Over the past three years, Israel has had more elections for its head of government than any other country. It’s democracy on steroids. A country of just over seven million Jews (74 percent of the total), two million Arabs (21 percent), and half a million others (5 percent), needs only 30 or so political parties to choose from. Sort of the Baskin-Robbins of elections.
The entire Israeli election enterprise is nuts. In America, we have Democrats and Republicans. Sometimes a Ralph Nader, a John Anderson, a George Wallace, a Libertarian Party, a Green Party. In all, three or four party lines in any national election. By contrast, a typical Israeli election involves more than 30 parties. There are secular nationalist parties, religious nationalist parties, secular socialist parties, secular communist parties, a party called the “Pirates,” presumably for pirates who sell corn for a buccaneer, religious parties for Ashkenazic Jews (whose forebears hail from Eastern and Northern Europe), religious parties for Sephardic Jews (who trace back to Spain, Portugal, and mostly Arab North Africa), “center-left” (i.e., moderately leftist) parties, parties for right-wing secular immigrants from Russia and Ukraine (who get along together fine in Israel because they share the common experience of coming to Israel to get away from endemic anti-Semitism back in the Old Country), a party dedicated to the memory and teachings of a rabbi who lived in Ukraine, and Arab parties: parties for Arab Muslims who want to kill Jews and destroy Israel, others for Arab Muslims who want to destroy Israel first and then finish off the Jews later, and an Arab Muslim party that is copacetic with sitting in a Zionist government until they have enough voters to destroy Israel. (READ MORE FROM DOV FISCHER: How Israel’s Government Collapsed as Biden’s Soon Will)
Apartheid? Howzabout insanity instead?
On Tuesday, Israel voted for a prime minister and a new government — for the fifth time in three years because enough of the various parties have been unable to agree on maintaining a government coalition after each of the previous four tries. As of this writing, with final results still many days away, it seems the deadlock may have been broken in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving former prime minister.
There are 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset (pronounced: “K’nesset”). Parties are allocated seats based on the percentage of the total valid vote they get. Thus, if a party secures exactly 25 percent of the total valid votes cast, it gets 25 percent of the Knesset seats — 30 seats. Any party that fails to win at least 3.25 percent of the total valid votes cast (the “threshold”) is disqualified and its votes are thrown away. These are wasted votes — similar to the way the Libertarians cost the Republicans the U.S. Senate seats in Georgia in 2020 and thus cost America a Republican Senate. Once the wasted votes are flushed, the remaining valid votes become the basis for apportioning seats by percent. It takes a majority of 61 seats to form a government.
Repeatedly through all the prior four elections, the Likud (pronounced “Lee-kude”) party, which is headed by Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, has scored more seats than any other party. A moderately conservative, somewhat secular and religion-friendly amalgam of nationalists, Likud is very much like an Israeli Republican Party, even replete with its share of LINOs (Likud in Name Only). Likud typically aligns in a bloc after the elections with (i) Shas (pronounced “Shahss”), the Haredi (very “Old World” classic Orthodox) Sephardic party that always exceeds the threshold, (ii) United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazic Haredi party that always exceeds the threshold, and (iii) the Religious Zionist Party, an amalgam of three “modern Orthodox” nationalist parties that stand for Israel declaring sovereignty over Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) and maintaining religious values in public life and school curricula. In the polls leading up to the Nov. 1 election, Likud was polling at 30–32 seats, the Religious Zionist Party at 13–15 seats (such that Likud and the Religious Zionist Party together would total approximately 45 seats), Shas at eight, and United Torah Judaism at seven. Thus, the Likud bloc had been polling at 60 seats for weeks, just one seat short of breaking the stalemate — as with each of the prior elections. The Einstein thing.
On the other side, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) party (left of center, like America’s old Democrats) had been polling at 21–23 seats, Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party (also left of center, but a bit closer to the center) at 12 or so seats, the extreme socialist Israeli Labor Party (all prime ministers until 1977 were associated with the labor movement, which included old-time dyed-in-red socialists like Yitzhak Rabin, David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir) at four or five seats, the “progressive” Meretz party (similar to “The Squad” in America) at 4 seats, the secular Russian–Ukrainian party at five or six seats, and the Arab Muslim parties at eight seats (with the third, most radical Arab Muslim party falling below the 3.25 percent threshold).
Polls closed on Tuesday night. The country is now in its tizzy of figuring out what just happened. It can take them a week.
Early exit polling has given Bibi’s bloc a majority coalition of 62 seats, breaking the three-year deadlock and assuring a right-wing pro-religion governing coalition. Yair Lapid’s “center”-left bloc emerged with 54–55 seats in exit polling. And one of the Arab parties that is sworn never to join a Zionist government was at four seats. If the exit polls prove accurate — and all four national exit polls came out almost identically — then Bibi, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, becomes prime minister again after a one-year hiatus leading the opposition. But here are the two “catches”:
Predictions are that it may take as long as a week until the final results are tallied, as ballots arrive from diplomats overseas, prisoners and hospitalized voters who cast ballots away from voting booths, and soldiers now serving throughout Israel’s borders. Only then will the final total of valid ballots cast be known, so only then can the 3.25 percent threshold be determined, and only then do Israelis find out whether Balad made it in or wasted Arab Muslim votes and what the actual final numbers — not the exit polls — are.
Beyond that, it is not over even after it is over. After the dust settles, the president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, will select the head of the party that scored highest — this time, Bibi — to try to form a coalition. There will ensue weeks of horse-trading, where smaller parties demand seats as cabinet ministers and concessions on their key platform issues in return for agreeing to coalesce behind one or the other of the two largest parties. If Bibi gets the nod, he will secure the alliance of the Religious Zionist Party, United Torah Judaism, and Shas. The only question is whether their numbers will reach 59, 60, 61, or 62.
If Bibi falls a bit short, he will try to plead with individuals elected to the Knesset in other right-wing parties outside his bloc to join him. The thing is that although those parties share his political and social views identically, there is a reason they are outside his bloc: they hate him, his face, his voice, his guts. Think of Republican conservatives like George Will who are so “Never Trump” that they would rather have had Hillary Clinton naming Supreme Court justices instead of the likes of Trump’s Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Such is the “Never Bibi” crowd. They would rather have a leftist government than have Bibi as prime minister again. In many such cases, their hate is not without basis. Over the past two decades, Bibi has mistreated, often cheated, each of them personally and politically. Now the chickens come home to roost, and the public pays the price for shattered egos and broken promises behind closed doors.
If Bibi ends up with 60 seats, he will try desperately to convince at least one person elected on one of those other Never Bibi slates to jump to his side in exchange for some plum government position — a cabinet ministry, an ambassadorship, a chauffeur-driven limousine. Some will be tempted, but that temptation will be tempered because they know his history of breaking promises to political allies.
There is another way to break such a deadlock. If Bibi would thereupon agree to step down as Likud head, then the Russian–Ukrainian party might join the right-wing bloc, except for the remaining obstacle that they are vitriolically anti-religious, yet would need the two religious parties to reach 61-plus seats. There also are a few in another party, a Likud breakaway, who departed Likud solely because they hate Bibi. One or two of them might come back to the fold if Bibi steps down.
A final explainer, an important one: The Religious Zionist Party is co-headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir, an attorney who was a hot-headed radical in his youth a quarter century ago. He now is 46. He follows many — decidedly not all — of the teachings of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. The Israeli mainstream media TV “news” and “news”papers, which all are as 100 percent leftist as America’s, have united to depict Ben-Gvir as a Hitler. It is a terrible lie, a calumny that parallels the way the American Left depicts Donald Trump as a Nazi. Ben-Gvir is a very right-wing guy who simply believes that Arab Muslims who perpetrate acts of terrorism should be expelled from Israel and that terrorists who actually murder Israelis should get the death penalty. For that, he is compared to Hitler. If Bibi forms a government, he will include the Religious Zionist Party in his bloc, and Ben-Gvir almost certainly will be named to head a ministry. The Israeli Left will scream all sorts of garbage about how “this is the end of democracy,” and they will induce American Democrat liberals — not only “progressives” — to condemn Bibi and Israel for including Ben-Gvir in the government.
Jewish liberals will take the lead in excoriating Bibi and Israel. To heck with them. They are the last to speak out against Jew-haters and Israel-haters in their own Democrat Party, like Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If they don’t like that Israel’s Jewish voters are overwhelmingly right-wing (some 73–75 of the 116 Jewish-party seats, when including both the Bibi bloc and the Never Bibi right-wingers) and incline towards Orthodox Judaism, let them contemplate why Jews everywhere in the world except for those in America are predominantly right-wing and Orthodox-affiliated. Indeed, the voting trends in the United States, too, see Jews moving to the right, with the Orthodox Jewish community of America — the community that is most actually Jewish in reality and practice, from keeping kosher to observing the Sabbath — voting close to 90 percent Republican conservative in all national elections. The numbers are irrefutable: the Israeli electorate in general, and particularly the 75 percent who are Jews, vote unequivocally for a right-wing government. And Ben-Gvir will be just fine.