In case you are puzzled by the Israeli political and electoral system, there is no reason to pronounce yourself some kind of loser. If they ever publish a volume of Israeli Politics for Dummies, it will consist of three words: Forget about it!
But although dummies need not apply, the adjective “dumb” applies perfectly. It is a setup geared for chaos, and sure enough, chaos is often the outcome. This year, 2019, has proven more chaotic than most, sporting two separate national elections, each leading exactly nowhere. Which is not to say there is no winner. There is one huge winner, namely the Orthodox Jewish segment of Israeli society. But all early indications suggest this group has no idea that it has won nor has any idea how to collect its winnings.
Let me try to take you through this. Israeli Parliament, known as the Knesset (Hebrew for “assembly”), has 120 seats. The seats are the result of contests between parties, not between individual candidates. The parties each present lists numbered from 1 to 120, and the lists compete. When the votes are tallied, the seats are distributed proportionately. So if Party A wins 14 seats, numbers one through 14 on their list are now members of the Knesset, with a car and a driver and, among other perks, an allowance for language lessons in any tongue they might deem helpful in their duties. (Often these are spent on tutelage in English, with mixed results.)
In the early days (Israel is now aged 71, coincidentally the amount of judges in the Jewish Supreme Court of old). There were parties that won a single seat. This was eventually deemed too unruly, so there is now a minimum threshold; essentially a party that does not have votes for three seats gets zero. After all this gets sorted out, the party with 61 seats or more gets to rule, with the No. 1 on its list serving as prime minister. It never happens, however, that one party wins a majority, so now the 61 seats must be cobbled together as a coalition, agreeing to rule jointly under the No. 1 guy of the No. 1 party. It even happened one time that the top two parties were so close they made a four-year coalition with two-year rotating prime ministerships, so the No. 1 of No. 1 served one term of two and the No. 1 of No. 2 served one term of two. Simple enough, eh?
The formation of these coalitions is a formal process. After the election, the president of Israel summons the head of the party with the most seats and invites him to try to form a coalition. Over the next 30 days, negotiations are held between the parties to negotiate who will get which cabinet position.
This time around, the election was held in April, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s party won one more seat than the next party, the newly formed Blue and White centrist party led by Benjamin Gantz. (As the great American lawmaker Ilhan Omar said of Israel, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!”)
Netanyahu had enough seats for a coalition, but Avigdor Liberman, the head of Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), refused to add his five seats to get Netanyahu across the finish line. His putative motive: he disagreed with the policy of kowtowing to the Haredim on avoiding the draft. (All Yeshiva students were exempted from the draft until a few years ago when the Supreme Court declared the exemption unconstitutional. A new law will have to be passed, making painful distinctions between those students.) So a second election was held this month …
This time the tables were turned, in that Gantz wound up with one more seat: 33-32. But if you add up the small parties allied with each large party, Netanyahu is ahead 55-54. With that in mind, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel has just granted Netanyahu the four-week opportunity to take the first shot at forming a coalition.
Well, our boy Liberman, who was the blocker last time, upped his total this round to eight seats in place of five. If he signs on, Netanyahu has 63 and the country marches forward. The problem is: How does Liberman come down off his principled objection to a coalition with Haredi parties — 17 seats between them — included?
There is only one answer. The Orthodox parties must make enough of a concession that Liberman can declare victory. They and they alone hold the key. They must figure out what can they afford to relinquish, knowing full well they can demand loads of advantage in return.
As I said earlier, the winner is the Orthodox segment of the Israeli political realm. If those parties understand what it takes to cash in their winnings, Netanyahu may yet again be a winner himself.