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If you have been seeing a lot of conflicting news regarding the Israeli election and have come here for a simple summary of the day’s events, sorry, there is no such thing as “simple” when it comes to Israeli elections.
Polls have just recently closed and both major parties, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, have declared victory. Early exit polls have Gantz at 33 seats in the Knesset, and Netanyahu at 27, so Gantz is the winner? Not even close!
Israeli elections 101
The Knesset (Israeli Parliament) has 120 seats, a party forms government when it gets a majority when it gets to the 61 seat mark. Which seems simple enough, except that no party in Israel’s history has ever won 61 seats.
Which means that parties need to merge together to form a coalition government. In order to get seats in the government, parties need to get at least 3.25% of the vote to get seats in the Knesset. This means that the real fun in the election doesn’t really start until after all the votes are counted and parties see who else has seats in the Knesset. Once all the players on the board are set a game of 4D political chess on steroids starts.
Allies and Enemies
Netanyahu and the Likud represent the Israeli-right. Gantz and the Blue and White are a self-described centrist party, but will ultimately draw their coalition from the left. One of the reasons that Netanyahu declared victory, is that it will be much easier for the right-wing parties to form a coalition than it will be for the left.
Now, there are 39 parties running in this election and not all will pass the threshold, so here are some of the bigger secondary players.
On the right, there is the New Right lead by Naphtali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked. They are far more hawkish on Israeli defence, don’t support Palestinian statehood and are a more secular break-off from the Jewish-Home.
The Jewish-Home just had a very controversial merger with Otzma Yehudit, which is a party that calls for Jewish law and waging total war on Israel’s enemies. Israel Beiteinu is a secular Zionist party that is very strong on defence and appeals to Israel’s eastern European immigrants. There is also Kulanu, a centre-right party. All of these parties are expected to join Netanyahu’s coalition.
Of note there is also the sexy newcomer in this year’s election: Zehut, run by Moshe Feiglin which is a Libertarian nationalist party. Feiglin released a 300+ page detailed manifesto on Zehut’s policies.
In it is Marijuana legalization, massive economic liberalization and a detailed plan on how to take back the Palestinian territories. The party was polling very well, but now might not make the threshold. I guess some things remain true across international lines, pot heads tend to get very excited, but aren’t great at remembering to vote.
On the left there is the once great Labour Party, which once dominated Israeli politics in the country’s early years, now set to get a record low in seats. There is also Meretz, the only openly “Left-wing party” running in the election. They are socialists who are pushing for a two-state solution with a divided Jerusalem.
The wildcards in any election are the ultra-orthodox parties and the Arab parties. Needless to say, the policies of these two groups are diametrically opposed to each other.
United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi Haredi party) and Shas (Sephardic Haredi party) both push for more traditional Jewish control in Israeli politics. Hadash-Taal and Balad-Raam, the parties that represent the Arab-Israeli minority both push for an end to Israel as a Jewish state. Both groups also have some views that are not very popular outside their parties.
Security: the number one issue in Israel is security. The country has been at war since its inception in 1948 when 5 different Arab countries attacked it and the conflict has now morphed into what we now call the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
In a country that has been known for its volatile political climate, Netanyahu could be set to become Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister for this issue. Bibi is seen as “the great defender”.
Netanyahu came to power in the aftermath of the 2nd Intifada and failed withdrawal from Gaza. The Intifada was a wide spread wave of terrorist attacks from the Palestinian territories, Israel has suffered from extremely high rates of terrorism since 1948, but the Intifadas saw bombings and shootings nearly daily. This wave of mass terror started when then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went to the Temple Mount, the holiest cite in Judaism, to say a prayer.
The situation in Gaza was sort of a final Hail Mary from the Israeli Left. In 2005 Israel did a complete withdrawal from Gaza, removing every single Jew in the area, setting up greenhouses and infrastructure and giving the population a free election.
Gaza elected the terrorist group Hamas to power, burned all the infrastructure and went into a 2 year bloody civil war. Hamas massacred their PA opposition throwing their politicians off roofs and in 2007 they gained full control, declared war on Israel and started launching rockets into the south.
Enter Netanyahu in 2009, he came into power and gave the Palestinians an ultimatum. Basically, they could agree that Israel has the right to exist and there would be peace, or they can commit to the never-ending war and he would build a security wall. Both the PA and Hamas chose to continue trying to eliminate Israel, so a wall with security check points was instituted.
Since then terrorist attacks dropped dramatically and now, they are mostly knife or car attacks, instead of guns and bombs. This is the primary reason the Israeli Right is more popular in general.
US Israel relations: Another strong point for Bibi is that he got the Americans to finally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Many Israeli’s did not appreciate the fact that they were the only country in the world that was not able to choose their own capital, countries moving their embassies to Jerusalem looks good on Netanyahu. Also, the recent recognition on Israel’s rights in the Golan Heights is a major security concern as it is the most important military position in the region with Hezbollah right on the doorstep.
Religious laws: Many Israeli’s right-wingers and left-wingers do not like the control that the religious parties exert over everyday life. The majority of Israelis support same sex civil unions and adoption rights, but that will cost you the religious parties from your coalition and it is very hard to get to 61 seats without them. Public transit is closed on the Sabbath and commerce is somewhat forced to shutdown.
Bibi’s Scandals: not many politicians can go ten years in power scandal free, and Netanyahu is no exception. He currently has 3 corruption charges pending, 2 have been dismissed by people like Alan Deresiewicz as ridiculous, but there is a potential bribery scandal looming.
What is going to happen
Likely, it will be a some time before we know who comes out on top, and what their coalition looks like. Before there can be any solid analysis, we need to see which parties clear the 3.25% threshold. Then inevitably when a party falls close to the mark there will be a recount. After the dust settles, parties will look around and assess where they can either garner the most influence or stop political rivals from reaching power.
Here is where if I were a betting man, I would put my money on Netanyahu. There are just more amiable parties on the right that already see themselves as part of Netanyahu’s coalitions and the left has too many competing ideas and ideologies to be sustainable long term.
Gantz’s path to victory will probably rely on a lot of right-wing parities just failing to reach the threshold. The next obstacle he will face is that he will most likely need the Arab parties to get to 61 seats, and he might only get to 61. In that case there is almost no bill of substance possible that would appease the Arab party members without causing at least one other member of his coalition to leave in protest.
With poll results coming out the ultimate picture is still too close to call, but as it stands things are trending positive for the Likud as Netanyahu just declared a “tremendous victory” as one poll projected Likud at 40 seats, with half the votes counted. However, Israeli exit polls are notoriously unreliable so sit tight, and just be glad that Canada does not have a proportional representation system.