to merge with larger parties.

The Parties

The Israeli ‘party system’ is very unstable, and marked by the proliferation of many small parties all across the spectrum. The parties are a reflection of the electoral system which has created an extreme case of multi-party system, but the many parties are also a reflection of Israel’s religious, ideological and ethnic diversity: parties representing the various strands of Zionism, parties representing the religious diversity within Judaism, parties representing the different Jewish immigrant or ethnic groups and the three parties for the Arab Israeli minority. Ideologically, Israel often speaks of the ‘right’, the ‘centre’ and the ‘left’ – with these ideological labels referring primarily to various positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict (hawks vs. doves) rather than differences over economic policy. The ‘right’ includes both a mainstream right, a religious right and a far-right (the religious right is often considered the far-right). The ‘centre’ is divided and its history has seen many parties come and go, many disappearing after one or two elections before being replaced by a new centrist party which often, invariably, suffers the same fate.

The party standings in the Knesset at the moment of dissolution were as follows:

Likud 27 seats
Kadima 21 seats
Yisrael Beiteinu 15 seats
Shas 11 seats
Labour (HaAvoda) 8 seats
Hatnuah 7 seats
Independence 5 seats
United Torah Judaism 5 seats
Hadash 4 seats
United Arab List-Ta’al 3 seats
Jewish Home 3 seats
New Movement-Meretz 3 seats
Balad 3 seats
National Union 2 seats
Otzma LeYisrael 2 seats
Am Shalem 2 seats
Arab Democratic Party 1 seat

Likud (The Consolidation) is the major right-wing party in Israel, and currently the largest governing party. The Israeli right and Likud were born from Revisionist Zionism, a conservative and nationalist variant of Zionism developed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. It was distinguished from Ben Gurion’s Labour Zionism both for its conservative anti-socialist character but also its territorial maximalism/irredentism, claiming the entire British Mandate of Palestine, including modern-day Jordan, for an independent Jewish state. Jabotinsky and his successor, Menachem Begin (the leader of the Irgun militia and later the Herut party) refused to sacrifice part of the historical land of Israel to establish an Arab state. However, after the creation of the modern-day state of Israel, the Herut party, under Begin’s leadership, grew more moderate in their advocacy of Jewish sovereignty on both banks of the Jordan river. By the 1970s, irredentist sentiments had largely subsided and the legitimacy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was no longer questioned by the right. However, the Israeli right and Likud have always taken a harder stance (hawkish) on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the issue of a Palestinian state and negotiations with the Arabs and Palestinians.

Herut and its successors (the Gahal alliance with the liberals, then Likud in 1977) were out of power during the first 28 years of Israel’s existence. Begin’s Likud finally came to power in 1977, defeating the centre-left Alignment (Labour) which had been in power since the creation of the Israeli state in 1949. Menachem Begin’s historic victory in the 1977 election marked a major political realignment in Israel and the defeat of the Ashkenazi elite. The founder of Israel and the leaders of then-dominant Labour Zionism were all Ashkenazi, Jews of European (including eastern European) descent. Ashkenazi Jews became the political and economic elite of the new Israeli state, while Sephardic (Jews of Iberian descent) and Mizrahi (Jews from the Muslim Middle East and North Africa) Jews were largely poor, living in working-class neighborhoods of major cities or in peripheral cities. The Ashkenazi elite looked down on the poorer Sephardic and Mizrahi (nowadays, the two terms are interchangeable) communities. The growth of both of these communities in the first decades of Israel’s existence proved politically beneficial to Likud, whose more religious, conservative and hawkish/nationalist outlook appealed to these more religious (often called ‘traditionalist’ Jews in modern Israeli parlance) communities. To this day, the Likud performs best with lower-income and traditionalist Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, in lower-income urban or peripheral areas. It is also strong in the Negev development towns, and polls well in some of the larger West Bank settlements.

Despite the Likud’s historic hawkish positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, their leaders have often proven more moderate and pragmatic than their parties. Menachem Begin negotiated the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, Benjamin Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to cede territory to the Palestinian Authority in 1998 with the Wye River Memorandum while Ariel Sharon, in 2006, evacuated all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip (the unilateral disengagement plan). The unilateral disengagement led to a major split in the Likud, which culminated in Sharon walking out to form the centrist Kadima. At the outset, Kadima’s creation and its victory in 2006 left Likud as a decimated right-wing rump, which polled very badly in 2006. However, after three years as the largest opposition party, Likud, led by Netanyahu, roared back in 2009.

The party’s current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is considered a moderate within his own party. He has often faced opposition from the party’s ‘hard-right’ which is strongly opposed to a two-state solution. In contrast, Netanyahu tepidly endorsed the two-state solution (under certain conditions) in 2009, though he has generally given the image, especially abroad, that he is sliding his feet on negotiations.  At the same time, under his government, Israeli settlements in the West Bank have continued to expand. Governing has forced him to be more pragmatic and moderate than the Likud hardliners, but Netanyahu gives the impression that he has no great appetite for rapid negotiations. Netanyahu needs to be careful of not alienating his own party, which is generally to his right on the Palestinian issue.

The ‘hard right’ of the party performed very well in the recent Likud primaries, something which will shift the party further to the right, much to the chagrin of the ‘peaceniks’. Moshe Feiglin, who had won 23% in the January 2012 Likud leadership election as Netanyahu’s only opponent, did very well in the primaries and will finally enter the Knesset, placing 22nd on the list. Feiglin, a close ally of the hard-right settlers’ lobby, is a controversial politician who wants to encourage the Palestinians to emigrate, with financial incentives to push them in that direction. Other new Likud hawks are far more assertive against Israel’s traditional allies in Europe and in Washington, warning that Israel should ignore the West’s demands for a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. On the other hand, old timers and moderates – incumbent cabinet ministers Benny Begin (the son of the former Prime Minister) or the centrist Dan Meridor did not find enough support in the primaries to win a place on the party list.

The Likud is running a common list with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home). Lieberman, a Moldovan immigrant, created YB in 1999. By and large, the party’s support lies predominantly with Jewish immigrants who came from Russia and the former Soviet Union. It polls best in towns with large Russian Jewish immigrant populations: Ashdod but also Karmiel or Arad.

The party’s ideology reflects its largely Russian electorate: hawkish but secular. The party is characterized by the foreign media as far-right, hardline or ultra-nationalist. Lieberman has often taken hardline stances on Arab-Israeli relations and negotiations with the Palestinian, but he supports a two-state solution – with a major twist, which is the subject of much controversy. The Lieberman plan suggests a transfer of populated territories between the Jewish state and an Arab-Palestinian state which would see Israeli settlements in the West Bank transferred to the Jewish state and Arab regions within Israel transferred to a Palestinian state. Arab Israelis and many on the left have contended that this plan is racist, others have questioned the legality of such a plan (as it would likely involve the revocation of citizenship for many Arab Israelis). On domestic issues, YB is a secular party. It strongly supports civil marriages alongside religious marriages, and wants to end the ultra-orthodox’s exemption from military service (an issue which came up again in the past year). It is not, however, anti-clerical: it opposes the separation of religion and state.

Avigdor Lieberman is a love-or-hate figure. Many of his opponents have claimed that he is a virulent racist and a far-right nationalist demagogue. His ties with certain local and foreign entrepreneurs are the subject of controversy. The police has been investigating allegations that he received millions from an entrepreneur while serving in the Knesset, which is illegal in Israel. In December 2012, Lieberman was indicted for breach of trust and fraud (but not witness tampering or money laundering). He resigned as foreign minister and deputy Prime Minister the following day. Even if corruption only very rarely kills Israeli politicians, these latest corruption charges against him likely signal that his star power and political influence may be starting to wane, even with his Russian base.

The Israeli right’s traditional stance on negotiations with the Palestinians is ‘peace for peace’, indicating that it sets peace and the end of terrorism as a necessary precondition for any negotiation and the creation of a Palestinian state. In a 2009 speech, Netanyahu seemed to endorse the two-state solution, over the opposition of some Likud hawks. However, at the same time, the Likud strongly opposes evacuating West Bank settlements or a partition of Jerusalem (handing East Jerusalem over to the Arabs). The party has always tried to appeal to the settlers and placate them, while still maintaining an arm’s-length from them. This may prove harder as the Likud hawks and hard right has gained even more prominence within the party. Both Likud and YB support forceful military responses to any terrorist attacks against Israel. In November 2012, the IDF responded to Palestinian rocket and mortar fire from Hamas’ stronghold in Gaza with air strikes against Hamas militants and leaders.

On economic issues, both Likud and YB support right-wing economic policies including privatization or lower taxes, though some within the Likud have tended to favour more interventionist policies. Netanyahu served as finance minister under Sharon between 2003 and 2005 and gained a reputation as one of the most free market liberal finance minister, backing free trade, privatization and criticizing the power of Israel’s largest trade union (Histadrut).

Israel is a religiously diverse society. A significant and rapidly growing Jewish demographic are Haredi Jews, the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism. Haredi Jews should segregate from non-Jewish culture, focus on Torah study and participate in modern society as little as possible. They are expected to abide to Jewish religious laws very closely, and enforce a strict gender segregation. Historically, the Haredi have been strongly opposed to Zionism, in large part because they felt that a Jewish state would only be established through divine intervention by the Messiah and that human attempts to establish the Jewish state equated to open rebellion. The Haredi also strongly disliked the secular and socialist Zionist elites which founded Israel. If certain Haredim sects still strongly oppose Zionism and even refuse to recognize Israel, most Haredim in Israel have accepted the Jewish state as a fait accompli and made their peace with the state in return for special advantages. They have focused their political efforts on certain religious issues such as religious education, military service exemption and strengthening the Jewish religious identity of the state. Sephardic Haredim is more supportive of Zionism and Israel than Ashkenazi Haredim are. There are two Haredim parties in Israel, forming the religious right. Both support the establishment of a theocratic state governed by Jewish religious laws.

The Shas were founded in 1984 to represent the Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredim communities who felt discriminated against or marginalized by the Ashkenazi Jewish elite. The Shas’ spiritual leader is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and its chairman is Eli Yishai. In this election, however, the Shas have no actual leader because Aryeh Deri, a former leader and cabinet minister who had been found guilty of bribery in 2000, wanted to return to politics and the Shas leadership needed to prevent him from creating his own party. The Shas are a small party, but they have a solid electoral clientele which has allowed them to be the eternal kingmaker in Israeli politics since the 1980s. The party has participated in every coalition government besides Sharon-Olmert’s coalition between 2003 and 2006.

Traditionally, the party did not place a heavy emphasis on the Palestinian question and maintained a pragmatic, ambiguous and moderate stance on the issue, preferring to focus on religious questions. In recent years, however, they have shifted heavily towards the right and adopted far more nationalist stances on the Palestinian question. In 2010, the Shas joined the World Zionist Organization, signaling their evolution from a religiously-focused pragmatic Haredi party to a Zionist-Haredi party. It now strongly opposes dismantling settlements in the West Bank. On religious issues, the Shas define Israel as a Jewish state which should abide by Jewish religious laws. While it has decried extremist attacks against women, it supports maintaining the gender segregation on public transit in predominantly Haredim areas. On economic issues, the Shas strongly oppose free market capitalism and tend to emphasize social justice, alleviating poverty, a strong social safety net and ‘social solidarity’.

The Shas are the Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredim party, but most of their votes, in reality, come from Modern Orthodox or traditionalist (non-Haredim) Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.

The smaller United Torah Judaism (UTJ), founded in 1992, is an alliance of two ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi parties: Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel. The Degel HaTorah (Banner of the Torah) represents the “Lithuanian” non-Hasidic Haredim Ashkenazi Jews, it was founded in 1988 from a split in Agudat Israel. Agudat Israel (Union of Israel) is the Hasidic (Hasidism is a variant of Haredi Judaism) party, which is also heavily Ashkenazi. The two parties often disagree with one another, largely over religious issues; this does not seem to matter as much as it would in other parties because the UTJ structure has little power, with MKs having individual autonomy and most important votes being decided by rabbis. The two parties did split in 2004 but reunited in 2005. While the Shas have shifted to the right on Arab-Israeli/Palestinian issues, UTJ has maintained a position of neutrality (status-quo) on the issue and it has retained its exclusive focus on religious issues. Like the Shas, UTJ defines Israel as a Jewish state, believes that religious law should take supremacy over democratic values, supports gender segregation in public transit, opposes opening businesses on the Sabbath and opposes any changes to the ultra-orthodox exemption from military service.

UTJ and Shas, evidently, are strongest in cities and towns with large Haredim populations. This is the case in Jerusalem, where UTJ topped the poll in 2006 and where they won 19% in 2009 (and the Shas won 15%). UTJ is very strong in Bnei Brak, a heavily Haredim town near Tel Aviv.

There is a new religious party in this election, Am Shalem, a Shas splinter led by ex-Shas MK Haim Amsalem. The party appears slightly less ultra-orthodox, supporting “religious-secular unity”. It says that it supports the  ‘separation of religion from politics’ and calls on all citizens to share the ‘national burden’ of serving in the IDF. It has maintained ambiguous silence on the Palestinian question, though Amsalem claimed that he was in the ‘middle’ on those issues but stressed that his emphasis was on religious and domestic issues. It has focused most of its attacks on the Shas, notably accusing it of corruption.

The Shas and UTJ are both identified as the ‘religious right’ parties in Israel. Given their very conservative positions on religious issues, they have often been lumped into the larger ‘far-right’ category by observers. However, given that Israel’s left-right spectrum is largely defined by the Palestinian question rather than economic or moral/religious issues, it might not be very accurate to consider these two parties, especially UTJ, as far-right. The Israeli far-right is formed by The Jewish Home and the National Union parties, which are running a common list in these elections, unlike in 2009.

The Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi) was founded in 2008 and it is the successor of the National Religious Party (NRP, Mafdal). The NRP was founded in 1956 and represented the Religious Zionist/National Religious movement, a conservative strand of Judaism (often similar in their faith to some orthodox Jews) which strongly supported Zionism. The movement’s founder, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, attempted to reconcile Zionism (a largely secular and socialist ideology) with religion. Kook argued that Zionism was also a tool of God to promote His divine scheme and to initiate the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. God wanted the Jews to return to Israel and establish a sovereign Jewish state where they could follow Jewish religious teachings. The NRP was born as a fairly moderate party interested in its religious issues, and its pragmatism on other issues allowed it to participate in every government between its foundation and 1992 (and between 1998 and 2005). However, after 1967, the NRP had a very marked shift to the right coinciding with a “messianic revival” spawned by Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. The NRP and Religious Zionism became very closely linked to the settlement movement in the West Bank, and the party was at times described as the political arm of the settlers’ movement.

The National Union, founded in 1999, is an alliance of four far-right parties: Moledet (supports a voluntary population transfer to establish Jordan as the Palestinian state, Israeli annexation of the territories), Hatikva (secular), Eretz Yisrael Shelanu (linked to the Kahanist movement) and Tkuma. The NU has always been a shaky political coalition, with parties coming and going (Lieberman’s YB was originally part of the NU). They have been held together by their vociferous opposition to any independent Palestinian state within the “Land of Israel” (Israel and the Palestinian territories), and their very strong support and links to the West Bank (and, formerly, Gaza) settlements. In 2008, the NU and NRP united to merge into a single party, Jewish Home. However, the new party was quickly dominated by the NRP, with most of the top spots on the party’s list going to the NRP. Moledet and Hatikva revived the NU, and were later joined by Eretz Yisrael Shelanu and MK Uri Ariel (ex-Tkuma). The NU, which is very closely tied with the settlements, won many settlements in the West Bank (which it calls Judea and Samaria) in 2009.

Naftali Bennett, the son of American Jewish immigrants and a former high-tech tycoon and entrepreneur, won the Jewish Home leadership primaries in November 2012 with 67% of the vote. Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff between 2006 and 2008, and between 2010 and 2012 he was the director general of the Yesha Council, an organization of municipal councils of West Bank settlements. In 2011, he founded, alongside Ayelet Shaked, the ‘My Israel’ organization, a right-wing organization aimed at fighting “left-wing elites” or “anti-Zionist” sentiment.

The JH is far less ambiguous than Netanyahu on the issue of Arab-Israeli relations or Palestinian negotiations. It naturally strongly opposes any evacuation or dismantlement of West Bank settlements or a partition of Jerusalem. But it is also unequivocally opposed to a Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Bennett supports the direct Israeli annexation of Area C of the West Bank (the zone under Israeli control according to Oslo-II, where most settlements are located). Palestinians could retain municipal autonomy under tight Israeli tutelage within their islands of control. This is more or less a “one-state solution”, but unlike one-staters on the left, the far-right’s one-state vision seeks to uphold Jewish hegemony and protect Israel as a Jewish state. According to the party, “Jordan, which accounts for 75% of the Palestinian population, is the Palestinian state”.

On religious issues, the Jewish Home (and the NRP before it) is generally conservative, though unlike the ultra-orthodox parties it does not support a theocratic state, instead supporting a “Jewish and democratic” state. The party’s platform says that it will “fight for the Jewish identity of the state on every level” and opposes any attempts to “damage religious legislation”. However, the party wants to name religious Zionist rabbis to the chief rabbinate, to take control of that institution from the ultra-orthodox. Bennett has appealed to religious communities, but Ayelet Shaked, the 36-year old co-founder of My Israel, is a secular young woman (a big deal in a party such as the JH/NRP) whose comments hinting in favour of civil marriage sparked a row with the ultra-orthodox parties (particularly Shas), which have violently denounced the party for its alleged secularism. The party also wants to simplify the conversion process. On economic issues, the JH is right-wing.

Otzma LeYisrael (Strong Israel) is a new far-right party, even further to the right than the JH. It was founded by two NU MKs, Aryeh Eldad (Hatikva) and Michael Ben-Ari (Eretz Yisrael Shelanu). Ben-Ari still openly defines himself as a Kahanist, the extremist movement which has been classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries. Like the JH, it strongly opposes any Palestinian state or settlement freeze or evacuation. The party has been accused of race-baiting against the Arab Israeli minorities. One of its billboard ads was banned by the Central Elections Committee on the ground thats it was racist, in a TV ad the party’s two leaders spoke in Arabic and warned that “without duties there are no rights”.

In the centre, Kadima (Forward) was founded by Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after his unilateral disengagement plan had created a major crisis within the Likud. Sharon had been something of a maverick within the Likud, because of his weak ties to the Revisionist Zionist ideology (he was originally a member of the left-wing Mapai) and his more moderate positions within the party. The party was launched by Sharon in November 2005, and was immediately joined by a good number of Sharon supporters within the Likud (Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert) but also Shimon Peres, a former Labour Prime Minister. However, Sharon suffered a stroke in December 2005 and another massive stroke in January 2006 which left him debilitated. It was Ehud Olmert who led the party to victory in the 2006 elections and became Prime Minister, the first non-Labour or non-Likud member to hold that office. Olmert was unpopular as Prime Minister, because of constant corruption allegations (he was finally indicted in 2009 and convicted of ‘breach of trust’ in 2012) and the summer 2006 war in southern Lebanon, described as disastrous in Israel. The right also opposed his peace talks with the Palestinians. He stepped down as leader in July 2008. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, narrowly won the leadership battle against Shaul Mofaz, the defense minister and former IDF chief of staff. Livni’s Kadima actually won one more seat than the Likud in the 2009 elections, but Likud formed government because of its better relations with right-wing parties. Her mediocre performance as opposition leader led to a leadership challenge in March 2012, in which Shaul Mofaz handily defeated her.

Shaul Mofaz had pledged during the leadership campaign that he would not join a government headed by Netanyahu. In May 2012, as the country was set for new elections in September 2012, Kadima and Mofaz agreed to join the government and the elections were cancelled. The issue which precipitated Kadima’s surprise decision to join the coalition was the Tal Law (the law which allows Haredi to indefinitely defer their national service), Kadima (and YB) had attempted to amend the law. In July, however, Mofaz quit the coalition, citing the failure of the parties to reach a compromise on the Tal issue. Mofaz’s decision to join the government after being adamant a few months before that he would not seriously hurt his image and popularity. He has also been painted as something of a lightweight.

Sharon supported the old ‘Road Map for peace’ and Kadima supports a two-state solution, even if it supports maintaining large legal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and supports Israeli control over Jerusalem. The Israeli ‘centre’ has usually been more supportive than the right of an independent Palestinian state and the two-state solution, however, it has always taken a tough stance against Palestinian terrorism and insists that dismantling Palestinian militant/terrorist groups should be the first steps in negotiations towards a two-state solution. The party’s platform says it will ensure the safety of Israelis against terrorist organizations.

On domestic issues, Kadima has been concerned by the growing divide between the ultra-orthodox (Haredi) sector and other Israelis, and it has sought to bridge this gap. It is secular on religious questions, notably opposing the current military service exemption for ultra-orthodox Jews or supporting civil marriage. It has described its vision of Israel as being a “Jewish and democratic state”. On economic issues, the party is centrist: it supports the market economy but also wants to increase social security benefits, fix the public housing problem and raise taxes on the highest earners.

Hatnuah (The Movement) was created in late November 2012 by Tzipi Livni, the former Kadima leader defeated by Shaul Mofaz in the party’s March 2012 leadership election. 7 Kadima MKs, not including Livni who had resigned from the Knesset, joined the party. It was later joined by two Labour leaders: Amram Mitzna (2002-2003) and Amir Peretz (2005-2007), both of whom are known as ‘doves’ on the Palestinian question.

The party has placed a large emphasis on the Palestinian question in this election, Livni has stated that the existence of a “Jewish, democratic state” is threatened by the lack of progress on peace agreements with Palestinians and the Arab world. She has criticized Netanyahu’s record on the issue, attracting attention to his government’s inability to defeat Hamas and its international PR defeat in 2012 when Palestine was recognized by the UN as a non-member observer state. Hatnuah strongly supports a two-state solution and it is open to freezing construction of new West Bank settlements. Livni was one of the few non-Arab Israeli politicians who strongly opposed the government’s citizenship-loyalty law (requiring non-citizens to take an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state), passed in 2010. On religious matters, it is strongly secular.

To add to the pathological division of the centre, there is a new centrist party in 2013: Yesh Atid (There is a Future). Yesh Atid was founded in January 2012 by Yair Lapid, a popular journalist and the son of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the former leader of the extinct anti-clerical liberal Shinui party. Built on the ruins of the once-mighty Shinui, Yesh Atid has placed its emphasis on secularism (civil marriage, extending the draft to all Israelis, gender equality) and domestic priorities (economic growth, combating red tape, reducing cost of living and housing costs) rather than the Palestinian question. It has also adopted an anti-corruption agenda, including a smaller cabinet (18 members), protecting judicial powers and independence and protecting the rule of law.

The party has not placed much emphasis on the Palestinian question during the campaign. While Yesh Atid supports a two-state solution, it is strongly opposed evacuating settlements in exchange for peace and it has pledged to meet Palestinian militancy with a forceful military response. Recently, Lapid said that  he did not think that Arabs wanted peace and that he wanted to “be rid of them” and “put a tall fence between us and them”, in order to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel.

The centrist parties have been stronger with secular and more middle-class Ashkenazi Jews, in central Israel. Kadima won 34% in Tel Aviv in 2009 against only 19% for Likud, performing well in affluent and secular north Tel Aviv.

The traditional party of the left in Israel is the Labour Party (HaAvoda). The current party was founded in 1968, but seen as the latest incarnation of the Labour Zionist movement, its power and influence predates the establishment of the state of Israel. At the outset, the Zionist movement was largely dominated by a secular and socialist Ashkenazi elite which placed great emphasis on Jews moving to Israel to become farmers, workers, and soldiers. They established cooperative agricultural communities, the kibbutzim. The early leaders of Israel, first and foremost David Ben-Gurion, all came from this Labour Zionist tradition. Some more left-wing and radical members of the movement were Marxist, but Ben-Gurion – representative of the ‘right-wing’ of the movement – was a non-Marxist socialist. Labour and its predecessors (most importantly the Mapai) were the dominant political party in the new Israeli state between 1949 and 1977, when Begin’s Likud defeated the Alignment (the coalition in which Labour was the largest bloc).

The party lost its dominant position in Israeli politics after its defeat in 1977 election, even though it returned to power in 1984 (a grand coalition with Likud), in 1992 under Yitzhak Rabin (until his assassination in 1995) and Shimon Peres and again between 1999 and 2001 with Ehud Barak. Barak won the 1999 prime ministerial election and formed a large coalition, including religious parties, which pushed a dovish agenda and supported peace talks with the Palestinians. However, the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit and the start of the Second Intifada in 2001 led Barak to call special prime ministerial elections in 2001, in which he was badly defeated by Likud’s Ariel Sharon. It remained in government because the divided Knesset forced Sharon to form a grand coalition. However, in the 2003 elections, Labor was routed, winning only 19 seats. It briefly joined Sharon’s coalition in 2005, to bolster support for his disengagement plan.

In 2005, Amir Peretz, a trade union leader identified with the dovish left-wing of the party became the party’s leader. Under Peretz’s leadership, which sought to move the party to the left and reemphasize its traditional socialist policies, the party had a brief upturn, winning 19 seats in the 2006 election. However, when Peretz and his party joined Olmert’s government, the party lost popularity. Peretz became defense minister and his handling of the Lebanon conflict in 2006 was criticized. On his left, his decision to take the defense portfolio rather than the finance portfolio (where he could have pushed for social policies) was criticized. In 2007, he placed third in a leadership election won by Ehud Barak, who had become more hawkish. The party was decimated again in 2009, winning fourth place and a mere 13 seats. Barak pushed Labor to remain in government under Netanyahu and Barak still claimed the defense portfolio. In 2011, internal opposition to Barak’s leadership led to Barak leaving the party with 4 other MKs to form the ‘Independence’ party, a ‘centrist and Zionist’ party. Independence (and Barak) is not running in this election.

Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist, became leader of the party in 2011. Described as a staunch social democrat, she is on the left of the party and has placed emphasis on domestic policies. There were large ‘social justice’ protests in Israel in 2011 and 2012, a largely middle-class and urban movement which targeted the high cost of living (particularly housing), high prices, low wages and the deterioration of public services. Yachimovich moved the party in the direction of the protest movement, criticizing the government’s economic policies, accusing them of hurting the middle class.

Historically a more hawkish party, Labour has become a much more dovish party in the past decades. Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin actively pushed for a peace deal with the Palestinians, signing the Oslo Accords. While he was Prime Minister, Ehud Barak also unsuccessfully tried to revive the moribund peace process. It supports the two-state solution, a peace deal which it claims will ensure the safety of Israeli citizens. It supports Israeli sovereignty over large settlement blocs in the West Bank, but it would transfer settlements which are not part of large blocs to Palestine. The Israeli left has traditionally backed the ‘land for peace’ vision of negotiations. It supports the targeted killings of Palestinian terrorist leaders.

The Labour Zionist tradition is strongly secular. The Labour Party has retained this character, though it wishes to maintain (albeit limit) the current ultra-orthodox exemption from the draft and defines Israel as a Jewish state.

Over its history, the Labour Party played a large role in the establishment of a modern welfare state in Israel. However, the party nevertheless slowly drifted to the right in its economic policies in the 1980s, a shift which contributed to the party’s decline and current problems. Under Amir Peretz and, seemingly, now with Yachimovich, the party has sought to reclaim lost ground on the left by adopting more left-wing economic policies. It supports “renewing” the social welfare model, strengthening the public service, halting the privatization process and increasing taxes on high earners. It claims that reducing inequalities is its priority.

The founders of the Labour Zionist movement and the Labour Party were overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, and these Jews of European (including eastern European) origin formed the political and economic elite in Israel after 1949. The party never placed much effort in reaching out to lower-income and more religious immigrant groups (Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, later Russian Jews), in fact the Ashkenazi elite often discriminated against these new Jewish immigrant communities, creating a feeling of marginalization and exclusion against which the party has always struggled. Its weak support with these right-leaning demographics are a major problem, which led to its 1977 defeat and its subsequent decline. The party has not really been able to shake off its association with the Ashkenazi middle-classes, and its urban support remains strongest in middle-class (often Ashkenazi) areas, notably northern Tel Aviv. The Labour Party is also dominant in most non-religious kibbutzim, they won 31% in the kibbutzim in 2009, though this was a low figure in part because of left-wing tactical voting for Kadima (they won 31% on the kibbutz). In past years, the party had very strong support with Arab Israelis, but in recent years, it has lost most of its Arab vote to the Arab parties.

Meretz (Energy), founded in 1992, is the most left-wing Jewish party in Israel. It was originally a coalition between three parties, Ratz, Mapam and Shinui. The Mapam, founded in 1948, represented the Marxist current within Labour Zionism and originally had pro-Soviet positions. It was a member of the Alignment coalition between 1965 and 1984. Ratz was founded in 1973 by an Alignment MK who opposed the occupation of the Palestinian territories and called for a peace settlement with the PLO. The party won 12 seats in the 1992 election, and joined Rabin’s Labour-led coalition. The party’s strength has since declined considerably, falling from 10 seats in 1999 to 5 seats in 2003 (following the Second Intifada) and only 3 seats in the 2009 election (hurt by strategic voting on the left for Kadima against Likud). The party’s electoral weakness in the twenty-first century has been attributed to low and declining Jewish interest for the left-wing peace settlement in the face of renewed Palestinian violence and a further polarization of the conflict.

The party, naturally, supports a two-state solution. It has based its peace plan on the Geneva Accord, under which the Palestinian state’s borders would be close to that of the 1967 line and which would have East Jerusalem as its capital. Meretz supports an end to the Israeli occupation and an evacuation of the West Bank settlements and returning the Golan Heights to Syria. It recognizes that terrorism which harms innocents is an obstacle to the peace process, but does not wish for the political agenda to be dictated by terrorists. Meretz is closely associated with the Israeli peace movement and human rights groups. Alongside Labour and the Shas, Meretz is one of the few Jewish Israeli parties which has made a serious attempt to reach out to Arab Israeli voters. In the past, Meretz had Arab MKs and it has Arab candidates on its list.

On religious issues, the party is strongly secular and it is the most socially liberal party in Israel. It is closely associated with LGBT rights (it supports gay marriage) and women’s rights, and wants to enact a basic law on freedom of religion which will guarantee “freedom of religion and freedom from religion”. It also emphasizes a liberal and secular public education system. The party is quite left-wing on economic issues, supporting state intervention in the economy to ensure a social safety net or raising capital gains tax.

Meretz performs well in secular, young and artsy areas (downtown Tel Aviv) but is also quite strong in some secular kibbutzim, where they won 18% overall in 2009.

There are four major “Arab parties” which represents the Arab Israeli minority in Israel. The Arab minority accounts for 20% of the country’s population. They form a majority of the population in the Northern Region of Israel, there is also a substantial Bedouin population in the Negev and an Arab minority in Jaffa (Tel Aviv). Most Arab citizens of Israel will self-identify as Palestinians, though Negev Bedouins are more susceptible to define themselves as Israeli. Most Arab citizens of Israel are Muslim, but there is a substantial Arab Christian and Druze minority (around 9% of the Arab population each). Most Druze will not self-identify as Palestinian, and many Druze politicians are members of ‘Jewish’ parties, including right-wing parties such as Likud or YB. Arab Israelis are a growing minority, their high birth rates poses, according to the Jewish rate, a major demographic threat because they could form a majority of the population as early as 2035. Current statistics do not confirm this “demographic threat”. Most Arab Israelis support Palestinian nationalism, but it is questionable if they would move to Palestine if an independent state is created.

The Arab minority is a hot topic in Israel. Many Arab Israelis feel marginalized, sidelined or discriminated against by the Jewish majority in Israel, a sentiment which has increased considerably since the Al-Aqsa Intifada at the turn of the century. There are large disparities in general living standard and education between Israeli Arabs and the non-Arab Israeli population. In addition, more and more Arab Israelis are withdrawing from participating in Israeli politics, turnout dropped from 75% in 1999 to only 53% in 2009 and it may be even lower this year. In the past, a substantial number of Arab voters backed Jewish parties. In prime ministerial elections in the 1990s and 2001, they overwhelmingly backed the Labour candidates (Peres in 1996, Barak in 1999 and 2001 – despite very low turnout in 2001); Labour has traditionally performed well with Arab voters, though it has lost most of this support. There are currently 17 Arab members in the Knesset, including 6 Druze. 11 of these 17 members represent Arab Israeli parties.

There have been attempts to ban the Arab parties from participating in Israeli elections, most recently in 2009 when the electoral commission disqualified some of them (on the grounds that they did not recognize the State of Israel), but the courts overturned this decision.

The United Arab List (Ra’am), founded in 1996 and led by Ibrahim Sarsur, is running in coalition with Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al (Arab Renewal Movement), as it has since 2006. The UAL split recently, when Taleb el-Sana of the Arab Democratic Party left the coalition. The dominant force in the UAL is Sarsur’s southern (less radical) branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a conservative Islamist organization. While the other Arab parties are secular, the UAL is a fairly religious party. The party’s rhetoric includes numerous references to the need to establish an Islamic Caliphate over (seemingly) the whole of Israel. The UAL does not support the separation of religion and politics, in contrast to the other Arab parties, especially Hadash and Balad. In the short term, the party’s immediate goal is to “preserve the Arab existence in the country” (their national and religious identity) and “to protect the holy places”.

The party’s core base lies with Bedouins in the Negev. According to Ha’aretz, the UAL won 80% of Bedouin vote in the 2009 election. It is also strong in poorer Arab cities and town, including the impoverished city of Kafr Qasim.

The UAL has been allied with Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al party since 2006, and they are forming a common slate again. The party is more secular than the UAL. One of the few major ideological differences that I can spot with Hadash and Balad is that Tibi objects to the redefinition of Israel as a state “for all its citizens” (it is currently defined as a “Jewish and democratic state”, which Tibi argues is a contradiction and that both cannot coexist), he would redefine it as a state “for all its nationalities” to protect the collective rights of the Arab minority and prevent a uniformization of the state along individual lines.

Hadash (The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality or New) is actually a bi-confessional left-wing alliance which has some Jewish voters and has a Jewish MK (Dov Khenin), but because most its voters and members are Arabs, it is labelled – somewhat erroneously – as an ‘Arab party’. The largest faction within the party is Maki, the Israeli Communist Party. The current Communist Party was founded in 1965 as Rakah, led by the pro-Palestinian and pro-Moscow faction of the old Maki. The party has always been non-Zionist, keeping in line with Marxism’s opposition to nationalism. However, the party has shifted towards Palestinian-Arab nationalism, leading some left-wing critics to say that it had lost its left-wing social agenda in favour of Palestinian nationalism.

Hadash is strongest in the largest Arab cities and with Arabs in northern Israel (perhaps because the northern Islamic Movement boycotts elections, unlike the southern wing which forms the UAL). It won 54% in Umm al-Fahm, the largest Arab city; and 52% in Nazareth, another large Arab city in the north with a large Christian majority (Jesus’ birthplace being a communist stronghold is quite amusing). Most Arab Christians seem to vote for Hadash.

Balad (National Democratic Assembly), the smallest Arab party, is hard to pin down. It is similar to Hadash, and generally leans to the left; but it is an Arab nationalist party which at one point was close to the Ba’athist ideology and Syria. It also openly expressed support for Hezbollah. Some years ago, Balad tried its hand at a short-lived reincarnation as a liberal party, it has since returned to a pan-Arabist and anti-Zionist orientation.

One Balad MK, Haneen Zoabi (the first Arab woman MK) is quite controversial; a Likud MK attempted to disqualify her from running for reelection this year. She participated in the 2010 Gaza flotilla and has been a very loud critic of the Israeli state, branding most Jewish Israeli politicians as ‘fascists’.

All Arab parties support Palestinian independence and the two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders, the complete evacuation of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian control over East Jerusalem and returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Hadash is usually moderate in its advocacy of the Palestinian cause, while Balad often tends to be considerably more radical in its support for Palestinian nationalism. The UAL couches its support for the Palestinian cause in religious language.

All the parties seek full equality for Israel’s Arab minority, and disagree with the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. The Arab parties been particularly critical of the Israeli state and successive governments; they have often criticized the human rights abuses in Israeli military actions against Gaza. The Arab parties have often branded Israel a ‘racist’ state and vocally criticized policies and laws which they viewed as blatantly discriminatory against Arabs. Balad and Hadash wish to redefine Israel as a state “for all its citizens”, irrespective of ethnic or national identity, with Balad supporting cultural autonomy for Arab Israelis while Hadash wants to eliminate all forms of ethnic discrimination. In addition, all Arab parties strongly oppose extending the military draft to Arab Israelis. As it currently stands, the Israeli government does not actively seek to draft Arab Israelis (besides the Druze and some Bedouins) into the IDF, more or less exempting them. The debate over the Tal Law, however, led to some on the right raising the question of extending the draft to Arabs as well.

Campaign, Polls and Cabinets

Final polls ranges from January 17-18 [current seats at dissolution].

Likud Yisrael Beiteinu 32-37 seats [42]
Labour (HaAvoda) 15-17 seats [8]
Jewish Home-National Union 12-15 seats [5]
Shas 10-12 seats [11]
Yesh Atid 8-13 seats [0]
Hatnuah 5-8 seats [7]
Meretz 5-7 seats [3]
United Torah Judaism 5-6 seats [5]
Hadash 4-5 seats [4]
United Arab List-Ta’al 3-4 seats [3]
Balad 3-4 seats [3]
Kadima 2-3 seats [21]
Otzma LeYisrael 0 or 2 seats [2]
Am Shalem 0 or 1 seat [1]

More likely than not, Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to form government and win another term as Prime Minister of Israeli. Right-wing, far-right and religious parties will run away with the election on Tuesday January 22.

However, Netanyahu’s Likud-YB coalition is unlikely to receive a very strong mandate or win an overwhelming victory. In fact, while it will certainly win some 32 to 35 seats, this result will be quite underwhelming considering the combined strength of the Netanyahu-Lieberman bloc at dissolution (they held 42 seats). By allying with Lieberman, Netanyahu had hoped to secure his right flank, after the success of Likud hardliners in his party’s internal primary. By allying with Netanyahu, Lieberman aimed to eventually succeed Netanyahu as the leader of the Israeli right and Prime Minister. It seems like neither Netanyahu or Lieberman will be successful in their objectives. Lieberman was indicted for breach of trust and fraud, which led to his resignation as deputy PM and foreign minister the next day. Additionally, it appears as if Lieberman might have cooled on the idea of working with Likud and an actual merger of the two parties seems to be off the table for now.

Lieberman’s political star rose during the 2009 election, and he gained significant political clout within Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition after the 2009 election. Now, deep in a major corruption scandal, his immediate political outlook is quite bleak. The hardline right in Israel no longer has Lieberman as its leader and icon. This means that he was unable to shore up Netanyahu’s right flank.

Netanyahu had hoped to win a strong mandate by fudging the hawk-dove/left-right divide, he was happier to talk about the economy. He argues that his economic policies have meant that Israel is in far better state than other OECD economies in the current global economic crisis. Labour’s leader, Shelly Yachimovich, was also quite happy with such a strategy. As Labour leader, she has placed a big emphasis on economic and social issues, trying to attach her party to the goals of the 2011 social justice protests and attacking Netanyahu primarily over his economic policies. She cautioned doves within her party to be too vocal in their positions or to speak ill of West Bank settlers, which she sought to appeal to. Her focus on economics and social matters rather than the old hawk-dove battle alienated prominent doves within her party, most notably two of her predecessors: Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, who opted to join Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah because Yachimovich had not talked enough about peace (while Livni, positioning herself to the left of Labour on the peace issue, made peace one of the cornerstones of her campaign).

The idea, ostensibly supported by both Netanyahu and Yachimovich, was that Labour and Yachimovich would join a moderated and more centrist  second Netanyahu cabinet after the elections, with Yachimovich as his finance minister or perhaps foreign minister or defense minister.

This strategy backfired on Netanyahu, who failed to dominate the Likud primaries and got overwhelmed by a right-wing tidal wive. As noted above, several prominent hardliners – most notably Netanyahu’s right-wing rival Moshe Feiglin – won high spots on the Likud-YB list and spoke openly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in rallies. But this right-wing tidal wave was not only confined to his party. It saw the rapid emergence of a new hardline right-wing icon, Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home.

Bennett’s position on the Palestinian question is unequivocal. He opposes any Palestinian state and he will fight to make sure that there is never a Palestinian state. He wants to unilaterally annex 60% of the West Bank and place the remaining Palestinian towns under Israeli military security. He openly says that there will never a peace deal with the Arabs. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s position is far more ambiguous. In 2009, at Bar-Ilan University, he ostensibly endorsed the two-state solution though he has done nothing to follow through. The Bar-Ilan speech was viewed as a betrayal by many hardliners on the right, including many within his own party. Bennett’s clear and unequivocal positions on the Palestinian question is very popular with hardliners on the right, be they secular and cosmopolitan or religious Zionist (like his party in the past) settlers in the West Bank.

Naftali Bennett’s profile and biography is very appealing to many right-wing voters, who have grown even more wary of any negotiated settlement with the Palestinian and whose opposition to a Palestinian state has been reinforced in recent years (in part because the chaotic post-Arab Spring situation in Egypt or the civil war in Syria). His cosmopolitan lifestyle and culture and his past as a start-up software entrepreneur and successful businessman appeals to more secular right-wing Jews living outside the settlements. At the same time, Bennett is also quite religious, lives on a settlement in the West Bank and wears a small knitted kippa (like most religious Zionists). He can also appeal quite successfully to the religious Zionist sector, who make up a large portion of the West Bank settlers.

His strategy is very ambitious. In the past, the Israeli hard right was left divided because of its internal squabbles and the longstanding enmity between very religious and more secular Jews. Bennett’s strategy is to build a broad right-wing nationalist (hardline) alliance, which goes beyond the old religious/non-religious divide on the far-right. Bennett’s appeal to the Haredim might be limited, but the rising force in Israeli politics and society are the religious Zionists, who dominate settler politics and are ambitiously trying to strengthen their role and voice in Israeli politics. To appeal to the religious sentiments on the Israeli hard right, there are several religious figures (tied to religious Zionism) on his lists. Religious Zionists still make up a large majority of the party’s electorate. On the other hand, Bennett is a new kind of leader for the hard right, with an unusual youthful cosmopolitanism and business profile which could appeal to more secular but still very right-wing Jews, in the coastal plain or outside the settlements. His close ally, who is fifth on the list, Ayelet Shaked, reflects this desire to appeal to a secular demographic.

Bennett’s rise scares Netanyahu, the Likud and even the Shas. Netanyahu stepped up his attacks on Bennett, but they do not seem to have worked. The Likud-YB bloc lost many of its more nationalist and right-wing voters to Bennett. The Shas recently lashed out at Bennett over religious matters, they might feel that the power and influence of the Haredi bloc might be weakened following the election. The religious Zionists’ goal since the the late 1980s has been to ‘penetrate’ the political and business world, Bennett’s religious platform seeks to strengthen the place of the religious Zionist movement within the Jewish religious hierarchy in Israel.

Bennett’s party could win between 12 and 15, likely closer to 14-15. It would be a very strong result for the party, obviously. This reflects the strength of the right in Israeli politics. While Israel, between 1949 and 1967, was dominated by a secular and socialist Zionist elite which cared little about religious matters (but, for political reasons, conceded religious matters to religious authorities); today, the religious sectors of Jewish Israeli society are gaining prominence, power and influence. The religious Zionists have been at the forefront of this power shift, which began with Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu will win the next election, but with a disappointing result. He will have to deal with a much stronger hardline right, which will exert significant pressure on him to lead a more right-wing agenda. The Likud-YB’s caucus after the election will have been pushed further to the right, with the entrance of new (or the reelection of older) ‘hardliners’ and right-wingers,including Moshe Feiglin. Just like the Tea Party movement forced the GOP leadership in the United States to shift to the right, the hardliners within Likud-YB (and Bennett’s troops in the JH-NU) will insist that Netanyahy acknowledges their power and presence within the Israeli right.

Cabinet formation is a long, difficult and tortuous process in Israel. Small parties try to extract concessions from the largest party and impose their conditions on them. The next cabinet will most likely have a distinctively right-wing flavour to it. The old idea that Netanyahu would seek to bolster his moderate credentials by forming a coalition with Labour and Shelly Yachimovich has fallen through. The radicalization of the campaign on the hawk/dove battle forced her to come out tough saying she’d either be Prime Minister or in opposition. Given that Labour will not finish first, she will be in opposition.

A Likud-YB-Haredi coalition (more or less the outgoing coalition) on its own will probably come about 10 seats short of the 61 seats needed for a (bare) majority. Yeir Lapid, the leader of the secular centre-right Yesh Atid, has said that he would be open to participating in a Netanyahu cabinet to ‘moderate’ it and limit the influence of the religious parties. He is not as militantly secular/anti-clerical as Shinui was, so there appears to be little issue for him to be in coalition with the Shas and UTJ. A Likud-YB-Haredi-Lapid coalition would probably come out with a tiny majority. Hatnuah has not closed the door on participating in government either, but it could be hard for Netanyahu backed by a very right-wing caucus to find enough common ground with the increasingly dovish Livni (who was very critical of Netanyahu during the campaign, if such things matter) to form a government.

Could Bennett’s JH-NU enter government? The Jewish Home is currently a small junior partner in the Netanyahu coalition, but the JH-NU will be much different after January 22. Naftali Bennett (and Ayelet Shaked) both worked under Netanyahu when the Likud was in the opposition to Olmert, but they both suddenly resigned – most likely after a spat with Netanyahu’s powerful but unpopular wife Sara (described by some as similar to Mary Todd Lincoln and Nancy Reagan). Bennett nevertheless hopes to gain a spot in the leadership, it seems. This long article (a must read) on him and the Israeli right ended with a comment from Bennett: ” ‘The best analogy is that Bibi is the bus driver with two hands on the wheel,” Bennett said. “I want to put a third hand on the wheel.’ ” Such a coalition would certainly be very right-wing, and exert considerable pressure on Netanyahu to move further to the right on the Palestinian issue, even at risk of clashing with the US.

Israel is a major geopolitical hotspot, and it will always remain one. As such, the 2013 elections in Israel are quite important and may hold high stakes. A further shift to the right in Israel could have repercussions both inside and outside Israel’s borders.

Israeli politics is a very hot topic, which many feel quite passionately about. There is much sensationalism, knee-jerk responses, and misrepresentations on both sides of this inflammatory topic; it is an issue where it is quite hard to strike a neutral tone which tries to depict the various opinions of the various actors, Jewish or Muslim, fairly and accurately. I hope that this article provided a neutral, fair and accurate description of Israel’s various parties and complex politics, as well as the stakes of the 2013 election.

Israel 2009: Government!

Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu has ended up by forming a markedly right-wing plethoric government of 30 cabinet ministers. The coalition is composed of Likud, the secular far-right Yisrael Beitenu, the Labor Party (despite saying on election night it wanted to go into the opposition. Power is just too good), and two religious parties- the Shas and Jewish Home. The government received the confidence of 69 out of the 120 MKs in the Knesset.

Netanyahu is Prime Minister, but there are, in addition, 2 Vice PMs and 4 Deputy PMs. In terms of cabinet spots, Likud has Communications, Culture, Negev and Galilee Development, Economic Strategy (Netanyahu), Education, Environment, Finance, “Improvement of Govt Services”, Information/Diaspora/Fight against Anti-Semitism, Intelligence, Pensioner Affairs (again, Bibi), Regional Dev’t, “Strategic Affairs”, Transportation, and 2 without portfolio. Labor gets Agriculture, Defense (Barak keeps his spot), Industry/Trade/Labour, Minorities, and Welfare. Yisrael Beitenu gets Foreign Affairs (Lieberman), Immigration, Internal Security, Infrastructure, and Tourism. Shas get Housing, Internal Affairs, Religion, and 1 without portfolio. Jewish Home gets Science. So, the top spots are split evenly: Finance for Likud, Defense for Labor, and Foreign Affairs for YB.

This coalition will be lucky to survive for over a year.

Israel 2009: Quasi-final

Still from Haaretz.com’s site, which seems to be the only seat with a good election coverage including percentages (the Knesset took down their Hebrew elections site that had full results in more detail!). With 100% reporting, but without the IDF and diplomatic votes, here are the results. The only change since the last update is one UAL seat was taken off their count and given to UTJ. UAL also fell from 5% to 4%, and Kadima went from 22% to 23%. On a side note, neither Gil and Meimad have actually broken 1% (though they get rounded up to 1%). Meimad-Green Movement took about 0.8%. I believe Gil took around 0.6% or 0.5%. The Green Party epic failed and won barely 0.1%, much less than in 2006, when they were quite close to the 2% threshold.

Kadima 23%: 28 seats (-1)
Likud 21%: 27 (+15)
Yisrael Beitenu 12%: 15 (+4)
Labor 10%: 13 (-6)
Shas 9%: 11 (-1)
United Torah Judaism 4%: 5 (-1)
United Arab List-Ta’al 4%: 4 (±0)
NU 3%: 4 (-5)*
Hadash 3%: 4 (+1)
Meretz-Yachad 3%: 3 (-2)
Jewish Home 3%: 3 (+3)
Balad 3%: 3 (±0)

The surprise of last night was Kadima’s close first place over Likud, which led all the last polls before election day. Obviously, there was a lot of left-wing voters (from Labor and Meretz) who voted Kadima to vote against Likud and prevent Netanyahu from getting first place. That is one reason for Meretz’ surprisingly dismal showing last night. Israeli observers have also claimed that Kadima’s superior organization and GOTV played a part. Labor, which not too long ago was a dominant party in Israeli politics, has suffered its worst electoral defeat ever, with a dismal 10% and 13 seats. Yisrael Beitenu has done well, but not as well as polls indicated, so their victory isn’t a great victory after all. However, they’re now kingmakers. Meretz, which was expected to do better than in 2006, has performed surprisingly poorly. A part of it probably comes from Meretz voters switching over to Kadima at the last minute, as a strategic vote against Netanyahu. Another part may come from die-hard peace voters who resented Meretz’ support of the Lebanon war in 2006 and the recent Gaza invasion, which they see as repudiating Meretz’ peace-foundations. Some of these voters probably switched to Hadash, the bi-communal communist party, which improved on its 2006 showing. The religious parties have remained around at the same levels, losing only minimal ground. Despite talks of an all-time low in Arab turnout, the “Arab parties” have actually won 11 seats (10 in the last Knesset). They seem to have won around 10%, and they’re estimated to be anywhere from 11% to 15% of the voter pool. The Bedouin vote has remained loyal to the UAL by a huge margin, as expected. Hadash is the party of urban Arabs (see the results in Nazareth and Umm-al-Fahm).

Haaretz’ website also has results by city and “sector”, which is quite fascinating. Here are a few cities, major and/or interesting.

  • Ariel (settlement deep in the West Bank): Likud 45%, Yisrael Beitenu 31%, Kadima 10%, NU 5%, Shas 3%
  • Ashkelon (near Gaza): Likud 31%, Yisrael Beitenu 27%, Kadima 16%, Shas 11%, Labor 6%, NU 3%
  • Be’er Sheva (largest city in the south): Likud 28%, Yisrael Beitenu 25%, Kadima 20%, Labor 7%, NU 3%
  • Eilat: Kadima 35%, Likud 25%, Yisrael Beitenu 15%, Labor 8%, Shas 7%
  • Haifa (largest city in the north): Kadima 28%, Likud 20%, Yisrael Beitenu 16%, Labor 13%, Hadash 4%
  • Jerusalem: Likud 24%, UTJ 19%, Shas 15%, Kadima 11%, NU 7%, Yisrael Beitenu 6%, Labor 6%
  • Ma’aleh Adumim (largest West Bank settlement): Likud 45%, Yisrael Beitenu 15%, Kadima 13%, NU 9%, Jewish Home 5%
  • Nahariya (10km from Lebanon): Likud 27%, Kadima 26%, Yisrael Beitenu 22%, Labor 9%, Shas 7%
  • Nazareth (69% Muslim 31% Christian): Hadash 52%, Balad 23%, UAL 27%
  • Sderot (on Gaza border): Likud 33%, Yisrael Beitenu 23%, Shas 13%, Kadima 12%, NU 7%, Labor 5%
  • Tel-Aviv (Israel’s largest city): Kadima 34%, Likud 19%, Labor 15%, Meretz 8%, Yisrael Beitenu 6%, Shas 6%
  • Umm-al-Fahm (100% Arab): Hadash 54%, Balad 24%, UAL 19%, Meimad-Green 2

Now, a few interesting “sectors”

  • Kibbutzim (traditional Labor stronghold): Labor 31%, Kadima 31%, Meretz 18%, Likud 6%
  • Negev Bedouins: UAL 80%, Balad 5%, Hadash 2%
  • Jewish Towns (50k to 100k): Kadima 28%, Likud 25%, Yisrael Beitenu 12%, Labor 11%, Shas 8%
  • Jewish Towns (100k to 200k): Likud 25%, Kadima 23%, Yisrael Beitenu 15%, Shas 11%, Labor 8%, UTJ 7%

Now the game of coalition building begins. Labor has already sort-of indicated that it will probably return to the opposition benches to rebuild. The people that say that Netanyahu has a significant advantage in the coalition game are wrong. Even though they like to group all the righties and far-righties together and give them a majority, there’s a big problem. The ultra-Orthodox Shas have rejected working with the strongly secular Yisrael Beitenu, and they would probably be hurt electorally if they ended up in a coalition with them. UTJ and the other small Orthodox parties would also suffer if they worked with a strongly secular party like Yisrael Beitenu. Avigdor Lieberman (YB’s leader) is being actively courted by Livni and Netanyahu, and he seems to be open to both of them for now. A coalition that is becoming more likely is a grand coalition, Kadima-Likud-[Labor or Yisrael Beitenu] in which Livni would be Prime Minister but Netanyahu would have a very important post and would probably be in a position to influence Palestinian policy. It will be interesting to see how this all ends up.

Maps perhaps a bit later, when the Knesset website comes back in a few days hopefully.

Israel 2009: 98%

98% of the votes are counted in Israel, and it seems like the final votes are just the soldiers and diplomats.

From Haaretz.com’s English election results tracker, here are the results as of now. Results by whole numbers, for now. The National Union’s seat numbers for 2009 are compared to the 2006 NU+NRP total seats (9). Note that the NU-NRP coalition split between the NU and Jewish Home.

Kadima 22%: 28 seats (-1)
Likud 21%: 27 (+15)
Yisrael Beiteinu 12%: 15 (+4)
Labor 10%: 13 (-6)
Shas 9%: 11 (-1)
United Arab List-Ta’al 5%: 5 (+1)
United Torah Judaism 4%: 4 (-2)
NU 3%: 4 (-5)*
Hadash 3%: 4 (+1)
Meretz-Yachad 3%: 3 (-2)
Jewish Home 3%: 3 (+3)
Balad 3%: 3 (±0)

Above 1%, below 2%:

Gil 1%
Meimad 1%

Just time for these quick results for now. More analysis, maps, and coalition juicy details will be posted later.

Israel 2009

Early Knesset elections will be held in Israel on February 10, after the new Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni failed to put together a coalition government.

The Israeli electoral system is proportional, very proportional, with a 2% threshold (it used to be even lower, 1%!). The main current parties are Kadima, a centrist-liberal party founded by Likud PM Ariel Sharon before he fell into his still-ongoing coma. Several Labor MKs joined the party, including Shimon Peres, now President (purely ceremonial role). Labor was founded as a socialist Zionist party in 1968, but has since trended to the centre in a way similar to Britain’s Labour. There are a number of religious parties. It is very hawkish (although less so than in the past) and most Arab-Israeli wars have taken place under Labor administrations (Sinai, Six-Days, Yom Kippur). Since 1999,  Labor has been allied with Meimad, a small religious Zionist party. However, this election, Meimad will be running with the Green Movement.

There are a number of haredi religious parties located on the far-right in Israel. The Shas, the strongest of the religios parties in recent years, are mostly Mizrahi (msotly MidEastern-origin Jews) and Sephardi (Jews of Iberian origin). The Shas are flexible on the Palestinian issue,  for example, they are not strongly in favour of Israeli settlements. United Torah Judaism, known as UTJ, is Ashkenazi (European-origin Jews). The UTJ is also opposed to peace negotiations with the PalestiniansThe National Union-National Religious Party (NU-NRP) is an electoral alliance of mostly religious Zionists. NU-NRP is opposed to a Palestinian state, supporting an Israeli state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.

Yisrael Beiteinu is also far-right, but is more secular compared to the other far-right parties. It represents mostly Russian immigrants. Its voters are split between traditional religious voters and secular votes. On the Palestinian issue, Yisrael Beiteinu favours a Palestinian state but supports a hard-line vis-a-vis terrorists. Likud, founded in 1973, is a conservative-nationalist party. It is economcially liberal and capitalist, and hawkish on Arab issues. It moderated its support for Greater Israel under Ariel Sharon, but under its current rightist leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, it has become more hawkish. Most of its voters support Israeli settlements and are opposed to the two-state solution.

Meretz-Yachad, formed in 1992, is the main representative of the left-wing Israeli peace camp. It is strongly anti-clerical and secular.

There are three parties identified by the Israeli media as “Arab parties”. The first one is the United Arab List, which is seen by some as having links to Palestinian terror groups. It was recently banned (as was Balad) by the Israeli Central Elections Committee, but the ban was overturned by the Supreme Court. Hadash, a communist party, is not really a “Arab party” per se, but rather bi-communal. It has a significant Jewish vote, but is generally more Arab. Balad, a socialist party, has had the same problems as the UAL.

The 2006 elections produced the following results:

Kadima 22.02%: 29
Labor-Meimad 15.06%: 19
Shas 9.53%: 12
Likud 8.99%: 12
Yisrael Beiteinu 8.99%: 11
NU-NRP 7.14%: 9
Gil (Retirees) 5.92%: 7
United Torah Judaism 4.69%: 6
Meretz-Yachad 3.77%: 5
United Arab List-Ta’al 3.02%: 4
Hadash 2.74%: 3
Balad 2.30%: 3

Parties above 1%, but below the threshold:

The Greens 1.52%
Ale Yarok 1.29%

The latest poll, from February 6, gives the following seat allocation:

Likud 27
Kadima 25
Yisrael Beiteinu 18
Labor 14
Shas 9
Meretz 7
United Torah Judaism 6
NU 4
United Arab List-Ta’al 3
Hadash 3
Jewish Home (NRP etc) 2
Balad 2

Yisrael Beiteinu has soared recently, despite its leader, Avigdor Lieberman under investigation for taking bribes. It has recently indicated that it might join a coalition with Kadima, to prevent Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu from taking power in a coalition with the Shas. The Shas are opposed to Yisrael Beiteinu’s more secular platform (legalize civil marriage etc).

The Gil retirees, who surprised observers in 2006 by winning 7 seats, should be destroyed following this election. The Greens, however, who were close to the 2% threshold in 2006, could win seats.

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