Special Edition: Understanding Israel’s Election

By: D. Blackburn
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is losing steam as he continues to drop in the polls as Election Day nears. Yet, according to a recent analysis by American journal The Economist, he remains the frontrunner. How is this possible?

The Parliamentary System

The Parliamentary system of the Israeli Knesset is a mystery to most Americans. In the United States, if one candidate gains favor above the rest it is expected that he will be voted into office. Despite the fact that some voters vote entirely Democrat or entirely Republican, Americans tend to evaluate candidates more as individuals.  We break down how each candidate feels about the various issues, which may vary candidate to candidate regardless of party affiliation. Furthermore, smaller parties such as: the Libertarian party, Greenpeace, The Tea Party, etc, may gain a representative or two within Congress through an election, but overall have little to no power in the legislative arena.

This is not the case in Israel.  Israeli voters will cast their vote for whichever party whose platforms and values they align with the most. Little value is put on who the head of the party is, he or she simply provides a face to help promote the party.  There are 42 political parties vying for a portion of the 120 Knesset seats for the upcoming term. After all the votes are cast, the percentage of votes given for each individual party will determine how many seats that party will hold in the Knesset.

Likud vs Labor

Currently, Likud, Netanyahu’s party, is trailing the Zionist Union (formerly the Labor Party, joined together with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party) led by Isaac Herzog, by three seats in predictive polls. Likud and Labor are frequent rivals in elections. The parties have several opposing views including those on national security and returning pieces of Israeli land to the Palestinian people (Likud is for stronger security and against giving up land, while Labor is more focused on social issues than security, and is in favor of giving land for peace).  In order for either party to lead the government, they will need to create a solid coalition between the other parties with fewer seats to make up a 61-seat majority.

This is where things really get interesting. According to the Economist, while the Zionist Union is polling to receive more votes than Likud, there is a higher probability that right-wing Likud will be able to build a stronger coalition.

Small Fish, Big Fish

There are several Israeli parties that have clear right or left affiliations. For example, the ultra-Orthodox party Shas has historically aligned with the right. It is predicted that this will remain true, as the leftist parties are taking a strong stance on issues such as marriage equality and legalization of civil ceremonies.  Marriage and divorce rights, among other things, currently fall under the authority of the Rabbinate. The religious parties need to maintain political power in order to ensure this does not change. Shas has already aligned itself with a potential Likud-led coalition, while other religious parties, such as United Torah Judaism, have voiced willingness to join either coalition. While the openness of some right-wing parties like UTJ could help Herzog solidify enough seats to gain control, it would make it increasingly difficult to pass legislation in the future because it would not create a true majority.

Another party that holds quite a few cards in the upcoming election is the Joint Arab List. The newly formed party combined four Arab parties: Hasash, Balad, Taal, and the Islamic Movement. These parties made the decision to run on a joint platform when the threshold for winning seats in the Knesset was raised from 2% to 3.25%.  Arabs currently control 20% of the vote in Israel. The combining of the Arab parties could guarantee a higher number of seats for Arabs, pending the 20% come out to vote for the Joint List. The addition of a higher representation for the Arab population could pose a similar difficulty to a right-led coalition.

The Centrists

There are several parties that do not clearly align right or left.  Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, also a new party, has created quite a buzz leading up to these elections.  They have gained support particularly from young Israelis who are fed up with the continually rising cost of living in the country. Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States addressed this issue in his opening remarks at the debate held jointly by the Jerusalem Post, the organization Association of Americans and Canadians (AACI) in Israel, and the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. He stated that when he came to Israel 40 years ago he started in a small apartment and built a future for his family there, but he worries his grandchildren would not have the same opportunities if the current economic situation continued.

The focus on economic issues in the country has been the party’s strongest stance throughout the election process. On the matters of security and the peace process, party members are hesitant to take a clear stance but personal opinion of the higher up members suggests that they are split, perhaps veering a bit more to the right (for reforms, but hesitating to give away land). Kulanu has also gained support for it’s leftist position on marriage equality.

The party’s head Kahlon is being hailed as the new Begin, a voice for the people. This sentiment is highly offensive to Likud party member, Bennie Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. While Kulanu’s growing approval will not be enough to gain them enough seats to lead a coalition, they are sure to be a key player in building one. They are a true wild card in this race.

Moving Forward

There is no clear choice for the believers living in the Land of who to vote for in the upcoming election.  While many support Netanyahu and have traditionally voted for Likud, it is difficult to ignore the opportunities for change through other parties on many issues that directly effect them, such as marriage reform. Currently, most Messianic Jews must have a ceremony outside the country in order for it to be considered legal because the Rabbis will not marry them.

As we come to Election Day, Tuesday, we must continue to pray for wisdom for all those voting and for the coalition which will be built following the election. In light of Netanyahu’s recent speech in the US, the country is torn between the issues of economy and security. In Jeremiah 6:14 it says, “They healed the wound of My people superficially, saying “Shalom, shalom!” (peace, peace) when there is no shalom.” (TLV)

The threat of nuclear Iran will not relent and neither will the growing economic crisis unless changes are made on both fronts. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe leading to another influx of asylum-seeking European Jews flooding into Israel is adding to the cry for change. Both the left and right sides will have to make concessions to ensure the continued success of the nation and her people. We can only hope that the election outcome will assuage the frustration of the people and reunify the country to face the challenges ahead.

Ambassador Oren said it well during the debate, “We did not come back to this country after 2,000 years to watch it die because the price of groceries is too high.”  Though they may be divided on which issues to focus on, they agree on the fact that the state of Israel will continue to thrive despite the many challenges ahead. Psalm 121:4 says, “Behold, the Keeper of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.” (TLV) We know His word is steadfast and true. Let this be a comfort to us and to those in the Land as we join them in prayer.