Israel goes to national elections this Tuesday, April 9. Except for thethird paragraph herein, this article does not advocate but seeks to explain to the curious reader how democracy works in Israeli national elections: specifically explaining (i) the contending parties and (ii) the electoral system. My next column will review highlights of the three-month campaign and predict the results. This review is a bit long because there are so many parties contending and such a curious system to describe.
Because Israel is the only country in the entire Middle East that is an American-style democracy, it is hated by radical-left faculty and student activists on American campuses. They would boycott Israel, force their universities to divest holdings in American companies that operate in Israel, and they would impose sanctions on Israel. There even are campus boycotts of a company that makes kosher hummus in Astoria, Queens and in Virginia because the company’s name is Israeli. By contrast, there is no American college BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement aimed at Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, Turkey, Cuba, or the like. The campus leftists advocate for terrorist groups like Hamas, the PLO of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), Islamic Jihad, and such. That is the state of our campuses today, where professors can advocate the most anti-American views imaginable, all while brainwashing their young minions to hate America, to hate capitalism, to promote open borders, and to love socialism and bread lines. They can teach this garbage because they never can be fired by virtue of “academic tenure.” Furthermore, they assure that scholars who disagree with their leftist radicalism never get tenure to balance their teachings because the professors on the inside do the hiring.
As to all the campus people, leftist activists, and dictatorships mentioned above, four simple words: To Hell with them.
OK, now to explaining this Tuesday’s Israeli elections. When Israel’s first president, Chaim Weitzmann, initially met with United States President Harry Truman, the latter said that he bore great responsibilities as President of 150 million people. Weitzmann responded, “Yes, but I am President of nearly a million Presidents.” In Israel’s free-wheeling democracy,everyonehas an opinion and knows that it is safe to express it. Thus, dozens of different political slates compete for Knesset (Parliament).
Unlike here, where you choose between two major-party candidates or perhaps among three or four people on a ballot when minor parties also compete, in Israel you vote for a political party. Each party internally selects its prospective MKs (Members of Knesset) and publishes the list of names in order. Thus, if the party wins eighteen seats, the first eighteen names on their list get in. There are a total of 120 seats in the Knesset (“Assembly”) because the Jewish people were led 2,500 years ago in Babylonia by the 120 “Men of the Great Assembly” (Anshei Knesset HaG’dolah), and modern-day Israel’s founders thought it would be cute to emulate that name and number, linking to Judaic heritage. In terms of brilliance, wisdom, and insight, they don’t make ’em like they used to.
Contemplate a ballot with dozens of parties. Here we have Democrats, Republicans, sometimes a Green Party, sometimes Libertarians. Obama’s CIA chief, Jim Brennan, had the Communist Party to vote for. But dozens? The main two parties are Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu’s Likud (pronounced: Lee-kood’) and Benjamin (“Benny”) Gantz’s Blue & White. Or, as the Jew-hater Ilhan Omar might say: “It’s about the Benjamins, baby.”
1. The Parties
The Likud (literally, the “Consolidation” because it comprises a merger of several parties) is a politically centrist-conservative party, akin to the Republicans. That is, compared to the other guys, they are conservative, but not consistently so. Like the GOP they talk a conservative game, especially at election time, but then consistently disappoint once elected. That is why there are so many smaller, more ideologically committed parties competing against them. It may be compared to a situation where the Tea Party here regularly would field a slate to run against both the Democrats and the GOP. Before returning to discuss the Blue & White and other smaller parties on the Left, a closer look at the smaller parties to Likud’s right.
Avigdor Liberman, an anti-communist from Russia, was a chief of staff to Bibi, but they had a falling out. So Liberman formed his own party, appealing primarily to the hundreds of thousands of secular Russian émigrés who fled to Israel in the 1970s and 1980s from the former Soviet Union. They all have one thing in common: they hate communism intensely. Liberman has been Israel’s Defense Minister and for a while even served as Foreign Minister (Secretary of State). He is very firm on defense matters and has criticized Netanyahu for not striking hard enough at Hamas in Gaza. For peace, he would offer a land swap: Israel would receive regions of Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) that have heavily concentrated Jewish populations, and Israel would give the Arabs similar-sized regions in the Galilee that are heavily Arab populated. The idea is a non-starter because neither side will agree to it. His party also is somewhat anti-religious because they all grew up under atheist Marxism, and that stuck. They resent that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate oversees matters of marriage, divorce, and religious status, and they resent that Israel gives draft deferments to full-time adult yeshiva students. There is a Judaic tradition of two thousand years that people who spend all day every day in academies that teach advanced Torah and Talmudic studies (“Yeshivas”) also thereby contribute to the nation’s well-being. The secular founders of Israel agreed in the 1940s that such young men would receive exemptions from military service, much as America gives a 4-D deferment to clergy. Liberman’s party opposes those exemptions.
Israel’s Orthodox Jews who are most identified with “old world” traditions (the “Haredi” Jews, pronounced: khah-ray’-dee) — and who are recognized by their black coats, black fedora hats, and white shirts — are strong advocates of those military exemptions for the full-time adult yeshiva students. The Haredi Orthodox also advocate for other traditionally conservative social and religious values, and they run three separate slates. One slate, UTJ (United Torah Judaism), merges two parties that represent different streams of Haredi Ashkenazic Jews whose lineages trace to Eastern Europe: the “Hasidic” stream and the “Lithuanian” stream. (For now, we shall leave it at that.) A second party, “Shas” (pronounced: shahss), represents Haredi Sephardic Jews who trace back to North African Arab Muslim countries (Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, etc.) from which the Arabs and other Muslims hatefully expelled them. (When Fake News speaks of “Palestinian refugees,” actually the Arabs drove out 850,000 Jews. The reason those Jews are not deemed “refugees” is that Israel welcomed, cared for, absorbed and integrated them into the society. Many are darker-skinned, and the Sephardic Jews actually comprise half of Israel’s population.) The Shas party stands for the same things that UTJ stands for, but they run separate slates because of ethnic differences. There was yet another such party, Yachad (pronounced: yah’-khod), representing Haredi Jews from Tunisia, but that party recently withdrew, telling its backers instead to vote for UTJ because the Yachad leader had been a leader in Shas but got into a kerfuffle with them. If this is sounding confusing, now you know why this article focuses on explaining the convoluted.
Many of Israel’s Orthodox Jews are more “Modern Orthodox.” Unlike the Haredi Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox go to secular universities, watch television, go to movies, read secular publications and books, and more likely engage in secular professions. They wear knitted yarmulkas instead of black fedoras. In Israel, the Modern Orthodox are known as “Religious Zionists.” They are splintered like all the others. In this election, two of their main segments are running together as “Union of Right Wing Parties” (URWP — too many words in Hebrew to pronounce). One party within the URWP slate is Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), which stands for religious studies and training, Orthodox social and religious values, and also strongly participates in all aspects of everyday social life. Their young men proudly join the military, and they have an arrangement (hesder) with the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) that allows them to study Torah and Talmud during periods of their military service in return for longer service. Bayit Yehudi strongly supports Jewish rights to live in and populate communities throughout Judea and Samaria (what the UN, MSNBC, and CNN call the “West Bank”). The other party merged with them is Ichud Leumi (National Union), and they are very much like Bayit Yehudi, only more so. That is, they advocate even more strongly for building new Judea-Samaria communities. (The UN calls them “settlements.”) Those two parties merged for this election.
The Religious Zionist URWP was jolted at the outset of the campaign when their leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, broke from the party with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to form a new party, “The New Right.” Bennett aspires to be Defense Minister with Shaked continuing as Justice Minister, and they felt they could expand their appeal to conservative but secular voters by running on a slate less identified with religious focus. Bennett would bring a much harder line as Defense Minister to the way Israel responds to Hamas rockets and other attacks from Gaza, while Shaked has proven especially effective in breaking the decades-long stranglehold the Left has had on Israel’s judiciary.
Kulanu (pronounced: koo-lah’-noo) was formed by Moshe Kahlon (thus a play on his name), a long-time Likud Knesset member who formed his own party to work more actively for the economically disadvantaged and lower class. (As with Liberman the Russian, many individuals within a party’s leadership find they have limited impact in getting their party to focus on their pet issues, so they eventually form their own independent parties to push their issue of choice.) Meanwhile, another former Likud Knesset member, Moshe Feiglin, was pushed out of Likud and therefore formed his own party, Zehut (pronounced: zi-hoot’). He is well known as a long-time advocate of annexing Judea and Samaria to Israel (as Israel did with East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights). He also advocates several libertarian economic, educational, and social principles. Initially, he was not expected to do well, but he thereafter expanded his libertarian platform to include legalizing marijuana. Historically, the “weed vote” went to the “Green Leaf Party” (seriously, no joke), but they did not file to contend this year (lots of jokes why), and Feiglin has attracted the marijuana vote. Dude!
On the other side of the aisle, back to the othermajorcontending party: Benny Gantz’s Blue & White. Three retired generals (Gantz, Moshe Yaalon, and Gabi Ashkenazi) each decided to run. Gantz formed the Resilience party, and Yaalon formed the Telem party. As polls showed them both doing poorly, they decided to merge and invite Ashkenazi to join them. They agreed that Gantz, who was polling best, should be their leader. Next they had to figure out a way to create a centrist platform that still might attract some on the left since the parties described earlier have locked up the center-right. However, they still were not running well in the polls. They therefore further merged their parties with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party. Lapid, a former journalist and TV news anchor, has been in the Knesset for six years, was Finance Minister, and his Yesh Atid (pronounced: ah-teed’) party therefore was more established. Convinced that all their respective parties would fall to the Likud coalition, Lapid and the generals finally merged into the “Blue & White” (colors of Israel’s flag). The sticking point was that Lapid, the most politically established, would not merge unless the generals would agree that he would be their candidate for top spot, prime minister. However, the others insisted on Gantz. In a compromise after weeks of horse-trading, they agreed that, if Blue & White wins, Gantz will be prime minister for the first two years with Lapid as foreign minister and Yaalon as defense minister. Then for the second two years of the four-year term, Lapid will alternate as prime minister, Gantz will be defense minister, and Yaalon will figure out something to do.
Historically, from 1948-1977, the powerhouse party in Israel had been the socialist Labor Party. At their zenith they regularly would win 45 or so seats. All the famous left-wing socialist Israeli leaders whom America’s Democrats and media adored — David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres — were Labor socialists. By 1977, Israelis had gotten sick of socialism, elected Menachem Begin, and Israelis have shunned the Left ever since. On the one or two occasions when people voted for a change, so elected Labor, those governments collapsed very soon thereafter and were replaced by alternative center-right coalitions. Over time, as the country’s voting population has moved to the right, Labor has lost sway. They are expected to win one-fourth the seats they used to win.
Another even smaller party running even farther to their left is Meretz. Meretz has been around for several terms in different iterations, and they round out the serious left. There also are four Arab parties running. One outright advocates communism. Another is running on a platform that pretty much would terminate Israel. Those two Arab parties have merged for the election. Two other competing Arab parties are less radical and separately are merged. So the election includes four Arab parties merged into two blocs. (And American leftist professors and their BDS student radicals question democracy and freedoms accorded to Arabs in Israel?)
2. The System
With so many parties contending — not to mention the many others not discussed here because they have no chance — Israel has a rule that no party can enter the Knesset unless it obtains at least 3.25 percent (the “threshold”) of the total votes cast. Because the Knesset is comprised of 120 seats, any party that does meet that threshold stands in most cases to enter with at least four seats. That means that a party that wins enough votes for “only” three seats — that is one-fortieth of the 120-seat Knesset, or approximately 2.5 percent of the vote — does not get in. In such case, all three seats it seemed to earn instead are lost and wasted (similar to the way that Republican votes are lost in close American elections when people vote Libertarian, while Democrats lose votes when left-wingers waste them on the Green Party, Ralph Nader, the Communist Party, and the like). This explains why so many of the parties described above have merged for Tuesday’s elections. Fearing that they respectively each might poll below the 3.25% threshold, two smaller parties polling at 2% each, or three smaller parties polling at 1.5% each, hope thereby to exceed the threshold together. Thus, they merge lists and reorder the names. With so much at stake, where a party that draws three percent of the vote could just barely miss the threshold, wasting votes that could secure three seats, the two Religious Zionist parties (Jewish Home and National Union) comprising URWP agreed to include in their deal a third party (Otzma), more extreme, solely for the sake of the elections; as soon as the votes are counted, the third party will divorce from the other two and probably will emerge with one seat.
Once all the ballots are counted, all votes that were cast for parties failing to meet the threshold are discarded. The remaining valid votes are divided by 120, and every party above the threshold receives its number of seats. Obviously, that math will leave “remainders” of votes because parties do not get precisely the number of votes per seat. Under Israeli election law, every contending slate may make a deal in advance of elections with another slate to pool their “remainders” so that, together, they might qualify for one more seat, which goes to the slate with the larger remainder. So UTJ and Shas have a remainder deal, as do Likud with URWP, Labor with Meretz, Bennett’s New Right with Liberman the Russian, and the two Arab slates with each other.
Once each party finally is determined to have won its designated number of seats, the next round of horse-trading begins. The President of Israel, an apolitical figure, designates the head of one of the largest vote-getting parties, the one deemed to have the best chance of forming a government, to cobble together a coalition. That person then has 45 days to convince other parties to form a government with his. He needs 61 seats to have a majority. Towards that end, he negotiates their respective demands and priorities, promises them cabinet ministries they most covet, and cobbles together a deal. This year’s horse-trading will be a mess because so many small parties will be needed to coalesce to 61.
Most polls show Netanyahu’s Likud running two or three seats behind Gantz’s Blue & White for first place, but the polls also predict a combined advantage to the several religious-right parties to aggregate to 62-66 seats under the Likud’s leadership, while the Left parties of Labor, Meretz, and Blue & White probably will combine for 45 or so seats. The Arab parties stand to emerge with 7-12 seats. However, when Netanyahu starts trying to hammer together a coalition, he will find Feiglin of Zehut demanding to be Finance Minister and to legalize marijuana, while the Haredi parties will oppose. Liberman will demand certain restrictions on religion that will run counter to the Haredi and to the Religious Zionists’ positions. Liberman wants to be Defense Minister, as does Bennett. It will be a mess. This is where Hamas, Hezbollah, and the terrorists who are backed by Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) help out — because, with such Arab neighbors lurking, ultimately the parties find a way to live together.
The Israeli religious-right coalition experimented once before with fracturing itself into a million points of light, and that 1992 electoral disaster ended up costing them control — even though they won the majority of votes — because several small conservative parties each barely failed to meet the threshold. The religious-right votes that were discarded could have accounted for three seats. Instead, the religious-right coalition fell just one short at 59 seats, enabling Yitzhak Rabin and Labor barely to take power and then stick Israel with its worst catastrophe since the early days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War: the disastrous 1994 Oslo Catastrophe.
The voting is on Tuesday. That allows just enough time to make sense of all this. Surely, this graph makes it all much more clear: