An in depth look at Israel's upcoming national election
February 1, 2019
This is part 1 of a four-part series.
Just after Christmas it was announced that Israel will be holding early elections on April 9. In the coming months there will be heavy campaigning, countless polls, stunts, pundits’ predictions, and endless projections.
Many friends have asked, what will be with Prime Minister Netanyahu, politically and legally, and what should they pray for?
Before sharing some of the things to watch and pray for, let me make one projection that is not unique and that all polls are projecting: that the Likud party under Prime Minister Netanyahu will win again, and he will become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. Further, it’s likely that albeit with some modifications, the coalition that forms the next government will be comprised more or less the of the same parties that are in the government now.
Why should you even care? As the only stable and truly thriving democracy in the Middle East—an island in a sea of terrorists, tyrants and dictators—Israel’s survival and well-being is essential. Israel is on the frontline of combating these extremist Islamic and Arab ideologies and in doing so, helps keep them in check. Through Israel’s sophisticated intelligence gathering, threats to the rest of the world are shared and Israel cooperates with many to ensure safety and the elimination of threats globally.
No foreign troops have ever been deployed in or to defend Israel. Israel defends itself. There is an abundance of military hardware from the U.S. and other countries that is provided, providing jobs in these countries as well. This is important in Israel and appreciated. But the even greater significance is that in most cases, Israel is the laboratory for testing these and many other domestically developed defense systems. Doing so makes Israel stronger but also lets the world know and learn from how these systems can be best used to keep others safe in their countries.
Finally, Israel is the home of and embodies the Judeo-Christian ethic. This phrase is tossed around freely but it’s important. Common values, based on the recognition of God as the Creator of the world, the same and only God that Jews and Christians revere and worship, are critical. These values underscore a strong foundation that people of faith understand together. Israel’s very existence reflects God’s promise to restore His people to their Land. His fingerprints are all over that and when we recognize and celebrate this, we honor and revere God, and highlight Him to the rest of the world that does not recognize Him yet.
Odds are that even with all the observations and factors below, and any number of things that can change and influence the elections until then, you will wake up on April 10 and this will be the outcome.
However, often things in Israel are not so clean cut. Three months is a long time in Israeli politics. Many factors can change and influence the outcome. In short, you never know.
Israel’s Electoral System
Before going into a closer look at the issues that face Israel, and which will determine the outcome of the election, it’s necessary to understand a little bit about Israel’s electoral system. Israel is a parliamentary democracy. This means that voters do not vote for a candidate to become prime minister, but rather for a political party whose views and leaders the voter finds most aligned with his or her own. The parliament is called the Knesset and is made up of 120 members. Parties compete to get the highest percent of the vote, and the number of seats is allocated based on the relative percent each party gets. In order to have any seats, a party must pass a threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote. Parties that do not meet this threshold do not get represented in the Knesset.
Political parties run the gamut from far left to far right, ultra-orthodox religious parties to secular. There are both Jewish and Arab nationalist parties as well. Based on their representation as a percent of Israeli society, both the Arab parties and ultra-orthodox Jewish parties typically maintain the same overall number of seats in the Knesset. Nevertheless, there are Arabs who are members of many of the Jewish and national parties and orthodox Jews who are members of parties that are not particularly religious.
There is no representative element of Israel’s Knesset in the sense that people are not elected from specific geographic districts. An upside of that is that there’s no political redistricting. A down side of that is that, once elected to Knesset, most members do not behave as if they have a constituency to represent. Their votes are often in line with party protocol rather than a particular demographic. This is the exception for the Arab and religious parties, and to a lesser degree among parties that will designate a particular place on their respective lists for a representative of someone under 40, an immigrant, a woman, etc. For a short period some years ago, there was a “pensioners” party representing the interests of Israelis over retirement age.
In order to form a government, one needs a majority of members to be part of the government. In a simpler world, if one party were to achieve 61 seats, that party would presumably head the government and it would be straightforward. In seven decades of hyper democracy, this has never been the case. Therefore, in order to form a government, the head of one party, usually the one that receives the most seats, is designated to form the government by forming a coalition with other parties.
After the election, based on the number of seats each party wins, it’s the job of the president (today that’s Reuven Rivlin) to meet with the heads of the respective parties and ascertain who has the best chance to form a coalition. This is certainly influenced by the total number of seats a party secures, but also based on personalities of which parties, and their leaders, would agree to serve in a coalition with another person or party. As the head of State, Israel’s president is largely a figure head. Yet the president does have significant roles in Israeli society. Designating who will get to form the government, while often obvious, is one of those significant roles.
A look at the political parties
While the polls will change many times between now and April, in order to have an overview of the elections first we will explore the parties running. The order presented is based on recent projections of the number of seats that each party will receive from top down, though each poll projects slightly different outcomes.
These are 14 parties that will likely succeed in having from three to as many as 30 seats. However, there are several other parties that will be included in the campaign that are not listed as they are not projected to win any seats in the next Knesset. These small parties typically focus on specific issues such as security, religion, extreme left or right positions, legalization of marijuana, and more.
Likud—Israel’s major national center-right party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu
Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience)—a new political party headed by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, presumed to be centrist but may lean more to the left
Joint Arab List *—a network of Arab parties that came together to run as a block
Yesh Atid (There is a Future)—a centrist party headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid
Hayamin Hachadash (The New Right)*—a break away new right-wing party striving to unite secular and religious Israelis
Labor *—the left-wing party that dominated Israeli politics for the first three decades of Israel’s independence. In recent years this party ran in a coalition with another but separated recently.
United Torah Judaism—an ultra-orthodox Jewish religious party
Kulanu (All of Us)—a centrist party predominantly focused on economic issues
Shas—an ultra-orthodox Jewish religious party oriented to Jews whose families are from Arab and middle-eastern countries
Meretz—Israel’s dominant most left-wing party
Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) *—a nationalist religious right-wing party
Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home)—a right wing political party oriented to Jewish immigrants from the former USSR
Gesher (Bridge)—a new political party believed to be centrist headed by a woman who broke away from Yisrael Beiteinu
Telem—a new party headed by veteran politician, general former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
In the next article we will explore unique legal issues regarding investigations and a possible indictment against Prime Minister Netanyahu, and what that means for the election itself, political jockeying by different parties and their leaders, and how it might be possible for Netanyahu to form a coalition.
Footnote: If you have thoughts or questions about things raised here, or things not mentioned at all, or wish to have updates as the campaign goes along, please feel free to reach out directly. If you’d like a list of relevant articles to add depth to your understanding, please let me know. I may not be able to answer all the questions in real time but will be glad to do so where I can and incorporate these into updates in the future. Thanks for your interest. email@example.com
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six and became a grandfather in 2018. Throughout his life and career, he has been blessed by the calling to fellowship with Christian supporters of Israel and serve as a bridge between Jews and Christians. He shares insights and experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel, writing for prominent Christian and conservative web sites and appearing on many Christian TV and radio programs. He is the president of Run for Zion and the Genesis 123 Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via http://www.runforzion.com.