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The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Israel’s Political Puzzle

Israel, El American

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Without the least enthusiasm, the Israeli people are approaching the fifth national election in four years. Naftali Bennett began his mandate with 61 deputies (out of 120) but with very heterogeneous parties. The departure of several legislators caused him to lose his majority. Fundamental laws failed to be approved by the Knesset (Israel’s unicameral legislature). Not because of ideological differences, but because of the Likud party’s refusal to vote together with the ruling party. Never in the history of the state have personal disagreements had so much influence.

A year after its formation, the government realized that it was impossible to continue. Bennett and Yair Lapid, Chancellor and architect of the alliance, announced the dissolution of Parliament and new elections. Bibi Netanyahu was the great winner of this “chronicle of a death foretold”, but nobody knows who will lead the next Executive.

To understand the Israeli political map, one must assume that the old left-right dichotomy does not mean, particularly here, substantive differences on social issues. Rather, it represents the greater or lesser willingness to cede disputed territories in the biblical Judea and Samaria (West Bank).

Virtually all parties support annexing the strategic Jordan River Valley (the border with Jordan) and keeping the Old City of Jerusalem, where the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are located. They also want to keep most of the West Bank Area C (where 500,000 Israelis and 70,000 Muslims live). Areas A and B concentrate the majority of the Palestinian population. They live under an autonomous regime with its capital in Palestine’s Ramallah, facing Hamas which controls Gaza.

Israel’s National Ideology 

The ideological basis of Israel is Zionism (Zionist Organization), a national liberation movement that led to the creation of the state. Its fundamental idea is the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in the Promised Land. Although its origins are biblical, the political movement was created by journalist Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century, impressed by the “Dreyfus affair” and the anti-Semitic persecutions in Europe. It cannot be defined as left or right, secular or religious, as it harbors different trends, horizontally crossing the country’s political spectrum.

All Jewish-Israeli political parties are Zionist. There are differences in the ultra-Orthodox religious groups, but only the Arab ethnic parties do not follow that trend. 

Consequently, anti-Zionism does not oppose a particular government, but rather denies Israel’s legitimacy and its right to exist. Thus, the current definition of Judeophobia developed by the IHRA, comprising some 40 countries, states: “Anti-Semitism is a perception of Jews that can be expressed as hatred towards them. Physical and rhetorical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed at persons or property, community institutions and places of worship (…)”. 

Contemporary expressions may consist of supporting aggression, making general stereotypical accusations, blaming them for the myth of world conspiracy, minimizing the historical reality of the Holocaust, denying citizenship rights in their states, applying double standards to Israel by demanding behavior not expected by any other country, or denying the right to self-determination and Israel’s very existence. However, similar criticism directed against any other state should not be considered “anti-Semitism.”

In short, expressing disagreement with Israeli actions is legitimate. Now, if the preaching calls for the destruction of the Hebrew state–like the Iranian ayatollahs do–that should be considered anti-Semitism.  

Political System and Parties

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, with a president elected by the Knesset — Isaac Hertzog — who performs an essential protocol function. The head of government is the Prime Minister and his cabinet.  

The Legislative Branch is composed of a single Chamber, with 120 legislators, elected for four years through the proportional representation system, although any party must exceed 3.25% of the votes to enter.

The Current Political Spectrum is Made Up by 12 Groups 

Likud, conservative nationalist. Its roots come from the Betar Movement, founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Its first ruler was Menachem Begin, who signed the historic peace with Egypt (1979). The party accepts a Palestinian state while maintaining the strategic zones of area C. It supported the map proposed by Donald Trump in the “Deal of the Century”, rejected by the “Palestinian Autonomy” (PA) of Ramallah.  

Kachol Lavan, a centrist party led by Benny Gantz, current Minister of Defense.

Tikva Chadashá, a new party created by Gideon Sa’ar, separated from Likud, with a similar ideology but personally opposed to Netanyahu. 

Yesh Atid, led by current Chancellor Yair Lapid. It is a secular and centrist party, opposed to the privileges of religious groups. It is not willing to ally with Bibi, although it is willing to ally with another Likud leader

Yemina, nationalist and religious moderate. It advocates, due to decades of failures to achieve peace with the PA, unilaterally annexing Area C for historical and security reasons. Its leader is Bennett.  

Yisrael Beiteinu is a secular nationalist party. Its leader, Avigdor Liberman, opposes religious influence and proposes to exchange territories and populations with the Palestinians. 

Avodah, the old Israeli Labor, fundamental in the creation of the state, with leaders such as Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Today its strength is very limited. 

Meretz, a secular leftist, agrees to return to the pre-1967 borders, with minimal adjustments, if the Palestinians sign a peace agreement. 

Shas, Sephardic ultra-Orthodox religious (descendants of Eastern Jews and Arab nations). It defends the world of yeshiva (centers of religious study), and believes in divine protection.  

Yahadut Hatora, (Biblical Judaism), ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi religious (descendants of Western Jews). Like Shas, it presents itself as a defender of the biblical commandments. The voters of both parties are known as “Haredim”. They carry some popular antipathy for refusing to serve in the army. 

Ra’am, an Islamic group that has changed its position and seeks to integrate into the political system. It calls for greater support for the progress of Arab society and joined Bennett’s coalition. They publicly assumed their identity as Israeli citizens and distanced themselves from the Palestinians.

Joint List, a Muslim party that supports pan-Arabism and has a dubious identification with the state.

The upcoming elections are divided, beyond ideological issues, between those who support Bibi as prime minister and those who seek his retirement from politics. No one knows which way the balance will tip.

Eduardo Zalovich

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