Battle of the Benjamins

As Israeli voters head to the polls, two of the country’s most powerful men wrestle for the prime ministership in a battle for control, identity, and ultimately, the country’s future.

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Lt. Gen. Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Netanyahu at a September 11, 2013 Navy ceremony (photo credit: AP Photo: Dan Balilty)

Benjamin Netanyahu is an incomparably central fixture in Israeli politics. Prime Minister for the past decade (in addition to a three-year stint in the 1990s), leader of the Likud for the past 14 years (and for 20 of the past 26 years), the 69-year-old inevitably embodies the modern Israeli right. A shrewd politician, his undoubtedly controversial politics and rhetoric inflame opponents at home and abroad but only serve to cement his grip on power.

The Israeli left, however, has been in shambles. HaAvoda (Labor Party), together with its predecessor Mapai, governed Israel for the first 39 years of its existence, but it has not been in power since 2001, and Yitzhak Rabin, the statesman tragically assassinated by a far-right ultranationalist in 1995, was the last center-left Prime Minister to last more than two years.

But a new force, led by a figure long rumored to be making his entry into politics, has appeared, posing the greatest threat to Netanyahu’s power in recent memory. Benny Gantz, former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), whose then-hypothetical party had been polling in second place in the preceding months, registered the liberal Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience Party) in December 2018, in the lead-up to the April snap general election, called following Yisrael Beiteinu’s withdrawal from Netanyahu’s coalition government. Two months later, he joined forces with centrist fixture Yair Lapid, as well as fellow former Chiefs of Staff Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, to establish Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), a power-packed centrist alliance formed with the intention of taking on Netanyahu.

Israel’s major parties arranged in a political compass, graphed along economic (left-right) and civil-governmental (libertarian-authoritarian) axes

With Netanyahu and Gantz as the clear frontrunners, conceptual electoral blocs have formed around the two competitors. Netanyahu’s coalition partners are expected to remain with him, while Labor, as well as Meretz, the left-wing environmentalist-feminist party on the left end of Israel’s Zionist spectrum, are assumed coalition partners for Kahol Lavan. In the midst of this feud, however, Israel’s Arab parties are left in limbo.

Opinion polls, generally dividing parties among the “left” and “right” bloc, with the former centered around Kahol Lavan, include Israel’s two Arab-majority alliances (each composed of two parties), which are mostly left-leaning, with Gantz’s bloc. Netanyahu helps fuel this assumption with racist rhetoric, warning against “a leftist government beholden to Arabs” under Gantz. Meanwhile, Gantz himself entirely rejects not Netanyahu’s racism but rather the suggestion that he would sit with Arabs in government. “I don’t intend to cooperate with those who go against the State of Israel”, he said in a recent interview, adding in a separate statement that he would work with “anyone who is Jewish and Zionist”.

For many Arabs — among those who are even given the right to vote — the various likely outcomes of the election are a selection more unappealing than ever before. And with the split of the Joint List, the unified alliance of four Arab-majority parties that ran in 2015, enthusiasm is further depressed. As a result, Arab turnout is projected to reach a new low in recent history, with many disaffected voters choosing to boycott or otherwise skipping the election.

That being said, the choices are certainly greater in variety than has been seen before. 14 different groups, representing 21 different parties, stand a chance at crossing the 3.25% threshold and winning seats. With the help of this article, these complex options can be deconstructed for a greater understanding.

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The above chart presents a simple breakdown of each major party and its general ideology. Below, we’ll go into more depth, party by party, in descending order of average polling result.

Each party will be listed with its Hebrew (and, if applicable, Arabic) name, Latin transliteration of it Hebrew name, and its English name, along with its average, low, and high polling result for April, and its current number of seats.

כחול לבן | Kahol Lavan | Blue and White
Average of 29 seats (low of 27, high of 32); currently hold 11 seats

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From left to right: former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon

The star-studded alliance, featuring three former Chiefs of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and a former Minister of Finance in its first four list positions, is a grand coalition of powerful men in Israeli politics and society — a boys’ club, if you will — forged to break Netanyahu’s grip on political power. A joining of forces of Gantz’s centrist Hosen L’Yisrael party, Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, Ya’alon’s center-right Telem party, and Ashkenazi, the new party’s vision is less so one in which the incumbent government’s policy is to be radically transformed and more so one in which the symbolic figure of Netanyahu would be out of power.

Indeed, although the party’s platform seeks to amend (though not repeal) the immensely controversial Nation-State Law to include a guarantee of equality as a constitutional principle, it also promises no disengagement from settlements in the West Bank, indicating little deviation from Netanyahu’s policies on settlement expansion, and is uncompromising on the country’s status quo claim to all of Jerusalem. And the alliance itself was only forged on the eve of the registration deadline in February, following the finalization of a last-minute agreement in which Gantz would switch out for Lapid after two years as Prime Minister in the event of an election victory; naturally, the two men both desire power. That being said, the distinction formed simply by separating oneself from Netanyahu is larger than it may seem, and Kahol Lavan does not cooperate with the far right in the way that Likud does.

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Left: “The nation of Israel lives — Blue and White”, showing Kahol Lavan’s leading figures. Right: “Kahane lives”, showing Netanyahu among prominent figures of the Israeli far right, and referencing deceased Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Sources suggest Gantz plans to form government with the center-right Kulanu, right-libertarian Zehut, and ultra-Orthodox UTJ and Shas, though such a coalition would not hold a majority according to polls, and all of the aforementioned parties may just as well enter government with Likud (all but Zehut are currently in Netanyahu’s government). The center-left Labor and left-wing Meretz are frequently mentioned as likely coalition partners for Gantz, but the inclusion of the secular, progressive Meretz would exclude the possibility of Zehut, UTJ, and Shas joining; Labor, however, has sat in government with UTJ and Shas in the past. The two parties, however, as with any other member of the Israeli left, are taboo to most Israeli voters, and as such Gantz would certainly like to avoid the implication that he is associating with them.

הליכוד | HaLikud (Likud) | Consolidation
Average of 28 seats (low of 26, high of 31); currently hold 30 seats

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), flanked by Amir Ohana (left) and Avi Dichter (right)

The party in power for the past decade, led for nearly a decade and a half by the steadfast and seemingly infrangible Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, has a simple plan should it attain victory for the fourth consecutive election: keep doing what it’s been doing. The national-conservative and economic liberal party has led Israel’s aggressive expansionism, hardline tactics against Palestinian leadership, and now-strengthened alliance with the United States. With right-wing politics in Israel more popular than ever, Likud will certainly not moderate its image, one that Netanyahu steered significantly to the right when he assumed the party’s leadership what seems to be (and is becoming) so far in the past. Indeed, Bibi is succeeding in goading Benny Gantz to join him in a frantic race to the right, with Avoda leader Avi Gabbay chasing from far behind.

Besides Gantz’s prowess, only one other thing stands in the way of an easy victory for Netanyahu: his latest corruption charges. In late February, Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s Attorney General (a position that, unlike in countries such as the United States, is independent of the partisan government) announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery and fraud. Fortunately for the Prime Minister, the hearing and subsequent actual indictment will happen after the election, a decision that certainly elicited a sign of relief from the defendant.

Polls have shown that in the event of an indictment, Likud’s numbers would drop significantly, with one poll showing that Kahol Lavan would command a 37–25 lead and another indicating an even more staggering 44–25 lead. But propaganda will inevitably have its way, and Netanyahu will surely work as hard as he can — and he can certainly work hard — to soften the blow of such an indictment. And in the worst case scenario, Netanyahu may strike a deal with his fellow right-wing politicians to save himself from punishment. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has already stated that an indictment wouldn’t prevent Netanyahu from carrying on his role as Prime Minister.

Currently, Netanyahu’s government consists of Likud, Kulanu, UTJ, Shas, Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi), and New Right, with Yisrael Beiteinu having also been a coalition partner until the party withdrew in November 2018. All of Likud’s coalition partners (the Jewish Home now being part of URW) are expected to continue to be in favor of a Likud-led government, with Zehut and Gesher also indicating openness to joining such a coalition.

העבודה | HaAvoda (Avoda) | Labor Party
Average of 10 seats (low of 8, high of 14); currently hold 18 seats

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Labor leader Avi Gabbay

The Labor Party, sometimes referred to in English-speaking media as Avoda, the Latin transliteration of its Hebrew short name, has historically been one of Israel’s two dominant parties, alongside Likud. The party was borne out of a 1968 merger between Mapai, the dominant party of early Israel and the party of the country’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and two smaller parties, Ahdut HaAvoda and Rafi. But in the 21st century, as the center under Ariel Sharon and subsequently the right under Netanyahu has increasingly dominated, Labor’s position has become weaker. Once holding seat counts in the range of the 40s and 50s, Labor has failed to break 20 seats since the turn of the millennium, though it and its former ally Hatnuah (more on this later) has held the position of Leader of the Opposition since 2013. The party’s misfortunes are sign of a greater need for revitalization for the Israeli left.

Benny Gantz is not the only party leader to be a relative political newcomer. Businessman Avi Gabbay, former CEO of the telecommunications company Bezeq, entered politics in 2014 as a co-founder of the center-right Kulanu party, under which he served as Minister of Environmental Protection from 2015 to 2016. In December 2016, however, he joined the Labor Party, and three months later he launched his campaign for the party leadership. Narrowly winning in a runoff against former party leader Amir Peretz with 52% of the vote, Gabbay, in line with his background, has shifted the party away from its traditional adherence to social democracy and Labor Zionism, a working class centered approach to what its supporters consider a progressive Zionist project, toward a more centrist, social liberal ideology.

In addition to implementing ideological changes, Gabbay has not been afraid to make other controversial decisions. In 2015, under the leadership of Isaac Herzog, Labor had joined forces with the social liberal Hatnuah (Movement) party (led by former Leader of the Opposition Tzipi Livni, one of the most powerful female politicians in Israel’s history) to form the Zionist Union alliance, under which it made modest gains. But in what was the culmination of increasing tension, Gabbay broke off Labor from the alliance on the first day of 2019. The Zionist Union had already been polling poorly at the time, and the split plunged Hatnuah into sub-threshold limbo, forcing Livni to pull her party out of the election and retire from politics.

Gabbay’s goal should be to simply minimize Labor’s losses, as the prospects for any gains this election seem far too unrealistic. Ironically, Gantz is just as much Gabbay’s problem as he is Netanyahu’s. Thanks to Labor’s centrist turn, there are decreasing ideological differences between themselves and Kahol Lavan — Labor MK Stav Shaffir has said as much, as has Gabbay done so in private — and voters will naturally flock to the more compelling and popular option. In Labor’s January conference, Gabbay was treated to boos and whistles; he will certainly hope his fortunes improve.

الجبهة • חד”ש | Hadash | New (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality)
الحركة العربية للتغيير • תע”ל ‎| Ta’al | Arab Movement for Renewal
Average of 7 seats (low of 6, high of 8); currently hold 5 seats

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From left to right: Ofer Cassif (Hadash), Aida Touma-Suleiman (Hadash), Ayman Odeh (Hadash), Ahmad Tibi (Ta’al), Sondos Saleh (Ta’al)

Hadash-Ta’al is one of two Arab-majority slates contesting the election. Hadash, the larger of its two components, is Israel’s only historically Arab-Jewish party (its first three list members are a Muslim Arab, a Christian Arab, and a Jew). It is centered on Maki (the Israeli Communist Party), also containing other leftist elements. Led by Ayman Odeh, the party is self-defined as non-Zionist (other Arab parties place themselves as anti-Zionist), supporting equality between Arab and Jews, and also has a strong environmental focus. Ta’al, the second party, is a big tent, mostly centre-left, Arab nationalist party. Its leader, deputy Speaker of the Knesset Ahmad Tibi, was an advisor to former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, who rose to great acclaim in Israeli politics for his Knesset speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2010, which then-Speaker and current President Reuven Rivlin of Likud called “one of the best speeches” he had ever heard.

Hadash and Ta’al, for their more uncontroversial histories than the other Arab parties, are likely to win some votes from leftist Jewish voters displeased by the left-Zionist parties; Hadash already has a strong Jewish contingent in its support base and frequently campaigns in Tel Aviv, as the alliance has done so this year, handing out t-shirts in Tel Aviv saying “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies”. The parties, however, are certainly not free of controversy; Dr. Ofer Cassif, Hadash’s highest-ranked Jewish candidate, had his candidacy called into question for such statements as calling the New Right’s Ayelet Shaked “Neo-Nazi scum”.

The two parties were previously part of the Joint List, an alliance of Hadash, Ta’al, Balad, and Ra’am formed for the 2015 elections after Netanyahu’s government, at Avigdor Lieberman’s urging, increased the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% in an effort to exclude Arab parties. But in January, Tibi withdrew Ta’al from the Joint List, believing his party was underrepresented in the alliance. In the aftermath of this split, the Joint List disbanded entirely, rearranging into the two pairings presented in this election.

Odeh and Tibi have expressed their openness to working with Gantz under certain conditions; Odeh, for his part, penned a New York Times op-ed calling for a united Jewish-Arab front against Netanyahu and stated he would be willing to back Gantz for Prime Minister, with qualifications: “they need to show us they are willing to negotiate peace with the Palestinian leadership, support equality for all citizens including Arabs, increase budgets to the local authorities in Arab villages and cancel the nation-state law.” But the relationship — if it can even be said that there is one — seems to be one-sided; Gantz seems to have nothing to do with his Arab colleagues.

יהדות התורה | Yahadut HaTorah | United Torah Judaism (UTJ)
Average of 7 seats (low of 6, high of 8); currently hold 6 seats

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Yaakov Litzman (left) and Moshe Gafni, leaders of the Agudat Israel (Union of Israel) and Degel HaTorah (Banner of the Torah) components, respectively.

United Torah Judaism is one of two parties in Israel representing Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews. An alliance of Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, two parties representing Ashkenazi Haredim (the former representing non-Hasidim and the latter representing Hasidim), the party frequently participates in coalition governments but frequently criticizes Israel’s structure, favoring Halacha (Jewish religious law) over the country’s secular-dominated lifestyle; Rabbi Elazar Shach, founder of Degel HaTorah, identified Israel as an “anti-Torah” entity. In fact, contrary to the positions of its fellow right-wing parties, UTJ is non-Zionist, which is the furthest extent of what it shares with the socialist Hadash. The party strictly adheres to religious conservatism, running only male candidates in line with Halachic rules of modesty.

Despite its non-Zionism, UTJ is currently in government with Likud, and would be likely to continue to support a Likud government, though Gantz will court the party should he be in the position to potentially form government too. UTJ can be counted on to make the same coalition that Shas does.

איחוד מפלגות הימין | Echud Miflagot HaYamin | Union of Right-Wing Parties (URW)
Average of 6 seats (low of 5, high of 8); currently hold 5 seats

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Union of Right-Wing Parties and Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz

In December 2018, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked left the far-right Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party. The party lost its most popular figures. But this departure came as a hidden gift — free of its more “moderate” members (particularly the secular Shaked, who was an exception in the overwhelming company of religious Zionists), the party was able to enter a full-throated embrace of nationalist extremism. Already allied with the ultranationalist Tkuma (Resurrection), who provided two of its MKs, the party welcomed Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) into the fold.

Otzma Yehudit, a party on the furthest fringe of Israeli politics, follows Kahanism, the political thought of the deceased Rabbi Meir Kahane, an early promoter of Israeli ultranationalism who co-founded the American terrorist Jewish Defense League group and was convicted for conspiracy to manufacture explosives in New York in 1971. Kahane’s Kach party was banned from running for election in Israel on account of its racist anti-Arab beliefs. Otzma Yehudit, however, is more fortunate, being permitted to run in 2019, though not unscathed — its leader, Michael Ben Ari, was banned by the Supreme Court, the first time in the country’s history that a single candidate (rather than a political party as a whole) has been banned from participating in an election.

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Otzma Yehudit leader Michael Ben Ari (left) speaking at a ceremony honoring Meir Kahane

Controversially, the merger between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit was engineered by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Netanyahu arranged the agreement for electoral expediency; a united far-right would gain more seats, seats which would reliably support a Likud government. For this, even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, along with the American Jewish Committee, condemned the move. But it is more likely to pay off for Netanyahu than to backfire — the alliance is comfortably polling above the threshold, and groups such as AIPAC have not backed down in their support for Netanyahu, despite their criticism of this decision.

Replacing Bennett, the party selected Rafi Peretz, a former Chief Military Rabbi of the IDF with a history of controversial statements about Arabs, as its leader. Peretz is not as extremist as the likes of Ben Ari, but his leadership will nevertheless represent a departure from the more mainstream positions of Bennett and Shaked. His alliance will undoubtedly give its support to a Netanyahu-led government.

הימין החדש | HaYamin HeHadash (HaYamin Hadash) | New Right
Average of 6 seats (low of 5, high of 7); currently hold 3 seats

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Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (left) and Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked have long been political companions. Meeting through their work in Netanyahu’s office, the two founded My Israel, a right-wing extra-parliamentary movement, in 2010, and two years later, the two left Likud for the Jewish Home, with Bennett becoming elected leader of the party. Shaked, despite her secularism, naturally became prominent member of the party as well. Since then, Bennett has held four different cabinet positions while in government with Likud, currently being Minister of Education (as well as the more minor Minister of Diaspora Affairs), and Shaked is Minister of Justice. But despite their right-wing rhetoric, which earned the ire of leftist and Arab politicians, the two became increasingly at odds with the rest of their party’s strictly religious orientation, and despite Bennett’s then-incumbent leadership of the party, the two left in December 2018 to form the New Right, a party with which they wished to continue to pursue their ideological goals while forging religious-secular unity.

In the founding of their new party, the two additionally recruited fellow Jewish Home MK Shuli Mualem, as well as Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick and deaf rights activist Shirley Pinto. And while their previous party has retained strong support in their absence, the New Right has succeeded in growing by gaining the support of right-wingers disaffected by Likud but turned off by the Jewish Home’s religiosity. With its policies, the party aims to implement the Gavison-Medan model of religious-secular conciliation, continue to expand upon Israel’s settlements and its status as a Jewish state (like the URW, the party supports a one-state solution), and pursue laissez-faire economic policies.

Despite forging their own path, Bennett and Shaked will by no means be averse to rejoining their former compatriots in the Union of Right-Wing Parties, and of course, continuing their support for Likud. Indeed, a senior party insider referred to their stance as “the antithesis of Benny Gantz”.

מרצ | Meretz | Vigor
Average of 6 seats (low of 5, high of 8); currently hold 5 seats

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Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg

With Labor’s moderation, Meretz is the standard bearer of the mainstream Jewish left-wing in Israel. Secularist, feminist, green, and social democratic, it is the leftmost Zionist party in the Knesset, and is the only party to have considered cooperation with Israel’s Arab parties in the past, a proposed surplus agreement in 2015 with the Joint List having fallen apart at Balad’s objection. The party was founded as a merger of the socialist Mapam (United Workers Party), the liberal Shinui (Change), and the left-libertarian feminist Ratz (Movement for Civil Rights and Peace), whose founder, Shulamit Aloni, would lead Meretz upon its formation. While it is still, as it has always been, considered a Jewish-dominated party, its fourth and fifth list members are Arabs. Its leader, Tamar Zandberg, is likely to be the only female party leader in the 21st Knesset.

Meretz’s platform emphasizes Israeli-Palestinian peace, which includes freezing the construction of settlements, removing the Nation-State Law, and affirming equal rights and religious freedom in Israel. The party also supports LGBT+ rights, environmentalism, and workers’ rights. These positions put the party at odds with most of the rest of the Knesset; in the past, the party has only been a member of coalition governments led by Labor, and its second (and last) stint in government only lasted a year, the party withdrawing from Ehud Barak’s government following disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox Shas. It is more likely than not that Meretz will find itself pushing its policies from the opposition for the sixth consecutive term.

זהות | Zehut | Identity
Average of 6 seats (low of 4, high of 8); currently hold 0 seats

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Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin

If there is to be one, Zehut is the outsider party of this election. The only party not currently represented in the Knesset that is set to win seats, Zehut was founded in the aftermath of the 2015 election by former Likud activist Moshe Feiglin.

Feiglin, who has held a longtime presence in the Israeli political sphere, founded the nationalist Zo Artzeinu (This is our land) movement in 1993 in protest of the Oslo Accords and the concessions it made to Palestinians. Seeking to transform this protest movement into something with the potential to change government, he founded the Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish leadership) movement three years later, a movement to bring what they described as “authentic Jewish values” to Israel. Building this movement within Likud, Feiglin gained support, winning 23% in the 2012 leadership election and subsequently gaining the deputy speakership. But Feiglin found himself clashing with Netanyahu, and in frustration with Netanyahu’s attempts to block his advancement within the party, he left in 2015 and founded Zehut.

Zehut provides a unique blend of right-libertarianism and, as its name (meaning “identity”) suggests, nationalism. The party advocates for cannabis legalization, abolition of government-registered marriage, ending police brutality, and protecting rights to privacy and bearing arms, in addition to liberal economic policies such as a flat tax, land privatization, and school vouchers. But the party also supports a radical one-state solution for Israel, endorsing conquest of Gaza in response to Hamas attacks, and taking a hard line on rights for non-Jews. The party’s platform appeals strongly to Jewish Israeli youth, finishing second in a poll among college students, behind Kahol Lavan and ahead of Meretz.

Feiglin has not committed to backing either Likud or Kahol Lavan, and as mentioned earlier, Gantz has allegedly indicated his support for inviting Zehut to a government led by him. Zehut could may well position itself as kingmaker should the election results be close, capping off a successful campaign for an unorthodox party.

ש״ס | Shas | Torah-Observant Sephardim
Average of 5 seats (low of 4, high of 6); currently hold 7 seats

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Shas leader Aryeh Deri (right), speaking with Yaakov Litzman

Shas, the other of the two parties representing Haredi Israelis, focuses on Sephardi and Mizrahi Haredim. Having participated in Labor-led governments in the past, the party is more left-leaning on economic issues than UTJ, while still maintaining religious conservatism, and likewise also excludes women from its list. Unlike UTJ, however, the party is strongly Zionist and holds membership in the World Zionist Organisation.

Representing its constituency, the party advocates for the rights of Sephardim and Mizrahim in Israel. It seeks to end what it describes as “continued economic and social discrimination against the Sephardic population of Israel”. In recent years, while changing little in its social orientation, the party has shifted to the right on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making alliances with the left less natural. That being said, an alliance with the left and an alliance with Kahol Lavan is by no means the same thing, and while the party is in coalition with Likud, as with UTJ, it may well consider Gantz’s proposal.

כולנו | Kulanu | We All
Average of 4 seats (low of 0, high of 6); currently hold 10 seats

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Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (left) speaking with Benjamin Netanyahu

Kulanu is the first of the remaining parties in this article to be in danger of losing its Knesset representation. The party has been generally polling marginally above the threshold, but two April polls have shown it missing out by less than 0.5%. However, should it retain its representation, it, like Zehut, could find itself as a kingmaker.

Moshe Kahlon, a longtime Likud MK, founded the party in 2014 after briefly retiring from the Knesset the previous year. More centrist than his previous party, the center-right Kulanu seeks a more egalitarian economic approach. On economics, foreign policy, and social issues, Kulanu positions itself between Labor and Likud. The party has been described as more accurately representing the national liberalism of Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Likud founder Menachem Begin.

Being a center-right party, Kulanu could join a Gantz-led government or continue its support for a Netanyahu-government. But Kahlon has been clear in his opposition to a left-wing government or one supported by Arabs, stating that “if Benny Gantz presents a left-wing government, or a government that endangers the State of Israel, or will divide Jerusalem, I won’t be [with him]”, but that “if if turns out that Benny Gantz is not a man of the left, and is a man of the national camp, and appropriate to my positions, I’ll sit with him in a government”.

القائمة العربية الموحدة • רע”מ | Ra’am | Thunder (United Arab List)
بلد • בל”ד | Balad | National Democratic Assembly
Average of 3 seats (low of 0, high of 5); currently hold 8 seats

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Balad leader Mtanes Shehadeh

Following the breakup of the Joint List, while Hadash and Ta’al formed an alliance, the other two Arab-majority parties, Ra’am and Balad, likewise created their own alliance. Balad is a left-wing nationalist party, though not with the socialist politics of Hadash. The party has a controversial history, its founder Azmi Bishara having fled Israel in 2006 after being suspected of supplying information to Hezbollah during the Israel-Lebanon War, and rumors abound that the party is funded by Qatar, where Bishara now resides. Haneen Zoabi, a longtime Balad MK who is retiring this year, is a vocally anti-Zionist firebrand. Meanwhile, Ra’am, whose full English name is the United Arab List, is the largest of tents in Israel, the party containing factions across the political spectrum. Much of the party is dominated by the southern, more moderate branch of the Islamic Movement, an Islamist organization in Israel. Religious Arabs are Ra’am’s key constituency, as are Bedouin communities.

Allying with Balad and Ra’am is the most contentious suggestion to Zionist parties, with Hadash and Ta’al being far more inoffensive, and as such, Gantz will certainly seek to avoid the Ra’am-Balad alliance. That being said, the alliance’s immediate goal should be to remain in the Knesset — with lowered Arab turnout and the greater popularity of Hadash and Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad are in danger of falling below the threshold.

ישראל ביתנו | Yisrael Beiteinu | Israel Our Home
Average of 3 seats (low of 0, high of 5); currently hold 5 seats

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Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman (right) speaking with Aryeh Deri

Avigdor Lieberman has held a cabinet position in virtually every year since the turn of the millennium, and he will certainly be hoping his streak will continue. Having worked with Benjamin Netanyahu since 1988, Lieberman founded Yisrael Beiteinu in 1999 to represent the interests of Russian-speaking Israelis such as himself. Uniquely positioned as a secular right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu follows the Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

One of the party’s notable policies is the Lieberman Plan, first put forward in 2004. Lieberman proposes a territorial exchange in which Arab-dominated areas of Israel would be given to Palestine and Israeli settlements in the West Bank close to the border would be officially transferred to Israel. Such a redrawing of borders would see both countries become much more ethnically homogeneous, something Lieberman suggests would be mutually beneficial, but the policy is highly controversial.

Yisrael Beiteinu was a member of Netanyahu’s government until Lieberman, then the Minister of Defense, withdrew the party from the coalition in November 2018 in reaction to a new ceasefire agreement with Hamas in Gaza. In the wake of this withdrawal, the snap election was called for April. Ironically, not just with the resulting election, Lieberman’s actions may be his party’s own undoing. In 2013, it was Lieberman who proposed the electoral threshold increase to 3.25% (he in fact initially wanted 4%, but Tzipi Livni’s opposition led to a compromise). Now, Yisrael Beiteinu may fall below that threshold. Only just over half of April polls show the party winning seats. If he does successfully stay in the Knesset, Lieberman will likely maneuver for a renewed coalition with Likud. Despite the most recent disagreement, the parties are natural partners, having even run in an electoral alliance in 2013.

גשר | Gesher | Bridge
Average of 0 seats (low of 0, high of 4); currently hold 1 seat

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Gesher leader Orly Levy

Orly Levy has been mentioned as a rising star in Israeli politics. But her first hurdle will be to retain her seat in the Knesset. A former MK for Yisrael Beiteinu, Levy left the party in 2016, complaining of a lack of attention to the social causes she pushed. Like Gantz, she was polling well before she even formed her party. But while Gesher, the new centrist party she founded, named identically to the party her father founded before re-merging with Likud, was off to a reasonable start, Gantz’s rise hampered her. Following failed negotiations for Gesher to run with Gantz’s list, her party began dropping below the threshold in polls, and now has polled above the threshold in only one of the last twenty polls.

Levy has previously indicated her willingness to support either a Gantz-led or a Netanyahu-led government. But it seems her political emergence, let alone her coalition membership, may have to wait another electoral cycle.

My many thanks to those who have made it through this certainly arduous article. I hope that this provides a sufficient summary of the numerous contenders in this year’s Israeli election. As voters cast their ballots today, the fun is certainly not over with the end of the campaign season — regardless of the results, the government formation process will certainly be a colorful one.

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