Primer For Israel’s Upcoming Elections

JERUSALEM – You can love it or you can hate it, but Israel is a massive player in the global political arena. Recently voted the 8th most powerful country in the world, the Jewish state is a technological, economic, and military powerhouse of stability in a region better known for chaos and bloody dictators like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad.

So when elections roll around, we’re not talking who gets to be president of the Parents-Teachers Association.

Closer to home, Israel, for many Jews, is a culmination of 2,000 years of longing for Jewish self-determination in our historic homeland. Though admittedly, for some others Israel is just a complicated and controversial nuisance.

Either way, the numbers don’t require many opinions: out of the roughly 14.8 million Jews in the world (estimates vary), 6.5 million, or almost half of all Jews, live in Israel. Israeli elections are, quite literally, Jewish history in motion.

Political juggernaut. Jewish future. The upcoming Israeli national elections on April 9 are worth knowing about, and TC Jewfolk is here to guide your way. Below are summaries of the most important info, with more detailed explanations afterward.

TL:DR on the system of elections: Israelis vote for political parties. Not candidates, but parties (imagine voting for Democrats or Republicans instead of Obama and Romney, with no primaries to decide your representatives).

Those parties, if they get enough votes to enter the Knesset (Israeli parliament), combine until one coalition gets 61 or more out of the 120 available Knesset seats. The party that can form the majority coalition, and therefore the next Israeli gov’t, has its leader become Prime Minister of Israel.

TL;DR on relevant parties/issues: Really, this election is Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s Likud party (right) vs. former chief of staff Benny Gantz’s conglomerate Blue and White party (a center/center-right, coalition of three parties). Both are polling around 30 Knesset seats right now.

Though a lot of background issues, the main thing in this election is Bibi or no more Bibi. With more right-wing/religious parties to form a government coalition with than left-wing parties, realistically April 9 will mean more of Bibi, and Blue and White will be stuck in the gov’t opposition. More analysis to come soon.

Two parties? Hold my beer

Forget everything you know about the American political system. No electoral college, no two-party system, no two chambers of Congress – wipe it all away because Israel is, in many ways, the opposite.

In Israel, everything is about the Knesset, a one chamber Congress-like body with only 120 available seats.

The Knesset seats are a total free-for-all. Over 40 political parties are running in the April 9 elections, and the percentage of the vote that a party gets will decide how many seats it has. But, there is an element of controlled chaos. A party has to receive more than 3.25 percent of the vote (the equivalent of 4 Knesset seats) in order to qualify for those seats.

Realistically, somewhere around 17 parties will get into the Knesset, though not all will do so individually. In order to get enough collective votes to pass the 3.25 percent threshold, many parties are combined, be it the Arab-Israeli leftist parties, the settler/far-right parties, or the current centrist conglomeration, Blue and White.

At this point, you might be asking: How the hell does a functioning government work with 17-ish parties in the Knesset?!?! The short answer: it depends on your definition of functioning.

On a serious note, this is where coalition politics come in. In order to create a government, a party or coalition of parties has to have 61 Knesset seats or more (a majority in the 120 seat Knesset). With rare exception, no political party over the past two decades has gotten over 30 Knesset seats, so this means a variety of parties joining together.

The nature of coalitions has led to a lot of political upsets in recent years, from the biggest parties being unable to form the government, to an early collapse of government coalitions (no Israeli government has finished a full 4-year term since 1988). This election cycle is shaping up to be decided more by coalition availability than the size of any particular party.

The party that can form a majority coalition and create a government will have its head become Prime Minister. Parties outside the coalition become the government opposition, locked out of decision making and any real political power.

So let’s bring this back to the Israeli voter. On April 9, Israelis will head to the polls to vote – not for candidates, like in America – but for the political party of their choice, which usually decides on its own the list of ministers that will represent that party if they get into the Knesset.

There’s more to it; a complex system where votes get reallocated from parties that didn’t cross the 3.25 percent threshold, along with other sleep-inducing details. But this, generally speaking, is all you really need to know.

The Main Parties Running, and What Their Deal Is

The Leads:

  1. Likud – Head of all government coalitions since 2009, led by Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Currently polling at around 30 Knesset seats. Traditionally a center-right party, but moving more right-ward every election cycle. Primarily built around the persona of Netanyahu, an incredibly charismatic and controversial politician who was recently charged in three corruption cases (this is an ongoing situation – Bibi still has to appeal at a hearing). Bibi and the party is positioned as tough on terrorism, Iran, and the Palestinian leadership – and yes, that really is most of their platform, alongside insisting that Bibi is just better than anyone else.
  2. Blue and White (Kachol v’Lavan) – A new political party, really a conglomerate of three parties: Yesh Atid, the centrist-secular party of former tv news host Yair Lapid; Israel Resilience, the anti-Bibi party of former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz; and Telem, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s party. The Blue and White platform, really, is just about getting Netanyahu out of office and opening up Israel’s political future to a party other than Likud. As a whole, though no one knows what Blue and White’s concrete policies are, the party is politically centrist (if right-wing on security). Best bet, but not a good bet, to depose Bibi. Polling around 30 Knesset seats.

Supporting Actors on the Right:

  1. United Torah Judaism and Shas – Easily lumped together because both represent the ultra-Orthodox population of Israel, though UTJ is Ashkenazi and Shas is Mizrachi. At the end of the day, all they really care about is that ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox institutions get government funding, that no one forces the ultra-Orthodox to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces, and that the Israeli Rabbinate continues to have control over status issues (conversion, marriage, who is or isn’t a Jew, etc). Polling around 6 Knesset seats each.
  2. New Right – Exactly what it sounds like, just not that new. Headed by Naftali Bennett, the current education and diaspora minister, and Ayelet Shaked, the current justice minister. Former members of Likud, both were close to Netanyahu until he drove them out. Fixated on reducing the power of Israeli’s court system (due to a perceived liberal bias, or, really, because right-wingers don’t always get to do everything they want), and on being tougher on Palestinian terrorism (Netanyahu’s area of expertise). Polling around 6 Knesset seats.
  3. United Rightwing Parties (URP) – Coalition of three settler/religious right-wing parties. Had a controversial merger with Otzma Yehudit, a fascist and racist party, which you can read more about here. Pro-settlement and settlement expansion in the West Bank. Generally anti-Arab/Palestinian. Honestly, pretty self-explanatory . Polling around 6 Knesset seats.
  4. Zehut – Headed by former Likudnik Moshe Feiglin, Zehut is a libertarian party that gained traction after a strong pro-cannabis campaign. Barely passing the electoral threshold with 4 Knesset seats in the polls, it remains to be seen if Zehut drops off the map or is elected to the Knesset. Has some ideas about annexing all of the West Bank and getting all Arab Israelis or Palestinians financial incentives to immigrate to other countries. If I can go out on a limb here, he’s kind of a nutcase, and many other Israeli politicians have said as much.
  5. Yisrael Beitenu – Secular party of mostly Russian-speaking Israelis. Polling around 4 seats, though barely, and might not make it into the next Knesset. Led by previous defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, who despises the ultra-Orthodox and largely hates Arabs/Palestinians.
  6. Kulanu – Currently struggling to stay above the 3.25 percent election threshold to be in the Knesset, so polling around 4 seats or, really, none. Honorable mention because, as a center/center-right party mostly focused on the economy, Kulanu was an influential part of the gov’t coalition that began in 2015. Unclear what’ll happen in 2019.

Supporting Actors on the Left:

  1. Labour – The traditionally socialist party that ruled Israeli politics with an iron fist for the country’s first 29 years; later the non-socialist pro-peace-with-Palestinians party of Yitzhak Rabin, Labour is now a laughingstock. Polling around 9 Knesset seats, the party that built Israel doesn’t have any clear policies and is really more center/center-right than any kind of political left. Headed by Avi Gabbay, a businessman who himself has never served in the Knesset. Labour has been having a rough time in the government opposition over the past few years.
  2. Meretz – A progressive, properly left-wing, social-democratic, secular green party that has stayed on the issue of peace with the Palestinians even as most Israelis and political parties have stopped talking about (or considering) it. Polling at around 6 Knesset seats. They haven’t been in a government coalition since 2001, and there’s not much that can be done in the opposition.
  3. Hadash-Ta’al and UAL-Balad – A variety of Arab-Israeli far-left parties that together formed the Knesset Joint List, they split into two factions in the hope of getting more votes/seats in the Knesset that way. Hadash-Ta’al is polling at around 8 seats, and UAL-Balad at around 4. They tend to advocate for Israel to be a secular state of all its citizens, and not a Jewish/democratic state (this is a fun debate on its own, but for the sake of clarity: for most Israeli Jews, and lots of non-Israeli Jews, the whole point of Israel is the Jewish bit). Some extra-radical previous members have called Israel an Apartheid state and supported terrorism against Israelis. Generally controversial, but sit in the Knesset opposition and talk more than they get to do.

The Main Issues

Funny, this one is pretty simple. Israel is faced with a variety of issues, from a stagnating economy with rising prices to security in the Middle East and foreign relations (and settlements, religious pluralism issues, ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israeli demographics/education/support/jobs, etc. The list of problems this country has is endless).

But really, it’s all about Netanyahu, who’s been Prime Minister for over a decade now (not counting his previous stint in the late 90s). These elections boil down to Bibi vs no more Bibi.

If you do the math, it’ll be Bibi. Right now, Likud has enough right-wing partners to form a governing coalition in the Knesset. Blue and White? They don’t stand a chance, even if they partnered with everyone on the left. But hey, election upsets happen. More specific analysis coming soon.