The elections for Israel’s 20th Knesset (parliament) will be held on Tuesday, March 17, 2015.
Twenty-six different parties will compete for 120 parliamentary seats. These parties represent the broadest spectrum of Israeli society from far-left to far-right, Israeli-Arab to Jewish nationalist, secular to ultra-Orthodox and everything in between. In this election cycle, a party must win at least 3.25 percent (4 seats) in order to secure representation in the Knesset. Historically, Israel has a large voter turn-out, and during the January 2013 election, 68 percent of eligible voters (3.8 million Israelis) cast ballots.
Traditionally, the party which secures the most seats in parliament is tasked by Israel’s president with forming a government, generally through coalition agreements with other political parties. The leader of the party forming the government is elected Prime Minister.
Following the 2013 election, the Likud-Beiteinu party with 31 seats, led by Benjamin Netanyahu joined with Yesh Atid (19 seats), Jewish Home (12) and Hatnuah (6) to create a governing coalition of 68 seats. Yet there have been cases where the largest party has been unable to form a government, and the task has fallen to another party.
This backgrounder provides an overview of the leadership and platforms of the eleven parties (presented alphabetically below) that opinion polls show are above or around 3.25 percent, and are therefore likely to have seats in the next Knesset.
(Note: Square brackets indicate the number of seats currently held)
Jewish Home – Founded in 2012
Party Leader: Naftali Bennett
Background: Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party is led by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, a hi-tech millionaire who was previously Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief-of-staff, as well as the Director General of the Settlers Council. The party’s number two candidate is Housing Minister Uri Ariel who oversees housing construction across Israel including the Israeli settlements. Jewish Home has many young followers, both national-religious and secular, and has substantial support from residents of the settlements.
The major issues on Habayit Hayehudi’s platform are economic inequality and settlements, including support for Israel annexing Area C of the West Bank (the area under Israeli jurisdiction which includes all Israeli settlements), which spans about two-thirds of the entire region. The party is viewed as a challenger to the Likud, though both parties share a common right-wing political ideology.
Projected Seats: 12 MKs [12 MKs]
Joint Arab List – Merger of Balad (1995), Hadash (1977) and Ra’am Ta’al (2006)
Party Leaders: Aiman Uda, Masud Ganim, Jamal Zahalka and Ahmed Tibi
Background: In past elections, each of the three parties ran independently. However, due to the change in the voting electoral threshold, the Arab parties decided to merge and form one non-Zionist list despite major political and ideological differences.
The Israeli-Arab Balad (National Democratic Alliance) party is a secular pan-Arab nationalist faction. One of Balad’s most controversial figures is MK Hanin Zuabi who participated in the 2010 Gaza Flotilla, and had been banned by the Knesset Central Elections Committee from participating in the upcoming election, which was subsequently overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. Balad’s platform advocates for abolishing all Jewish characteristics of the state, and for Israel to disengage from all territories beyond the 1967 borders.
Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) is a socialist Jewish-Arab party which advocates for a two-state solution along the 1967 borders and the transformation of Israel away from a Jewish State into “a state for all its citizens.”
Ra’am (United Arab List) Ta’al (Arab Movement for Renewal) is a merged political party of the Islamic movement in Israel and of the Israeli-Arab community. It advocates for a separation of religion and state, the independence of Islamic Sharia courts, equal civil rights for Israeli-Arabs and the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. Party leader Ahmed Tibi is a controversial and outspoken supporter of Israeli-Arab causes, who was formerly Yasser Arafat’s adviser on Israeli affairs.
Seat Projection: 13-14 MKs [11 MKs]
Kulanu – Newly Established Party
Party Leader: Moshe Kahlon
Background: Kulanu (All of Us), led by former Likud member and Minister of Communications Moshe Kahlon, is an economically focused party campaigning on lowering the cost-of-living in Israel, bridging economic inequalities and fixing the housing crisis. The party list also consists of security and foreign policy experts, including retired IDF General Yoav Galant and former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren. The party platform supports achieving a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Seat Projection: 8-9 MKs [N/A]
Likud - Founded in 1973
Party Leader: Benjamin Netanyahu
Background: Likud is headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During the last election, the party had merged with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party to form Likud-Beiteinu, but that union has since dissolved.
The Prime Minister is running on his hawkish security record regarding Iran, the Palestinians and other issues threatening Israel’s well-being, and on bringing relative economic prosperity to Israel. In recent years, a younger generation has arisen through the Likud ranks, including a number of more nationalist politicians like Miri Regev, Ze’ev Elkin and Danny Danon who reject the notion of a Palestinian state. Despite the nationalist’s rise within Likud, the official position of Prime Minister Netanyahu is in support of the two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Returning this election is long-time member Benny Begin, who was named by Netanyahu to a safe spot (11) on the Likud list, who was voted out during the 2013 Likud primary election. Polls indicate that Likud is running neck-in-neck with the Zionist Union party for the most seats.
Seat Projection: 20-21 MKs [20 MKs]
Meretz – Founded in 1992
Party Leader: Zehava Gal-On
Background: Having won just six seats in the previous election, Meretz’s influence has shrunk considerably from its heyday as a major coalition partner during the 1990’s.
The current party makeup indicates an attempt to appeal to more urban constituencies, as well as to women and Israeli Arabs. Meretz’s platform focuses on social issues, including civil liberties, environmental issues, religious freedom and women's rights, and advocates for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Seat Projection: 5 MKs [6 MKs]
Shas – Founded in 1984
Party Leader: Aryeh Deri
Background: Shas is a religious Sephardic political party that was founded by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. As a matter of policy, Shas does not include women in its party list though it does have a women's advisory council. Aryeh Deri, who helped build Shas into a political powerhouse during the 1990’s, returned to the political scene last election after serving jail time for a bribery conviction, sharing the party leadership role with Eli Yishai. Following Yosef’s death in 2013 and the dissolving of the Israeli government, Yishai broke with Shas to form his own party, Yachad.
Under Deri, Shas has returned to its social roots by focusing on socio-economic issues, including raising the minimum wage and lowering taxes. While Shas had previously supported negotiations with the Palestinians and the land-for-peace formula, Deri has stated that there is currently no negotiating partner on the Palestinian side.
Seat Projection: 8 MKs [11 MKs]
United Torah Judaism (UTJ) – Founded in 1992
Party Leader: Ya’akov Litzman
Background: UTJ, a Jewish non-Zionist party, was founded to represent Israel’s ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Ashkenazi community. Their founding purpose was to give the Haredim a political voice to support government funding of their institutions, and to oppose legislation that would negatively alter Israel’s religious character. UTJ doesn't hold official positions on issues of state security and diplomacy, and often abstains from voting on issues that don’t directly affect their constituency.
In this upcoming Knesset, UTJ’s main focus will most likely be on advocating for a solution to the Haredi housing shortage, and working to overturn the recently passed law to gradually integrate Haredi men into the IDF.
Seat Projections: 6-7 MKs [7 MKs]
Yachad – Newly Established Party
Party Leader: Eli Yishai
Background: Eli Yishai, the former co-head of Shas, founded Yachad (Together) following the death of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Similar to Shas, Yachad is focused on socio-economic issues, and seeks to narrow the gaps between rich and poor. On peace process issues, however, they are considerably more right-wing, and oppose the land-for-peace formula with the Palestinians or a freeze in settlement building. In recent years, Yishai, mainly in his capacity as Minister of Interior Affairs, has been very outspoken on the issue of African asylum seekers, including making controversial statements condemning their presence in Israel.
The number four candidate on Yachad’s list is Baruch Marzel, an extremist Israeli Jew with a long record of anti-Arab incitement. Marzel, an American-born resident of Hebron, was an early member of the outlawed racist Kach movement led by Meir Kahane, and was elected to head Kach following Kahane’s assassination. He was initially banned by the Knesset Central Elections Committee from participating in the upcoming election, though the ban was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Seat Projections: 4-5 MKs [N/A]
Yesh Atid – Founded in 2012
Party Leader: Yair Lapid
Background: Yair Lapid, an Israeli TV personality and columnist, and the son of former Shinui Party Chair Tommy Lapid, founded Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) as a centrist party. After a strong showing in the 2013 election, Lapid served as Finance Minister and Shai Piron, the party’s number two, as Education Minister. Yesh Atid’s party list includes religious, business, security establishment and local political figures.
Yesh Atid’s platform focuses on addressing social issues and fighting corruption in the public service, and was instrumental in passing recent legislation which implemented mandatory military service for Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In the previous government Yesh Atid proposed significant financial increases for social service programs and policies aimed at bridging the gaps between rich and poor. The party supports the two-state solution, and has endorsed the idea of a regional peace agreement between Israel and her Arab neighbors as part of agreement with the Palestinians.
Projected seats: 11-12 MKs [19 MKs]
Yisrael Beiteinu – Founded in 1999
Party Leader: Avigdor Lieberman
Background: Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) is led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and is mainly comprised of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. During the previous election cycle, the party ran on a joint slate with the Likud party. Many of Yisrael Beiteinu’s supporters are secular Russian-speaking Israelis.
On issues relating to security and foreign policy, Yisrael Beiteinu tends towards right-wing and nationalistic positions. The party supports the two-state solution, though Lieberman has expressed a controversial view of “transfer,” stating that the populations in some Arab cities and towns in Israel should be incorporated into a future Palestinian state.
Projected seats: 5-6 MKs [13 MKs]
Zionist Union – Merger of Labor (1968) and Hatnuah (2013)
Party Leaders: Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni
Background: Labor, one of Israel’s oldest and leading political parties, has had a weak showing in recent years, winning only 13 seats in 2009 and 15 in 2013. This election slate features a number of young and new faces, including social activists, former security officials, journalists and economic experts. Isaac Herzog took over the party leadership in 2013, and has positioned himself as the leading candidate to replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister.
Zionist Union’s platform is focused on addressing social and economic inequalities, as well as diplomatic and foreign policy issues. In recent weeks, Herzog and Livni have been very vocal in criticizing Prime Minister Netanyahu on issues relating to his handling of relations with the US. In the previous government, Livni, who served as Justice Minister, was the main Israeli negotiator during the US-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Zionist Union is running neck-in-neck in the polls with Likud for the most seats.
Seat Projection: 24-25 MKs [15 MKs]
Sources: Ynet, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, AP, The Knesset Website, Project 61
 The opinion polls are as of March 13, 2015