By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Israel’s fourth election in a little over two years is set for March 23, and it will be an election that comes down to mostly one question: should Benjamin Netanyahu (nicknamed Bibi) continue to serve as the Prime Minister of Israel after 14 consecutive years of holding this position?
The continued saga of Netanyahu shows the instability of the Israeli political system. The divide between left and right in the Israeli electorate has been a proven fact for several decades. While the Israeli right has maintained a steady control over the Jewish population, the controversial personality of Netanyahu has created a new divide in the Israeli electorate pro and anti-Bibi voters.
A month before the election, some things are clear:
- There are parties running on similar political agendas with slim differences.
- Some candidates might not win seats in the Israeli parliament and could evaporate from the political spectrum.
How the Israeli Electoral System Functions
The Israeli electoral system is very different than the American electoral process, because Israel built its political system on the model of British politics. The elections in Israel are not regional and personal like in the U.S. Instead, they are based on political parties and relative percentages of votes.
To win a seat in the Israeli parliament, a party must nominate its candidates before the election. In the election, a party must win at least 5% of the total number of votes, which is known as the block percentage.
If the block percentage is not achieved, the votes are tossed and amount to nothing. Once a party wins more than 5% of the total number of votes, this party takes part in the division of seats.
All of the votes for parties who passed the 5% minimum will be tallied and divided by 120. That will be the minimum number of votes per seat in the Israeli Parliament (called the Knesset).
Which Political Parties Are in Israel’s Election?
From the right side of the political spectrum, there are two parties identified as the religious right. One political party is HaTzionut HaDatit (Religious Zionism), dominated by supporters of the settlement movement and hard liners vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The second political party is Yamina (“Rightwards”), which promotes itself as a right-wing party that appeals to both religious and secular voters.
In reality, the polls suggest that its base is quite clearly the religious Zionist community. The leader of Yamina, Naftali Bennett, a former officer in an Israeli elite commando unit and successful high-tech entrepreneur, wanted to position himself as an alternative to Netanyahu. However, it seems that Bennett is not succeeding in breaking the boundaries of the religious Zionist community.
In addition, there are two secular right-leaning parties. Tikvah Hadasha (New Hope) and its leader, Gideon Sa’ar, are based on political figures from the Likud party. Those political figures wish to replace Netanyahu as prime minister and really want to return to their political home.
Sa’ar has not hidden his desire to be prime minister. Also, he has attempted to overthrow Netanyahu in the past from within the Likud.
The biggest party, the Likud, is a primarily Netanyahu party. All the candidates are supporters of the Prime Minister and are committed to defending him, even with a criminal trial about to begin sometime in 2021.
Also in the right is Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), a political party led by Avigdor Liberman who has been attempting to unseat Netanyahu for several years. His electorate is from the Russian-speaking Israelis, and he promotes an iron fist approach vis-à-vis the Palestinians, coupled with a call for separation of church and state in Israel.
Political Parties in the Center of Israeli Politics
In the center of the political spectrum are two parties. One political part is the great hope from last year, Kachol Lavan (Blue and White). This party and its leader, Benny Gantz, lost almost all its members, who had decided to retire from political life.
In a coalition with Netanyahu, their sworn enemy, they promised to only to join his government for six months before it collapsed, causing a crisis of legitimacy. It is not clear if there will be enough voters to take Kachol Lavan beyond the percentage block, since this party that only won 30 seats in the Israeli Knesset last year.
The second party is Yesh Atid (There Is A Future), a centrist party with another long-time contender for prime minister, Yair Lapid. This political party has little to offer as far as clear ideological position and offers mainly its opposition to Netanyahu and its support for separation of church and state.
Israeli Political Parties on the Left
On the political left, there are another two parties. The Labor party, which came close to disappearing from the political map, has had a resurrection. Its leader, Meirav Michaeli, is a staunch feminist politician who is famous for giving speeches using only feminine pronouns and verb forms (Hebrew has different verb forms based on gender). She seems to bring back voters and might bring the Labor party back to double digits in the Knesset.
Also on the left is Meretz (Energy), a social-liberal, social-democratic and green party that is more aggressive in its political messaging. It is hovering just above the 5% mark.
Lastly, we have the Arab parties. Different factions that ran together in the past two years have split into two factions. One maintains the name HaReshima HaMeshutefet (The Joint Party), made up of Arab-Israelis who wish to create an Arab autonomy in Israel. It is an alliance with staunch supports of Arab-national ideology stemming from the Pan-Arabism of the 1960s-1970s with the Communists.
The group which seceded from this joint party is running under the name The United Arab List (HaReshima HaAravit HaMe’uhedet). This faction is running on an Islamist platform and left the political alliance in light of the clear secular identity of the alliance and the secular members’ unwillingness to condemn lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) activism in the Arab community.
What Does It All Mean?
It is worth noticing that all these parties came in pairs. The point here is that these political parties are more similar than different.
Voters on the right and the left can choose between political parties that are similar, a situation that might lead to at least some of the alternatives to disappear. The 5% minimum is a mighty obstacle to overcome and could bring some of these parties to see the next parliament from the outside.
Overall, it is hard to say what this election will bring — perhaps a government without Netanyahu or simply another short-lived government awaiting a legal resolution of the Netanyahu saga. The only thing we can say for certain is that there is an inherent instability in the Israeli political system that does not seem to have any clear solution.