A Guide for the Perplexed

A Guide for the Perplexed

A guide to the Israeli political system and elections process

By Prof. Jonathan Rynhold, Bar-Ilan University

Israel elections are complicated, far more complicated than in the United States and Britain.

The British and American citizen gets to vote for a party with a clear policy manifesto in a system that is dominated by two political parties.

So the question for the voters is relatively simple: Whom do I agree with most? Not so in Israel. For the Israeli voter, that question is only the beginning.

Israelis must consider not only which party’s ideology and policies they prefer but also how voting for a party will affect the process of forming a coalition government.

In Israel, no single party has ever won an absolute majority in the Knesset.

Over the last twenty years, governments have consisted of between 5-10 parties with the largest party usually getting about a quarter of the seats in the Knesset.

This means that no party has the ability to implement a policy manifesto. So no one pays much attention to such things.

Rather, the Israeli voter is looking at three things: First, the ideological identity of the party (left-right, religious-secular) and its political priority (e.g. increasing/decreasing funding for Haredi institutions, building/freezing settlements, weakening/strengthening the Supreme Court); second, the party’s chance of making it into the Knesset; and third, its preferred coalition partners and preferred candidate for Prime Minister.

In this election, the key underlying issue remains the character and competence of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

There are two camps, those parties that have pledged to oppose the formation of a government led by Netanyahu and those who do not oppose this.

On the one side are the Joint Arab List, Meretz, Labor, Yesh Atid and the secular right-wing parties Yisrael Beitenu and New Hope led by former Likudniks Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Saar respectively.

On the other side is the Likud, the right-wing Yamina party led by Bennett, the Haredi parties, and the far-right ‘Religious-Zionist’ party.

Polls indicate that hostility to the Haredim has become the most salient election issue. But in reality this is primarily a proxy for attitudes towards Netanyahu. It will not affect the vote for Haredi parties. It will, however affect right-wing voters and thereby could determine the character of Israel’s next government and the identity of its next Prime Minister.

Critics of Netanyahu believe that his personal private interests are driving government policy at the expense of the well-being of ordinary Israelis.

Without the support of the Haredim, Netanyahu cannot be Prime Minister and if he is not Prime Minister, he will lose levers of power that might enable him to avoid going to jail if he is found guilty of corruption in his ongoing trial.

These people are angry at the way Netanyahu has treated the Haredim with kid gloves in regard to the widespread refusal to follow the lockdown rules for Corona in the Haredi sector.

As critics see it, Netanyahu’s refusal to implement a local lockdown in Haredi areas to contain the virus led to longer nationwide lockdowns that caused severe economic hardship to many ordinary Israelis.

For the Haredim and the ideological Right, Netanyahu is their favored candidate for Prime Minister, precisely because he is so dependent on their support, which maximizes their ability to advance their interests.

For those likely to vote Likud, what counts most, is that they view Bibi as the most competent political leader in Israel. Indeed, when asked who is most suitable to serve as Prime Minister, Netanyahu still polls better than any other candidate, on around 25 percent.

But the Israeli voter is still not done, they have another very important factor to consider.

In Israel, there is an electoral threshold of 3.25%, about 140,000 votes. The votes of any party that gets below the threshold do NOT count towards the final result.

Thus, anyone who voted for Naftali Bennett’s New Right party in April 2019, saw their vote voided because the party only got 3.22% of the vote.

The threshold can determine who forms a government. In 1992, the right-wing parties got more votes than the left-wing parties, but the Left achieved a parliamentary majority and formed the government because the right-wing party Techiya just failed to cross the electoral threshold.

This time around the electoral threshold is likely to prove very important once again. Three or four parties are polling close to the electoral threshold: Meretz, Kahol Lavan, and the Arab party Ra’am that broke away from the Joint Arab List. Even Labor, which is consistently polling above the threshold could be in danger, as its standing is similar to that of the New Right before the April 2019 election.

If one or more of these parties fail to cross the threshold it will greatly improve Netanyahu’s chance of remaining Prime Minister in a coalition dominated by the Right and the Haredim.

So for the Israeli voter in 2021, it is one person, one vote, three headaches.


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