This article presupposes some familiarity with some themes in my previous article that explained all the parties contending in Tuesday’s Israel elections.
Contemplate a ballot with dozens of parties. Here we have Democrats, Republicans, sometimes a Green Party, sometimes Libertarians. Obama’s CIA chief, John Brennan, had the Communist Party to vote for. But dozens of parties? In Israel, everyone has an opinion. This time around, the main two parties are Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu’s Likud (pronounced: Lee-kood’) and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) (pronounced: “Yaysh Ah-teed’) party. Lapid, a former journalist and TV news anchor, has been in the Knesset for a decade and was finance minister under Bibi. His father was a cabinet minister with the Likud. Today Likud probably will win 29 to 31 seats, and Yesh Atid will garner approximately 18 seats. But it takes 61 seats to carry a majority. So the larger parties will have to scramble to cut deals with the smaller parties to cobble together a coalition in which the small parties pledge to vote for a large party’s legislation and appointments in return for the large party promising to name some of the small parties’ leaders to cabinet positions and to include their coalition partners’ priorities in their legislative agenda, too.
To give an example: Right now the Democrats and Republicans are almost deadlocked — 50-50 in the Senate and just a few apart in the House. Imagine if a third party had run and won three Senate seats and 10 House seats. That would be a pittance, minuscule. But imagine how that party could assure the Democrats or GOP the majority on all votes if they cut a deal: “We always will vote with your party, but you have to agree to appoint our party leader as secretary of state, and you have to agree to enact legislation for our two most important issues that you can learn to live with — say, for example, to ban late-term abortions and to legalize pot.” That’s how the horse-trading is done.
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 composed 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 1/40th 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 previously have merged into temporary blocs for Tuesday’s elections. Fearing that they each might poll below the 3.25 percent threshold, two smaller parties polling at 2 percent each or three smaller parties polling at 1.5 percent each hope thereby to exceed the threshold by coalescing together as an electoral bloc solely for the sake of the elections; as soon as the votes are counted, they more or less divorce from each other and advance their own agendas.
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 or bloc 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 (United Torah Judaism) and Shas have a remainder deal, as does Likud with the “Religious Zionism” party. Likewise Labor with Meretz, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina with Gideon Saar’s New Hope, and Lapid’s Yesh Atid with Avigdor Liberman’s Russian–Ukrainian party.
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 pulls together a deal. The past three elections in two years have been a mess as horse-trading has stalled with no one able to coalesce to 61.
With 120 Knesset seats, a coalition needs 61. All polls have a margin of error, even a RealClearPolitics averaging in America of major polls. For this election, Israel’s many polls project that Likud and its natural coalition partners will reach somewhere between 58 and 62 seats. So the chance for forming a governing coalition is within — or outside — the margin of error. It is a nail-biter. A real key — once again — is that any party that fails to garner at least 3.25 percent of the votes cast gets chopped and ends up with zero seats. But if they pass the threshold they get at least four seats (120 x 3.25% = 3.9 seats). Several parties on the left are hovering at the brink: Benny Gantz’s Blue & White, the radical-left Meretz, and Mansour Abbas’s Arab Ra’am List. So it all could come down to whether and how many Left votes get wasted.
Ra’am, the theologically conservative Arab Muslim party, is especially interesting. They pulled out of the four-party “United Arab List” because the other three Arab parties supported legislation to ban or restrict “reparative therapy” that aims to change gay people. But Ra’am, which is opposed to the existence of Israel, is more committed to fundamentalist Muslim theology as part of their platform, and they oppose LGBTQ issues. So they broke off. Also, as much as they hate Bibi — as do all the Arab Muslim parties — there is suggestion that Abbas “just maybe might perhaps” bring his Arab Muslim fundamentalist party to cooperate somehow with a Bibi coalition — which would be beyond unprecedented. The real political issue for Arabs in Israel now is crime. Arab cities, towns, and villages are best by enormous crime. Abbas might just cut some kind of deal whereby, in return for meaningful funding and focus on combating crime in Arab communities and guarantees that LGBTQ issues won’t advance, he might just cooperate with Likud. Probably never — but that wild card is on the table.
More probably, if coalition negotiations leave Likud one or two seats short at 59 or 60, Netanyahu may well lure a former ally, Ze’ev Elkin, successfully back from Gideon Saar’s New Hope party. Saar is a mainstream Likud conservative, religiously traditional, against ever relinquishing an inch of Judea and Samaria, but he — like so many others — hates Bibi: he’s “Never Bibi,” a real parallel to conservative Republican “Never Trumpers” like George Will. Saar opposed Bibi in the prior Likud primaries and got overwhelmingly crushed. So he started a party — New Hope — and he appeals to Likud “Never Bibi” sorts and some others. One candidate on Saar’s list is Ze’ev Elkin, a Modern Orthodox Jew who arrived from Russia, is Likud through and through, and formerly was incredibly close to Bibi. Many believe that Elkin turned on Netanyahu, bolted Likud, and went with Saar because, amid some two dozen cabinet ministries that were formed in the last government, Elkin got appointed to be minister of higher education and water. (It sounds like a ministry only Monty Python could craft.) If Netanyahu needs him to come back to make a coalition majority, he may be lured with a plum ministry. Another Likud stalwart on Saar’s list is Yifat Shasha-Biton. She had been raised from the back benches by Bibi to become chair of the Knesset Committee on Coronavirus. But while Bibi advocated lockdowns, she wanted more of a Ron DeSantis open economy, and they fought publicly over the two conflicting views. Obviously, Bibi was going to have his way, so she bolted. Again, if he needs her enough, Netanyahu may lure her back by offering to make her minister of health, not just chair of the coronavirus committee. He pulls rabbits out of his hat that way.
He then would have to appease Yuli Edelstein, another Modern Orthodox Jew knitted-kipah guy from Russia, who now is minister of health but might prefer regaining his prior spot as speaker of the Knesset.
Because Bennett will be coming in with some 10 seats for his Yamina Party, he will wield enormous clout. He used to be Bibi’s right-hand man, but now he hates him because, as with all the others, he knows Bibi cannot be trusted. Bennett served for a period as defense minister and was very effective. He may demand the Defense Ministry again, and he probably will get it if he wants it. He also will demand that his political No. 2, Ayelet Shaked, get back the Ministry of Justice. With 10 seats, Netanyahu will have to capitulate. That scenario would leave two Bibi Likud allies, Yisrael Katz and Nir Barkat, to fight it out for the Treasury Ministry. Whoever gets it would be happy. Whoever loses that one probably will become Bibi’s newest hater and will start his own “Never Bibi” party for next time.
And what a circus it will be if Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Otzma party gets in as a member of a 61-seat coalition! With a 61-seat coalition — completely possible in light of polling — any single Knesset member in the coalition can bring down the government by siding with the opposition in a no-confidence vote. Otzma has many views associated with the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. In such a case, if Ben-Gvir is situated to have influence, perhaps two or more others from Saar’s New Hope party then also would break their promise never to sit in a government headed by Bibi, entering on grounds that “Bibi is intolerable, but Ben-Gvir is worse. So we had to come in to prevent Ben-Gvir from wielding influence.” During this past year, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, now with Saar, found a way to justify cooperating with a Netanyahu-led government.
All so crazy.
One thing that is clear is that, while most Israelis are holding firm and continue voting the same way each time after time, there are a few differences this round. Because it is the fourth national election in two years, this time an exhausted public may give a wink of approval if a person who promised never to sit in a government headed by Bibi breaks the pledge. Also, the Left have sabotaged themselves. There had been a strong combination of three parties under the rubric “Blue and White” — Benny Gantz’s “Resilience” party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon’s Telem party. Each alone was no match for Bibi, but they combined and gave Bibi a real run in the three prior elections. Amid the third consecutive stalemate, Gantz opted to form a “unity government” with Bibi, despite having promised his voters that he never would sit with him. As a result, Yesh Atid and Telem broke off from Gantz, while he retained the name “Blue and White.” The anti-Bibi electorate never will trust Gantz again, so his crippled “Blue and White” party enters these elections hovering at 3.25 percent, down from his present 15 seats.
Likewise, the Labor Party, which historically controlled Israel — names like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Yitzchak Rabin, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres — has collapsed substantially. In the last round, they followed Gantz and also broke their “Never Bibi” promises and cashed in by joining Netanyahu’s coalition in return for cabinet ministries. So their base now has abandoned them. But the one Labor party Knesset member who refused to join that government, Merav Michaeli, now has taken the reins of the party, and people on the left admire that she stood firm, so Labor just might get in. But by doing so, Labor may cannibalize the even-more-left Meretz party’s constituency, causing them this time to miss the threshold.
It is that crazy. It is the same as the prior three, but it is different. And, yes, it is the definition of insanity.
The voting is today. That allows just enough time to make sense of all this. And you will have even more time if they end up in deadlock again and need to go to fifth elections this summer.