Likud (27 MKs)
Led by Israel's current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud has managed to mostly keep the country out of the global economic crisis while holding a tough position in stalled talks with the Palestinians and against archenemy Iran. Netanyahu has grudgingly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, though his party traditionally claimed the West Bank for Israel.
Kadima (28 MKs)
Led by Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief of general staff, Kadima is a centrist party that wants to draw Israel's final borders through land swaps with the Palestinians. It was founded in 2005 around Israel's unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip and became the largest party in the current parliament but has seen its strength decline considerably.
Kadima, as the official leader of the opposition, should have been the first to benefit from early elections, but on Tuesday anyone wandering the halls of the Knesset could not find sadder MKs than those in the Kadima faction. If polls turn out to be accurate, Kadima is in for a shellacking come election time. Chairman Mofaz may opt to do away with the internal primaries that would determine the makeup of the party's Knesset list in favor of an organizing committee that would oversee a selection process. As the party is currently deep in the red, it will likely run its campaign from its rundown headquarters in Petach Tikva.
Kadima will have some 15 million shekels ($3.9 million) to finance its campaign. Responding to the prime minister's decision to call early elections on Tuesday, Mofaz said, "Today represents hope for the people of Israel. Israel has been an outcast on the world stage and isolated when it comes to national security as well. Kadima is the alternative to the Likud government."
Labor (8 MKs)
Labor hopes to gain votes with an emphasis on closing Israel's economic gaps and a dovish approach to negotiations with the Palestinians. Labor governed the country from its founding in 1948 until 1977.
Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich was probably the biggest proponent of holding early elections. She believes an early march to the polls will bolster her political standing immeasurably.
Yachimovich, who won the party primaries almost exactly 12 months ago, leads an 8-member faction in the Knesset. (Labor won 13 seats in the 2009 elections but Ehud Barak and four other members defected in 2011 to create the Independence faction.) Labor's representation in the 19th Knesset is likely to be in the double digits; according to some polls, Labor is projected to win more than 20 seats.
Yachimovich entered politics in 2005 after a long career in journalism, and has served as an MK ever since (she had a brief stint as opposition leader this past summer after Kadima formed a unity government with Likud, but that arrangement quickly unraveled, and Kadima, the largest faction, once again became the leader of the opposition). A strong showing at the ballot box would likely result in Yachimovich becoming a cabinet minister (assuming she agrees to join the government) or opposition leader (if her party is the largest outside the coalition).
Some high-profile names are expected to run for a Labor Knesset seat, in stark contrast to the Likud Knesset list, which is unlikely to include any celebrities or new names. Among those who have announced their intention to run on the Labor ticket are Noam Schalit (father of Gilad Schalit, the IDF soldier who was held captive by Hamas for five years and released as part of a prisoner swap last year), former high-profile police officer Moshe Mizrahi, and two of the leaders of the 2011 social justice protests — journalist Stav Shaffir and National Student Union Chairman Itzik Shmuli.
After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement on Tuesday, Yachimovich said Labor is the "only plausible alternative to Netanyahu and Likud." She said, "Labor has breathed new life into what is a vital political discourse in Israel, one that centers on economic fairness and social justice; the party has done so in a way unseen before." Later on Tuesday, Channel 2 reported the Labor party's standing that it would be premature to consider Netanyahu's re-election as a foregone conclusion. "Only one body gets to decide the outcome of the Knesset elections — the general public; only the people can decide on an alternative. Just a year ago no one predicted that we could become the second largest party, but here we are, we made it [in the polls]."
Yachimovich went on to say that she has won Israelis' trust because of her worldview, "which is diametrically opposed to the prime minister's ideology, which has exacerbated the inequalities in Israeli society."
"Security is not just about borders but also relates to job security, education and healthcare; we are the only alternative out there, we are the only party that offers a clear alternative when it comes to such ideas," Yachimovich said. "Our campaign will focus on the vision we have for our country; Netanyahu has called early elections because he wants to pass a budget that includes painful austerity measures; the public must keep that in mind."
Yisrael Beytenu (15 MKs)
This party is considered a far-right secular party and is led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is often at odds with Israel's official policies. The party was the third largest in the last elections. It is the most hawkish in Netanyahu's coalition.
Lieberman will most likely make his aggressive stance toward the Palestinians front and center in the campaign. The party's electoral prospects may be adversely affected if the State Prosecution decides to indict Lieberman over corruption charges, pending further deliberations (the Justice Ministry's investigation has dragged on for years but may conclude in the coming weeks).
Lieberman wields exclusive authority over the makeup of his party's Knesset list, as well as on the placement each candidate will have on it. Among the issues he needs to resolve ahead of the elections: Will the controversial MK Anastassia Michaeli be allowed to run for a party seat this time around? Will the recent reports on Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov's alleged tendency to flout security protocol in his frequent visits to nightclubs (including reports of excessive drinking) hamper his chances of securing a safe spot on the list?
Yair Shamir, the son of late Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, may be one of the new recruits in the party and is likely to be placed high on the list. On Tuesday, Lieberman was quoted as saying that his party is "ready for the elections and will continue to expand, in keeping with its growth since its inception."
Arab parties (11 MKs)
The Knesset's Arab representation is at an all time high, with a total 11 seats spread across three parties. Arab politicians will probably seek to hold onto this number or possibly even add seats. MK Ahmad Tibi (Ra'am-Ta'al) said on Tuesday that the government has "failed on the social front, the economic front and the political front." According to Tibi, the government did not have to deal with any meaningful opposition throughout its term. "Ra'am-Ta'al, one of the two largest Arab parties (4 MKs), is ready for elections and will continue to be the most popular among our sector's voters," Tibi said on Tuesday. Over at Hadash (4 MKs), another Arab party, officials called on Tuesday for the creation of a so-called barrier bloc composed of Center-Left parties that would deny the Right a 61-member coalition (while the Arab parties are unlikely to join a left-wing government for a variety of reasons, they can serve as de facto allies in the Knesset to retain a majority). "These elections serve as our opportunity to organize social justice protests and effect political change; the government has proven that it has utter disregard toward everyone, it favors the settlements and the tycoons over coming up with real solutions. ..."
Meretz (3 MKs)
Meretz is considered the most left-wing Zionist party in the Knesset and is among the most vocal champions of a two-state solution. The party's campaign is likely to include a pledge not to join a Likud-led government. In that sense, Meretz may be unique among all other Zionist parties. Party officials have already concluded that no other party on the Zionist Left will make a similar commitment in advance.
Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On said on Tuesday that "it's time that Netanyahu act as a savior by freeing Israelis from his grip; it is time for a left-wing government." "The prime minister has called for early elections so that he can avoid scrutiny over the wholesale sellout of the country's resources to the settlers, the ultra-Orthodox and the super-rich by introducing an austerity budget."
"Meretz under my leadership is ready for the upcoming elections; it will appeal to voters as Israel's ultimate left-wing party, which could replace the right-wing government, rather than join forces with it, in stark contrast to other opposition parties."
Yesh Atid (No MKs)
Yair Lapid, the journalist-cum-politician, has long said he would like to have policymakers adhere to a different set of priorities, often lashing out at the settlers and ultra-Orthodox, who he claims receive disproportionate state subsidies and wield too much influence. Several months ago, he said his campaign slogan would be "Where's the money?" He is considered a Center-Left candidate.
Lapid has been waiting feverishly for the campaign season to start. Lapid announced his decision to enter politics in January, leaving his post as a popular host of the Friday evening news magazine on Channel 2. Recent polls suggest he has shed large number of supporters.
In the coming days, Lapid's party, Yesh Atid ("There is a future"), will put forth a Knesset list whose members are to be handpicked by Lapid himself. Among those forecasted to be on that list: Herzliya Mayor Yael German, Rabbi Shay Piron (a prominent educator who is considered a centrist) and former Jerusalem Police Commander Maj. Gen. Mickey Levy.
Lapid welcomed Netanyahu's decision on Tuesday, saying that the move "stems from a realization that the current system [of government] made it impossible for Netanyahu to pass a budget." "We are the only party that can change that," Lapid said.
Independence (5 MKs)
Independence is considered a centrist party, and is chaired by current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak also served as prime minister between 1999 and 2001 after unseating Netanyahu during his first term.
Barak told Channel 2 News on Tuesday that the current government, in which he has served as defense minister, "has much to show for when it comes to security." "I might have something to do with that," he quipped. "We have a great lineup and a clear view when it comes to social issues and national security matters, as well as foreign policy; anyone who truly cares for national responsibility and independent views that would bolster the state and its security should consider voting for Independence," Barak said.
Barak stressed that the only way to safeguard the Center and its middle-of-the-road approach was to vote for his party, which would make sure that citizens were not written off and promote a sense of solidarity and government accountability. Asked about the reported falling-out with the prime minister stemming from Barak's attempts to portray himself as an alternative to Netanyahu during his visits to the U.S., Barak said that the two "speak to one another with respect; we have a good rapport and the rest is just smoke and mirrors."
The Haredim: Shas (11 MKs) and United Torah Judaism (5 MKs)
The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas plans to focus on economic issues. On Tuesday, Chairman Eli Yishai said that Shas "will not support a budget that crushes the middle class and the less well-off, even once the elections are over." "The upcoming elections are about the shortage of affordable housing, the erosion in the people's pensions and the staggering prices at the grocery store, which have set a new record for brazenness and greed," Yishai said. "There is consensus over the need to deal with Iran, so only social issues are left to debate." Yishai said a strong Shas will advance social justice.
Over at the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, social issues are front-and-center as well. United Torah Judaism MK and Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni said Tuesday that the elections are going to be among the most fateful. Deputy Health Minister MK Yakov Litzman said his party would not support a measure that would slash the National Insurance Institute's child allowances. "United Torah Judaism will continue protecting large families and Israel's children and will keep them safe."
The National Religious parties: The National Union (4 MKs) and the New National Religious Party (3 MKs)
The two parties, which ran separately in the last elections, will try to join forces this time around. National Union Chairman Yaakov Katz (Katzeleh) has recently announced this plan in a joint statement with Naftali Bennett, who seeks to head the New National Religious Party. As far as the New National Religious Party is concerned, the elections could not have been announced at a better moment, as it is already set to hold primaries in November. Among those who are seeking the top job are Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz and MK Zevulun Orlev. "These elections are an opportunity; Zionist and more devout constituents can assert their proper role in the political playing field," read a statement released by the National Union on Tuesday. "Once the primaries are over, we shall join forces and present a diverse and large lineup."