As Israel approaches a fourth election in two years, it may sometimes be difficult to follow who exactly is in the game and what it’s all about. That’s why we thought we’d offer +972 readers a basic guide explaining the options voters will find on the March 23 ballot.
Israel is a multi-party system, and its Knesset is comprised of 120 seats. Votes are tallied proportionally to parties that pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. Since a single party has never been able to win a majority of seats in parliament, the leader of the slate that gets the most votes is usually tasked with assembling a coalition of at least 61 Knesset members. There are 5.9 million citizens who are eligible to vote in the upcoming election. Of the Palestinians who live under Israeli rule, only around 24 percent have the right to vote in national elections.
The current election revolves around three main axes. The first and most common one focuses on what has become the central question of Israeli politics over the past few years, and the root cause of our repeated elections: Benjamin Netanyahu, yes or no? Israel’s longest serving prime minister is fighting to reach the 61 Knesset seat mark with a strong, far-right coalition that will allow him to pass bills and appoint gatekeepers to cancel his ongoing corruption trial. Right now, most polls don’t have him passing that goalpost.
Another essential angle is the possibility for Jewish-Arab partnership in the Knesset. In the last election, which took place in March 2020, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz had the ability to form a government and finally replace Netanyahu, had he been willing to work together with the Palestinian-led Joint List. The List, which has previously abstained from endorsing a candidate for the premiership, made the historic gesture of recommending him for prime minister. But Gantz chose to turn his back on the Palestinian parties. Instead, he formed a bloated, ineffective government, which — against his very own supporters’ demands — kept Netanyahu at the helm.
That same challenge still stands, as different political players who want to see King Bibi gone are still more committed to their racist agendas, avoiding a Jewish-Arab partnership at all costs, than to getting rid of the prime minister. It is this entanglement — in which neither the pro- nor anti-Bibi camps can reach any kind of majority in parliament — that could lead us to a fifth round of elections.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu himself — who for years has made a career of inflammatory remarks inciting against Palestinian citizens — is trying a new approach in this round of elections. This time, he is portraying himself as a Biden-style “national unifier,” and is turning to Palestinian voters and parties to ask for their support. While the move is a completely cynical attempt to reach that vaunted parliamentary majority, it is yet another testament to just how much political power Palestinian citizens have gained over the past few years.
Lastly, there is the question of right and left. How many Knesset seats are likely to go to platforms that support ending the occupation and promote peace and social justice? According to the polls, in a best-case scenario, the largest center-left and left parties — Joint List, Labor, and Meretz — will garner 19 seats, leaving 101 seats to the right. Of these 19 MKs, only around 12 are truly willing to dismantle Jewish supremacy as the prevailing system of governance between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Here are the parties running in Israel’s March 2021 election, and what they represent. Parties are classified as pro- or anti-establishment based on their attitude to the judicial system and the gatekeepers:
Likud: the authoritarian, anti-establishment, right-wing party that has been in power for 12 consecutive years, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud is currently leading the polls with around 29 projected seats. However, leading is not enough, since Netanyahu and his far-right coalition need to secure 61 seats, which most polls currently indicate they do not have.
Yesh Atid: the pro-establishment, center-right, neoliberal party headed by Yair Lapid. Yesh Atid (“There is a Future” in Hebrew) is currently the leading opposition party, polling at 18 seats. To win a parliamentary majority and unseat Netanyahu, Lapid will need to form an unlikely coalition that includes both far-right Jewish supremacists and left-wing Palestinian and Israeli MKs.
New Hope: the pro-establishment, deeply conservative right-wing party headed by former Likudnik Gideon Sa’ar. This attempt at forming a Netanyahu-free Likud 2.0 is hovering at around 13 seats. Despite putting on an air of respectability and moderation, Sa’ar has taken hardline right-wing positions on issues ranging from the occupation, the persecution of migrant workers, protections for asylum seekers, and the economy.
Yamina: the extreme-right, anti-establishment, mostly religious party headed by Naftali Bennet. With 11 seats in the polls, Yamina (“Go Right” in Hebrew) is not dissimilar to Sa’ar’s party in terms of its values, except that its leader, Bennett, refuses to take a position on Netanyahu. Bennett hopes to serve as kingmaker in the coming elections, but considering his racist views and annexation-driven agenda, he is more likely to support Likud than a coalition with the Joint List and the dovish Meretz party.
The Joint List: the Palestinian-led, mostly radical left list headed by Ayman Odeh. Until recently, the Joint List united all four Palestinian-led political parties in the Knesset (including the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash). But since the conservative Muslim party Ra’am left the alliance in early February, the List is projected to drop from 15 to nine seats. With the religious faction out, the Joint List now only unites secular and mostly leftist parties.
Shas: the all-male, Sephardic ultra-Orthodox right-wing party headed by Aryeh Deri. Once an ally of Labor and a supporter of the Oslo process — and at times considered a sectorial party that would throw its support behind whomever offers the ultra-Orthodox leadership more benefits — Shas has positioned itself in recent years as part of the conservative right. Polling at eight seats, it is completely committed to supporting Netanyahu, come what may.
United Torah Judaism: the all-male, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox right-wing party headed by Moshe Gafni. Much like Shas, United Torah Judaism has tied itself firmly to Netanyahu, yet it is still willing to consider alternative partners as long it can preserve its power and sectorial interests. It is currently polling at seven Knesset seats.
Yisrael Beitenu: the authoritarian, anti-Arab, anti-religious, anti-Netanyahu right-wing party headed by Avigdor Liberman. Projected at six seats, Yisrael Beitenu is a central reason for the complete destabilization of Netanyahu’s coalition, as it was the first among the far-right parties to break away from him. While trying to rebrand itself as liberal in recent campaigns, Liberman’s party has a history of political corruption and extreme anti-Arab policies.
Labor: the center-left, pro-establishment party headed by Merav Michaeli. After former Chairman Amir Peretz broke the party’s main election campaign promise in 2020 by joining Netanyahu’s government, until a month ago, polling suggested that, for the first time in Israeli history, the party that founded the state and led it for decades wouldn’t make it to the next Knesset at all. However, under Michaeli’s new, feminist, activist leadership, it is now the leading Zionist left party (of two), with a projected six seats. It is also the only party in these elections headed by a woman.
Religious Zionism: the fascist-fundamentalist slate headed by Bezalel Smotrich. The platform has united the Kahanists and the homophobic Noam party, and is polling at five seats. Religious Zionism is currently Netanyahu’s staunchest ally, and does little to hide its outright fascist agenda, which includes the promise of “total war” against “Israel’s enemies” and the threat to dismantle the independent power of the judiciary.
Blue and White: the failed, pro-establishment center-right party headed by Benny Gantz. Up until recently, Gantz’s party was the national symbol of opposition to the prime minister’s corruption. But after turning its back on its campaign promise to never sit with Netanyahu, the party has been all but decimated. Broken up, lacking a clear vision, and with no recognizable names on its slate but Gantz, Blue and White is on the verge of falling under the electoral threshold, floating at just four seats in most polls.
Meretz: the liberal Zionist party headed by Nitzan Horotwitz. As the only Jewish-led party in the race that has never sat in a government with Netanyahu, Meretz is a symbol of persistent liberal Zionism, even as its brand has withered over the years. Now, threatened by Labor’s growing power, Meretz is doubling down on its appeal to Palestinian citizens, and has placed two Palestinian candidates in its top five. Still, it’s currently polling at around four seats, with some commentators estimating that the party might not make it past the threshold.
Ra’am: the religious Islamist right-wing party headed by Mansour Abbas. Having recently broken away from the Joint List, Ra’am, which represents the Islamic Movement’s southern faction, is trying to portray itself as the Muslim version of what Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties used to be: a sectorial list that is willing to tip the balance toward whomever offers its voters the best deal — even if that person is Netanyahu. However, almost all polls currently predict Ra’am won’t make it past the electoral threshold. If it does, Netanyahu will find a good ally that could also potentially recommend him as prime minister. If it doesn’t, Ra’am will have contributed significantly to the decrease of Palestinian representation in the Knesset, and its votes will be redistributed between the rest of the parties based on their size. The main party likely to profit from this is Likud.