On January 23rd, following a campaign full of intrigue, oddities, and jockeying, the 19th Knesset will convene, set to govern over an Israel that has arrived at a crossroads. The conventional wisdom is that it isn’t going to change much: right-wing parties will maintain their power, buttressed by new rising stars; the divide between the rich and the poor will worsen; the showdown with Iran will continue to loom large; and the two-state solution will likely remain an afterthought.
Still, there are a number of subplots that will indelibly alter the Israeli landscape in the coming years. Who are the rising stars of the political scene and how will newly formed parties define themselves? Will former giants like Labor find a second life, or are we hearing the death rattle of the Israeli center-left? Will the Orthodox rabbinate’s stranglehold persist, or will new alliances successfully break it?
To help you navigate the always-volatile maelstrom of Israeli elections, The Scroll has assembled this guide, highlighting the big stories, the quirky characters, and the defining issues as Israeli voters prepare to cast their ballots on January 22nd.
For starters, there is the man at the center of it all: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems poised to retain his post. There is, for obvious reasons, minute-to-minute reporting and analysis of Bibi’s every move (and non-move) these days. But for deeper insights into two men who have strongly influenced the prime minister, you might check out this piece about Netanyahu’s father Benzion and this profile of Ron Dermer, one of Netanyahu’s most trusted aides.
Even given the long shadow cast by this one man, the biggest story of this campaign seems to have been the rightward shift, especially within the behemoth Likud party. Long-time party moderates like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor have been pushed out in favor of Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin–both members of a hard-line faction that, unlike Netanyahu, is openly skeptical about a two-state solution and supports controversial policies like the annexation of the West Bank.
So, the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu superparty, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the temporarily disgraced Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, is an unsinkable juggernaut that will be able to impose its will on the Knesset–right? Well, not so fast. According to recent polls, the Biberman party seems poised to pick up about 32-34 seats (with undecided voters factored in). To reach the 61 seats needed for a ruling majority in the 120-seat Knesset, it will have to form a coalition with other parties.
The question, of course, is who those parties will be. The three likeliest scenarios involve Prime Minister Netanyahu forming a coalition with the right-wing parties, a mix of religious and center parties (excepting their new rival The Jewish Home, or a coalition without the religious parties. For a more detailed breakdown, check out Liam Hoare’s piece on the various coalition scenarios.
The only possible scenario in which Prime Minister Netanyahu does not remain premier is if he is unseated by Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich, a divisive leader who has vowed not to join a Bibi-led coalition. Right now, she is polling at around 17 seats, so unseating Bibi seems highly unlikely. The question, then, is whether she can lead a meaningful, effective opposition. If Michael Cohen’s stellar profile of Yachimovich is accurate, chances are the labor leader will continue to avoid weighty security issues in favor of social and economic one–and in Israel, as one person notes to Cohen, ‘It’s the economy stupid’ just doesn’t cut it.
Israelis are fixated on issues on national security — which may explain why, among the rising stars in this election, none have had a more meteoric rise than Naftali Bennett. Bennett, Bibi’s former chief of state, has managed to revitalize the Jewish Home party, long a fringe party, by successfully baiting Bibi, his former boss, into running against him. We’ll have a look at Bennett and the meaning of his popularity by our esteemed senior writer Liel Leibovitz on Monday, so check back for that.
We’ll also closely be watching the Two Yairs-—Yair Lapid and Yair Shamir—-both sons of famous Israeli fathers and both garnering considerable buzz in their respective parties, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu.
Yair Lapid, a 49-year-old telegenic former news anchor for Channel 2, is the head of the new centrist party Yesh Atid, which seems short on concrete solutions, and is relying on winning votes by pushing issues like governmental and economic reform. Lapid, the son of a prominent member of Knesset and justice minister Josef “Tommy” Lapid, has also capitalized on the issues of economic and social justice brought about by 2011’s J14 tent protests (see Etgar Keret’s piece for more on that). But he also has hawkish stances; Lapid claims he won’t join a coalition that refuses to return to negotiations with the Palestinians, opposes giving up Jerusalem in a peace deal, and wants both Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army. A rival of the Labor Party, Yesh Atid could pick up as many at 10 seats, which would make it attractive for a coalition although Lapid has said he will only join a moderate, centrist coalition.
While Lapid leads a party, Yair Shamir, the son of late Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, represents the business face of Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party. Shamir been part of the leadership of major Israeli companies including El Al, Elite Foods, and Israel Aerospace Industries, where he was the chairman. Shamir rejects the tenets of J14 protests in favor of good old fashioned free market as well as Palestinian statehood. As number two on the party list, expect him in Bibi’s cabinet.
Meanwhile Kadima, Israel’s largest party in the last election, founded by Ariel Sharon, and once led by Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livi, is dead. Following a lackluster year in which it ousted Livni as party chair, Kadima joined with Netanyahu’s coalition for a brief 70-day marriage and then split from it, and then watched its membership fracture with dramatic defections and expulsions. And given that the party was formed in a fit of dramatic defections, its impending death–many predict it will fail to meet the 2% threshold required for Knesset–seems nothing if not ironic.
This, of course, is just a taste of what’s been happening. With less than two weeks to go, we should expect more jockeying, maneuvering, gaffes, and excitement as things heat up.
Stay tuned for more of our coverage.