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Israel Goes to the Polls: What's Next for Netanyahu?

1. “The Right”: Two secular parties are truly to the right of center, Likud and HaBayit haYehudi. The former is a long-time coalition between three former smaller parties, by far the largest of which was Menachem Begin’s old Cheruth (“Freedom”) party (Likud means “Bloc”). It espouses a relatively free-market, liberal economic system and a relative hard line on territorial and other concessions to the “Palestinians,” though the party has officially embraced the “two-state solution” of the Oslo Accords being pushed by the EU and the U.S. Currently at 19 seats, the current polls suggest that Likud will probably win 20-25 seats in March.

HaBayit haYehudi (“The Jewish Home”) is a coalition of two former smaller parties, one by the same name and the other the Iggud ha-Le’ummi (“National Union”) party, each of which had held three seats in the Knesset before last. The two previous parties had been splinters of the old National Religious Party, which had come into existence shortly after statehood, and was the political expression of the religious Zionist ideology -- the old “Mizrachi” movement. Under the leadership of Naftali Bennett, a self-made millionaire, HaBayit haYehudi has become a very nationalist, hard-line party, only one of whose components, Tekuma (“Rising, Restoration”), can be considered “religious” in any sense. It grew to 12 seats in the last Knesset. There had been rumors that Tekuma might leave the party and run independently, but that has not happened (though some of its members have left; see below). Current polls suggest that HaBayit haYehudi is likely to gain around 15 seats in March.

Also on the right, certain members of the old Iggud ha-Le’ummi party who ran as Otzma leYisrael (“Strength for Israel”) but failed to make the minimum threshold in the previous election are thinking of running again. Though current polls suggest that they will not pass the current threshold of 3.25%, they could nonetheless take votes and seats from the other parties of the Right.

2. “The Left”: The previous Knesset contained six parties which could be described as Leftists, ranging from: the Communists (who call themselves Chadash or “New”) with four seats; Meretz (“Energy”) with six seats; HaTenu’a (“The Movement”), Tzipi Livni’s party, also with six seats; Qadima (“Forward”), the rump of Ariel Sharon’s old party with two seats; Yesh ‘Atid (“There is a Future”), Ya’ir Lapid’s party, with 19 seats; and ‘Avoda (“Labor”) with 15 seats. Though the latter three would all try to characterize themselves as “centrist” parties, they are de facto Leftists in terms both of their domestic policies and their foreign policies (Labor is an official member of the Socialist International).

For the present election, Labor and Ha-Tenu’a have joined forces, and current polls suggest that they will stay roughly where they currently are, that is, with 20-25 seats (in most polls, Likud is one or two seats ahead of Labor/Ha-Tenu’a). Qadima is expected to disappear from the scene; Yesh ‘Atid is expected to decline as precipitously as Ya’ir Lapid’s popularity to around 10 seats; and Meretz and Chadash will probably remain the same.

3. “The Center”: Israeli politics in recent decades have been characterized by a secular search for the mythical center between Labor and Likud, a search which began in the 1980s with the formation of the now-defunct Shinui and Ratz parties. Such parties usually generate some excitement when first formed, and then rapidly decline as they inevitably move leftward. The current candidates for this “central” position are Yisrael Beytenu, originally a party whose constituents were primarily immigrants from the former USSR, which holds 11 seats at present; and a new party, Kulanu (“All of Us”), formed by Moshe Kachlon, a former Likudnik. Current polls suggest that Yisrael Beytenu (militantly secular and leftish domestically, mildly nationalistic in foreign policy) will decline to five to ten seats, and that Kachlon will similarly take between five and ten seats.

4. “The Religious Parties”: Sometimes called the “Chareidi” parties (“Fearful,” “Trembling," based on Ezra IX, 4). The non-Zionist religious sector of the Israeli populace is represented by two parties at present: Shas (an acronym of Shomrei Sefarad, “Guardians of Sefarad,” the name is a pun, since the same acronym serves for Shisha Sedarim, the “Six Orders” into which the Talmud is divided) with 11 seats; and Yahadut haTorah (“Torah Jewry”), usually called “United Torah Jewry” in English, with seven seats.

Yahadut haTorah is an amalgam of two parties representing Ashkenazi religious Jews (i.e., those of generally European extraction): Agudat Yisrael (“Association of Israel”), which has come to represent primarily Chassidic Jews; and Degel haTorah (“The Flag of Torah”), originally a splinter from the Aguda, which represents the non-Chassidic (“Lithuanian”) population. For the past couple of decades they have run a joint list while retaining their separate identities. The polls all suggest that they will gain a seat in March and hold eight.

Shas represents the religious Jews of Sephardic (Spanish) origin, as well as those of generally Middle Eastern origin. Shas has undergone a crisis of leadership since the passing of its founder, Rabbi ‘Ovadia Yosef, of blessed memory. In the last election, Shas was challenged by two splinters, ‘Am Shalem (“A Whole People”) and Koach leHashpia‘ (“Power to Influence”), neither of which made the grade, but which probably deprived Shas of three to four seats between them. In the current election, Shas has split into two, one party bearing the old name under the leadership of Rabbi Aryeh Der’i, and Ha‘Am Itanu (“The People are With Us”), a new party formed by the former head of Shas, Rabbi Eli Yishai, and Yoni Chetboun, formerly of HaBayit haYehudi. If the present division continues, Shas is expected to get fewer than ten seats, and Ha‘Am Itanu not more than three, if they pass the threshold at all. In addition, Rabbi Chaim Amsalem (a former Shas member who founded the ‘Am Shalem party) is considering making another try. He is also not expected to succeed, but can be expected to draw votes from Shas and especially Ha‘Am Itanu.

There are countervailing forces, trying to reconcile the Sephardic factions on the one hand and also trying to unify all of the religious parties into one bloc. Should they succeed in creating a joint list, it is possible that they may gain as many 20 seats between them; otherwise, they are likely to win between 10 and 15 seats.

5. “The Arabs”: There are currently two parties representing Arabic-speaking, non-Jewish Israelis (roughly 20% of the population): Balad (Arabic for “Country” and an acronym for Brith Le’ummith Demoqratith, or “National Democratic Covenant”), with three seats currently; and Ra’am-Ta’al, acronyms for two previous parties which now run jointly, also with three seats. Both parties are generally subversive and hostile to the policies of the state as a whole (Chadash, which also has many Arab voters, is often grouped with them). As most polls suggest that Balad is likely to disappear, they are expected to amalgamate, and again win six seats between them. Though rumors had been floating about the possible launch of a new party to represent Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel, nothing seems to have come of them as of this writing.

Most recently, there are rumors of an attempt by Binyamin Netanyahu to forge a “centrist” government with Labor in order specifically to exclude Yesh ‘Athid, HaBayit haYehudi, and the Chareidi parties, all of whom he finds unpalatable for various reasons. Though this has the ring of truth, the arithmetic suggests that they will only have 45-50 seats between them, and they will be unlikely, barring some dramatic, unforeseen change, to reach the magic 61 seats and a governing coalition without at least one of the three.

But stay tuned, new developments are occurring daily, and I will try to keep you informed.