Understanding Israeli politics: comeback kids, one-hit wonders

In 2011, Naftali Bennett succeeded in uniting several parties and factions to reinvent Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), receiving 12 seats in the Knesset and the Economics Ministry in the new government. But like all new parties in Israel, its long-term future is unsure.
In 2011, Naftali Bennett succeeded in uniting several parties and factions to reinvent Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), receiving 12 seats in the Knesset and the Economics Ministry in the new government. But like all new parties in Israel, its long-term future is unsure.

It’s official. Israelis are going to the polls – for the 20th time in 66 years – to choose members of the 120-seat Knesset. And for the fourth time in his career, Benjamin Netanyahu will strive to retain his position as prime minister. Conventional wisdom holds he will be returned to power, yet several contenders are appearing – some from within his own party – and there are indications that at least one former prime minister is considering a comeback.

That certainly would be in keeping with precedent. Six of Israel’s 12 prime ministers – David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu – have emerged from political defeat to regain their positions a second and even a third time.

If the past provides a prognosis, this time – once again – new political parties with new names will be created from new alliances, formed by many of the same old players. In fact, Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud Party member and communications minister, has already announced he will run as the head of the new political party he is assembling.

In a “hope springs eternal” scenario, despite his conviction for breach of trust and a pending trial, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert openly stated in 2012 he was considering challenging Netanyahu. Even now, if his recent appeal of a bribery conviction and six-year prison sentence
is successful, he is said to again be contemplating a rerun.


Although he has denied he is interested, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is considered a more immediate candidate. It was reported that he met some previous colleagues from the Labor Party less than two months ago to discuss his prospects. Despite his extensive military credentials, Barak was virtually invisible during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza this summer, but he has recently resumed speaking and presenting his opinions in public and private forums. If he could overcome the animosity he engendered during his political career and regain the party’s support, he could be a formidable opponent.

Barak defeated Netanyahu in 1999 to successfully bring the Labor Party back to power. After losing to Ariel Sharon in 2001, Barak abandoned politics for the business world, returning to the Labor Party in 2004. Three years later, he became party chairman and defense minister in the Olmert government – a position he continued to hold when Netanyahu was re-elected in 2009. In 2011, in a conflict with party leaders, Barak formed the Atzmaut (Independence) Party, with four other Labor Party members. In midterm, he again announced his retirement from politics and his party did not compete in the 2013 elections, becoming yet another historical footnote.

David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, set the pattern for returning to head the government after leaving office, as well as for creating new parties when he disagreed with the direction of his own. He left office in 1954, returned in 1955 and resigned in 1963 “for personal reasons.” In 1965, he formed a new party – Rafi – and after its defeat, another new party – the National List. Both disappeared shortly thereafter.

If history serves as a blueprint for the future, this season’s new parties – or crop of new parties – will enjoy a meteoric rise and enthusiastic public support, only to sink into oblivion within several years. Does anyone remember the stunning success of Ariel Sharon’s breakaway Kadima Party? Not so long ago, in 2003, it dominated the Knesset with 29 seats. It now has two seats in the outgoing government. Less than 20 years ago, there were political parties such as Shinui (1999-2006) and Gesher (1992-2003); earlier, Ometz, Yahad and Tehiya were among the 92 parties that surfaced and then rapidly disappeared.

Indeed, in the government that is about to be consigned to history, three of the four parties in the ruling coalition were newcomers in their current incarnation; all of them were created in an attempt to attract an increasingly disenchanted and fickle electorate.

In 2012, popular journalist and television personality Yair Lapid founded Yesh Atid, which captured the public’s imagination, earning the new party an unanticipated 19 seats and five Cabinet posts. The Hatnua Party was created by seven Knesset members who left the now nearly defunct Kadima Party and established a group chaired by Tzipi Livni, which became the political party she heads. In 2011, Naftali Bennett succeeded in uniting the Bayit Yehudi-New Mafdal Party and Tkuma, previously part of the Ichud Leumi faction, to reinvent Habayit Hayehudi.

The plethora of political parties is a reflection of Israel’s numerous and diverse ethnic and religious communities and allegiances. Each party fields a list of 120 candidates. The number of Knesset seats the party receives reflects the number of votes it receives.

Each party has different criteria for determining who will appear on its electoral list and in which order. Some hold internal primaries for party members, some determine the distribution through complicated formulas that include affirmative action slots and still others are mandated by the leader or leadership. The ultra-religious parties take their direction from their rabbinic leaders.

After the votes are counted, the president calls upon the head of the party that receives the most Knesset seats – the No. 1 person on the list – to form a government of at least 61 Knesset members. Since no party has ever received 61 seats, creating a coalition becomes an arena of shifting alliances, legislative promises and power games, often resulting in incompatible combinations.

The most recent government reflects the conflicting ideologies and widely dissimilar aspirations of its coalition members, which led to its dissolution less than two years after its creation – and is returning Israelis to the polls yet again.

Sarabeth Lukin is an American/Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.

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