Israel's upcoming elections--a primer

The next election will be April 9, 2019.

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In December 2018, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to dissolve the government and go to early elections. He is seen here at a menorah lighting at the start of Hanukkah in Ramat Gan in December. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images).

The Israeli democratic system revolves around a government elected from within the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in universal elections that (are scheduled to) take place every four years. In contrast with the American two-party system, Israel has numerous parties catering to all types of electorates and niche interests.

In addition, we have universal suffrage in which the country is a single voting district. In other words, elected officials represent a party and its constituents rather than a geographic area of the country. As the old joke goes, "for every two Israelis there are three different opinions." I would add that among them, there are also four different political parties.

The next elections were supposed to take place in November 2019, but elections in Israel are almost never exactly on schedule. A prime minister may resign, or the Knesset may pass a no-confidence vote, in which cases government is dissolved and with it--automatically-so does the Knesset. In December 2018, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to dissolve the government and go to early elections. His political calculations, along with favorable polling numbers and the exit of one of his important coalition allies, prompted the decision.

And hence the date for the next election was chosen--April 9, 2019.

The number of parties currently forming the Israeli Knesset and representing a host of interests and views comprises no less than 10 parties, covering not only the whole spectrum from far-left to far-right, but also others whose domestic or security positions don't neatly fit into such tidy left/right categories.

But no sooner had the Prime Minister announced new elections than a rapid process began of shifts, splits, and movements within the parties and between them, with some parties splitting up, new parties being established, some long-time Knesset members leaving politics altogether, and others changing their party affiliation. It seems that not a week goes by without some change in party makeup and alliances. All are jockeying for position in the next Knesset, some hoping to lead the government and others trying just to win enough Knesset seats to ensure a seat at the government table.

In order to form a coalition, an aspiring prime minister must pass a number of hurdles. First, he (Israel has had 13 Prime Ministers, only one of whom--Golda Meir--was female) must gain the leadership of a party. Traditionally, almost all governments in Israel have been led by either the main right-wing party, Likud, or by its opponent, the left-wing Labor Party (the "Zionist Camp" in its latest iteration). Both parties have an internal primary election which a candidate must first secure.

Other parties have their own internal process, some using primaries and others established by individuals who make up their own party lists ahead of elections. Ultimately, the voter does not directly elect a Prime Minister: rather, citizens vote for a party list, knowing ahead of time who its leader is as well as who the rest of its list members are. From then on, the vote is simply proportional: parties gain Knesset seats in proportion to the number of votes they had.

The party with the most seats in the Knesset will then be given the opportunity to form a coalition, which must have over half of the Knesset seats, or 61 out of 120. In our 70-year history, no single party ever had 61 seats, and thus every prime minister--from David Ben Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu--had to form a coalition with other parties who pledge their support in return for seats at the cabinet and consideration for their special interests and electorate.

In the last two decades, coalitions have almost always been formed by Likud, with a coalition of like-minded parties from the right or center or religious elements of the political map. As the peace process with the Palestinians, traditionally a key issue in Israeli elections, lingers and stalls, so more and more Israelis find themselves frustrated and hopeless as to the short-term possibility of peaceful resolution of our differences. That frustration in turn translates into less support for left-wing parties which are more optimistic about the possibility of peace with the Palestinians.

Voters who believe that the Palestinian Authority will not be a viable partner for peace talks (for any of a series of reasons) tend to elect parties that place security considerations and defense ahead of the promotion of peace initiatives. That is not indicative of a lack of desire for peace: rather, it indicates frustration with the Palestinian leadership and its people, and disillusionment as to their true intentions in the context of peace negotiations.

The resulting effect on Israeli elections is that the bloc of right-wing or center-right wing parties garners around 55 percent of the votes, while left-wing parties usually win 45 percent of the votes or less. That division between right and left has been more or less automatic in the last two decades and is not likely to change in the upcoming April elections.

While parties within each bloc may grow or shrink, at the time of writing it seems that voter movement is only within the blocs while there are relatively few voters moving from right to left or from left to right. This division of power will likely emerge from these elections as well, auguring another term for Likud at the helm of a coalition of like-minded parties.   

However, as the Jewish physicist Niels Bohr observed, "prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future."

That's especially so in Israeli politics where it said that the voters "tell the truth to the pollsters and lie in the voting booth."

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.


"As the old joke goes, "for every two Israelis there are three different opinions." I would add that among them, there are also four different political parties. "

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