Elections in Israel – Will Anything Change?

In about two weeks Israelis will go to the polls. Israeli democracy is unlike that of most other countries. In Israel one votes for a party, not an individual. Each party presents a list of candidates. Each list receives a number of seats in the new Knesset (Parliament) based on the proportion of votes it receives in the election. A party list must get enough votes to rate at least 4 seats in order to be elected at all. Parties receiving less than the minimum percentage don’t get any seats.

After the election each party submits a name of a candidate, usually the leader of one of the parties, to be asked to form a government with that person as the Prime Minister. Any list of potential ministers he selects must be approved by a majority of the 120 Knesset members. The President, who is otherwise largely a figurehead, receives the nominations and selects someone to try to form a government. Most of the time it is the leader of the party that won the most seats. But There are a lot of parties, and no single party has been able to form a government without support from some other, smaller, parties. The selected party will try to work out a coalition agreement with other parties by appointing representatives of the smaller parties to specific ministries or Knesset committee chairmanships. The bartering over forming a government also includes specifying legislation that will, or will not, be supported.

Current polls suggest that the Likud party, led by Benyamin Netanyahu, will get the most seats. But that number is less than 30, a long way from the 61 needed to approve a government. The Likud can count on support from the two Ultra-orthodox parties; United Torah Judaism and Shas. The former represents the Ashkenazic Ultra-Orthodox, and the latter, the Sephardic religious communities. Together, they amount to another 15 or so seats. That’s still not enough. There is a right wing modern orthodox party that my provide about 5 more seats.

What about the other opposition? Well. it’s very divided. The United Arab party will get about 10-12 seats, and the rest will be divided between the various parties that all want to see Netanyahu out of the office of Prime Minister that he has occupied for so long. The Likud party is likely to be too right wing to ever make an agreement including the Arabs. The other parties led by Gidon Sa’ar, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennet, Avigdor Liberman Benny Gantz and Merav Michaeli are anything but unified on any subject except defeating Netanyahu, In fact, Bennet’s party hasn’t even ruled out joining the Likud.

If you’ve read this far, you may have noticed that despite the original democratic ideal of giving a voice to different platforms, this election seems to be all about a set of personality cults. Netanyahu has always been in a position to reward his loyal supporters and punish anyone who threatens his leadership. This is one of the reasons he is now on trial for corruption. His focus has been primarily on avoiding being sent to prison, to the detriment of his actions as head of the government. All of his opponents agree on that. But they don’t agree on how to run the country if they manage to get rid of him. They cannot get their act together sufficiently to even unite behind one other individual as a replacement for Netanyahu. They are also all sufficiently street- smart enough to know that any agreement made with him is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Almost all of the opposing party leaders have been in a Netanyahu led government at least once, and every one emerged with scars. Often the scars are from wounds caused by being stabbed in the back. Three is one indication of hope. Yair Lapid said that there i no guarantee he would be the next prime minister. Some analysts interpret this to mean that even if he has more seat than either Sa’ar’s or Bennet’s parties, he may be willing to let one of them try to form the government. Anything to be rid of Netanyahu.

There are other complications. Bennet says he won’t join a government headed by Lapid. Liberman won’t sit in a government that includes ultra-orthodox parties., and nobody want to be seen as having to rely on the Arab party in order to form a government.

As the old Chinese curse put it.”May you live in interesting times”.

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