With Israel facing the possibility of a third election in less than 12 months following a six-month stalemate between Likud and the Blue and White Party, it might be wise for us to pause and try and understand how did we get here? Why is this war of political attrition continuing and who are the main players?
Israeli Democracy simplified:
Israel is a representative democracy, where the entire state is considered a single constituency. Every 18-year-old citizen may vote in a secret ballot. Elections are held every four years, or earlier in the case of snap elections, and parties gain seats in the 120-seat Knesset through a percentage of the vote.
Meaning, for example, if 25% of the population vote for a party, then that party will have one-quarter of the seats in the Knesset. The main problem that causes the current political stagnation is that in Israel no single party ever gains a majority of the Knesset (61 seats) by itself but rather coalitions must be formed.
The largest party’s leader will (usually) be given the mandate to form a governing coalition by the President. Larger parties are between 30-40 seats, and this party’s leader will become the premier.
However, governing coalitions are made up of parties with very differing ideologies, causing conflict within the government, snap elections and lengthy coalition negotiations.
9th of April 2019: Israeli general elections were held to vote in the the 21st Knesset of Israel. The election was originally scheduled November but were called early due to continued disputes over a bill reforming the draft deferral system for yeshiva students, along with the corruption investigations against Prime Minister Netanyahu. Likud and the Blue and White Party tied with 35 seats each, since it was deemed by the President that Netanyahu had a greater chance of forming a government, he was given the mandate to form a new government.
29th May 2019: The deadline that President Reuven Rivlin gave to Netanyahu passed, the President gave a two-week extension with no effect. It was understood that the mandate would now be given over to the Blue and White Party’s leader, Benny Gantz. Netanyahu, foreseeing this, led the Knesset to dissolve itself, causing snap elections to be called for September.
17th September 2019: New elections were held, again with no clear leader. Blue and White received 33 seats with Likud receiving 32, both parties losing seats from the last election. Once again, the President held the position that Likud was more likely to be successful creating a government and Netanyahu was given the jurisdiction. Failed negotiations followed and the baton was handed to Gantz on the 23rd of October. Gantz has begun his negotiations with no clear breakthrough reported.
Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu: The ruling party for the past decade, right-wing and capitalist. Likud’s initial success came under Begin in 1977. In more recent times, Likud has had a decade-long monopoly over the premiership, led by Netanyahu. Most of Israel’s largely blue-collar development towns vote Likud, and Netanyahu is immensely popular with the working class of Israel.
Blue and White Party: A new party on the scene, they are a merger of three parties. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid joined with Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience Party) and Moshe Yaalon’s Telem party. Blue and White defines itself as a pluralistic and socially liberal centrist part. The party is led by three former IDF Chiefs-of-Staff and a an ex-finance minister. The alliance, which has proven unwieldy at times, was done with one purpose in mind – to defeat Netanyahu. The party has endorsed wide-reaching reform for the draft exemption system for yeshiva students, and is pushing for a redefining of Israel’s ‘Status Quo’ on religion and state, with greater public transportation on the Sabbath.
The Haredi Parties: Here sit two parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, very similar in ideology on most major issues, they are separated by heritage, Shas being Sephardic and UTJ Ashkenazic. Most of their political work is to protect Israel’s religious identity and their communities’ respective institutions. Shas will take up ministerial posts whilst UTJ will not, wanting rather to sit on committees or to accept deputy positions in lieu of formal ministerial assignments. The parties have both sat on left-leaning and right-leaning government coalitions. This last election they won a total of 16 seats between them.
Joint List: A collage of Arab parties who offer differentiate a great deal in ideology but join together as one party to increase their base. None of these constituent parties has ever sat in a coalition, but in a recent poll some two-thirds of Israel’s Arab population would want their party to govern rather than sit in the opposition. The Joint List received 13 seats.
Right Wing Parties: A hodge podge of right-wing, usually religious parties fill this space. Their main focuses are foreign policy and settlement in Judea and Samaria. Natural allies to Likud, they are often blighted by infighting and fragmentation into smaller factions which do not always clear the 3.25% electoral threshold. They hold seven seats. Another natural ally is Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Betenu (Israel is Our Home) Party. Right-wing and nationalistic, Liberman represents the secular side to the right-wing, holding 8 seats. He has a very loyal base, made up mostly of ex-USSR immigrants and somewhat sits between the camps.
Left Wing Parties: Here lies whats left of the once ruling elite. The Democratic Union and Labor-Gesher have cobbled together 11 seats between them. Socially liberal and economically socialist, they represent the old school of Israel’s political leadership. They have already declared they wish to sit in a government with Gantz as leader and have recently bolstered their ranks with returning ex-PM Ehud Barak.
In truth the answer is unclear. Likud with the religious parties and the right wing hold a larger natural bloc with 55 seats; however they were unable to galvanize Liberman to sit in the coalition.
Negotiations with Blue and White were a non starter as Gantz has declared he will not sit in a coalition with Netanyahu. It should be noted that Likud and Blue and White could make a two-party unity government coalition themselves, with 65 seats, with minimal horse trading or need for smaller parties.
Blue and White have a smaller base with a bloc of 44 with the left wing parties and even if the Joint List decide to sit with Gantz, he still comes up short of a 61-seat majority, unless Liberman joins.