Israel has proportional representation, a form of government where the electorate gets a government no one voted for, because of the inevitable coalition which results from a multiplicity of parties. So, simply voting for the party whose platform best reflects your interests isn't really what happens. You wind up often voting for the party which will not detract from what you want too much, if it looks as if "your" party is going to lead the coalition.
Confused? You're not alone. Here is a guide to the current major players:
Shas and the other extreme religious parties (the only real difference between Shas and Degel HaTorah, etc. is that Shas is Mizrachi and the others are Ashkenazi, In Jerusalem's mayoral election Meir Porush, the Degel candidate actually campaigned in Yiddish): Their platform is simple. To support their parasitical lifestyle, they want the maximum amount of money for their support in any coalition. Once in the coalition, they will constantly up the ante, demanding even more extortionate amounts as well as insisting on legislation coercing about 80% of Israelis into an ever-more-rigid religious lifestyle, while getting exemptions for their constituents from any civic responsibilities, like going to the army. The haredi watchword is "we pray for you; you die for us", as well as "you work, and we live off your income". It would be nice to tell them to go to hell where they belong, but since their constituents mindlessly vote (and they all vote because they are instructed to) the way their rabbis tell them (and the wives the way their husbands tell them), they have been a major factor in every Israeli election.
Avigdor Lieberman's "Israel Beitenu" (Israel is Our Home): Avigdor Lieberman is a sort of Russian Tony Soprano, a beefy man with bulging eyes and a clipped beard, who tries hard to look and act like a thug, without actually being one. I doubt, for example, that his constituents kiss his hand and murmur "Godfather" to him, but I bet he has dreams of it. His platform basically is that all Arabs should be exterminated. He's quite popular with the more fascist element among Russian immigrants (of whom there are surprisingly many) and many of the extreme right-wing, and not a few of the more passionate settlers. Since both he and his daughter are being seriously investigated by the police for fraud, money laundering, and corruption, he may not do as well as he thinks he will at the polls. He'd love to get the Defense post in a Netanyahu government, but he doesn't stand a chance. He can pull enough votes, however, to be a spoiler for anyone trying to put together a coalition.
Meretz ("Energy") and the Green Party: This is the far Left mirror to Israel Beitenu, but they are so far left that they make the Labor party look almost right of center. Animal rights, legalization of marijuana, love feasts with Palestinians instead of trying to keep them from destroying Israel, etc. I wouldn't even include them in my list of parties that even ripple the electoral water except that apparently, according to Haaretz , many Meretz women seem to be drifting in the direction of Livni's Kadima. They also have leached off some of Labor's more Leftist supporters, so further weakening the Labor bloc.
Labor: Israelis speak of Labor as a single party, but it hasn't been for a long time. The "real" Labor Party (Mapa'i) ruled Israel from 1948 until 1977, and while it created the State according to its Socialist ideology, it also exhibited the inevitable result of having such absolute power: unless you were a member of it, and the Histadrut trade union, you got absolutely zilch. Labor controlled just about all patronage. It was lily-white Ashkenazi, and the Mizrachim were treated with condescension and relegated to second-class status. When Menachem Begin overturned the Labor hegemony in 1977, Labor absorbed the more leftist parties, such as Mapam, and the forerunner of Meretz to form the Labor bloc (Ma'arach) in order to gain more Knesset seats. Today, for all intents and purposes, it is a single party. Each election has seen it decline, more internally conflicted, not really knowing what it wants, and without any decisive, charismatic leadership. Barak, the nation's most decorated soldier, who looks like a chubby, rather dim-witted teddy bear and has terrible English (in common with many professional soldiers, he seems to always speak without moving his lips; don't ask me why), was briefly Prime Minister, and a disasterous one at that. At this moment, he enjoys a wave of popularity because of the Gaza operation, but since one doesn't vote for a Prime Minister but for a party in Israel, and voting to get Barak means voting for the ineffectual, divided Labor Party, it's questionable whether many Israelis, unless they are diehard Party idealists, will do so. And Barak's current idea, building a 48 kilometer tunnel so West Bank Palestinians can travel to Gaza, and vice versa, without having to cross Israel, is so loony that even his supporters are wondering what he's been smoking.
Likud: A lot of Israelis seem to think the election for Prime Minister is between Tsipi Livni and Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi, who's been in the political wilderness for some time now, scents victory and he may be right. But Israelis had high hopes when Bibi became PM before, and were cruelly disappointed. His UN career seemed to promise so much. But Bibi's tenure was proportional representation at its worst. He got in because the law had been changed to allow direct election of the PM (it's been changed back, as a failed experiment) but the government he formed was almost entirely inimical to him, and he spent his time trying to appease various factions with bribes and keep the coalition from falling apart. Consequently he didn't accomplish anything, either domestically or internationally. He's a very hungry politician, our version of "slick Willie". Bibi probably could have gotten on fairly well with Clinton or even Bush; there's doubt that he and Obama will have any personal chemistry. He doesn't have the taint of Tammany that Olmert has, nor does he inspire the suspicion of Nixon (I probably would buy a second-hand car from Bibi), but he's just too much the classic political opportunist and makes too many people uneasy. Right now he's making the kind of belligerent statements his followers like, about "teaching the Gazans a lesson", but there's an undercurrent of scepticism about his consistency under pressure. He'll compromise to stay in power.
Kadima: It used to be said that the reason Israelis elected Golda Meir was that she was the best man to be Prime Minister. Tsipi Livni may have balls, but she's not as androgynous as Golda (nor old enough to be the stereotypical Jewish Mother or Grandmother). Politically, she's so far been largely untried, and some say she's a hardliner, some say she's too soft. I think the truth is that she's trying to steer somewhere in the middle. Her background is in intelligence, so she has a better grasp of the realities of international relations than many. There is fairly strong opinion that she would get on better with both Obama and Hillary than Bibi. Whether she can stand up to strong US pressure to conciliate the Palestinians is unknown. Right now it seems she is very much on top of the Gaza situation -- it was her idea to get the media blitz going right from the start, and that undoubtedly helped Israel a great deal. Livni has been quite open about not liking the Shas/religious bloc's blackmail. This gives her support from the secular and traditional Israeli, but causes her campaign posters to be defaced by the haredim, who really hate her, both as a woman and a politician. So the influential religious bloc can stymie her chances. Right now, the polls are giving Labor, at 29 seats, the lead, with Kadima not far behind. But since any coalition must have a minimum of 61 seats, a third, or even a fourth, party must be brought in. And at the moment, it looks increasingly like it will take four. This means trying to get very antagonistic interests to cooperate. Shas wants to be in a Labor government if its demands are met; but not with Kadima. Neither Labor or Meretz, and possibly not Kadima, can be in a government with Israel Beitenu. Should Kadima surprise everyone, and have a larger number of seats than the Likud, it's an open question who would be the best third leg of the triumvirate.
What am I voting for? Kadima. At the outset I wrote above that one has to consider more options than just the party platform. Bibi's chances of being called on to form the next government look strong; I want that tempered by Livni, not by Shas. (I think Bibi would prefer this). Personally, I think Livni would be an excellent PM, but if she's not, I want her to be Foreign Minister--her English accent might be a bit heavier than Bibi's, but she comes across as much more sincere. Kadima can work with Labor, and Bibi would probably be quite happy to have Barak continue as Defense Minister. Above all, I want to keep Shas, Israel Beitenu, and the other fringe parties OUT of the coalition. It looks possible, especially if Hamas keeps misbehaving; the country is quite united about that being the immediately primary issue. But the economic recession, which so far hasn't hit Israel too hard, is looming--already the rich/poor divide is the worst in the Western world; the country is in its second year of severe drought with no relief in sight, and the health system is buckling under the strain of the growing numbers of elderly, and the educational system is not educating children to anything remotely approaching an acceptable level for a developed country.
And it seems that no one will stop Iran. Obama wants to talk.
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