The final list of political parties running in Israel’s September 17 election is remarkably — and historically — short.
Israeli politics has been reshaped by new alliances after the entire political firmament learned a harsh lesson from the April election just five months earlier: Unity among ideological allies is crucial. Smaller parties flying solo learned the hard way that independence meant risk falling below the electoral threshold and not making it into the Knesset. By doing so, they not only hurt themselves but mortally wound their entire political camp by “wasting” votes that could help them build a bloc large enough to construct a government.
Blame practicality or election exhaustion: With only nine parties seemingly in a position to cross the electoral threshold, the next Knesset is set to feature the fewest number of parties in Israel’s history. With the final slates now submitted, here are the main contenders:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - fighting a second re-election campaign under the shadow of pending corruption indictments, moved early to reinforce Likud by merging it with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s party giving himself one less party to wrestle with in governing coalition negotiations. Later in the race, he convinced Moshe Feiglin, leader of the far-right Zehut party, to pull out of the elections in order to give larger right-wing parties the precious votes he was taking. In exchange, Feiglin was promised a ministry in a future Likud-led government.
Netanyahu has had to fight on multiple fronts during this campaign. He has been battling his main rival for the premiership, Benny Gantz and Kahol Lavan for the title of the largest party - the two parties are running neck in the polls, with Kahol Lavan pulling ahead by a seat in the latest polling. At the same time, he must fend off two other right-wing parties bent on winning over traditional Likud voters, each headed by a nemesis who once served in his cabinet: former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Another key fight may lay ahead within his own party. While Netanyahu - for now - retains an iron grip on power within Likud, he still needs to worry. If Gantz and Lieberman finish strongly, they may invite Likud members to join a widely based national unity coalition - but condition the invitation on getting rid of Netanyahu.
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The largest of the multi-party players in the race, Kahol Lavan has continued with its four man alliance formed ahead of the April election. This “brotherhood” of centrist parties features Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and new parties headed by two former IDF chiefs of staff — Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon, who previously served as defense minister under Netanyahu. Many predicted that the three-way marriage wouldn’t last past the April election, but the parties are still together. There are periodic rumblings of dissatisfaction about the rotation arrangement in which Gantz and Lapid would each serve as prime minister for two years - and some polls show the party could win more support without the rotation and with Gantz in place for four years. But Lapid is unlikely to budge and even with the rotation, the party is tightening its race with Likud in the polls and even showing signs of pulling ahead.
The party benefits greatly from having a leader in Gantz whom many Israelis see as a viable alternative to Netanyahu and who is not perceived as being left-wing. The party’s poll numbers have held steady throughout the campaign - neither the Labor-Gesher nor the Democratic Union parties have threatened its wide base of support.
In the late days of the election campaign, Kahol Lavan has embraced the concept promoted by rival Avigdor Lieberman of a centrist unity government excluding the ultra-Orthodox, plastering the country with Gantz billboards promising a “secular united government.”
The Yamina Party - renamed mid-campaign from the “United Right” slate is essentially a restoration of the alliance Ayelet Shaked helped dismantle, with disastrous results, after she and Naftali Bennett broke away to form Hayamin Hahadash last December. (Their new party failed to cross the electoral threshold, the primary reason that Netanyahu was unable to form a right-wing coalition).
After a relatively weak showing in the election, the religious parties they left behind — Habayit Hayehudi and Bezalel Smotrich's National Union, agreed, as did Bennett, to fall in line behind Shaked, bowing to the former Justice Minister’s popularity. Shaked is an anomaly - a secular woman at the top of a ticket of largely male Orthodox political leaders, a fact that makes it vulnerable to attacks from parties who are more religiously conservative. In the closing days of the campaign, the party has fended off an aggressive effort by Likud to peel off Yamina voters.
After a powerful debut showing in the 2015 election, in which it won an impressive 13 seats, the alliance of four predominantly Arab parties broke into two separate slates for the April race — and the results were bad.
Disheartened and unhappy with the Joint List’s ugly breakup earlier this year, voter turnout in the Arab community dropped dramatically — from 63 percent down to just 50 percent. The two slates (Hadash-Ta’al and United Arab List-Balad) only picked up 10 seats between them, a major drop in representation. Having learned the error of their ways, the four ideologically disparate parties have decided to unite once more to re energize their community. The slate’s leader, Ayman Odeh, has expressed hope that the move will help “overthrow the right-wing government,” as well as “preventing racism, annexation and the destruction of democracy.”
Odeh shook things up when he declared that he would be willing to consider entering a center-left government headed by Benny Gantz, a historic first for an Arab politician - a gesture that Gantz immediately dismissed
The party has been polling strongly - but the biggest challenge will be boosting Arab turnout back to 2015 levels, if not beyond. All indications, however point to slim chances of success, with Arab voters expressing even more cynicism and exhaustion to pollsters than the rest of the population.
Avigdor Lieberman played his political cards cleverly when he refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition after April’s election, thus triggering the September ballot. His bold move, grandstanding against the ultra-Orthodox parties and forcing a new election, has paid off, assuming the polls are a reliable indication - he has been polling at ten sets, twice the number he won in the April ballot. Once a hard-right sectoral party for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Lieberman has made his central campaign promise the formation of a government that will not include the ultra-Orthodox - presumably with Likud and Kahol Lavan.
Lieberman’s positions has led Netanyahu to charge that his rival is betraying the ideological right and that “a vote for Lieberman is a vote for a left-wing government.” His case was helped when Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beitenu signed a surplus vote agreement. Given Lieberman’s long record of hawkish positions and the fact that he resides in a West Bank settlement, however, it has been hard for Netanyahu to make the “leftist” label stick.
United Torah Judaism
The Ashkenazi, ultra-Orthodox alliance comprised of Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah, hopes to recreate its strong showing in the April election - or perhaps surpass it, fueled by a community made anxious by multiple aggressive anti-religious campaigns by various parties - Yisrael Beiteinu, Kahol Lavan, and the Democratic Union. Lieberman has said he is determined to forge ahead with government plans to cut the number of full-time yeshiva students granted exemptions from army service. It was UTJ’s refusal to yield to Lieberman on this point that ultimately triggered the new election.
Despite the fact that it was UTJ which forced Netanyahu into these elections by refusing to compromise with Lieberman, the party remains loyal to the prime minister. Its leader, Yaakov Litzman, said recently that the party wouldn’t consider supporting any other candidate, saying, “We will go with Bibi alone.”
Like its Ashkenazi counterpart, the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party is confident that things can only improve for them in the do-over election — though some polls suggest otherwise. Polls have consistently indicated the party will win only seven seats — one fewer than the eight it won in April.
Shas, like UTJ, is fighting Lieberman’s threat to push it out of the coalition by forming a unity government that would include its other political nemesis — Kahol Lavan’s Yair Lapid. And, as it did in April, Shas - led by Interior Minister Arye Dery says that he will stand firm on refusing to join a coalition that is not led by Likud and Netanyahu. Like Netanyahu, Dery has legal as well as political woes to consider. Israel Police have recommended that he be charged with fraud, breach of trust, tax-related offenses, obstruction of justice, perjury and money laundering - as with Netanyahu, an indictment is expected to be handed down after the elections.
In the first Israeli election of 2019 held in April, Labor was hobbled by the leadership of problematic outsider Avi Gabbay. He has since been replaced by former party head Amir Peretz, but there’s a new problem. Instead of succumbing to pressure to join forces with the leftist Meretz Party, Peretz decided to appeal to the center-right by teaming up with Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party, which failed to meet the electoral threshold and enter the Knesset in April. Levi-Abekasis’s right-wing record, combined with Peretz’s decision not join Meretz and Ehud Barak’s new party in the Democratic Union, has sown discontent in Labor ranks.
One popular member of Labor, Stav Shaffir, was discontent enough to jump ship, joining Meretz and Barak in the new Democratic Union.
Peretz’s bet on Levi-Abekasis does not seem to be helping the veteran party’s prospects. Polls show the party performing identically to the way it performed in April, where it garnered only six seats — a humiliatingly low number for the party of Israel’s founders and statesmen.
Among the wave of alliances in Israeli politics, this new electoral pact has been perhaps the oddest. It was born after former Prime Minister Ehud Barak thundered back onto the political scene in May, burning with desire to unite the nation’s center-left and leftist parties into one. And although he didn’t declare as much, he implied that he’d like to see himself leading the charge.
There had been talk of a Labor-Meretz merger, but the Barak factor disrupted the dynamic. In the end, Barak joined with Meretz (a left-wing/Zionist party) in a marriage aimed at keeping both parties above the electoral threshold — with the added bonus of renegade Labor lawmaker Shaffir.
But since the party’s formation, Barak has had to take a step back from a leadership role within the new party in order to assuage misgivings about his connections to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein — a scandal that threatened to end his political comeback before it even began. Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz and Shaffir have thus been the public faces of the new party, but it hasn’t helped them much in the polls, where it has wavered between six and seven seats.
In the final weeks of the election campaign, the most controversial party on the ballot - the far right Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) surprised political watchers by polling above the electoral threshold, and stands a realistic chance of entering the Knesset.
Following entreaties by Netanyahu for the far-right bloc to run together, Otzma Yehudit had been part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties in April, but the union broke apart ahead of the September ballot.
The new nationalist ultra-Orthodox Zionist party hit the political scene in the summer running under the slogan “A normal nation in our own land.” Noam may not have a chance of passing the electoral threshold, but its scathing anti-LGBT, anti-feminist and anti-pluralistic Judaism themes - and rage against the social liberalism of Yamina leaders Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett - has had an impact on the tone of the campaign in matters of religion and state. The party is being run by followers of extreme right-wing rabbi Rabbi Zvi Thau. Though it initially agreed to run with Noam on a joint slate, both parties have since announced they would run separately, due to Noam’s refusal to allow either secular candidates or women onto its slate.