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Knesset elections: A reader’s guide

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Left to right, Hanin Zouabi, Zehava Gal-on, Shelly Yachimovich, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, Avigdor Liberman, Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Aryeh Deri.  (Graphics by Uri Fintzy)

Left to right, Hanin Zouabi, Zehava Gal-on, Shelly Yachimovich, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, Avigdor Liberman, Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Aryeh Deri. (Graphics by Uri Fintzy)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Remember the second U.S. presidential debate in October, when the incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney stood about six inches from each other, with one interrupting the other at every turn?

Add about a dozen candidates, take away the formal rules of debate, switch to Hebrew and you’ve got a fairly good approximation of the tenor of Israel’s current election campaign.

Israel’s parliamentary system, in which voters choose a party instead of a candidate, makes for some narrowly focused parties and strange bedfellows, though factions do tend to fall in with their natural political allies. Parties submit lists of candidates and their top choices are seated in proportion to the party’s total share of the vote.

This year, 34 parties are officially vying for the Knesset in the Jan. 22 elections, though only about a dozen are likely to actually cross the threshold necessary to win seats. They fall broadly into the following major blocs.

RIGHT WING

Major parties: Israel’s biggest political bloc, the right wing has led the polls throughout the campaign and almost definitely will lead the next coalition. Its flagship party is a merger of two factions: the right-wing Likud and the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu. Likud favors a tough foreign policy and has presided over an expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. On economic policy, the party tacks conservative, promoting free markets, privatization of state industries and reduced regulation.

Yisrael Beiteinu, originally founded as a party for Russian immigrants, has attracted a broader base with hard-line nationalist rhetoric, a secularist agenda and calls for universal army or volunteer service.

An upstart challenger to Likud-Beiteinu is Jewish Home, a hawkish pro-settler party that also favors some progressive economic policies. Historically a religious Zionist party, Jewish Home has successfully broadened its base this cycle and has an excellent shot at a third-place finish.

People to watch: Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud chairman and current prime minister, almost certainly will win another term. Netanyahu, 63, has relentlessly sounded the alarm on Iran’s nuclear program and shaped Israel’s supply-side economic policies. He was first elected prime minister in 1996, lost the 1999 election and made a comeback in 2009, winning his second term.

Avigdor Liberman, Yisrael Beiteinu’s chairman, was Israel’s foreign minister until he resigned following his indictment in December for fraud and breach of trust. An immigrant from Moldova, Liberman, 54, advocates hard-line foreign and domestic policies.

Naftali Bennett, a high-tech entrepreneur and past leader of the settlement movement, is the charismatic new chairman of Jewish Home. Bennett, 40, has changed the image of the party from a sectarian religious Zionist faction to one that courts Jewish Israelis of all stripes.

Moshe Feiglin, 50, has led a revolution within Likud, driving a sharp turn to the right that has led to the rise of other hawkish politicians and nudging out of moderates. He is 14th on the Likud list and almost certain to gain a Knesset seat.

CENTER

Major parties: Israel’s most fragmented political bloc, likely headed for the opposition, the center has three major — and largely similar — parties. Labor, Israel’s founding party, has pushed progressive, socialist policies. Yesh Atid, a party of political neophytes, emphasizes middle-class tax cuts and mandatory army or volunteer service for all Israelis. Hatnua, also founded last year, supports Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a two-state solution.

Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset and the ruling party from 2006 to 2009, has been largely discredited and may not cross the 2 percent vote threshold necessary to a win a seat in the Knesset.

People to watch: Shelly Yachimovich, 52, a former television journalist, is the Labor chair and has shifted the party’s focus from a two-state solution back to the progressive socioeconomic policies that once defined it. She has been criticized for barely addressing diplomatic policy, though she recently vowed not to join a Likud-Beiteinu coalition.

Yair Lapid, 49, another former TV journalist and the head of Yesh Atid, announced his entrance into politics early last year amid hype that his party could rival Likud. Lapid is the son of former journalist and politician Tommy Lapid.

Tzipi Livni, 54, chairwoman of Hatnua, has shifted from right to center-left during a lengthy political career. Originally a senior politician in Likud, Livni followed former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Kadima in 2005 and served as foreign minister from 2006 to 2009. She resigned from Kadima last year after losing the chairmanship in the party primaries.

LEFT WING  

Major parties: As Labor has tacked to the center, the standard-bearer of the Zionist left has become Meretz, a party that advocates Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, equal rights for all Israeli citizens, far greater separation of religion and state, and progressive economic policies. To Meretz’s left is the non-Zionist, communist, Arab-Jewish Hadash, which also advocates equal rights and progressive economics but does not prioritize Israel remaining a Jewish state.

People to watch: Zahava Gal-on, Meretz’s chairwoman, immigrated to Israel from Russia as a child and has been an outspoken supporter of civil liberties since she first entered the Knesset in 1999. Hadash’s chairman, Mohammed Barakeh, has been indicted for alleged violence at protests, but also has earned praise for visiting Auschwitz in 2010. Hadash’s third in line, Dov Khenin, is a well-known leftist activist who ran for mayor of Tel Aviv.

HAREDI ORTHODOX

Major parties: The two main haredi parties are the Sephardic Shas and United Torah Judaism, a merger of a few Ashkenazi haredi parties. UTJ’s main issues are government support for yeshivot (including stipends for full-time students), continued haredi control of the chief rabbinate, social services for their often low-income haredi constituents and continued exemption of full-time yeshiva students from military service. Shas advocates a more moderate versions of those policies as well as social services for Israel’s poor families, many of whom are Sephardic and vote for Shas even though they are not haredi.

Am Shalem, a new breakaway party from Shas, was founded last year and opposes much of the haredi agenda, advocating military or volunteer service and the elimination of subsidies for most full-time yeshiva students. It is considered a long shot to win any Knesset seats. 

People to watch: Aryeh Deri, one of the three leaders of Shas, won 17 seats for the party in 1999’s Knesset elections only to wind up in prison on charges of bribery a year later. Now, the charismatic Deri is free to run again and has retaken the helm at Shas along with Eli Yishai, the current interior minister, whose policies are decidedly right wing.

Haim Amsalem, a former member of Shas, is now a thorn in that party’s side with his new faction, Am Shalem. Amsalem hasn’t pulled his punches, relentlessly criticizing Shas and claiming in his ads that Maimonides would vote for him.

ISRAELI ARABS

Major parties: Arab parties have never served in a coalition government and historically have underrepresented the Israeli Arab population, which is about a quarter of the country. The two Arab slates in this election are the secular Balad, which is explicitly anti-Zionist and believes that Israel should be a state of all its citizens, and Ra’am-Ta’al, an alliance of the religious Ra’am and the secular Ta’al that is not as explicitly anti-Zionist.

All of the parties favor better treatment of Israel’s Arab minority, a two-state solution and peace with neighboring Arab countries.

People to watch: As no Israeli government has included Arab parties, their main purpose is to speak up for Arab-Israeli rights and against what they see as Jewish discrimination. Two of the most outspoken Israeli Arab members of Knesset have been Ta’al leader Ahmad Tibi, a former adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and Hanin Zouabi of Balad. Both at times have been disqualified from running for Knesset due to anti-Zionist statements, but the bans have been overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court.

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