A [Snarky] Practical Guide to Israeli Political Parties

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The Israeli government has called for a general election to take place on April 9, 2019. Accordingly, I’ve decided to continue my series on Israeli politics. It is available as a video below, but if you can’t watch or would prefer not to, a summary has been provided further down. Additionally, feel free to discuss or ask questions in the comments, being mindful of site rules regarding hate speech, threats, or personal attacks.

The Likud Party is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Most of the current cabinet comprises Likud members as does about half the right-wing bloc as a whole. Generally speaking, Likud is more supportive of traditional Jewish religious institutions, supports more privatization of state-run assets and utilities, is less supportive of equal rights for non-Jewish minorities, is generally opposed to organized labor, wants more restrictions on the press and academia, supports a permanent status quo in the West Bank, and is generally more skeptical of western-style liberal democracy.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Likud’s main ideology seems to be whatever will enrich its own leadership and insulate them from legal or political consequences, which shouldn’t be too surprising given how intermingled it has become with the mafia. This is ironic because most of the Likud’s support actually comes from voters who are poorer and more urban, especially the descendants of Jews from non-European countries who historically had very little political power in the early years of left-wing domination.

Now, the Likud Party didn’t used to be so far to the right, and if you’re feeling nostalgic for the way it used to be, then I’ve got a party for you!

The Government:

Kulanu is led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and it was formed in 2014 by a group of Likud members who felt that the Likud had become too…kleptocratic. Generally speaking, it is also very pro-capitalist but with more protections for workers as well as consumers, it’s more supportive of equality for Arab Israelis, and it’s still broadly supportive of a two-state solution.

On the other side of that coin is the New Right, which was founded this year and is led by both Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. These two are the main culprits in terms of pulling Likud to the right, and in fact still believe it hasn’t gone far enough.

The New Right is basically the closest thing Israel has to the Republican Party in the US, to the point of flirting with trickle-down economics, affirming Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and only the Jewish people, weakening the power of the Judicial branch, cracking down on dissent in education and the media, and…legalizing war crimes.

And if that isn’t extreme enough for you, we’ve got the Union of Right-Wing Parties, led by Rafi Peretz. This is not a party so much as an alliance of the Jewish Home and the infamous Otzma Yisrael, whose members are classified by the US government as terrorists. Its members have incited or collaborated in the killings of non-Jews, and they advocate for Israel to transition into a racially-pure, hardline theocratic monarchy. Kinda like Saudi Arabia.

They have been compared by Israelis to both the Ku Klux Klan and the Taliban, both they and Netanyahu have been rebuked by the pro-Israel lobby in the US for even trying to work together, and they’re so extreme that they may not even qualify to run in the election. The Jewish Home…does not matter, because they partnered with Otzma so it’s just as much on them.

At the risk of being anticlimactic, we are just going to move past the terrorists and talk about those parties that represent the ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli society. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are a small minority in Israel and tend to either not vote at all or support these parties, which are often crucial to forming a government at all.

First up is United Torah Judaism, led by Deputy Health Minister Ya’akov Litzman. It generally represents the interests of very insular Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox communities, particularly a handful of very “charismatic” rabbis called the Council of Sages. UTJ is very anti-gay and anti-secular, it opposes the allowance of work or public services on Saturdays, and it supports the continuation of military draft exemptions and special welfare benefits for ultra-Orthodox adherents, as well as upholding the primacy of the Chief Rabbinate.

The other ultra-orthodox party is Shas, led by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who actually went to prison for bribery while Interior Minister in the 1990s and is probably going back to prison soon for similar corruption charges. Shas originally began as a voice for the small community of Sephardic ultra-orthodox adherents, but it has basically become a more populist and belligerent version of UTJ.

The Opposition:

The Blue and White Party is led by this man, General Benny Gantz. In fact it has quite a few Generals running. The Blue and White is actually an alliance of three distinct parties; there’s Gantz’s faction but there’s also Yesh Atid, a relatively new anti-clerical party which is mostly just a vapid cult of personality for a political trust fund baby named Yair Lapid. The third and smallest faction is Telem, led by General Moshe Ya’alon, which is basically just a faction of the Likud Party who want to get rid of Netanyahu by any means necessary.

The Blue and White broadly supports a two-state solution, is pro-secular and pro-LGBT rights, wants to re-affirm the equal status of non-Jewish citizens, and wants to rein in corruption and big business.

The main left-wing party in Israel is the Labor Party, led by Avi Gabbay. Labor is the current incarnation of the Land of Israel Workers’ Party (Mapai) which essentially ran Israel for its first few decades as an independent country. It is also my party. But it hasn’t done quite so well in this election cycle, not least because Gabbay is really unopular. He’s a virtual unknown with no charisma and a habit of burning bridges with a lot of the party’s historic allies. He’s constantly overshadowed by two other high-level MKs named Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir, who are much younger and more popular and led the 2011 tent protests against income inequality. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on one of those two to take over the party after this election when Gabbay inevitably gets the bum rush.

Overall, the Labor Party is a pretty typical social democratic party. It supports more power for organized labor, it’s against privatization of public assets, it’s pro-LGBT rights, pro-secular, pro-minority rights, and supports a very proactive path to the two-state solution while maintaining a strong national defense and renewing support for western-style liberal democracy, which didn’t used to be controversial, but here we are.

The leftmost Jewish party is Meretz, led by Tamar Zandberg. It’s platform is almost identical to that of Labor except for being somewhat less pro-military. The main difference between the two parties is more about image and tactics than policy. Most of the traditional support for Labor comes from unions and academics and military officers, whereas Meretz is, for lack of a better word, more “crunchy. “Their whole thing is that unlike Labor, they promise to never join a right-wing government (though Labor has made the same promise in this election cycle). But really, Labor and Meretz get along very well, in fact in my experience there tend to be a lot of romantic relationships between members of the two parties.

21% of Israelis are Arabs, and while around half of Arab Israelis will throw their lot in for one of the mainstream “Jewish” parties, at least one Arab-interest party always gets into the Knesset, and this year that’s Hadash-Taal led by Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh. This is actually an alliance between two parties; Taal is a somewhat vaguely-defined Arab interest party while Hadash is the Communist Party. And as the Communist Party, it always at least one token Jewish member. Until recently that person was Dov Khenin, who was ironically kind of a universally-beloved elder statesman. But now he has retired and been replaced by Ofer Cassif.

Within the Knesset, the Communists tend to support the other left-wing parties, but to actually include them in the governing coalition would be politically untenable, so electorally they actually tend to act as spoilers against a center-left government. Though Gantz has not ruled out including them in a government. Or at least including an Arab-dominated party in general.

Special thanks to J.J. McCullough, a YouTuber, cartoonist, Washington Post commentator and expert in all things Canadian who indulged me with a cameo during his first visit to my country. You can find more of his work here.

Next Tuesday night, April 6, I will post a live broadcast of election night. Results won’t come in immediately, but I’m going to talk about the efficacy and shortcomings of polling an Israeli election, what it’s like to vote here, any extra stories/scandals that didn’t make it into the rest of this video series, as well as potential scenarios and next steps toward forming a government. And don’t forget to ask plenty of questions for the live Q&A!