At a lunch table in a restaurant in an artsy town near the coastal Israeli city of Haifa, several people were discussing the upcoming elections. Most of the conversation was in Hebrew, with large smatterings of other languages, as is so common throughout many cities and large towns in Israel.
“I will not vote for Bibi [Netanyahu]!” said the one Israeli-born person at the table about the current Israeli Prime Minister. “He is a liar and a thief!” This 80-plus year-old former kibbutznik is voting for HaAvoda – the Labor Party.
“I swore I would not vote for Netanyahu again, but I am going to,” said another woman at the table, an emigre from England who has lived in Israel for more than 35 years.
BIBI EXHAUSTION SYNDROME
Most Israelis, it appears, fall into the camp of the second speaker. Many Israeli voters suffer from “Bibi Exhaustion Syndrome,” yearning for a prime minister with a fresh face and less arrogant demeanor. But despite the consistently strong showing in the polls of the new party Kachol v’Lavan (Blue and White), many Israelis secretly believe – or fear – that when Israelis slide their slips into the ballot box on Tuesday they will be unable to place their trust in Israel’s security with anyone other than Netanyahu. This, despite the Prime Minister’s current legal problems.
HOW ISRAELI GOVERNMENTS ARE FORMED
Unlike the U.S., Israel has many viable political parties. Viable at least in the sense that a dozen have realistic chances of attaining some seats in the 120 seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Also unlike the U.S., Israelis vote for political parties, not individuals. National representation is ideological, not geographic and the vote is proportional, meaning the 120 Knesset seats are divvied up in proportion to each party’s percentage of the total vote.
Only those parties that win at least four seats can join the Knesset, so votes which fall short of the threshold are, in effect, not counted. This rule must be considered by each voter. Despite the myriad of parties, strategic choices must be made.
With so many options, it has never happened that one party has alone reached the magic number of 61, which is required for control of the Knesset. Thus, the ability to knit together a coalition joining several like-minded-ish parties is the key for a successful party to attain control. The party most likely able to form the ruling coalition is rewarded by its leader becoming prime minister. More on this following Tuesday’s election, when the successful parties begin horse-trading favors and numbers to create the controlling coalition.
Here is a quick and dirty thumbnail sketch and the latest polling numbers of Israel’s political parties.
PARTIES ON THE RIGHT, PARTIES ON THE LEFT, AND PARTIES FURTHER RIGHT AND FURTHER LEFT STILL
Likud is Netanyahu’s party. It was crafted from several other right-wing parties and brought into prominence by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin who, in 1977, was the first Israeli politician to unseat the until then undefeated Mapai (the “Workers”) Party, now the Labor Party. Labor had controlled Israel’s government for the first nearly three decades of the reconstituted Jewish State. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was Mapai, as was Golda Meir.
Most Americans know that Israel was reborn following the Holocaust. What many don’t realize is that Israel was formed with a socialist vision.
Tens of thousands of the earliest Israelis lived in kibbutzim where everything was shared: families ate in communal dining halls and children lived in separate communal dorms, away from their parents. This classic kibbutz model in which our lunchtime interlocutor grew up is now largely extinct, but the attachment to the Labor Party lives on amongst a certain cohort of Israelis. Labor‘s control over the country’s future has dwindled to polling at just nine seats during this campaign season.
As Israel’s Finance Minister in the early 2000’s, Netanyahu was largely responsible for driving the Israeli economy towards capitalism. He has been elected prime minister four times, the past three, consecutively.
On the far left of the Jewish Israeli political spectrum is the Meretz Party. Meretz had its heyday in the 1990s, when it attained double-digit seats in the Knesset. The party defines itself as Social Democratic and seeks to increase the size and power of the welfare state. It supports the creation of a Palestinian state and advocates for renewed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, despite the PA refusing to negotiate over anything but the 1949 Armistice Line. Meretz is polling in the low single digits; it is currently in a three-way tie for eighth place.
The Blue and White Party came together in 2019. It is a merger of the Resilience Party, headed by two former Chiefs of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, with an existing party, Yesh Atid. Blue and White has been polling at the top or in a close second place to Likud throughout this election season, with its numbers hovering just above or just below 30. It casts itself as a centrist party. Some describe it as “Likud Lite,” but without the political leadership experience.
Netanyahu predicted in his weekly cabinet meeting on April 7 that Blue and White would gain the largest number of seats in this election. For those suffering from Bibi Exhaustion Syndrome, the natural place to turn is Blue and White.
THE SECOND LEVEL PARTIES
Hadash-Ta’al is a social justice, socialist melded party. Hadash is a mixed Arab-Jewish list. The permanent head of the Arab-only Ta’al, Ahmed Tibi, is an Arab nationalist who was an advisor to Yasir Arafat.
The platform calls for the transfer of all disputed territory (i.e. West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza) to Arab control and for nationalizing Israel’s natural resources. Hadash has never reached five seats in the Knesset and Ta’al has never reached the threshold. But the combined party is currently polling at between six to nine seats.
The New Right Party is brand new, created by the two stars of the Jewish Home Party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Its policies are similar to, but more openly conservative than, Likud, and it has a more secular orientation than Jewish Home.
Caroline Glick, the well-known right-wing firebrand Jerusalem Post and Breitbart journalist is part of the New Right Party. It is expected to garner enough seats to enter the Knesset, but the New Right has failed to attain the numbers it expected and is currently polling at between five and six seats, along with six other parties. Jewish Home is not expected to reach the threshold.
The Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) is comprised of many in the Religious Zionist movement who support Jewish control over the disputed territories (the “West Bank” and the Golan Heights). Factions within URWP include ardently activist members who protest interfaith weddings and even support transfer of Arabs from Greater Israel. This combined party is currently polling at six seats.
Kulanu was a roaring breakthrough party founded in 2014 by the former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon. Kulanu focuses almost entirely on domestic issues, especially finance. The high cost of living and housing prices are very important to Israelis, but never more so, ultimately, than security. This is why Kulanu has failed to become more of a force as a party and is currently in a tie with three other parties that may, barely, pass the threshold.
There are three major Jewish religious parties. Shas, polling at five seats, is comprised of strictly observant Jews from Middle-Eastern, African, Spanish backgrounds, as opposed to the European (Polish, German, Russian) rigorously observant Jews, found in the United Torah Judaism Party, which is polling at six seats.
Former Likud Minister Moshe Feiglin formed Zehut in 2015. It has a strong Jewish identity with libertarian views, supports separation of Church and State, and is a nationalist party. While polling at only five seats, Zehut is seen as a major spoiler for siphoning off votes from the other right-wing parties. Feiglin will get to dictate his terms for joining in a coalition with either Likud or Blue and White, which puts him in an enviable position.
WHO CAN VOTE IN ISRAEL
Every Israeli citizen over 18 years of age can vote. That includes Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews. There is no voter registration system; every citizen is automatically registered once they turn 18. Approximately six million Israelis are eligible to vote in this year’s election. Israel’s more than 10,000 polling places are open from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Free transportation to the polls is provided for any voter who needs it.