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State of Tel Aviv

The Israeli Election Guide for the Perplexed, Part 1

The "Right Wing" and the "Right-Wing Bloc"

At midnight on June 30, the 24th Knesset of the State of Israel voted to dissolve and head into “caretaker” mode, with Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid, sitting as prime minister.

Some see this position as conferring a significant advantage on Lapid as he will be seen to be a head of state, caretaker or not. Already in July, he has had the opportunity to greet President Biden on the red carpet, featured front and center at all the pomp, ceremony and photographs.

State of Tel Aviv will leave the “play-by-play” coverage and speculation of the coming months to the many news outlets already following the daily developments. But we did think that our readers would benefit from a comprehensive overview of the key players in this election and how they are positioning themselves in the runup to E-Day on November 1.

Unlike most democracies, when a politician disagrees with a leader or policy, the tendency in Israel is to start up a new party. The Israeli appetite for political brinksmanship is a wondrous thing but can seem chaotic to those who don’t follow developments somewhat obsessively. When one lives here there is little choice.

In this dispatch we provide an overview of the right-wing parties, as well as the so-called “right-wing bloc.” In short order we will offer the same analysis for the center and left-wing parties.

For those of us living here, there is a profound sense of fatigue. The strong likelihood, based on the daily polls, is that the outcome of Election #5 will not be much different from the last four. Each election has resulted in a virtual tie between the right and center-left blocs, leading to months of negotiations, years of short-term, ineffective governments and tremendous voter frustration. [1]

The right-wing bloc is anchored by Likud and includes the Haredi/ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, as well as the Dati Leumi/National Religious parties, Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism. This cluster of interests – with piety being the common element – has stuck together through thick and thin in recent years in common purpose: to ensure that former prime minister and Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, forms the next governing coalition. It is ironic that the leading party of this group, Likud, is the only one that is not defined by religious observance and values, but a much more traditional-secular Jewish sensibility.

This right-wing bloc, it must be noted, does not include a cluster of smaller right-wing parties: Yamina, Derech Eretz, New Hope and, as of press time, the freshly minted Zionist Spirit.

In the last governing coalition – Knesset #24 – these small parties (Derech Eretz was part of New Hope and Zionist Spirit did not exist) supported the change government led by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett. As a result, they were smeared by many in the right-wing bloc for being traitors and “lefties,” intended, of course, as a derogatory term. There is nothing remotely left-wing about these parties. What they do share is an intense dislike of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most, but not all center-left parties were united in their abiding belief that Likud should be led by “Anyone But Bibi” (Netanyahu’s nickname), which became a moniker for their interests in Election #4. Underlying this extreme antipathy for Netanyahu is the fact that he has been indicted on multiple corruption-related criminal charges. His trial – which is on a bizarrely slow track – is ongoing. His detractors believe that every political decision he makes – including to remain as Likud leader – is informed solely by his self-interest. As long as he is prime minister, they say, he will manipulate the justice system to avoid prosecution.

His supporters dismiss the whole indictment thing as a sham and unequivocal evidence of the corruption of the justice system which, they allege, is being manipulated to persecute Netanyahu and force him from power.

In the meantime, the people pay the price.

As has been the case for several years now, the right-wing bloc is in a dead heat with the center-left. If a Likud- or Yesh Atid-led coalition transpires, it will almost certainly have a razor-thin majority. The positive aspect of this is that Israel would have, for a time, a measure of stability. The negative reality is that the country will remain cleaved, no matter which camp prevails.

I. A CONTEST OF POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES OR ETHNORELIGIOUS VALUES?

The deadlocked electorate in Israel reflects an intractable social divide which has much more to do with religious and cultural identity than what would, normatively, be understood as political ideology.

The core issue in this election – more so than the previous four – is national identity.

What is a Jewish state? What values must it protect and promote? Do Jewish values mean religious values? Can Jewish values co-exist with democratic values?

These fundamental questions are what divide Israelis today.

The right-wing bloc has demonstrated consistently a strong disaffection with many of the institutions of democratic Israel and makes no bones about reinventing them: including the justice and legal systems.

In contrast, the center-left group tends to be secular or traditional and tolerant of religion but not to the extent that it defines public policy. They are typically not in favor of expanding the network of West Bank settlements and would prefer that the Israeli presence in that region be addressed through negotiation or some form of resolution.

Whereas the center-left is more inclined to address socioeconomic issues in their platforms, their central focus, as with the right wing, is on the relationship between the state and religion. How Jewish? What degree of Judaism? And, if there is tension between Jewish law and the laws of the state – which shall prevail?

What is more important: adherence to Jewish religious law or maintenance of democratic ideals? Can they co-exist?

In a somewhat overly simplistic way, these questions address the fault line dividing Israel today.



II. THE INEVITABLE DISSOLUTION OF KNESSET #24

Israeli Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid. Illustration by Igor Tepikin.

Drawing by Igor Tepikin

In June 2021, after four elections in two years, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid cobbled together a coalition dubbed “center-left” or the “change coalition” by collective punditry. Truth is, he had a sizeable right-wing cohort in his government, as well as Islamist Arabs.

His accomplishment in wrangling such divergent interests to a common cause was extraordinary and unprecedented. Israel desperately needed a respite from serial elections as well as a glimmer of hope as to what, other than chronic dysfunction, might be possible.

Lapid – whose party commanded 17 seats – negotiated that Bennett – who held only seven mandates (it dropped to six shortly after) would act as prime minister for the first two years of the government’s term. Lapid would rotate into the top job for the final two years.

But no one really expected the change government to last for two years, never mind four.

III. BENNETT’S POISONED CHALICE

Drawing by Ioan Szabo

The reasons for Lapid’s deal with Bennett were pragmatic.

Without Yamina in the coalition, Lapid would fail to form a government and Israel would have faced a fifth election in two years.

Lapid understood the public mood. People were fed up with costly elections and disruptions. What was critical at that moment was for all political leaders to manage their egos and niche agendas and to step up for the well-being of the nation. The people of Israel had more than earned a period of stability with a functioning government that could pass legislation necessary for the proper functioning of the core services provided by any state: health care, roads, bridges, education, etc.

Lapid needed Bennett and his Yamina seats to get to a bare majority of 61. But, Bennett held out, making no clear commitment as to whether he would sit in a Netanyahu-led coalition, or not.

To entice Bennett from his self-imposed “neutrality” during the period of coalition negotiations, Lapid had to come up with a very big carrot. And, that he did.

Drawing by Ioan Szabo

Being prime minister with six Knesset seats is one helluva carrot. Lapid used it. And he formed the government.

In their final deal, Bennett served as prime minister for the first two years of the government’s term, to be replaced by Lapid for the last two.

What Bennett may have seen then as a brilliant political and personal triumph was, in the end, very much a poisoned chalice.

To many of his constituents, Bennett had sold out to the devil; grievously and irredeemably sitting with leftists and Arabs. Yamina supporters saw devastation, not victory; a capitulation and an abandonment of values. They felt betrayed.

And, so, they brought down the government.

Two dissenting Yamina MKs defected, leading to the toppling of the change coalition. In fairness, there had been months of high drama among and within the various parties in the governing coalition, with MKs here and there threatening to bolt. But when the prime minister cannot even manage his caucus of six (himself included), it’s game over.



IV. THE VARIOUS CONTENDERS AND WHAT THEY REALLY REPRESENT

From the moment the Knesset dissolves, Israelis are bombarded with multiple daily polls tracking every electoral twitch. With the blocs having such slim advantages, any movement of a point or two by one small party can significantly impact the outcome.

It is a foregone conclusion that the right and center-left parties will finish neck and neck, making the smaller parties – the potential kingmakers who have the ability to swing to either bloc – the ones to watch. They wield disproportionate power, as they are able to sit tight, see how things shape up in negotiations and then toss their coveted seats to either bloc to create a Knesset majority.

Just like Naftali Bennett did after Election #4.

In Israel, the real action gets going after election day.

Following is a brief overview of the parties considered to be in the right-wing camp.

In no particular order…


YAMINA (“To the Right”) – Now known as ZIONIST SPIRIT after merging with DERECH ERETZ

Knesset #24 – 6 seats; Polling at the threshold of 4 seats as ZIONIST SPIRIT

After a few days of mulling, Bennett announced on June 29 that he was taking a “time-out” from politics. His hand, really, was forced.

Yamina voters loath him for having sold out their values. Bennett really has nowhere to go but back home to Ra’anana, to regroup. A young man (in political terms and age), Bennett has made clear many times that he still has much to give to his country. He will unquestionably attempt a comeback.

Bennett’s main support base before he became prime minister was overwhelmingly what is known in Israel as “Hardalim” – hardcore religious nationalists with an ultra-Orthodox bent. (“Hardal” is a Hebrew acronym for Haredi/Dati Leumi, which translates to ultra-Orthodox/national religious. “Hardal” also means mustard. Read into that what you want.)

Drawing by Ioan Szabo

This demographic is uncompromising on West Bank settlement expansion, rejects a two-state solution and believes that the Jewish state should be, well, more “Jewish.”

On the Yamina slate in the last election, Bennett’s deputy was Ayelet Shaked, a secular Tel Avivian known for her missionary zeal to remake the Israeli judiciary in a manner more aligned with her world view. [2]

Rounding out this eclectic cluster of MKs were Hardalim committed to promoting a state more aligned with Jewish rabbinic law and committed to developing the settlement population in Judea and Samaria.

This demographic is well-educated, productive economically, has slightly fewer children than Haredi families, and serves enthusiastically in the army and national service.

And when Bennett bowed out, it became very clear that they were also livid with their new leader, Ayelet Shaked.

Just before press time, Shaked announced the merger of Yamina with Derech Eretz, under the new moniker of Zionist Spirit. This small and spirited band of MKs seems prepared to form a government under Netanyahu’s leadership and openly acknowledges that it erred in supporting the change coalition, particularly because it relied upon support from an Arab party.


DERECH ERETZ (“Way of the Land”) – Now known as ZIONIST SPIRIT after merging with YAMINA

Knesset #24 – merged with NEW HOPE; Polling at the threshold of 4 seats as ZIONIST SPIRIT

Yoaz Hendel and Tzvi Hauser are prominent former aides to Netanyahu, both Likudniks and long-time, close friends. In the previous Knesset they merged with New Hope, but after the party leader Gideon Sa’ar joined forces recently with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, Hendel and Hauser were homeless.

They were also unlikely to cross the electoral threshold, which led to their merger with Yamina to form Zionist Spirit.

Their right-wing credentials – in terms of settlements and related views – are unassailable and give Shaked a much-needed boost. If they cross the threshold it will likely be a squeaker. It is also possible that they will be wiped out in Election #5, as they have significant liabilities and present no strong reason for a right-wing voter to support them.


TIKVAH HADASHAH (“New Hope”) – merged with Blue and White

Knesset #24 – 6 seats; Polling at 11 with Blue and White

Led by Gideon Sa’ar, a very popular former Likudnik, this party’s raison d’etre in Election #4 was “Anyone But Bibi.” An eclectic caucus of Likud refugees, the party as a separate entity is on ice for now, following Sa’ar’s recent decision to join forces with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. (More on him in the next installment.) Following the dissolution of the Knesset, New Hope was polling below the threshold. By teaming up with Blue and White, Sa’ar is back in the game and he gives Gantz – seen by some to be rudderless at best, leftish at worst – some right-wing credibility.

Both Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar have committed in Election #5 that they will not sit in a Likud government led by Netanyahu.


ZIONUT HADATIT (Religious Zionism) and OTZMA YEHUDIT (“Jewish Power”)

Knesset #24 – 6 seats; currently polling at 9-14, depending on who is leader

In my view the Religious Zionism party is the BIG story in this election. This is when its leader, Bezalel Smotrich, moves from adolescence to manhood.

The religious Zionist population (to be distinguished from the political party) has grown exponentially since the 1980s and their influence shows. In the recent past they were Yamina, New Hope and Likud supporters. If the polls are even partly correct, they seem to be placing their trust this time in the hardline Religious Zionism party leader, 42-year-old Smotrich. During the last year, Smotrich unceasingly vilified Bennett for what he considered to be the prime minister’s wholesale sellout out of Yamina’s core values.

And Smotrich is perfectly positioned to benefit from Yamina’s demise.

Smotrich and his supporters believe that settling Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) without limitations is a divine right. He shares this view with Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party. At the moment these parties are in the midst of negotiating whether they merge or run separately. If the latter, there is the danger of Otzma Yehudit failing to cross the threshold. Should they run together, Smotrich will take more seats but also have to deal with an empowered and emboldened Ben Gvir; a real Faustian bargain.

Ben Gvir is what many consider to be an extreme extremist. He lives in Kiryat Arba – a settlement of about 8,000 Jews on the outskirts of Hebron, a West Bank city of approximately 200,000 Arabs. As a practicing lawyer, Ben Gvir made his name defending Jews charged with violent crimes, often against Arabs. Some call them terrorists.

He is a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from sitting in the Knesset in 1988 as his views were deemed by the Central Elections Committee (in a decision upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court) to incite racism, thereby rendering his party unfit to participate in the legislature.

He has made significant inroads politically and it is now believed that he may carry enough weight to cross the Knesset threshold without aligning with Smotrich or Likud. But, then again, he may not.

As of “press time,” polls confirm that if Ben Gvir were to run as head of the Religious Zionism party that they would receive 13-14 mandates, as opposed to 9 under Smotrich’s leadership (without Ben Gvir in the tent). Ben Gvir is proposing that they run together and he will stand as #2 to Bezalel Smotrich.

However this side drama resolves, the most important message is the growing appeal of these two politicians to a large segment of the Israeli electorate. A decade ago they were marginal, at best.

Smotrich and Ben Gvir refused to agree to sit in a Netanyahu government with an Arab party after Election #4, making the Bennett-Lapid marriage inevitable. Both leaders are adamant that they will oppose inclusion of Arab parties in any coalition, referring to them as terrorists or terrorist supporters.


LIKUD (“Consolidation”)

Knesset #24 – 30 seats; currently polling at 33

For much of the last 45 years Likud has dominated Israeli politics and government. Benjamin Netanyahu, the brilliant and indomitable leader of the party, has run the show since 1996, serving 15 years as prime minister, 12 of them consecutively (2009-2021).

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Illustration by Igor Tepikin.

Drawing by Igor Tepikin

For the last decade or so, though, he has become an increasingly polarizing figure in Israel. Netanyahu is worshipped by Israelis of North African and Middle Eastern descent, the majority of the Jewish population. They call him “King Bibi.” When he visits their towns, neighborhoods and markets he is swarmed. This demographic also comprises the largest group of Jews in Israel today.

His supporters see him as untouchable. He is brilliant. He holds court on the world stage. He’s a master orator, off the cuff, in multiple languages. In short, as his legend would have it, no one messes with Bibi. He’s a tough guy in a suit. He understands Arabs and Putin. And he will never be intimidated from standing up for Israel’s interests, not even by the President of the United States of America.

When it comes to values, Likud presses most of the hot buttons that excite the largest number of voters. His supporters believe that only Bibi understands how to manage the country. Period.

Even on the settlement issue, Likud voters defer to Bibi.

Does Likud support settlement expansion? Has Netanyahu buckled to American and European pressure to curtail such activity?

Deciphering his many inconsistent and non-committal utterances on the topic will make a great PhD dissertation for someone, someday. In the meantime, he has an aura of infallibility with his followers, who seem less focused on the plan than the power.

Through the last year while relegated to the opposition benches, Bibi sat back, more quietly than usual. In the Knesset, he is often spotted in the halls reading, while his underlings sling mud in the legislative chamber. Ever coiffed and elegantly suited, he rises above the fray. It’s calculated and it’s clever.

Netanyahu has been biding his time and will enter the ring in the coming months prepared for the fight of his life. Because if he doesn’t bring home a governing coalition this time, even his steadfast Haredi backers have said they will look elsewhere for leadership. And that, almost certainly, would be curtains for Bibi. Or not. Bibi is a peerless tactician who has defied the odds many times in the past and could do so again.


YAHADUT HATORAH (“United Torah Judaism”) & SHAS (“Sephardic Guardians”)

Knesset #24 – UTJ – 7 seats; currently polling at 7

Knesset #24 – Shas – 9 seats; currently polling at 8

The ultra-Orthodox Haredi constituency comprises just above 12% of the population of nine million Israelis. With a fertility rate of approximately 7%, it is also the fastest growing group in the country. By 2030 it is projected to be 16% of the populace.

Unlike Haredi communities elsewhere in the world, a particular culture has become entrenched among this cohort in Israel, one that is long on entitlement and short on economic productivity. They are rigidly pious and with few exceptions refuse to do army or national service. They marry young, have very large families and tend to be dependent on state subsidies and allowances to provide life essentials.

Since the men devote their time to religious learning, the wives are more likely to be gainfully employed, as well as the primary caregivers for children and running the home.

In the early post-independence years, the Haredim opposed the modern state, believing that only God could establish a Jewish nation with the coming of the Messiah.

Pragmatism quickly smoothed those sharp ideological edges, as the Haredi community came to understand the benefits of state financial support. The status quo underlying their political engagement has always been that they stay out of issues regarding security, defense and foreign policy. The Haredi focus is on the funding of their separate educational systems, as well as housing and health care.

Over the decades, Haredi parties have worked with Labor and Likud, reflecting their total lack of political ideology. But they have become emboldened in recent years in terms of imposing their understanding of Jewish values on the population at large. This has stoked strong resentment among the other 88 percent.

Furthermore, the economic and security burdens of the state cannot be supported by the non-Haredi population forever; it is seen to be unjust and unsustainable. Efforts to induce Haredi men to the workforce or to participate in army or civil service have been met with stiff resistance and violent protests. [3]

The Haredi vote is highly motivated and this population tends to take direction from leading rabbis regarding which party to support. Roughly broken down, the Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent) support United Torah Judaism and the Mizrachi and Sephardic Haredim back Shas. Together, this demographic typically controls about 15 Knesset seats, making them a major political force. [4]

The Haredi parties’ pledge of undying fealty to Likud and the right-wing bloc, is based solely on financial issues and not at all on right-wing ideology.

Drawing by Ioan Szabo

Likud gives them what they demand in return for a free hand in all matters of security and state affairs.

Lapid refuses to accept the prevailing status quo, which is why he and his Yesh Atid party are likened to the devil by the Haredim. The vile epithets thrown at Lapid by Haredi leadership are simply not fit to print. But feel free to google the topic.

Haredi religious identity vis a vis the state determines their politics. There is nothing remotely right- or left-wing about them. Nothing.


YISRAEL BEITENU (“Israel, Our Home”)

Knesset #24 – 7 seats; polling around 4 currently

Rounding out the “Anyone But Bibi” club on the right is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party.

Like Hauser, Hendel and Shaked, Lieberman cut his political teeth as an aide to Netanyahu, and, also like the others, he is an avowed enemy of the former prime minister.

Lieberman’s voter base is heavily Russian, and he has represented their particular interests well over the years. His constituency tends to be secular, hawkish on security and focused on matters connected to integration in their new country. This group will not sit with Bibi’s Likud or the Haredim. Come crunch time, they could well be the icing on the center-left cake, a position that Lieberman has been in more than once in the past.

Drawing by Ioan Szabo



VII. ELECTION #5 FOR KNESSET #25

November 1 presents the people with a virtually identical slate of candidates (compared to the last four iterations), with a little shuffling of chairs and party names.

The core issue?

What kind of state will Israel become in the next 75 years of its existence? Will Israelis choose to define a Jewish state as one that adheres to religious law, first and foremost; as one that considers democracy to be a lesser value?

Or, will the delicate balance between religion and state be managed deftly, to ensure that all Israelis may enjoy the freedoms associated with a liberal democracy?

Election #4 (and several before) was dominated by an “Anyone But Bibi” movement, a loose coalition of interests that believed that the PM should make room for new blood and leadership. Some felt his criminal indictments tainted the office, others simply found his governing style was becoming dangerously divisive. Many felt his kowtowing to the Haredi bloc had gone too far.

Some Israelis look at the religious and social divisions in the country today and ask, with trepidation, if we are not already well down the road to a version of theocracy lite.

In Israel, the tension between that possibility and a liberal democracy has nothing to do with right-wing or left-wing ideologies and everything to do with core social and religious values.

Until next time, when the left-wing and centrist parties will be presented,


Editor's Notes

1) Israel’s legislature – The Knesset – consists of 120 elected members. It is a parliamentary democracy which determines the number of seats for each party on the basis of proportional representation. This means that each party running in the election is allocated seats based on their percentage of the overall vote cast. In order to even enter the Knesset a party must “cross the threshold” of 3.25% of the popular vote. Any party that achieves this level receives four Knesset seats.

Following the election, the various parties get down to brass tacks. Each party leader meets with the President of Israel (currently former Labor party leader, Isaac Herzog). The president receives the various leaders’ comments with respect to the type of governing coalition they are prepared to support. For example, it is expected that several of the “right-wing parties” will confirm to President Herzog that they wish to support a governing coalition led by Likud.

After hearing all submissions, the president then selects one party to negotiate a governing coalition within a fixed time period. Should that party not succeed then the president may select another party to attempt to form a government. The rules governing these processes are beyond Byzantine. Suffice it to say that where no party succeeds in negotiating a governing coalition then another election is called in short order.

A governing coalition must consist of a bare minimum of 61 MKs in order to have a majority in the Knesset. Of course, the smaller parties – like the ultra-Orthodox – wield disproportionate power in coalitions because they often have the leverage that – if they bolt – the government falls.

2) For several years now the right wing in general has been very adversarial with the justice system, in particular the Israeli Supreme Court. The judges are seen by the right to be exceedingly activist and usurping the role of the Knesset in many of their decisions. But the right-wing rancor also extends to the law enforcement and justice systems broadly.

3) Very small numbers of Haredi men choose to enlist in the IDF. Those who do are often vilified in their own communities. It is important to note as well that the Arab population in Israel does not enlist for IDF service either, although for quite different reasons. Together, though, the Haredi and Arab communities have high fertility rates, meaning that in the coming decades the security burden will fall on a smaller number of Israeli Jews, which is seen by many as being fundamentally unfair and unsustainable.

4) The Ashkenazi Haredi political parties represent communities that are very rule-oriented in the manner in which they practice and observe Judaism. Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews are more relaxed in this regard. In fact, many Israelis who vote for Shas – a putatively Haredi party representing the Sephardic and Mizrachi religious communities – are not actually Haredi at all. They tend to be more traditional. But they vote for Shas out of a tribal connection; a bond that comes from having been treated in the early decades of the state discriminatorily by the Ashkenazi elites that really controlled key state and religious institutions.

Ironically, Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, was born in Morocco and immigrated to Israel with his family as a young child. Rather than study within his Sephardic community, he attended a Lithuanian yeshiva – known by the slang name of “Litvacker.” Of all the Ashkenazi Haredi denominations, the Litvackers are considered to be the most unbending regarding rules, almost turning religious observance into a joyless way of living. By studying in such an environment (which was exceptional for someone of his background), Deri was “proving” that he was just as smart as a Litvacker. He was pushing back against the stereotype of Sephardic Jews being less educated and intellectual. (The Litvack yeshiva world had a reputation prior to WWII, which continues, of being the intellectual elites of Jewish and Torah study.) Arguably, Deri has been doing that all his life. Many of his supporters see him as an iconoclast who has challenged “the system” to their collective advantage, whether they are religious or not. For this reason, Deri often sits back when other Haredi politicians make a ruckus over issues that may not resonate with his base to the same degree.


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Author image
Tel Aviv, Israel
Originally from Toronto, now residing in Tel Aviv, Vivian has long been active in journalistic pursuits, practiced law for 24 years and served as the Canadian Ambassador to Israel from 2014-16.
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