The final list of political parties running in Israel’s September 17 election looks like it will be remarkably — and historically — short.
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The entire political firmament learned a harsh lesson from the April election: unity within ideological allies is crucial. Smaller parties flying solo risk falling below the electoral threshold and not making the Knesset — and when that happens, they not only hurt themselves but mortally wound their entire political camp by “wasting” votes that could have potentially helped 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 needing to be submitted by midnight on August 1, here are the main contenders…
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting a second election under the shadow of pending corruption indictments, he has reinforced Likud by merging it with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s party. Bringing Kahlon into the largest right-wing party was a win-win: Kahlon, whose Kulanu party barely scraped into the last Knesset with the minimum of four seats, got a guaranteed top spot in the party where he launched his political career, and has a chance to angle for the leadership in the post-Bibi era. Netanyahu grabbed a chance at a few more seats — and gave himself one less party to wrestle with in governing coalition negotiations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, November 2018. RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS
Netanyahu’s biggest challenge in this election will be fighting on multiple fronts. He must battle his main rival for the premiership, Benny Gantz, while fending off two other right-wing parties, each headed by a nemesis who once served in his cabinet: former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who are already aggressively working to poach voters from Likud.
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The largest of the multiparty players in the race, Kahol Lavan continues with its 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, surviving rumblings of dissatisfaction about the rotation arrangement in which Gantz and Lapid would each serve as prime minister for two years.
Kahol Lavan leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid shaking hands in the Knesset, April 30, 2019.Olivier Fitoussi
The party benefits greatly from having a leader in Gantz whom many Israelis see as a viable alternative to Netanyahu. Early polls show the party is holding strong despite the recent shake-up on the political left, with neither the Labor-Gesher alliance nor the newly formed Democratic Union appearing to threaten its wide base of support, which is helping it run neck and neck with Likud. (Both parties won 35 seats in the year’s first election.)
The newly formed 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 Hehadash last December. (Their new party failed to cross the electoral threshold). After a weak showing in the election, the religious parties they left behind — Habayit Hayehudi, and also Bezalel Smotrich’s realized that the whole of the “right of Netanyahu” camp is greater than the sum of its parts, and have fallen in line behind Shaked — to the astonishment of men who did not believe male Orthodox political leaders men could ever bow to the leadership of a secular woman.
United Right leader Ayelet Shaked with Naftali Bennett in the settlement of Efrat, July 22, 2019.Emil Salman
But political survival is a powerful motivator. After polls made it clear that the personal popularity of Shaked would garner them extra seats in the Knesset, they agreed that she should top the ticket.
They’re back! 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.
Joint List members Mansour Abbas, left, Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi at a press conference in Nazareth, July 27, 2019.Rami Shllush
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 reenergize 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.”
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 not hurt his electoral chances by turning off right-wing voters. On the contrary: Polls indicate he could nearly double the number of seats he won in April (five) by turning himself into a gladiator for secular Israelis standing up against the ultra-Orthodox parties, and his declaration that he will force Likud into forming a national unity government. If Netanyahu refuses, he says, he will shift his support to Gantz.
A campaign poster for Yisrael Beiteinu featuring leader Avigdor Lieberman and the slogan “Yes to a Jewish state. No to a halakhic state,” Tel Aviv, July 30, 2019/Ofer Vaknin
This has led Netanyahu to charge that his rival is betraying the right and that “a vote for Lieberman is a vote for a left-wing government.” Netanyahu and Likud have been working — thus far in vain — to convince Russian-speaking voters that he, not Lieberman, is their true champion.
United Torah Judaism
Not much has changed for the Ashkenazi, ultra-Orthodox alliance comprised of Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah, which hopes to recreate its strong showing in the April election. There is a possibility UTJ could even make gains, bolstering voter turnout by using Lieberman’s threat to work for a coalition without them. Such a government, their leaders will warn communities, will try to draft their children. 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.
Members of United Torah Judaism, including leader Yaakov Litzman, center, in Bnei Brak, May 2019.Tomer Appelbaum
Despite the fact UTJ forced Netanyahu into this situation, it 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 in the do-over election — though some polls suggest otherwise. Shas leader Arye Dery aspires to winning 10 seats in September, but recent polls indicate a more modest showing with only seven seats — one fewer than the eight it won in April.
Shas leader Arye Dery launching his party’s election campaign, July 21, 2019.Olivier Fitoussi
Shas, like UTJ, will run hard against 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 will stand firm on refusing to join a coalition that is not led by Likud and Netanyahu.
In the first Israeli election of 2019, Labor was hobbled by the leadership of problematic outsider Avi Gabbay. Now, though, he has been replaced by former party head Amir Peretz, but there’s a new problem: Peretz’s decision to attempt to appeal to the center-right by teaming up with Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party, which failed to enter the Knesset in April, This has sown discontent in Labor ranks, as has his refusal to forge an alliance with Meretz or Ehud Barak’s new party, Democratic Israel.
Gesher leader Orli Levi-Abekasis, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz and Labor MK Itzik Shmuli at a press conference in Tel Aviv, July 28, 2019.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
The darkening mood in the party was further fueled after one of its young stars, Stav Shaffir, jumped ship, joining Meretz and Barak in the new Democratic Union, and former party leader and Peretz ally Shelly Yacimovich — one of its most influential lawmakers — announced she was taking a break from political life.
It hasn’t helped morale that new polls show the party performing even more poorly than it did in April, where it garnered only six seats — a humiliating position for the party of Israel’s founding fathers to find itself in.
Among the wave of alliances in Israeli politics, this new electoral pact is 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.
Democratic Union’s Stav Shaffir flanked by Ehud Barak, left, and party leader Nitzan Horowitz at a press conference in Tel Aviv, July 25, 2019.Tomer Appelbaum
There had been talk of a Labor-Meretz merger, but the Barak factor disrupted the dynamic. In the end, Barak has 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. She expressed hope that more Labor members would follow her lead, but has largely been disappointed.
Also disappointed: Barak himself, who has been forced to forfeit his 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.
For a while in spring, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut looked like the surprise package of the April election. However, polls predicting that the libertarian party would cross the electoral threshold proved false, with it ultimately falling well short on April 9. Its main contribution to both of this year’s elections may well be its advancement of calls to decriminalize marijuana usage in Israel.
Zehut looks set to run alone on September 17, but an equally controversial party in April’s election — the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit — will be running on a joint slate with another extremist party, Noam. Running under the slogan “A normal nation in our own land,” Noam is campaigning on an avowedly anti-LGBTQ ticket under Rabbi Zvi Thau, who is calling for a return to “Jewish values.”
Following entreaties by Netanyahu for the far-right bloc to run together, Otzma Yehudit was part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties in April. Now, alongside Noam, it will be appealing to ultra-conservative religious Zionists and hoping there are enough in Israel to see it over the 3.25 electoral threshold.