Your Guide to the 2013 Israeli Election!

When people vote in the United States like they just did on Election Day, they pull a lever or put a mark on a ballot next to the name of a candidate. In Israel, you take a piece of paper with the name of a party and put it into a locked box at your local voting location. And that’s not the only difference.

The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has 120 seats – and each political party in an election gets a percentage of seats based on its percentage of the national vote (as long as it receives at least two percent of that vote). Each party creates a list of 120 candidates, and the top X names receive a seat when the party gets X seats. (If Likud, for example, receives twenty seats, the top twenty people become members of Parliament.)

Unlike the United States, which has only two major political parties, Israel has many. No single party ever gains close to a majority in the Knesset – so coalitions must be formed to form a government. The current government, for example, is comprised of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Independence, Shas, Jewish Home, and United Torah Judaism (see below). As a result, the entire political process is complicated – everything from the placement of one’s name on a party list to the concessions made to get a party into a coalition leads to much negotiation and brokered deals.

To help to understand the stakes in Israel’s 2013 election on January 22, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called after reportedly being unable to pass next year’s budget, we have comprised a brief guide to all of the parties that are expected to participate. As always, we take no stance on political and controversial issues – our goal here is to describe each party accurately and objectively. The parties are listed first by the one currently leading the government and then in descending order based on the number of seats held in the recently-dissolved Knesset.

The Parties in the Prior Knesset

Likud – The major center-right political party currently headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The party officially views the entire Jordan River as the eastern border of Israel and supports settlements, but Likud-led governments have negotiated with the Palestinian Authority on issues including statehood and settlements. The party also supports capitalist, free-market economic policy. Likud prime ministers have included Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (see below) recently merged their parties into a single organization and list.

Kadima – The centrist party founded by former prime minister Ariel Sharon after he had left Likud. The current leader is former Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, who had defeated former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the leadership elections. The party was formed by former Likud members in 2005 in support of Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. Kadima supports a two-state solution in which Jerusalem and large settlement blocks would remain under Israeli control. Kadima prime ministers have included Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni.

Yisrael Beiteinu – A secular, nationalist, right-wing party currently headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The party’s base had been Russian-speaking immigrants in the past. The party supports a two-state solution and wants to redraw borders so that parts of Israel with large Arab populations would be in a Palestinian state. Yisrael Beiteinu also wants to moderate the power of the Chief Rabbinate and make the marriage process easier for secular Israelis.

Labor – The major center-left party and one of the oldest in the country, now headed by Shelly Yachimovich. The party was hawkish and socialist in the past but is now considered more centrist in economic and military policy. Labor prime ministers have included Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak.

Shas – A haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party for Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews that is collective headed by Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri, and Ariel Atias along with spiritual head Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The party supports the economic interests of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, who traditionally have higher rates of poverty in Israel, and wants a state run by Jewish law.  Shas opposes any decrease in West Bank settlement activity.

Independence – Former prime minister (and current defense minister) Ehud Barak’s party, which he formed after leaving Labor as a result of internal party politics and his view that the party had become too dovish on defense issues. Independence aims to be “centrist, Zionist, and democratic.”

United Torah Judaism – A haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party for Ashkenazi Jews headed by Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni. The party wants to maintain the status quo on issues of religion and state and has no stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jewish Home-National Union – The two religious-Zionist, right wing parties combined to form a single list headed by Ya’akov Katz and Naftali Bennett. The two parties oppose the Oslo Peace Accords, support settlements everywhere in the West Bank, and want what they call a “Torah-constituted, multi-ethnic, multi-diverse, thenomic, democratic, Jewish state.”

Meretz – A secular, left-wing party headed by Zehava Gal-On. The party wants a two-state solution and the removal of most West Bank settlements as well as a separation of religion and state, a social-democratic economic system, and what they call “social justice” for members of minority groups.

Two New Parties

Yesh Atid – The new party, created by former journalist and Channel 2 anchor Yair Lapid, wants to help the middle class and revamp much of the country by changing the system of government, making military service universal, having all schools teach the same curriculum, and creating a constitution. The party wants “two states for two peoples” and would keep large settlement blocs.

Am Shalem – A moderate haredi party headed by Haim Amsalem (who was ostracized by much of the ultra-Orthodox world) that aims to get more haredi Jews into the workforce and military while increasing their integration into general society.

Vote Like a Pirate?

Many Israelis, just like many people elsewhere, are disillusioned by politics. So, in some elections, more than a few Israelis vote for a random party that is unlikely to gain any seats as a “protest” against a political system that they think is corrupt and never does anything to help everyday people. In the 2006 election, that party was Gil – which advocates for retired and elderly Israelis. With the help from the protest vote (particularly from young people), the party gained seven seats and a ministry in the government.

This year, that protest party may be the Pirate Party, an international organization that supports civil rights, direct democracy, free education, copyright reform, and information privacy. Only time will tell how many seats they, just like the other parties, may get!


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