News from March 15 to March 21
The Official News of the Jews Guide to Israeli Elections Pt. 4 (and honorable mentions)
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News of the Jews Official Guide to Israeli Elections Pt. 4:
What is this? Since the Israeli elections are on Tuesday (and there was not a whole lot of news last week), I figured I would put together a guide to understanding the Israeli political landscape. It may seem repetitive to some, but I thought it would be helpful to be comprehensive. Buckle up, folks!
How do elections work in Israel? The head of Israel’s government is the Prime Minister (The Israeli President is a mostly symbolic figure). Unlike the United States, individuals don’t vote directly for who they think would be the best leader; they vote for parties, and the leaders of parties are “candidates” for the premiership. For comparison, imagine that people didn’t vote for Joe Biden or Donald Trump, but instead voted for the Democratic party and the Republican party. As a result of a somewhat recent rule change, parties must win 3.25% of the total number of votes cast to enter the Knesset. The rule is designed to make parties consolidate and keep fringe groups out of the political process. Once the election results are in, the leader whose party received the most votes typically has the first chance to form a government. Since there are 120 seats in the Knesset, a “candidate” has to secure the recommendation of 61 members of the Knesset before they can take office.
Why is this Israel’s fourth election in two years? The biggest reason is that there are a lot of people who do not like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but they are all over the political landscape. In the first two elections in April and September 2019, Netanyahu’s “bloc” of parties failed to reach 61 seats, meaning it could not form a government. However, the parties that oppose Netanyahu are extremely ideologically broad, which prevented them from assembling a viable coalition, even though they had the seats they needed.
What happened in the previous elections? The story of the first two elections was the emergence of the Blue and White party (also known as Kahol Lavan). Led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Blue and White was an umbrella party made up of several centrist parties that opposed Netanyahu. After the third election, Gantz decided to break his premier campaign promise by joining Netanyahu to form an emergency government during the pandemic and prevent another election. According to their coalition deal, Gantz was supposed to take over as Prime Minister in November 2021, but Netanyahu included a provision in the agreement that allowed him to force the country into another election before the rotation by failing to pass a budget. As many expected, Netanyahu triggered his failsafe and declined to pass a budget, forcing this Tuesday’s election.
Who is running? More than 30 parties are running, but here’s a simplified breakdown of the parties and leaders that have a realistic shot at making the Knesset: (Seats estimated from polls here)
The Netanyahu Bloc (~50):
Leader: Benjamin Netanyahu
What’s their deal? Netanyahu is now Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, so he is a known quantity, for better or worse. Accordingly, this election can be interpreted as a referendum on Netanyahu and his party which has governed Israel for the last decade. The right-wing Likud party is poised to earn the most seats in the upcoming election.
Leader: Aryeh Deri
What’s their deal? Shas is a right-wing Sephardic ultra-orthodox party that advocates for religious priorities. The party also frequently partners with Netanyahu. Shas leader Arye Deri was indicted on corruption charges earlier this year.
Leader: Moshe Gafni
What’s their deal? United Torah Judaism (UTJ) is a right-wing Haredi political party that, like Shas, advocates for ultra-orthodox political priorities. Also like Shas, the party has been a common coalition partner for Netanyahu throughout his tenure as Prime Minister.
Leader: Bezalel Smotrich
What’s their deal? The Religious Zionist party, as you might expect, primarily represents the religious Zionist community in Israel. Importantly, Netanyahu convinced Smotrich to incorporate Otzma Yehudit, a racist and fiercely anti-Arab party that draws on the radical ideology of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, into the Religious Zionist party a few months ago. The move was highly controversial.
The Anti-Netanyahu Bloc (~56):
Leader: Yair Lapid
What’s their deal? Yesh Atid is poised to earn the most seats after Likud, making Lapid a natural contender for the premiership. However, Lapid has been coy with his Prime Ministerial aspirations to prevent Netanyahu from using his ambitions against him during the campaign. Ideologically, Yesh Atid is a staunchly secular, centrist party.
Yair Lapid (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu (R). Source: Flash90
Leader: Gideon Sa’ar
What’s their deal? New Hope is, quite literally, new. Sa’ar, one of Netanyahu’s primary internal Likud rivals, broke off of Likud earlier this year to form the new right-wing party. Sa’ar’s party started strong but has struggled recently, in part because the party hired operatives from the American Lincoln Project, which was implicated in a sexual abuse scandal shortly after.
Leader: Avigdor Liberman
What’s their deal? The nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu is the traditional home for Russian-speaking Israelis. Its leader, Avigdor Liberman, has been in politics for a long time and previously served as the Defense Minister. Liberman, who was once indicted but later cleared of the charges, is fiercely anti-Netanyahu.
Leader: Merav Michaeli
What’s their deal? After ascending to the leadership of the Labor party, Merav Michaeli is hoping to resuscitate one of Israel’s oldest political parties from a historically poor performance in the last election. Her efforts appear to be paying off, as Labor will likely receive around six seats on Tuesday compared to three seats in the previous election. Michaeli’s labor party is a social-democratic party that focuses on social and economic issues.
Leader: Benny Gantz
What’s their deal? Gantz has had a somewhat miraculous fall from grace in the Israeli political scene. His center-right party is set to drop from winning over 30 seats in the last election to barely squeaking past the electoral threshold. Netanyahu is crossing his fingers hoping Blue and White doesn’t pass because that would mean tens of thousands of anti-Netanyahu votes would be flushed down the drain.
Leader: Nitzan Horowitz
What’s their deal? Meretz is Israel’s most left-wing, Zionist party. Despite many calling for Meretz to merge with Labor before the election, Meretz and Labor chose to run alone. That decision may come back to haunt the left-wing camp, as the socialist Meretz is at risk of not crossing the threshold. Even if it does cross, Meretz might not be willing to partner with some right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties like New Hope to oust Netanyahu.
Leader: Ayman Odeh
What’s their deal? The Joint List has been very successful politically in the last few elections, and the umbrella party is looking to build on its success. A big question for Tuesday is whether the Likud’s efforts to woo Arab voters will put a dent in the Joint List’s seats. The Joint List is made up of several ideologically diverse parties.
The Kingmakers (~14):
Leader: Naftali Bennett
What’s their deal? Yamina leader Naftali Bennett chose not to join the Netanyahu-Gantz government after the last election, hoping he could position himself as a viable alternative in the opposition. While Bennett’s criticism of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic certainly attracted support, his party has stagnated recently. Bennett, a right-wing settlement supporter and former tech CEO, has positioned himself well as a kingmaker who very well could put Netanyahu or Lapid over the 61-seat threshold to form a coalition. Although he has promised not to join a Lapid-led government, he has not ruled out having Lapid join a government he plans to lead.
Leader: Mansour Abbas
What’s their deal? Mansour Abbas’ Islamist Ra’am split off of the Joint List ahead of Tuesday’s election in part because Abbas has developed a positive relationship with Netanyahu. Consequently, some have speculated that Abbas might be willing to endorse Netanyahu for the premiership, which might put Netanyahu over the 61-seat threshold. However, that assumes Ra’am will even get into the Knesset with more than 3.25% of the votes, which is far from a guarantee.
So what’s going to happen? We’ll have to see on Tuesday! Regardless, in all likelihood, it’s going to be very, very close. Anecdotally, most analysts seem to believe Israel is headed to another election because neither Netanyahu nor Lapid/Sa’ar/Bennett will be able to form a government. For more analysis on why the electoral math is confusing, check out last week’s newsletter.
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