North Africa, West Asia

What’s in a name? A second report on the Israeli elections

There has been some interesting rebranding of Israeli political parties in honor of the forthcoming election. Political campaigning on Israeli TV is restricted prior to the election, but clever ways are being found to bypass the rules.

Efraim Perlmutter
20 February 2015

There has been some interesting rebranding of Israeli political parties in honor of the forthcoming election. Most prominent is the Israeli Labor Party, which is now known in the English language media as the Zionist Union. In Hebrew it is the Machaneh Tzioni, which should be translated into 'the Zionist Camp'.

The English translation is a bit more accurate in terms of the party’s constituents. It is made up of the Labor Party and the remnants of what was at one time the Kadimah Party. However, the Hebrew name “Zionist Camp” has more relevance to Israeli domestic politics.

Israeli political parties to the right of the center have over the years referred to themselves as “the nationalist camp”. This is despite the fact that left wing parties are credited with creating the Jewish State and defending its independence, as well as the fact that right wing parties of the “nationalist camp” have no problem forming coalitions with anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Haredi parties.  

In many previous Israeli elections the Labor Party campaigned mainly on the issue of peace. Sometimes this was by choice and on other times it was because the Likud drew the party into a debate about peace. In most cases the result was a Labor defeat at the polls, in part because Labor and other left-wing parties were seen or painted as more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli. Hence the “nationalist camp” label became fixed in the minds of the Israeli electorate.

Opposition Leader MK Shelly Yachimovich,

Opposition Leader MK Shelly Yachimovich,Avibi Aharon/Demotix.All rights reserved.In the 2013 elections, Labor ran under the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist with clear left wing pro-peace credentials. However, under her leadership the party ran a campaign which stayed very clear of the peace issue even when Likud attempted to increase its salience during its campaign.

Yachimovich campaigned on domestic economic issues and the Party increased its Knesset representation from 13 to 15 seats, going from the fourth largest party to the third largest. Labor’s new Zionist Camp label was designed to reestablish Labor’s identity as the Party which built the Israeli State and, which until 1977, made Labor the largest and dominant political party in parliament; though never gaining a majority of seats. The only question remains as to whether the current party leader, Isaac Herzog, can maintain self-discipline and stay away from the peace issue.  

In the last election, Netanyahu’s Likud changed its name to Likud Baytaynu when it combined with Avigdore Lieberman’s Yisrael Baytaynu Party. That partnership dissolved in the run up to the current elections and both parties have reverted to their original names.

Another name resulted from a three-way partnership among the Arab parties, Ra’am-Ta’al, Hadash and Balad. They are now running as “The Joint List”. Though negotiating a partnership among the three parties was a difficult process, motivated mostly by the fear that none of them would receive enough votes, above this election’s threshold of 3.5%, if they had ran separately. The polls indicate that by running as one list, they may attract more Israeli Arab voters and win more seats in the parliament.  They currently hold 11 seats in parliament. Now that they are running as a single list, they could win as many as 14 or more seats.

A new name on the scene is Koolanu, which means “All of Us”. It is a new party founded by Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who left the party to run on his own. At the moment the polls show his party winning about six or seven seats.

A word is in order here about the Israeli electoral system. The Israeli parliament has 120 members. Votes are not cast for individual candidates but for political parties, who present a list of candidates. The number of candidates elected from the list depends on the percentage of votes the party receives. So if a party receives 25% of the vote, the first 30 candidates (25% of 120) on the party’s list will be elected to parliament. A party must receive at least 3.25% of the vote (enough to elect four names on its list) in order to get anyone from its list into parliament. This threshold was set to discourage splinter parties.

So far the election has generated more heat than light. Lieberman’s Yisrael Baytaynu Party has been effected negatively by a corruption scandal, but the police investigation has gone quiet and the Party seems to have stabilized its support one or two seats above the threshold needed to win seats. In the previous election the threshold was set at two percent of the vote. For a while it looked like Lieberman was not going obtain enough votes to pass the new threshold of 3.25% that he was so instrumental in setting.

The only other scandal has been what is jokingly referred to as “bottle gate”. It seemed that Sara Natanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, was pocketing the deposits on returned empty bottles from the Prime Minister’s residence. The practise was discovered some time ago and the Netanyahu family returned the sum of money involved (reportedly about $1000). However the story reached the press only a couple of weeks ago. After making a splash in the media, it has mostly been forgotten. Actually, the weather has been making more news than the elections.

As part of the electoral process there is a Central Election Committee which, among other things, is empowered to disqualify candidates on grounds of racism or disloyalty. Late this week the Central Election Committee disqualified Baruch Marzel - a right wing extremist - and Haneen Zoabi - a candidate from Balad on the Joint List. What usually happens is that appeals are made to the Israeli Supreme Court and most disqualifications are overturned. Many observers predict that this will be the case with Marzel, but the Court will have a more difficult time overturning Zoabi’s disqualification.   

One other item has become part of the election campaign and that is Netanyahu’s forthcoming speech to the American Congress. Though it is billed as an attempt to effect American policy on Iran, many observers see it as having much more to do with Netanyahu’s electoral campaign.

According to current Israeli law, political campaigning on Israeli TV is restricted to advertisements shown at a particular hour every evening for the 30 days prior to the election. News coverage of the candidates is blacked out, unless it is newsworthy and unrelated to a candidate’s campaign. 

Obviously Netanyahu hopes to make the speech of his life before the American Congress, which, because it is newsworthy, will be carried by all Israeli TV networks.  

This has several advantages for Natanyahu. First it gives him exposure on TV, acting very prime ministerial. Second, the speech itself has become a political issue, distracting the campaign from other issues more damaging to Natanyahu’s electoral future. Finally, it may lead to the Zionist Union being drawn into a debate on foreign policy and peace, something that would be perfectly suited to help Natanyahu’s campaign. 

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