Meet the Israeli elections candidates
By David Isaac, JNS
1. Benjamin Netanyahu – Likud
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and now head of the opposition, will attempt to win his sixth term as premier. Even his enemies acknowledge his political gifts and strong grasp of economics. He is credited with transforming Israel’s heavily regulated economy into a capitalist, high-tech powerhouse. The most recent polls suggest that this time he will have enough Knesset seats to form a government.
In the recent string of four rapid-fire elections, his right-wing bloc has fallen short of a 61-seat Knesset majority. He came closest in the first election in April 2019 with 60 seats, a tantalizing one seat short. When, on his third try in March 2020, his bloc took 58 seats, Netanyahu entered into a power-sharing deal with Benny Gantz, leader of the center-left Blue and White Party (it fell apart after seven months). The March 2021 election led to a coalition of ideological opposites, glued together, it was widely agreed, only by their antipathy to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s chief weakness is his inability to maintain the loyalty of his subordinates. Perhaps his greatest nemesis is Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, once a reliable coalition partner, who started the years-long deadlock when he exited the Netanyahu-led government in 2018. Gideon Sa’ar, leader of the New Hope Party, is the latest Likud leader turned enemy. He, too, has sworn never to join with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu also faces legal troubles. He has been indicted in three corruption cases, accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Although the prosecution has suffered setbacks, the cases continue to be an albatross around his neck.
Netanyahu’s credentials as a true right-winger have been questioned on the right, with his votes in favor of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 drawing special ire.
2. Yair Lapid – Yesh Atid Party
After Yair Lapid entered politics in 2012, his party, Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) won 19 seats to become the second-largest party in the Knesset. New parties led by popular candidates (Lapid was a well-known talk show host) had achieved success before, only to peter out as their novelty wore off. Yesh Atid seemed set to follow the same trajectory, dropping to 11 seats in the 2015 election.
However, Lapid and his party have shown staying power. He rose to become prime minister this July, taking over from Naftali Bennett under the terms of a power-sharing agreement.
With limited time to prove himself ahead of the Nov. 1 election, Lapid has been meeting with heads of state (including U.S. President Joe Biden after only 13 days on the job), delivered speeches in international forums and, most recently, announced the conclusion of a maritime border deal with Lebanon after years of negotiations by previous governments.
Lapid faces challenges not only from Netanyahu but also from those he will look to as coalition partners, including Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, who has joined forces with Minister of Justice Gideon Sa’ar to form the National Unity Party. They argue that Lapid won’t have the numbers to form a government without the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism), which Lapid has alienated with his calls to end funding for ultra-Orthodox institutions and to require haredim to serve in the army.
Lapid inherited an anti-religious bent from his father, the late Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a former journalist turned Knesset member and justice minister, and a leader of the Shinui Party, whose best-known political platform plank was to remove religion from public life.
3. Bezalel Smotrich – Religious Zionism Party
An Orthodox Jew raised in the community of Beit El in the Binyamin region of Samaria, Bezalel Smotrich began as an agitator and activist, protesting against the disengagement of the Gaza Strip in 2005 (for which he was arrested) and co-founding Regavim, an NGO that focuses on issues related to illegal Arab land grabs. Earlier statements about Arabs, gays and the Reform movement continue to haunt him.
After squeaking into the Knesset in the 2015 election, in which he held the eighth (and last) seat won by the Jewish Home faction, Smotrich took over the leadership of his Tkuma Party in a landslide in 2019. Following the April 2019 election, Netanyahu appointed Smotrich minister of transportation. Previously thought of as a provocateur posting outrageous tweets, he proved an able minister despite having no experience in the field. His Twitter tirades have earned him comparisons to former President Donald Trump—after one against Netanyahu in August 2019 he was forced to apologize to avoid losing his ministerial position.
In early January, ahead of the March 2021 election, Smotrich renamed his party Religious Zionism and allied with the Otzma Yehudit Party, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the Noam Party, led by Avigdor Maoz. Combined, the three parties won six seats.
Both Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) and Noam are to the right of Religious Zionism, with Ben-Gvir, often satirized on Israeli TV, a poster child for the right’s detractors. Noam mainly focuses on social issues including policies opposing LGBT rights. According to a Panels Politics poll on Oct. 6, Religious Zionism will win 14 seats, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset.
4. Benny Gantz – National Unity Party
When former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz announced at the end of 2018 that he was running for the Knesset as head of the Israel Resilience Party, he joined a long line of former top IDF brass who had entered politics.
In February 2019, he joined Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem Party to form a faction called Blue and White with himself at its head. Blue and White tied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party at 35 seats. When neither could form a government, a snap election was called for September. In that round, Blue and White took 33 seats to Likud’s 32, but again neither side could cobble together 61 seats. After Likud won 36 seats to Blue and White’s 33 in the third recent election in March 2020, to everyone’s surprise, including members of his faction, Gantz decided to join with Netanyahu to form a national unity government. Yesh Atid and Telem pulled out of Blue and White in protest.
In retrospect, Gantz’s decision severely damaged his political prospects. As part of the deal, Netanyahu was to serve as prime minister for 18 months and then turn over the leadership to Gantz for at least an equal period. When it became clear Netanyahu had no intention of honoring his word, the coalition disintegrated after seven months. In the next election in March 2021, Gantz, who had been head of the opposition, finished with only eight seats.
In August, Gantz formed the National Unity Party, or State Party, with Minister of Justice Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party and former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot. It now hovers at around 12 Knesset seats in the polls.
5. Aryeh Deri – Shas
Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Shas Party, is a survivor. He has been on the Israeli political scene closing on 35 years, and despite a criminal conviction and a jail sentence, has assumed important ministerial roles. Most recently, in January, he was convicted of tax evasion. He took a plea deal and was fined $50,000 by the court. As part of the plea bargain, he resigned from the Knesset. But that bargain included no prohibition on Deri, who remains chairman of Shas, from returning to the Knesset or becoming a minister in a future government.
Deri began his political career in 1988 as interior minister under the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir. Only 29, he was the youngest government minister in Israel’s history. He continued in that role into the Yitzhak Rabin-led Labor government, serving until 1993. It was as interior minister that Deri was convicted of receiving $155,000 in bribes. The court handed down a three-year jail sentence in 2000; he served 22 months before being released for good behavior.
In 2011, he announced his return to politics. In 2014, he submitted his resignation after a 2008 video emerged of the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, calling him a thief and a bad man. Deri returned in the March 2015 election and was interior minister between 2016 and 2021.
Shas is mainly concerned with ensuring funding for its community’s institutions.
6. Moshe Gafni – United Torah Judaism
Born in 1952, Gafni entered the Knesset in 1988 as a member of the Degel HaTorah (or, “Flag of the Torah”) Party, an ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party, becoming deputy minister of religious affairs in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1990.
In 1992, his party joined with Agudat Yisrael, another Ashkenazi Haredi party, to form United Torah Judaism (UTJ). Except for a brief split between 2004 and 2006, the alliance has remained strong. In the April 2019 election, it won the most seats (8) in its history. It has since lost one seat.
Like Shas, UTJ’s main concern is to ensure government funding for its institutions. The party has an uneasy relationship with the state due to Israel’s secular nature. When Israel’s Supreme Court passed a ruling in 2006 favorable to same-sex marriages, Gafni said, “We don’t have a Jewish state here. We have Sodom and Gomorrah here.” Gafni has also said he wouldn’t recognize a 2016 decision to expand the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, calling Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah.”
Together with Shas comprising a bloc of roughly 15 seats, UTJ and Shas have provided reliable support for Benjamin Netanyahu in return for funding their institutions. The relationship has opened up Netanyahu to criticism as the ultra-Orthodox are an unpopular community with many Israelis, viewed as not doing their part to contribute to the state’s well-being.
7. Avigdor Liberman – Yisrael Beitenu
Once a staunch ally of Netanyahu, as director-general of the Likud Party (1993-96) Avigdor Liberman helped him win his first bid for the premiership. Even after breaking from Likud in 1997 and forming his Yisrael Beiteinu Party two years later, Liberman remained a reliable partner of every Netanyahu-led coalition government.
However, the alliance became increasingly rocky, and in 2018 Liberman abandoned the government over a ceasefire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the decision to allow Qatari money into Gaza. Liberman and Netanyahu’s relationship hit a nadir in September of this year when Liberman called Netanyahu “the scum of the human race who has no red lines.” Liberman blamed Netanyahu for orchestrating what he called “a smear” in the press, a story claiming he had offered to pay $100,000 to kill a police superintendent.
Liberman’s party maintains right-wing positions on security, foreign policy and the economy but is close to the left on issues of religion and state, centering recent campaigns on anti-haredi attacks. In March 2021, he called the community an “existential threat” that would turn the country into a “Khomeini-style state.”
Liberman was born in Moldova (then part of the Soviet Union) in 1958, immigrating to Israel with his family when he was 20. His party’s base has traditionally been immigrants from the former Soviet Union. At its height in 2009, the party won 15 seats. Since the 2015 election it has stabilized at around seven seats.
8. Merav Michaeli – Labor
Merav Michaeli, a former TV anchor and radio broadcaster, is known for her radical feminist views and support for women’s issues. She once gave a TEDx Talk titled “Cancel Marriage,” in which she called for the dissolution of the institution, which she argued began “when man started wanting his name and property to remain after him.”
When Michaeli was elected leader of the Labor Party on Jan. 24, 2021, the party, which had dominated Israeli politics for the first three decades of the state’s existence, faced the prospect of elimination from the Knesset, according to polls. Michaeli’s advent breathed new life into the party, which finished with seven seats in the March 2021 election, a gain of four over the previous one. Recent polls show Labor again declining, forecast to garner five to six seats in the upcoming election.
In keeping with her party’s secular positions on religion and state issues, Michaeli, who is currently minister of transport and road safety, announced on Oct. 1 that the light rail project under construction in the Tel Aviv region will operate on the Sabbath.
Michaeli’s roots in the Israeli left are deep. Her paternal grandfather was Nehemia Michaeli, the last secretary of the far-left Mapam Party. Her maternal grandfather was Rudolf Kastner, active in Mapai (the predecessor of the Labor Party), who was assassinated in 1957 after having been accused of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II.
A 2021 Hebrew translation of the 1961 book on the Kastner trial, “Perfidy,” by noted screenwriter Ben Hecht brought the controversy again to the fore. Michaeli views her grandfather as a savior of Jews, mentioning him in her maiden speech at the Knesset in 2013.
9. Zehava Gal-On – Meretz
Zehava Gal-On, who had retired in 2017 as head of the Meretz Party, returned this year to revive its electoral hopes. She was active in promoting women’s rights in the Knesset and served as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women. In 2019, she founded the Zulat for Equality and Human Rights NGO.
Meretz is the most left-wing party to define itself as Zionist. However, the party’s Zionist identity became an issue in the run-up to its recent leadership primary. Gal-on, squaring off against Yair Golan, a former IDF major general, said in July, “We never defined ourselves as a Zionist party, and we never defined ourselves as a non-Zionist party.
“We have Zionists; I am a Zionist, but we also have Arabs, and I will not force them to define themselves as Zionists. Therefore, we are an Israeli party, and we see ourselves as partners with anyone who believes that Israel should be a democratic state,” she said.
Golan said in response: “I think exactly the opposite. Zionism for me is an identity; Zionism for me is the essence of the country’s existence…”
Meretz supports the establishment of a Palestinian state with part of Jerusalem as its capital. Gal-On in 1999 called for an end to the Law of Return, which gives the right to Diaspora Jews to automatically attain Israeli citizenship. Gal-On called the law “discriminatory.”
10. Mansour Abbas – Ra’am
In June 2021, Mansour Abbas, breaking away from the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties, led his United Arab List, or Ra’am Party, into Israel’s governing coalition, the first time an independent Arab party had joined an Israeli government. While Arab parties at times supported Israeli governments from outside the coalition, Arab leaders viewed joining one as a step too far as they feared it would legitimize the State of Israel.
Abbas reasoned that Arab parties should prioritize the need of Arabs living in Israel over the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Abbas had earlier made statements in favor of outreach. In 2020, he condemned the burning of a synagogue in Lod during Arab rioting. That year, he also said in a Knesset speech: “I have empathy for the pain and suffering over the years of Holocaust survivors and the families of the murdered.…I stand here to show solidarity with the Jewish people here and forever.”
Detractors point out that Ra’am is the political wing of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. and that its charter says Israel “was born of the racist, occupying Zionist project; iniquitous Western and British imperialism; and the debasement and feebleness of the Arab and Islamic [nations].”
11. Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi – Hadash-Ta’al
Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi are joint leaders of Hadash-Ta’al, all that remains of the Joint List after the breakaway of Ra’am in January 2021 and Balad in September 2022.
Considered a moderate in the context of the extremism characteristic of Arab parties, Odeh (head of Hadash) nevertheless refused to condemn Hezbollah as a terrorist group in July, instead denouncing Israel’s “occupation” as the chief source of terrorism in the region. In April, he caused a storm when he told Arabs serving in Israel’s security forces to “throw their weapons in their faces and tell them that our place is not with you.”
A Muslim, Odeh attended a Christian school growing up in Haifa and studied law in Romania. He says he has broken free of the confines of religion and ethnicity.
Ahmad Tibi, a medical doctor by training, formed Ta’al in 1995 while serving as an adviser to PLO chief Yasser Arafat. In 1996, he said, “All my moves are made according to his instructions. I believe he has confidence in me, and I hope I justify the confidence he puts in me.”
Hadash and Ta’al are secular parties. Hadash was formed in 1977 by Israel’s Communist Party and other far-left groups. It opposes privatization and advocates a socialist economy. Ta’al is more right-wing economically. Both are anti-Zionist and support the creation of a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital. They also support the “right of return” for Arabs who fled during Israel’s War of Independence and their descendants, a position Zionist parties agree that if implemented, would spell the end of the Jewish state.
12. Ayelet Shaked – Jewish Home Party
Ayelet Shaked, currently minister of the interior, leads the Jewish Home Party. She was the long-time ally of Naftali Bennett, who after serving as prime minister, announced he is taking a break from politics.
Once the darling of right-wing Israelis, Shaked faces an uphill battle. By joining Bennett in a coalition government including a number of left-wing parties and the Arab Ra’am party, she angered her voter base. In late September, launching the Jewish Home campaign, she apologized to supporters. “I believe that you will find a place in your hearts to forgive me,” Shaked said, noting that her decision “broke a million hearts” and “deeply hurt” her supporters.
Shaked started the current election round by forming a new party, Zionist Spirit, together with Minister of Communications Yoaz Hendel of the Derech Eretz Party. Polls showed the party failing to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold and the two ended their partnership in early September. Jewish Home, while still under the electoral threshold, has been strengthening in the most recent polls.
As minister of justice (2015-2019), Shaked sought to rein in Israel’s Supreme Court, viewed on the right as overreaching. She supports the death penalty for terrorists and a more capitalistic economy. In a recent interview, she insisted she would pass the electoral threshold and again demand the Justice Ministry as her portfolio.
13. Sami Abu Shehadeh – Balad
Sami Abu Shehadeh was born in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod and grew up in Jaffa, where he attended a Catholic school. He became a member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council and entered the Knesset in the September 2019 election. He was elected party chairman in January 2021.
Abu Shehadeh pulled Balad from the Joint List in September over what some say was a dispute over a rotational agreement involving the sixth spot on the Knesset candidates list. Others say there was a deeper ideological disagreement over whether to join in an Israeli government as Ra’am had done. While all Arab parties in the Knesset are anti-Zionist, Balad is the most adamant about not joining any Israeli government. After the September 2019 election, it was the only member of the Joint List not to recommend Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for prime minister.
The decision to run alone could have far-reaching implications as polls show Balad failing to cross the electoral threshold. It is scoring about 1.0% in the polls. If it fails, it will strengthen the odds of a right-wing coalition being formed.
On Sept. 27, Israel’s Central Elections Committee disqualified the party from running in the election as it called for the negation of the Jewish state and a “state for all its citizens.” That decision was overturned by the Supreme Court on Oct. 10. (It is not clear why Balad was singled out, given that the other Arab parties share its position on this issue.)