It began with betrayal-tinged political breakups, controversial couplings, doomed courtships, and shotgun alliances. It came to a close with no-holds-barred mudslinging over submarines, hacked phones, mental health, and online trolls. It traced the unexpected rise of a quasi-libertarian messianic movement; and throughout, there were polls, polls, polls.
On Tuesday, Israelis head to the ballot box after a bitter election season that was heavy on intrigue and personal attacks and lighter on comprehensive policy proposals.
For voters and observers befuddled about what the parties actually stand for, after several head-spinning weeks of political news, here is The Times of Israel’s look at the whopping 39 political parties in the race: the front-runners, the well-established parties in danger of stumbling under the electoral threshold into political oblivion, the earnest yet hopeless unknowns, and the quirky provocateurs. It examines their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, economy, social issues, and matters of religion and state, and the likelihood of their entry into parliament according to recent surveys.
A note about the opinion polls included in this summary: Though Israeli networks play up surveys several times a week, the polls have proven inaccurate in the past and should best be seen as a general gauge of public moods rather than an accurate predictor. (Ahead of the 2015 elections, for example, the surveys consistently placed Zionist Union as outscoring Likud, which ultimately emerged with a six-seat advantage.) And with so many small parties flirting with the 3.25% electoral threshold, as ToI’s David Horovitz has written, the process of predicting the outcome becomes “if not a fool’s errand, then a masochist’s one.”
To top off the uncertainty surrounding the vote, once the ballots are counted, another potentially nail-biting drama waits in the wings: The question of whom President Reuven Rivlin will task to form the next government.
So whether you want Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, a ship captain from Nazareth, or the all-powerful internet (!) to be Israel’s next prime minister, here is everything you need to know before April 9.
View of voting notes at the central elections committee warehouse in Shoham on March 25, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Click to learn about a party:
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud
Benny Gantz’s Blue and White
Avi Gabbay’s Labor
Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael BeytenuMoshe Kahlon’s KulanuAyelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett’s New RightRafi Peretz’s Union of Right-Wing PartiesAyman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi’s Hadash-Ta’alMoshe Feiglin’s ZehutMansour Abbas’s Ra’am-BaladYaakov Litzman’s United Torah JudaismAryeh Deri’s ShasTamar Zandberg’s MeretzOrly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher
The “also running” parties
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Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud
Platform: The last time the ruling Likud released a detailed party platform was during the 2009 election season, which saw Benjamin Netanyahu installed as prime minister for the second time in his career — an office he has held ever since. Now, ahead of April 9, the governing right-wing party has again declined to outline its policies, preferring instead to rest on its past performance. This has seen Netanyahu link Israel’s economic flourishing in the past decade with the liberal free market views championed by the party; stress the US pullout from the Iranian nuclear agreement, a deal he lobbied against; tout the strong US-Israel relationship under President Donald Trump, including the recognition of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; and highlight support for settlement building, advancement of the Jewish nation-state law, covert ties with Arab states, and more.
View of a large election billboard on a building with pictures of US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv on February 3, 2019.(Roy Alima/Flash90)
After endorsing a Palestinian state in 2009, Netanyahu has moved away from openly backing the idea — and in recent years, both the Trump White House and his some of his political rivals have appeared to follow his lead. His government has said it would review the Trump peace plan, which is expected to be released in the coming months, with an open mind. (The contents of the plan have been kept tightly under wraps, and it remains unclear whether it includes a Palestinian state.) At the tail end of the campaign, he has taken to promising that he will apply Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv on April 2, 2019, ahead of general elections next week. (Flash90)
On religion and state, the party hews to the longstanding status quo at the behest of its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and has not sought to upset the existing balance on issues such as Shabbat, marriage and divorce, and conversion.
Netanyahu enters the race with the prospect of a criminal indictment looming: The attorney general has announced he will charge him with fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them, pending a hearing that is expected to take place by July. Should he win the race and continue to govern after an indictment has been filed, Israel will enter uncharted territory, legal officials warn, though under the law he may not need to resign unless he is convicted of charges that carry moral turpitude and after all appeals are exhausted.
Read: With over 6 million followers, PM’s internet empire prepares for election.
Main figures: In the top 10, following Netanyahu (who was reelected as party leader in a 2016 vote), are Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Transportation Minister Israel Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, Culture Minister Miri Regev, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Immigration Minister Yoav Gallant, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel.
A giant election campaign poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 31, 2019, (Noam Revkin)
Read: Despite nation-state law, this Bedouin village is sticking with Netanyahu.
Polling: 26-31 seats; recent surveys have seen Netanyahu retain a slight lead over Gantz among respondents in terms of suitability to serve as prime minister. Most polls have suggested Blue and White will walk away with more seats than Likud, but all polls indicate Gantz’s party would struggle to form a coalition.
Something you may not have known: Should Netanyahu be reelected and remain in power until mid-July, he will overtake founding prime minister David Ben Gurion as Israel’s longest serving premier.
Return to parties
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Benny Gantz’s Blue and White
Platform: Formed in February as the result of a merger between former IDF chief Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience (which also includes the Telem faction headed by Moshe Ya’alon) and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the centrist Blue and White party immediately became the main and only viable challenger to the ruling Likud party. Agreeing to join forces in a bid to replace Netanyahu as prime minister, the two leaders reached a rotation deal that would see Gantz serve as premier for two and a half years followed by Lapid for the remaining two years, if they win the election. Initially following Israel Resilience’s lead in keeping mum on key policy proposals, Blue and White eventually released a detailed 45-page manifesto based largely on Yesh Atid’s already published 200-page platform.
Read: Lapid: If we beat Likud by 4, ‘no power on earth’ can stop us forming coalition.
The diplomatic program set out in the manifesto includes support for a “united” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, continued Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, and retaining settlement blocs in the West Bank, along with a willingness to enter negotiations with the Palestinians. While promising that there will be “no second disengagement,” a la the one from Gaza in 2005, the platform also says the party will “initiate a regional conference with the Arab countries that seek stability and deepen the process of separation from the Palestinians while maintaining uncompromising security interests of the State of Israel and the IDF’s freedom of action everywhere.”
Benny Gantz (right) and Yair Lapid of the Blue and White joint slate, March 8, 2019. (Flash90)
Read: Benny Gantz to ToI: Future of Israel as a democracy is at stake in this election
On social issues, the party says it “will preserve the Jewish identity of the state alongside the realization of the right of every person and community to shape their way of life in freedom and tolerance,” supporting initiatives blocked by the ultra-Orthodox, such as public transportation on Shabbat and canceling the “mini-market law” prohibiting certain trade on the Sabbath. Tackling other issues that have irked ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, the platform also vows to pass legislation permitting same-sex civil unions and surrogacy by same-sex couples and includes a commitment to implement a currently frozen deal to expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall and establish a first-of-its-kind body made up of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders to oversee the pavilion.
From left to right: Moshe Yaalon, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the leaders of the Blue and White coalition, at the announcement of their alliance in Tel Aviv, February 21, 2019. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
Main figures: In addition to Gantz, who served as IDF chief of staff from 2011 to 2015 and former TV anchorman Lapid, fellow former chiefs of staff Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi make up the senior leadership of the party. They are followed on the party slate by Histadrut labor union chair Avi Nissenkorn in the fifth slot. The top 10 is completed by Yesh Atid MKs Meir Cohen and Ofer Shelah; former news anchor and environmental activist Miki Haimovich; the IDF’s first and only female major general, Orna Barbivai; and Yoaz Hendel, newspaper columnist and head of the Institute for center-right Zionist Strategies think tank, who previously served as a senior aide to Netanyahu.
Read: Invasive security checks mar Blue and White’s 1st outreach event to Arab voters
Polling: Blue and White has consistently polled ahead of Likud since it was formed in February through a merger of Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, but has recently seen its lead over Likud slip. Recent polls show the party earning anywhere between 27 and 32 seats, but even if it fares better than Likud, Gantz is predicted to struggle in forming a coalition.
Something you may not have known: Announcing the Israel Resilience-Yesh Atid merger deal, Gantz revealed (to both the public and to his new political partner) that his mother and Lapid’s father, both Holocaust survivors, had “shared an apartment building” in the Jewish ghetto in Budapest before being deported to concentration camps in 1944.
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Avi Gabbay’s Labor
Platform: “Security above all,” reads the first item on the Labor party platform, along with a vow to “separate” from the Palestinians. The plan describes Labor’s long-term “diplomatic vision” as “a regional arrangement with the Palestinians and the moderate Arab states, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state will be established by our side.” The three-step plan includes an immediate end to building outside settlement blocs, legislation to compensate settlers living outside the blocs for their relocation, and a referendum on the future status of Palestinian neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem. But in an admission of the significant barriers that prevent breaking the current deadlock, the party admits that “this future vision is not attainable” in the near future.
Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay (right) and party member Tal Russo tour the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, on April 3, 2019, ahead of the Knesset elections. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
The center-left party, in its 60-page manifesto, also pledges to amend the so-called Jewish state law with a clause on “equality” of all its citizens; legalize pot, implement the Western Wall deal; recognize same-sex marriage and advance surrogacy for gay couples; allow “limited and organized” public transportation on Shabbat; advance a law to limit the prime minister’s candidacy to two terms; raise minimum wage to NIS 7,000 ($2,000); ease conversions to Judaism; regulate the gas prices from Israel’s natural reserves; and raise state stipends for the elderly and disabled, among other issues.
Read: At ToI event, Labor’s Gabbay dismisses US peace plan, raps PM’s embrace of Trump
Main figures: Avi Gabbay, a former CEO of the Bezeq telecommunications firm and a former environmental protection minister (with his previous party, Kulanu), was elected the Labor leader in July 2017, succeeding Isaac Herzog. He is followed on the roster by IDF general Tal Russo, MK Itzik Shmuli and MK Stav Shaffir, former party leaders MKs Shelly Yachimovich and Amir Peretz; MKs Merav Michaeli, Omer Bar Lev, and Revital Swid, followed by newcomer Yair Fink, MK Michal Biran, and another rookie, Gavri Bargil.
Polling: Under Gabbay’s leadership, the party that governed Israel for the first three decades of its existence is expected to receive its lowest-ever number of seats, between eight and 10, though one outlier Channel 13 survey last week gave it 14 seats.
Leaders of the Israeli Labor party attend an elections campaign event in Tel-Aviv, March 18, 2019 . (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Something you may not have known: Though he’s been in politics for four years and served as a minister in Israel’s cabinet until his fiery resignation in 2016, Avi Gabbay has never been elected into the Knesset. (He was appointed environmental protection minister by Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon as an external candidate.)
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Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu
Platform: In an ever-crowded field of right-wing parties, Yisrael Beytenu is trying to distinguish itself as the only one that is also unapologetically secular. Chairman Avigdor Liberman has been an outspoken critic of “religious coercion,” promoting public transportation and allowing mini-markets to remain open on the Sabbath in addition to ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce. In launching his campaign in January, the tough-talking Liberman stood in front of several large posters with slogans highlighting the individuals and groups that he would stand up to. Included equally on the list along with the Hamas terror group, the BDS movement and Arab MK Ahmad Tibi, were the ultra-Orthodox — a message intended to jive with his base of secular Israelis originally from the former Soviet Union, who have seen their Judaism called into question by the state’s religious authorities. Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers sparred frequently with ultra-Orthodox MKs during the former’s efforts to regulate the ubiquitous exemptions from military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students, a fight Liberman has vowed to continue in the upcoming Knesset.
Recently resigned former defense minister Avigdor Liberman (leaning back) sits with opposition lawmakers during a Knesset meeting November 19, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
No less prominently highlighted in Yisrael Beytenu’s campaign has been the issue of security. Liberman boasts having guided Israel to one of its quietest ever periods during his roughly two and a half years as defense minister. He has taken pride in his decision to resign from the position last November in protest of a ceasefire with Hamas to end fighting in the Gaza Strip, which he claimed constituted caving in to terror and abandoning the residents of Israel’s south.
Read: Liberman claims mantle of hawk, as he launches his party’s election campaign
The hawkish ex-minister has also aggressively criticized Israel’s allowing of Qatari payments to Gaza, saying only an uncompromising policy including the death penalty for Palestinian attackers, the demolition of their homes and the expulsion of their families will bring about the defeat of terrorism. While the party fully supports Israeli settlements, and Liberman as defense minister oversaw the approval of tens of thousands of Israeli homes over the Green Line, its platform stops short of calling for annexation of the West Bank. Instead, the party supports a “regional agreement” that would see the swapping of certain Arab Israeli population hubs with settlement blocs.
Main figures: Yisrael Beytenu’s image as a one-man party has been further sharpened with the retirement of a pair of its more seasoned representatives. Nonetheless, notable figures at Liberman’s side include Oded Forer, who moved up six spots on the right-wing slate to the No. 2 spot, Druze MK Hamad Amar at No. 6, and the chairman of the “Disabled is not a Half-Person” NGO Alex Friedman at No. 12.
Polling: Liberman’s tenure as defense minister will most likely be remembered for a promise he made before even stepping into the position: to assassinate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours. The Yisrael Beytenu leader never ended up fulfilling that pledge and was viewed as a largely responsible defense minister who fell in line with the advice of IDF brass, despite all of the tough talk. He finds himself in a difficult situation: he wants to return to the Kirya military headquarters in order to deliver a fatal blow to Hamas, but the last time Netanyahu didn’t go along with the idea, Liberman resigned from office. Moreover, the sector of former-Soviet Union immigrants is aging and less convinced that they need a single party to represent them. Consequently, polls have Yisrael Beytenu straddling the electoral threshold. On the party’s best days, surveys have it at five seats, while others predict that it won’t make it into the Knesset at all.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (center) meets with IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, the head of the Shin Bet security service and other senior defense officials in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters on November 11, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Something you may not have known: Avigdor Liberman has a personal helicopter pad outside of his home in the Nokdim settlement that was built to swiftly transport him to the IDF’s headquarters in Tel Aviv when he was defense minister.
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Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu
Platform: While Kahlon opened his reelection campaign in January by promising to be “the sole voice within the government” fighting “anti-democratic and irresponsible legislation,” he has sought to play down that message in recent weeks over fears it could cause deep damage to his standing with right-wing voters. Kulanu has therefore focused nearly exclusively on socioeconomic policy, shying away from hot-button issues like the rule of law, settlements and the peace process.
The party’s platform is focused primarily on lowering Israel’s high cost of living, with Kahlon claiming that in the finance minister position, he successfully implemented promised reforms to lower housing prices and wants the job again so that he can further ease the financial burdens on working- and middle-class families.
Read: At working class market, Kahlon clings to hopes of being a kingmaker again
A key proposal is its “Early Childhood Education Act,” which would introduce extensive reform to preschool education and subsidize daycare costs from the age of 1 so that no parent pays more than NIS 1,200 per month (a saving, Kulanu says, of some NIS 15,000, or $4,200, a year per family). Other welfare proposals include linking the health budget to GDP, earmarking health and social welfare programs budgets specifically for the periphery, and expanding vocational training for the ultra-Orthodox sector and minorities.
In further plans for the housing market, the platform calls for the consolidation of all the national housing and lands authorities into one office, the “expedition” of the currently long application process for public housing, and the introduction of a program to offer loans to help first-time property buyers with costs incurred prior to receiving a mortgage.
Main figures: Whether purposefully or not, Kahlon has eschewed bringing big names onto his party’s slate, choosing instead to place incumbent lawmakers in the top seven spots. Economy Minister Eli Cohen and recently appointed Housing Minister Yifat Shasha Biton — who have both featured prominently in Kulanu’s campaign — are in the second and third spots, respectively.
Polling: Recent polls show that Kulanu could drop from 10 to just four Knesset seats, or even fail to clear the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. The final polls of the campaign showed the party just above the threshold. In order to remain in the Knesset, Kahlon needs to retain support from disenfranchised Likud voters who supported his party in 2015.
Something you may not have known: Kulanu takes its name, which means “all of us,” from a phrase Netanyahu used to describe Kahlon after he passed the cellular phone reform. Encouraging other Likud ministers to be more like his then-ally, the prime minister said, “Kulanu Kahlonim,” meaning “we are all Kahlons.”
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Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett’s New Right
Platform: After the election, Shaked wants to continue serving as justice minister, while Bennett, who is currently the education minister, wants to head the Defense Ministry. Consequently, the two issues the new slate has highlighted in its campaign have been legal- and security-focused. “Shaked will defeat the High Court of Justice and Bennett will defeat Hamas,” read one of the primary slogans repeated in the lead-up to the April 9 vote.
New Right co-chair Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in a satirical campaign ad, released on March 18, 2019, that mocks left-wing fears of her judicial reform proposals. (Twitter screen capture)
Shaked has vowed to continue her efforts to reform the justice system by giving the Knesset a larger say in the appointment of judges, limiting the role of parliamentary legal advisers, and passing a law that would bar the High Court from scrapping legislation passed by the Knesset. Bennett has expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the government’s policy vis-a-vis Gaza, which he has argued has brought a complete dissolution of Israel’s deterrence against Hamas. The former officer in the Sayeret Matkal commando unit called for forgoing ceasefires altogether and setting a goal of obliterating Hamas entirely through a relentless air campaign during which Israeli communities near the coastal enclave would be evacuated.
Read: Burned by religious Zionist old guard, Bennett seeks a new kind of right-winger
On paper, the New Right is just about identical to the Jewish Home party that Bennett and Shaked fled last December: It supports a free-market economy and the annexation of Area C of the West Bank, where all Israeli settlements are based, and utterly opposes a Palestinian state. Where the two parties differ is on matters of religion and state. Shaked and Bennett’s faction vows to maintain full partnership between religious and secular Israelis, a significant departure from the Jewish Home, which presents itself as unabashedly religious. What that “full partnership” means exactly, however, remains unclear: The New Right is keeping its cards close to its chest, vowing to establish a public committee — only after the elections — to seek broad consensus on those issues.
Education Minister Nafatli Bennett (right) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked from the “New Right” political party during an election campaign tour in central Jerusalem on January 23, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Main figures: In addition to the party’s two leaders, notable figures include Hapoel Beersheba soccer team owner Alona Barkat, who vows to represent Israeli communities in the south as the faction’s No. 3 candidate, and deaf rights activist Shirley Pinto. While the latter’s chances of making it into the Knesset appear rather slim, her placement at No. 10 on the slate demonstrates the New Right’s commitment to recognize and work for those with disabilities.
Read: Shaked on whether AG should delay PM graft decision: I have total faith in him
Polling: Despite Bennett and Shaked being two of the most popular ministers in the outgoing cabinet, surveys suggest they’ve had difficulty translating that likability into support, maxing out at seven seats in some recent polls and coming in at as low as four seats in others. The more that right-wing Israelis are concerned Netanyahu’s continued rule is under threat, the harder the New Right will find it to win or retain their support.
Something you may not have known: The New Right is the only slate with a realistic chance of entering Knesset that has an equal number of men and women in its first ten slots; plus, four out of its first six members are women.
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Rafi Peretz’s Union of Right-Wing Parties
Platform: In announcing their decision to bolt the Jewish Home party last December, Bennett and Shaked claimed that they had been shackled by the national religious movement’s rabbinic leadership, who Netanyahu felt were “in his pocket.” The pair of right-wing ministers had spent much of their time at the helm trying to play down the notion that their party was merely community-based. Enter new Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz, who has unabashedly wrapped himself in the national religious camp’s mantle.
Read: Before merger with Jewish Home, Otzma Yehudit had to disavow harming innocents
The former IDF chief rabbi insists that the values of the religious Zionist movement are relevant to all Israelis, but the establishment of the “half-religious, half secular” New Right has allowed him to more bluntly cater to religious voters. That meant, first, joining forces with the National Union party. While Bennett had run with the hardline faction in previous elections, the slate has seen a growing influence of an increasingly religious and nationalist subgroup, the Hardalim, who incline toward ultra-Orthodoxy and are best personified by the National Union’s newly elected leader MK Bezalel Smotrich.
In addition, following intense pressure from Netanyahu, Peretz also agreed to merge with the far-right Otzma Yehudit slate, forming an amalgam now known as the Union of Right-Wing Parties. While Peretz and Smotrich say the alliance with Otzma Yehudit is a mere “technical” agreement, which will end the day after the elections, their willingness to run on a joint slate with a faction of self-described disciples of the ultra-nationalist rabbi Meir Kahane demonstrates the way the wind is blowing in the national religious camp’s representative party.
Bezalel Smotrich (left) and Rafi Peretz after agreeing to form a joint Jewish Home-National Union Knesset slate, February 14, 2019. (Courtesy)
Adopting a trope shared by several parties this election season, the URWP is selling itself as the true representative of the Israeli right. In addition to supporting a free-market economy, it is ardently opposed to a Palestinian state and supports annexing the entire West Bank while withholding the right to vote from non-Jews over the Green Line. Amid speculation that the Trump administration will introduce its peace plan after the elections, the URWP has argued that its presence in the coalition, in large numbers, will be essential in restraining a Netanyahu who would otherwise sign on to the US proposal. The party’s leaders also call for the government to direct the IDF to carry out punitive measures against Palestinians in response to terrorism. These include home demolitions and expulsions of the families of terrorists, and targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders in Gaza.
While the New Right may be most prominently focusing on altering the makeup of Israel’s justice system, the issue is arguably more personal for URWP, which saw the Supreme Court disqualify its No. 5 candidate, Otzma Yehudit chairman Michael Ben Ari, over incitement to racism. URWP leaders have said that they will demand during coalition negotiations that candidate No. 7, Otzma Yehudit’s sole remaining representative, Itamar Ben Gvir, be put on the parliamentary panel that appoints judges, as part of their effort to stack the court with more conservative justices who, they argue, are more in line with general public opinion.
Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir (L) argues with Arab Israeli candidate Ata Abu Madighem after a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 14, 2019. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
Polling: While the merger with Otzma Yehudit may have scared away a group of more moderate Jewish Home supporters who view Kahane and his disciples as beyond the pale, polls suggest that the alliance provided a net gain for the URWP. While the party came out of the gate projected to receive as many as eight seats, most surveys in recent weeks predict it garnering between five and seven.
Something you may not have known: Party chairman Rafi Peretz has 12 children.
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Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi’s Hadash-Ta’al
Platform: Hadash-Ta’al is an alliance between a socialist party (Hadash) that emphasizes Jewish-Arab cooperation, and an exclusively Arab faction (Ta’al). Its policy platform says that it supports an end to Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians, the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue that ensures Palestinian refugees have the ability to return to lands now a part of Israel.
MKs Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi react after submitting a joint list of candidates from their Hadash and Ta’al parties to the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset on February 21, 2019. (Hadash)
The platform also states that Hadash-Ta’al backs the abrogation of the quasi-constitutional nation-state law and all laws that limit freedom, the recognition of Arab-Israelis as a national minority with collective and personal rights, and the achievement of full equality for women.
Read: Ayman Odeh sets out terms for helping Gantz’s Blue and White defeat Netanyahu
It also says that the party supports the interests of the weaker members of society and opposes neo-liberal policies that are “making the poor poorer” and “the rich richer.”
Main figures: The top candidate on Hadash-Ta’al’s slate is Ayman Odeh (Hadash), a former member of the Haifa municipality who made his first foray into national politics in 2015. The second-highest ranking candidate on the alliance’s list is Ahmad Tibi (Ta’al), a veteran lawmaker who served as an adviser to the late Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat.
Last month, the High Court of Justice overturned a lower court ruling that disqualified a Jewish far-left candidate in the party, Ofer Kasif (no. 5), from running. The petition against Kasif, which was brought by the Yisrael Beytenu party, related to statements in which he called Justice Minister Shaked “neo-Nazi scum,” compared Israel and the Israel Defense Forces to the Nazi regime, voiced support for canceling the Law of Return and changing the national anthem, and said that Israel was carrying out a “creeping genocide” of the Palestinians.
Polling: A number of recent polls have projected Hadash-Ta’al will win between five and eight seats in the Knesset.
Something you may not have known: Odeh speaks Romanian, which he learned while studying law in the Eastern European country.
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Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut
Platform: With the pro-marijuana Green Leaf party not running in the national election for the first time in 20 years, legalization advocates have turned en masse to the nationalist, quasi-libertarian Zehut party led by former Likud MK and right-wing ideologue Moshe Feiglin, who has made legalizing marijuana a plank of his radical and iconoclastic manifesto. The party is presenting a broad plan to “end the persecution of cannabis users” through “full and regulated legalization of cannabis, based on the restrictions on the sale of alcohol and on the restrictions already in use where cannabis is legal.”
Zehut head Moshe Feiglin meets potential voters in Jerusalem, March 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Beyond legalizing marijuana, the 344-page Zehut manifesto presents a sweeping libertarian policy package including promises to revamp Israel’s education system to resemble the US voucher program, the introduction of aggressive free-market economic policies and a flat income tax (somewhere between 12% and 17%), and the eradication of recently introduced biometric identification cards.
Read: Pot legalization meets Jewish nationalism: Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut is no joke
It also includes a range of hardline right-wing nationalist policies, specifically calling for measures to annex the entire West Bank, encourage Palestinians to leave the territories, move government facilities to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and the attorney general.
Main figures: In an effort to bolster public support by increasing participation in the democratic process, Zehut introduced Israel’s first-ever primary election open to any member of the public. The candidates chosen for the top slots appear united in rejecting mainstream opinions and embracing various issues on the political fringe: libertarian economist Gilad Alpher, men’s rights activist Ronit Dror (a woman), and child-centered education advocate Libby Molad. In the number two slot, Feiglin appointed former Shas MK Haim Amsalem, a renegade figure in the ultra-Orthodox community known for his moderate opinions on religion and state.
Read: Ex-Shas MK, economist, anti-vaxxer: Who’s on Feiglin’s pro-cannabis Zehut list?
Polling: Many polls (including a poll conducted for The Times of Israel) initially skipped Zehut in an effort to simplify surveys for voters facing so many parties. Since first clearing the 3.25% electoral thresholds in surveys, the party is now predicted to receive from four to as many as seven seats.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) shakes hands with Likud MK Moshe Feiglin at the Knesset, July 2, 2013. (Flash 90/File)
Something you may not have known: Feiglin is banned from entering the United Kingdom due to a decision by then-UK home secretary Jacqui Smith, made public in March 2008. Citing a number of anti-Arab comments including a call for a “holy war,” the UK said it could not allow entry to someone “seeking to provoke others to serious criminal acts and fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.”
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Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am-Balad
Platform: Ra’am-Balad’s policy platform says it supports the formation of a lobby to demand the abrogation of the nation-state law, the establishment of a parliamentary committee to follow the work of the police in Arab communities, and the creation of a campaign to end incitement.
The platform also backs the cancellation of home demolition orders, the development of curricula in accordance with changes in the job market, and the facilitation of investment in Arab communities.
Main figures: The top candidate on Ra’am-Balad’s list is Mansour Abbas (Ra’am), a dentist from the Galilee. Mtanes Shihadeh, who hails from Nazareth, is the second-highest-ranking candidate on the slate. A High Court of Justice petition seeking to ban the party from running in the election was dismissed by justices.
Polling: A number of recent polls have projected Ra’am-Balad will win four or five seats in the Knesset.
Something you may not have known: Shihadeh wrote his doctoral thesis at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the impact of globalization on Israeli-Jewish voting patterns.
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Yaakov Litzman’s United Torah Judaism
The party led by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is largely aiming to retain its position as senior coalition partner to Prime Minister Netanyahu and arbiter on matters of religion and state. According to an internal document from a committee advising the party, UTJ may demand a steeper price for entry into the next government, with a focus on cutting back public transportation operations on the Sabbath and stronger enforcement against businesses operating during Shabbat. Another priority for the party is advancing a softened law to regulate the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox men to the Israel Defense Forces, and obstruct the passage of a Defense Ministry draft of the bill.
Main figures: Litzman, Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni, Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, MK Uri Maklev, Yaakov Tessler, MK Yaakov Asher, MK Yisrael Eichler.
Leader of the ‘Shas’ party Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, right, with leader of the United Torah Judaism party Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman during a joint party meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Read: Ultra-Orthodox parties are losing voters — to Netanyahu’s benefit
Polling: The Haredi party has been consistently polling at six-seven seats.
Something you may not have known: According to Israel Democracy Institute figures from 2018, UTJ lawmakers have the best attendance rates in the Knesset, with an average of 1,013 hours a year that each lawmaker is present in the parliament. They are followed by Jewish Home (975 hours/year) and Kulanu (948 hours/year). The parties in last place are the opposition’s Meretz (705 hours/year) and the Joint List (707 hours/year). The study said the lawmakers’ hometowns may explain how long they spend in the Knesset, as most Arab MKs, for example, live in the north.
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Aryeh Deri’s Shas
Platform: With a strong emphasis on Mizrahi identity and promises of social economic policies, Shas in the past drew considerable support from traditional Jews of eastern descent. But the party led by Aryeh Deri now seems to be more focused on retaining its position in the government. “Bibi [Netanyahu] needs a strong Aryeh,” reads one of the party’s campaign slogans in this election. Another urges voters to pick Shas to honor the memory of its late spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Deri, a former convict who is again under criminal investigation and awaits prosecutors’ decision on whether to press charges, has said he would like to see himself back in the Interior Ministry — the position he currently holds.
Polling: Two decades after its heyday, in which it snagged 17 seats, the party has been polling at five-six.
A worker prints election campaign posters of the Shas political party showing a picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas party head Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, at Canaan Maxi Media Printing House in central Israel on March 7, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Main figures: Deri and MKs Yitzhak Cohen, Meshulam Nahari, Yaakov Margi, Yoav Ben-Tzur, Michael Malkieli and Moshe Abutbul.
Something you may not have known: The 2019 election is the first national vote since Deri founded a new Shas newspaper, Haderech, in 2017. With thousands of subscribers, will its circulation and rampant electioneering pick up enough voters for Shas to maintain its influence?
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Tamar Zandberg’s Meretz
Platform: Meretz is the only mainstream party that defines itself as left-wing, offering unbridled support for a Palestinian state along with minority rights and religious pluralism within Israel. “Some in this election take pride in claiming that there is no left or right. We take pride in saying that there is a left, it’s needed, and it’s Meretz,” party leader Zandberg declared upon launching its election campaign in January.
As well as calling for immediate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and the loosening of restrictions on both the Gaza Strip and Palestinians living in the West Bank, the party also has an extensive platform of progressive domestic proposals. The only party to openly call for raising taxes on top earners, Meretz want to vastly increase both the education and health budgets to provide better facilities and significant hikes in salaries for teachers and nurses. It specifically calls for introducing free education from the age of 1 and for recalibrating the health budget so as to increase investment in public medicine vs growing private healthcare providers.
A champion of separating church and state, Meretz’s platform calls for introducing full civil marriage for Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, Orthodox and Progressive, opposite-sex and sames-sex partners alike. Devoting the longest section of its platform to LGBT rights, Meretz also wants to introduce budgeting for the activities of gay community organizations, financial support for surrogacy arrangements, and adoption services for the transgender community.
Main figures: Meretz held its first-ever primaries ahead of these elections, with party members choosing veteran MK Ilan Gilon in the top spot (behind Zandberg, who was elected leader last year). Incumbent MKs Michal Rozin and Issawi Frej take the third and fourth places on the slate, with newcomer Ali Shalalha, a Druze educator from the northern village of Beit Jann, in fifth.
Polling: Meretz has fluctuated in polls at times making slight gains from its current five seats to six or seven, and at others dropping support and possibly failing to cross the electoral threshold — the only party on the left in such a position. Recent polls, however, have consistently given the party five seats, the same as it holds in the outgoing Knesset.
זכיתי לחתן את יו”ר מרצ @tamarzandberg עם בן זוגה @urizaki כדת מרצ וישראל החופשית, מחוץ לבניין הרבנות. רק מרצ מתחייבת לפרק את המונופול האורתודוכסי ולאפשר לכל איש ואישה להתחתן עם בחיר ליבו/ה ללא הבדל דת, גזע, מגדר ונטייה מינית pic.twitter.com/xSP4wpi6ti
— מיכל רוזין (@Michal_Rozin) March 28, 2019
Something you may not have known: Zandberg married her life partner of 20 years, prominent Meretz member Uri Zaki, last week as part of a protest calling for an end to the Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage ceremonies. Meretz MK Rozin officiated the ceremony, which was not recognized by the Rabbinate or the State of Israel.
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Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher
After breaking off from Yisrael Beytenu in 2016 and flying solo as an independent in the Knesset opposition for the past three years, MK Orly Levy-Abekasis went on to found Gesher. Her centrist party touts socially minded economic policies, including steeper government investments in public housing, health, education, and welfare, particularly outside of the economic center of the country. She also pledges to shrink the gender pay gap in Israel, combat domestic violence, and expand elder services, disability services, and shelters, with a focus on bolstering the disadvantaged segments of society.
Head of the Gesher political party MK Orly Levy-Abekasis registers her party’s slate for coming elections, February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
“Many ask where the money will come from to improve our lives here and now in health, housing, education. They accuse us of being irresponsible, of intending to increase the deficit, of a conspiracy to raise taxes. Nonsense. The money is here, under our noses,” she has written, arguing that a large part of government funding is wasted or not transferred to the projects for which it is earmarked.
In her platform, Levy-Abekasis comes out against any form of annexation, saying she supports a peace deal with the Palestinians, so long as it retains the settlement blocs, does not split Jerusalem, acknowledges Israel’s security needs, and is based on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. On matters of religion and state, she pledges to adopt the Gavison-Medan model.
When she launched her campaign in December, Gesher was seen as an up-and-coming force in Israeli politics and Levy-Abekasis as a prospective kingmaker. However, after an attempted merger with Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party fell through (Gantz eventually merged with Yesh Atid to form Blue and White), support for the party tanked. It is now not expected to clear the threshold, according to recent polls.
Main figures: Levy-Abekasis is joined on her party list by former Intel vice president David “Dadi” Perlmutter, law professor Yifat Biton, former Housing Ministry director-general Haggai Reznik, and others.
Something you may not have known: Gesher is named for the party founded by former MK David Levy, Levy-Abekasis’s father, in 1995. The party joined an alliance of the Likud and Tzomet parties in 1996, and ultimately folded in 2003.
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The “also running” parties
Gal Hirsch’s Shield of Israel: Retired IDF brigadier general Gal Hirsch, a controversial former candidate to be Israel’s top cop, is the leader of this party. Hirsch has faced numerous controversies in recent years linked to his business interests — concerns that torpedoed his nomination for police commissioner in 2015. Now, he hopes to become Israel’s next public security minister (which oversees the Israel Police). Police and the Israel Tax Authority are expected to recommend indicting him on tax evasion, Hebrew media reported in December, two days after he announced he would run for Knesset.
Gal Hirsch, a former IDF brigadier-general who had been tapped to be the next head of the Israel Police, arrives to testify before the Turkel Committee vetting his appointment at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
As part of his platform, Hirsch pledges to unify Israelis, restore faith in the law enforcement system, and fight inequality and discrimination against Israeli minorities.
US President Donald Trump poses for a selfie with MK Oren Hazan at Ben Gurion Airport on Monday, May 22, 2017. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hand can be seen in the lower right-hand corner, in a failed attempt to deflect Hazan’s arm. (Oren Hazan)
Tzomet: After Likud MK Oren Hazan suffered a defeat in the party’s primaries, the scandal-prone lawmaker formed his own party and titled it Tzomet (junction), the name of a small right-wing party that entered the Knesset in 1988 but went dormant after failing to gain a seat in the 1999 elections. Hazan, who entered the Knesset in the 2015 election, became known as the enfant terrible of Israel’s parliament, being temporarily banned from the Knesset multiple times over various insults of fellow lawmakers. Shortly after he went into politics, a Hadashot news exposé alleged that he had previously run a casino in Bulgaria where hard drugs and prostitution were allowed. He sued the station’s journalist Amit Segal for libel, but the court rejected the bulk of the lawsuit. Tzomet’s campaign has played up Hazan’s colorful character as well as attacking Likud from the right with the slogan, “Tzomet, because Netanyahu is left.”
Semion Grafman registers his party at the Central Elections Committee, February 20, 2019 (Courtesy)
Betah — Bitahon Hevrati: Known for his viral YouTube channel with over 30,000 subscribers and close to 5 million views, where he uploads videos of himself ranting about the state of public services and politics, Semion Grafman is now hoping to take his success to the Knesset with his party named “social security.” Running in its first election, the party platform highlights “education, social welfare, equality of the burden, infrastructure, health, streamlining law enforcement and,” perhaps ironically, “fighting corruption.” Before his internet fame, Grafman was arrested in 2009 in the US on suspicion of fraud and money laundering, eventually serving a year and a half in federal prison before returning to Israel in 2015, when he started his YouTube channel. Formally submitting his list to the Central Elections Committee, Grafman requested that his party be represented on ballot slips by the Hebrew letters פק, which reads phonetically as “fuck.” He was given ן.
Read: Vote ‘FK’– Meet the ex-con Russophile internet celebrity running for the Knesset
Ahrayut Lameyasdim: Former Knesset member Haim Dayan (Tzomet, 1992-1999) is only 59 years old and shows no signs of retiring soon. But the police commander-turned-politician-turned-charity founder has nonetheless established a party focused solely on pensioners’ rights. The party has been endorsed by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dan Shechtman, but is not expected to even come close to the electoral threshold.
During his time in office, Dayan was vocal in raising awareness of domestic violence in Israel — and was accused, in office, by his wife of battery. Though she eventually withdrew the complaint, the couple went on to divorce. In 2005, his second wife accused Dayan of violence, though the case was never pursued after he presented tapes to police suggesting she had attacked an unidentified male relative.
(Special interest and novelty parties have been around for decades, frequently adding humor and surrealism to pre-election TV and radio advertising — except, that is, for the Gil Pensioners party in 2006. A typical lost cause, Gil defied all predictions and spectacularly won seven seats that year, with high support in Tel Aviv where voters disillusioned with politics as usual cast a protest ballot for a party led by people who reminded them of their grandparents. Predictably, Gil collapsed in an orgy of bitter infighting over the course of the next parliament.)
A second Pensioners’ Party is also gunning for Knesset seats, led by Amit Sa’ar Shalom. In its election ads, it accuses the government of ignoring elderly residents and being preoccupied with its own corrupt dealings. “They’re busy, blah blah,” its campaign ad says of politicians, juxtaposed over images of the elderly and poor.
A third party, Social Justice, promises to raise payouts for the elderly and subsidies for the disabled, following a years-long protest by disability activists across the country.
The Shavim party, meaning “equals,” is made up of civil rights lawyers who say their goal is to fight for equality for a range of “under-recognized minority groups,” including various disabled communities, the elderly, and Holocaust survivors. Specifically, the party, headed by two female attorneys, is calling for a “recalibration” of men’s place in society, arguing that the modern feminist agenda has stripped men of key rights.
Justice For All is another party that says it will fight for the right of the underrepresented, but in its case, not humans. The party says it is Israel’s first to run on an agenda “completely devoted to animal rights and putting the crucial issue at the center of public discourse.” According to the party platform, “the Land of Israel was given as a gift to all of its inhabitants, regardless of biological determination,” and the government therefore has a responsibility to animals as well as people.
Kol Yisrael Achim and Peula Leyisrael is a joint party made up of the Ethiopian-Israeli Kol Yisrael Achim (All of Israel are Brothers) headed by former Likud MK Aleli Admasu and Peula Leyisrael, a party calling for reparations for Jews who fled Arab countries to Israel after 1948.
Zechuyoteinu Bekoleinu (“Our Rights Are in our Vote/Voice”) is a party specifically created to represent contract workers, which says it will fight for collective bargaining rights for professions of freelancers and non-permanent contractors.
The Pirates, Led by the Internet, a Ballot for Diarrhea (also means a ballot to slip through a slot): Leaders of the Israeli branch of the Pirate party define their goals as promoting freedom of expression, science, the individual and the right to take copyrighted material, as well as “development and promotion of the pirate sector” and a direct democracy.
One of the candidates on the list, Ohad Shem Tov, embodies the exquisite silliness of some of Israel’s novelty parties. A career also-ran, Shem Tov started his political life in the Green Leaf party, which advocates for the legalization of cannabis, and then launched his own pro-weed party after failing to get enough votes with Green Leaf to make it into the Knesset. In 2009, hoping to boost his chances of clearing the electoral threshold (which was 2% at the time), Shem Tov teamed up with another no-hope party representing Holocaust survivors. And still only 2,346 people voted for the improbable merged list, which was called “Holocaust Survivors and Green Leaf Alumni.”
Ohad Shem Tov of the Pirate party wears a fake hook as he poses for a photograph outside the Israeli parliament, December 05, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yashar, another direct democracy party, has developed an app modeling its vision of how Israelis, in the future, will be able to affect Knesset legislation votes directly through their phones. “The IDF enlistment law: In favor or against?” reads one online poll. “Should we limit the amount of time for police investigations?” queries another. The party is led by Yigal Tamir, who formerly worked for the Finance Ministry’s budget division and served as an executive at the Mekorot water company.
The party made headlines over its provocative billboards showing leading politicians giving passersby the middle finger.
A picture taken on March 11, 2019, shows Israelis walking past a campaign poster for the Yashar political party, showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, head of the Labor party Avi Gabbay, Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid giving the finger, in Jerusalem. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
The Ani V’Ata (Me and You) party is also calling for the creation of a platform for the public to be able to contribute more directly to the democratic process, “in order to break the illicit bond between politics and money that has taken over our democracy.” The party blames both the “extreme right rule” and the “weak opposition” for allowing Israel to become a “plutocracy” and says it will give power back to the people.
The Social Leadership party, headed by veteran unsuccessful Knesset candidate Ilan Meshicha, says that it is committed to “caring for all of the people of Israel based on a commitment to the ideals of our forefathers.” In the 2015 election, the party broke a record for receiving the least ever seats by any faction running in any Israeli election — it scored 223 votes. Amazingly, the previous record was also held by Mechicha who in the 2013 elections won 461 votes — then the lowest ever — with his now-defunct Tradition of the Fathers party.
Brit Olam (Eternal Covenant) is the only party of the 39 running with just one candidate on its list, party leader Ofer Lifshitz. If the party, which calls for the creation of “a harmonious society that can be strong facing our enemies,” were to pass the electoral threshold, it would only be granted the one seat even though it would have in theory won a minimum of four.
The Bratslav Na Nach party told the Ynet news website in February its chairman is none other than… Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who died in the early 19th century. The party is calling for the building of an airport in Uman, Ukraine, the pilgrimage site where Rabbi Nachman is buried, as well as allowing prisoners to pray at the tomb under police supervision, the ultra-Orthodox Kikar HaShabat website has reported.
In its platform, it says that it seeks to spread the word of Rabbi Nachman, along with “faith, trust in God, joy, peace, and unity.” It opposes the “culture of drugs” but also calls for decriminalization, and vows to “fight the real terrorism: despair.”
Ultra Orthodox Jewish followers of the Hassidic Breslov sect dance in a Jerusalem street, November 2009 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The Union of Bnei Habrith is a Christian Israeli party chaired by ship captain Bashara Shalian of Nazareth that seeks greater integration of minorities into Israeli society, equality, and an end of discrimination.
The Bible Bloc, or Gush Hatanachi, presents itself as the first Jewish-Christian list to run for the Knesset. The slate offers representatives from both faiths, including a Messianic Jew, David Friedman (not the ambassador). The party seeks to preserve “Judeo-Christian values” that it says are under threat from radical Islam and vows to fight for the under-represented Christian population in Israel, including non-Jewish Russian immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
The Da’am: Green Economy – One State is a Jewish-Arab party chaired by Yoav Gal Tamir that advocates a binational state and socialism.
The Mehat’hala (From the Beginning) party, led by David Erez, a self-styled parliamentary “lobbyist on behalf of the public,” is promising to revamp the government system to maximize the allocation of state resources to health, education, and more.
Hinuch (education) is a party made up of teachers and informal educators from a range of educational frameworks. The party wants to “dramatically increase” funding for schools as well as encouraging child-centered education options.
Simply Love is a recently established Jewish-Arab party. Its policy platform says that the faction believes “the time has come [for Israel] to make a move that will invest in the interests of the region’s peoples and advance a comprehensive and permanent peace deal” with the Palestinians and Arab states. It also promises to make efforts to establish a peace affairs ministry that will work to support a peace deal. The platform says Simply Love will undertake efforts to achieve gender equality in all areas of life and strengthen tolerance. It also notes that the party will work to advance economic policies that close the gap between Israel’s center and periphery. Simply Love’s top candidate is Ruth Lillian Weisberger.
The Arab List has said it supports equality for Arab Israelis and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Arab List’s top candidate is Kna’an Mohammed, who served in the Knesset between 1999 and 2003 as a member of Ra’am and the Arab National Party.
Hope For Change is a Arab Israeli party headed by Sheikh A’ataf Krinoway, who heads the Negev-based Social Justice And National Service NGO. The party says it aims to “to bring full equality to Israel’s Arabs and to fully integrate them into society and state institutions.”
Little is known of the Kevod Ha’adam party, which has registered with the vague aims of advancing Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, keeping Israel safe, advancing civil, social and cultural rights, encouraging immigration and a free market, and reducing socioeconomic gaps.
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