Israeli Election Campaign Includes Much Maneuvering

Israel's parliamentary elections are just three weeks away. This campaign season has included a series of surprising political maneuvers. Israelis say they are a bit befuddled by the political musical chairs, and are looking for new parties.

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Imagine getting ready to vote in an election and having no idea what the parties stand for or even who's running for which party. Well, that's close to the reality in Israel, where the political stakes are always high. Parliamentary elections are in just three weeks but a series of dizzying political maneuvers has left voters confused. Sheera Frenkel reports.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: A couple of weeks ago, this advertisement by the left-wing Meretz Party went viral.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (foreign language spoken)

FRENKEL: In it, a group of old men talk about how they will vote in Israel's upcoming election. Here, one of them is saying, I'll vote for that one woman if I can just figure out what party she's in. His friends fumble the various political party names and then conclude: what does it matter? They're all the same. In the months leading up to the January 22nd vote, Israeli politicians from a myriad of political parties have swapped and shifted alliances at a dizzying rate, leaving many Israeli voters unsure of who they are voting for. Michal Voll, a psychologist in Tel Aviv, says that many Israelis are still unclear what the parties stand for or what differentiates them.

MICHAL VOLL: People here are very tired, you know, of hearing about, and it all sounds like the same kind of mumbo-jumbo stuff. And so I think the parties need to say something. I mean, some of them haven't really even said anything.

FRENKEL: In Israel, there are no set debates or platforms where parties can hammer out their positions on various issues. Each party constructs its own campaign, and runs as a list. At the top of that list is the party's candidates for prime minister. Polls consistently show sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party winning a majority of the votes in a strengthened right-wing alliance. The same polls show dwindling support for Israel's longstanding left wing movements, including Meretz and the Labor Party. Amnon Krakotzkin, professor of Jewish history at Ben Gurion University, says that some in Israel are abandoning what he calls the old-fashioned left-wing in favor of new parties - some of them surprising.

AMNON KRAKOTZKIN: I think in these elections you will find more Israeli Jews supporting the Arab parties.

FRENKEL: A handful of political groups representing Israel's Arab citizens have long had a few seats in the Israeli parliament but have failed to draw the support of left-wing Israelis. But this year, a new party called Da'am has gained momentum with a joint list of Jews and Arabs fighting for socioeconomic changes. It is headed by Asmaa Agbarieh-Zahalka, a young mother and political activist.

CROWD: (Singing in foreign language)

FRENKEL: In this campaign ad, video of the Arab Spring movements in Egypt and Tunisia plays in the background as Asmaa says that Israelis and Palestinians need to join the region in revolution. Zahalka says that what makes her party unique is that it draws support from all sectors of society.

ASMAA AGBARIEH-ZAHALKA: Arabs and Jews and Russians, all kind of sectors that used to vote as sectors and in this election decided that they want to bring a change to bring peace and to bring social change.

FRENKEL: She says that until now Israel's left has consisted of groups like the Labor Party, that have become more centrist in their views, and of Meretz which she calls bourgeois and disconnected from the people.

AGBARIEH-ZAHALKA: I think that there is a sort of desert. There is no left in the meaning of being with the workers, being with the people. The people feel that they are alone.

FRENKEL: She says her party has gained momentum but it's not easy to be a new movement in Israel. Then she laughs, adds that the old movements have already confused people enough with their swapping and switching. What Israel needs now, she says, is to start with a clean slate. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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