Israel goes to national elections this Tuesday, March 23. It is their fourth national election in two years because the last three tries failed to form a stable government. Their system is more than a bit crazy — although, after last November, who is to say that our system is not far more crazy and even more rife with problems? This article seeks to explain to the curious reader how democracy works in Israeli national elections, specifically explaining the contending parties. My next column will discuss the system and review highlights of the three-month campaign. This review is a bit long because there are so many parties contending and such a curious system to describe.
When Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, initially met with United States President Harry Truman, the latter said that he bore great responsibilities as president of 150 million people. Weizmann responded, “Yes, but I am president of nearly a million presidents.” In Israel’s free-wheeling democracy, everyone has 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. You do not have an individual for whom you vote and who therefore is responsible and answerable to you at reelection time. Rather, each party internally selects its prospective candidates to be MKs (Members of Knesset) and publishes the list of names in order. Then, if the party wins 18 seats, the first 18 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.
Because some two dozen parties compete for the 120 Knesset seats, no party emerges with a majority. After the election, once the parties see what each got, they begin horse-trading with the goal of several parties agreeing to form a coalition government that will command at least 61 seats and that will advance their respective priorities.
One more key to understanding the craziness: Because there are approximately two dozen parties competing, the really smaller ones cause quasi-chaos by drawing away votes from more serious contenders even though the minuscule ones have no chance of getting elected to anything. Therefore, any party that draws fewer than 3.25 percent of the total votes cast (the “threshold”) gets disqualified, and its votes all are thrown out, wasted. In a way, it is like the Libertarian party here, who never get elected to anything but draw away and thereby waste just enough votes to give two Republican Georgia Senate seats to the Democrats and to cost Trump several states from Arizona to the Midwest.
The Likud (literally, the “Consolidation” because it comprises a merger of several parties) (pronounced Lee-kood’) 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. Many Trump supporters, conservative populists, can relate to this — if only a way to vote for Republicans like Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson, Ron DeSantis and the new Lindsay Graham, but not for RINOs like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski. Likud will win 29 to 31 seats on Tuesday. Their main rival, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) (pronounced: Yaysh Ah-teed’) party, a moderately liberal party, will win 18 or so seats.
Before returning to discuss Yesh Atid and other smaller parties on the left, a closer look at the smaller parties to Likud’s right: 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 military exemptions for full-time adult yeshiva-academy students. There is a Judaic tradition of 2,000 years that people who spend all day every day in academies that teach advanced Torah and Talmudic studies (“Yeshivas”) are deemed to contribute in that way 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.
The Haredi Orthodox also advocate for other traditionally conservative social and religious values, and they run at least three separate party 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 hatefully expelled them. (Although 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’-khahd), representing Haredi Jews from Tunisia, but that party withdrew an election or two ago, telling its Sephardic backers instead to vote for the Ashkenazic 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. All in all, the Haredi parties will emerge with 15 to 17 seats.
Those are only the Haredim (plural for Haredi). Besides them, there are additional religious parties representing more contemporary Orthodoxy — the “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 dress more contemporarily and typically wear knitted yarmulkas instead of black fedoras. In Israel, the Modern Orthodox are known as “Religious Zionists.” They, too, are splintered like all the others.
In this election, three of their main segmented parties are running together as a “Religious Zionism” bloc. One party within the bloc is “National Union,” headed by Bezalel Smotrich. That party 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. National Union strongly supports Jewish rights to live in and populate communities throughout Judea and Samaria (wrongly called the “West Bank”). Another party in that bloc, Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), advocates a more intensive posture than that of National Union, and they are associated with the teachings of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League in the United States in the late 1960s and then moved to Israel in 1972. Their leader is Itamar Ben-Gvir, an attorney. A third religious Zionist party, Noam, is focused more on resisting pressures for instituting gay marriage and transgender demands. Those three parties are separate, but each polls below 3.25 percent, so they are running together in this election to ensure reaching the threshold. A fourth such party, Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), stands for all the same things as does Smotrich’s National Union but opted not to join with him and the others because they are a smidgeon of a tad more moderate, so could not ally this time, even though they always have allied in the past. This bloc will end up with four or five seats.
Avigdor Liberman, an anti-communist from Russia, was a chief of staff to Bibi Netanyahu, but they had a bitter falling out. So Liberman formed his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”), appealing primarily to the hundreds of thousands of secular Russian and Ukrainian 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 permanently 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 in northern Israel that are heavily Arab-populated. That idea is a non-starter because neither side will agree to it. His party also is rather 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. Liberman will end up with six to eight seats.
There are two more right-wing parties running, and each will emerge with approximately 10 seats: the Tikvah Chadashah (“New Hope”) party and the Yamina (“Right-Wing”) party. New Hope is headed by Gideon Saar, and Americans will understand this: the party’s whole purpose is “Never Bibi.” That is, just as there are RINOs who claim to be conservative Republicans but voted for Biden and open borders and transgender bathrooms in elementary schools and the whole left agenda — just because they hate Trump — so there are Likud “conservatives” in Israel who despise Netanyahu and will vote against all their stated principles just to bring Bibi down. The thing is, the American “Never Trumpers” actually shoot themselves and the country in the foot by voting Democrat. Thus, not only do they get rid of Trump but also conservative judges, while casting the votes that could create Puerto Rico and D.C. as states with two leftist Democrat senators each. In Israel, at least, the “Never Bibis,” instead of voting for the Left, have created their own moderately conservative party that advocates mostly the same platform as Likud — only they say they will not join any coalition that has Netanyahu as prime minister.
Yamina is headed by Naftali Bennett. He is Modern Orthodox and previously headed the Religious Zionism parties. He also is politically conservative and socially moderate. He wants to emerge as prime minister and correctly figured out that he needed to expand his base beyond the purely Orthodox. So he formed a party that is Orthodox-lite and more attractive to conservatives and nationalists who want something more religious than Likud, less religious-centered than Religious Zionism, and preferably not Bibi. He may emerge as the main deal-maker and a major government leader when the horse-trading is done, perhaps becoming defense minister or treasury minister with his N0. 2, Ayelet Shaked, returning as justice minister. 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.
Add up those numbers: Likud at 29 to 31. The Haredi parties at 15 to 17. Religious Zionism at four to five. Yamina at 10 or so. That could tally somewhere between 58 to 63. If they exceed 60, that will be the next Israeli government coalition, and Netanyahu will be prime minister, with Bennett solidly in the driver’s seat, able to command a great deal, always situated to bring down the government. Liberman never will join the coalition if Bibi is the prime minister. Neither will Saar. The hate is deep and personal. But if the Bibi coalition falls a seat or two short of 61, Netanyahu may succeed in prying away from Saar’s 10 or so “Never Bibi” seats one or two Knesset members who might be lured to jump ship if promised a plum cabinet appointment, which would give them not only power and prestige, a title and a chauffeur, an extra budget and staff, but a very sweet pension for life.
On the other side of the aisle, back to the other major contending party: Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Lapid is moderately liberal. He hates Bibi. As with Liberman, Saar, and Bennett, Lapid once worked in a Bibi government and got double-crossed by him. Yes, that is the side of Netanyahu that we Americans do not know: for him to have retained power for more than a decade, he has broken promises at times to his closest confidantes, as he has shuffled them out to buy the allegiance of others whose seats he needed to cobble together 61-seat coalitions. We American conservatives love the guy. You just can’t trust him.
So Lapid will win 18 or so seats.
A similar party to Lapid’s, just a bit more centrist, is Benny Gantz’s “Blue and White” party. Gantz, a former Israeli general who served under Netanyahu, initially had formed the Resilience party, and another general who had served under Bibi, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, had formed the Telem party, which was a bit to the right of center. As polls showed all three — Lapid, Gantz, and Ya’alon — doing poorly, they decided to merge and invite yet another general who had served under Bibi, Gabi Ashkenazi, to join them. They agreed that Gantz, whose small party was polling best among them, should be their leader. They all vowed never to sit in any government coalition headed by Netanyahu. Together, they formed “Blue and White,” ran together in three consecutive national elections these past two years, and always fell just short of being able to cobble together 61 seats for a governing coalition — but they always stymied Netanyahu, too, so no government could be formed.
Finally, after the last election, Gantz decided that the country cannot just keep having internecine national elections that bitterly divide the nation every six months, all amid the COVID pandemic and with Hamas shooting rockets from the south and Hezbollah from the north. So he took his Knesset members, and he shocked everyone by entering into a deal with Netanyahu by which his “Resilience” party would vote for some Likud issues, Likud would vote for some of his, Bibi would be prime minister for the first half of the elected term, and Gantz would be prime minister for the second half. When Gantz merged with Bibi, Lapid and Ya’alon recoiled with horror and broke off from him. In time, Bibi double-crossed Gantz and brought down the government before Gantz’s turn came to be prime minister. Now Gantz’s party is running alone because Lapid does not trust him. Gantz is hovering at 3.25 percent in the polls, so, if he falls below on election day, he gets no seats, but if he passes the threshold he gets four seats because 3.25 percent of 120 is four seats.
Historically, from 1948–77, the all-dominant powerhouse party in Israel had been the Marxist-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 left-wing media adored from the 1940s through the 1970s— 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 in the past half century 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 four to six seats.
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. Like Gantz they are hovering around 3.25 percent in the polls and will emerge with either zero or four seats.
There also are four Arab parties running. One outright advocates communism. Another two are running on platforms that pretty much would terminate Israel. Those three Arab parties have merged for the election. A fourth Arab party, Ra’am, headed by Mansour Abbas, is more theologically fundamentalist and socially conservative, deeply opposed to LGBTQ issues. Ra’am even has made soundings that, if Bibi adopts certain of their legislative priorities like fighting rising crime in Arab neighborhoods, they might even cooperate with a Likud government, might even join a coalition. No one can imagine that actually will happen, but that is out there. The three parties in the Arab bloc are expected to get nine or 10 seats. Ra’am will get zero to four seats, depending on whether they crack the 3.25 percent threshold.
Tomorrow’s column, on Israel’s election day, will be an effort to make sense of it all. But at least Israel does not have universal mail-in voting. Or vote harvesting. And, with a few discrete exceptions, they do not vote for weeks and months but only on election day.