Not long ago, Shimon Peres, the notably non-religious leader of Israel’s Labor Alignment, made a pilgrimage to the grave of a famed Jewish holy man and faith healer.
Soon after, he donned the traditional Jewish skull cap and paid a courtesy call on the Belzer rabbi, head of a congregation rooted in Eastern Europe.
It was not that Peres, whose Labor movement has been historically secular, had turned suddenly pious.
Rather, he was courting the important religious vote among Israel’s fractured electorate. And while he may not get their votes, he at least wants their hearts for after the election. It is then that about a dozen splinter parties, some of them religiously oriented, will hold the key to who takes power.
Peres’ center-left Labor Alignment and the rightist Likud Bloc of Prime Minster Yitzhak Shamir are locked in a close electoral contest that will climax on Tuesday. Fringe groups are important, because no single party in the 40-year history of the state has won enough seats in the 120-member Knesset, or Parliament, to form a government on its own.
The major party deemed to have the best chance to form a ruling coalition--usually, but not always the one that wins the most seats--will enter into an difficult post-election bargaining period with the small parties. If the horse-trading proves too knotty, Labor and Likud could join forces themselves, as they did four years ago, and form another National Unity government.
In any case, no one is taking chances.
“This is the local equivalent of the quadrennial rites whereby American presidential candidates subject their WASP-ish stomachs to the sequential assault of blintzes, gefilte fish, tacos, chitlins, and other examples from the armory of ethnic chemical weaponry,” columnist Yossi Goell wrote in the English-language Jerusalem Post.
Emanuel Gutman, a political scientist, said: “The small parties are of great importance. I think it’s possible that a small party with one or two seats may determine the composition of the government.”
Israel’s election menu features 27 parties with something for almost every taste, even kosher and non-kosher. To win a Knesset seat under Israel’s proportional representation system, a party need win only about 20,000 votes, or 1% of the total ballots. The 1984 vote yielded seats for 14 fringe parties.
Two small parties sure to figure in the forthcoming post-election maneuvering are the Citizens’ Rights Movement on the left and Tehiya (Revival) on the right.
Citizens’ Rights, which won three seats in the last election and is considered to be stronger now, would be crucial to creation of any Labor-led government. It is more dovish than Labor on handling Arabs in territories occupied by Israel and is fervently opposed to religious control of secular life in everything from dietary habits to the propriety of going to movies on the Sabbath. Similarly, the centrist Shinui Party, which is campaigning for Israel to write its first constitution, would also join Labor. It also won three seats in the 1984 vote.
Tehiya, which took five seats last time, would probably join Likud. It is more hawkish than Likud, favoring annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
Parties beyond Citizens’ Rights and Tehiya generally represent narrower and narrower interests, until, in one case, a party pledges nothing and runs as a satire on politics.
To the left of Citizens’ Rights is Mapam, another prospect for a Labor coalition, which is more dovish and more socialist than its potential partners.
To the right of Tehiya stand Moledet and Tzomet, both headed by former army generals and both wanting not only to annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also to either expel the Arabs now living there or at least press them to leave on their own.
Religious parties have divided like amoebas during the past few years. Where once there was the dominant National Religious Party, now there are eight religious groupings. The National Religious Party has moved clearly to the right, although its leaders hint that it could deal with Likud or Labor.
An offshoot named Meimad is considered to be moderate and opposes religious coercion. Degel Torah is an ultra-Orthodox party that appears to take a Talmudic stand on the West Bank: the land belongs to the Jewish people by divine right, but at least some say that right could be waived in the interest of peace.
Another religious party, Shas, represents Orthodox Jews from North Africa. In television advertising, Shas leader Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz offered citizens a blessing from God in return for a vote.
There has been considerable election-linked sabotage among religious groups. Vandals sprayed graffiti on the walls of the house of one rabbi over his endorsement of a party. Someone else jammed the door lock of Degel Torah’s Jerusalem campaign offices, while in the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv neighborhood of Bnei Brak, copies of the newspaper associated with Rabbi Eliezer Shach, Degel Torah’s spiritual adviser, were stolen from mailboxes.
Through post-election bargaining, the religious parties traditionally gain control of two key ministries: Religious Affairs and Interior. Both ministries handle funds that can be channeled into religious institutions. The positions also ensure their influence over such day-to-day concerns as the kind of food hotel restaurants may serve.
Some parties on the extreme edges of political life are unacceptable partners in government.
The Communists are out because they favor a single, joint Arab-Jewish state. So is the Arab-dominated Progressive List for Peace, which promotes Arab rights and direct talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
These parties, while essentially banned from government, can use their votes to block coalitions that they do not like.
Parties for Arabs
Arabs may find a voice inside government through the Arab Democratic Party, headed by Abdul Wahad Daroushe, a former Labor Alignment member of the Knesset who left the bigger party earlier this year in protest over handling of the Arab uprising in the occupied territories. He is still seen as a possible post-election partner for Labor.
If none of these parties suits a voter, plenty of choices remain.
The Discharged Soldiers Party pledges greater attention to the needs of veterans. The Prisoners Rights Party, headed by a safecracker known as “The Brain,” dropped out of the race, but the Movement for a Just Society promises better prison conditions and rehabilitation programs. The 6,000 Israelis behind bars have the right to vote for the first time in this year’s election.
Named for Lost Port
The Tarshish Party has the most intriguing name: Tarshish was an ancient port that no one can find today. Some people think it is the biblical name for America. Tarshish’s platform favors educational opportunities for Israelis of North African origin. Its leader gained notoriety in the 1950s by tossing a hand grenade into the Knesset, wounding five Cabinet ministers.
Then there is the party that picked as its ballot symbol a letter of the Hebrew alphabet that can also have a sexual connotation. Its campaign consists of humorous attacks on just about every other party.