Israel is heading to the polls for the third time in one year, in what is turning to be one of the longest political stalemates in the country’s history. With opinion polls putting Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz close to a tie, a fourth election cannot be ruled out completely. As the entire world casts its eyes on the Jewish state, here is what you need to know about Israel’s elections.
Israel’s Unique Electoral System
What makes Israeli elections unique is that people vote for parties and not individuals. The number of parties is also high with at least 22 parties participating in the current election. However in an attempt to appeal to the voters and to break the ongoing deadlock, smaller parties leaning to the left and to the right have teamed up on their respective sides.
Why Are There So Many Parties?
The Israel Democracy Institute says the profusion of parties is due to Israeli society which “is extremely diverse, with multiple political divisions that run along ideological ethnic and religious fault lines.” This has resulted in a politically fragmented society.
Having many parties is considered a good thing since it grants minorities adequate representation in the Knesset. However, the representation comes at a price in terms of political stability and good governance, according to the IDI.
What Does a Party Need to Form a Government in Israel?
The Israeli parliament, called the Knesset, has a total of 120 seats which are allocated to political parties depending on how they perform in the elections. For a party to be allocated a seat in the Knesset it has to get 3.25% of the popular vote. This means that the better a political party performs in the elections the more seats it gets in parliament. A party that wins 61 seats in the Knesset is entrusted with forming the government.
According to the current projection by the JC, Likud is set to get 31 seats while the Blue and Whites which is made up of Israel Resilience, Yesh Atid and Telem is projected to get 34 seats. Among the smaller parties, Labour Mertz is predicted to get 9 seats, Right Wing Union 11 seats , Yisrael Beiteinu 7 seats, United Torah Judaism 8 seats, Joint least 13 seats, and SHAS 8 seats.
Since no party has ever won the 61 seats needed to form a government, Israel has always been ruled by coalitions of parties with almost similar if not similar ideologies.
Internal Trouble in Coalitions
However there have been situations where clashes of ideologies have occurred among coalition partners leading to political crisis. For instance, in 2015 Netanyahu’s Likud formed a coalition with smaller right wing and religious parties after winning 30 seats. But this coalition entered headwinds when Yisrael Beiteinu walked out because of the ceasefire in Gaza among other reasons .
The party leader Avigdor Lieberman has always been against religious Jews being accorded certain privileges. He has been particularly opposed to the exemption of Heradi Orthodox from military service in Israel’s military. It was this misunderstanding that made Netanyahu to call for the election in 2019.
Without the support Lieberman’s and his Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu couldn’t garner enough seats to form a government. He consequently called for another election in September last year which again ended in a stalemate.
Why a Third Election Could Change Things
After almost a year of dysfunctional government many are now hoping that a third election will help get things moving. As the results of exit polls begin to trickle in we are likely to see a series of maneuvers by the leading parties in their bid to cobble coalitions that would enable them to form a government.
Depending on the outcome of the results, whoever will emerge on top will have the opportunity to form a government within 28 days. If he fails then Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will pass the responsibility to the party with the second highest number of seats. If he also fails then the two parties would be asked to work together in a unity government.
The responsibility of forming a coalition government will be passed to parliament which will have 21 days to come up with any candidate. Whether this will be possible considering the current acrimony between Gantz and Netanyahu remains to be seen.
This was the biggest impediment last year when the two leaders were expected to form a unity government.
Among the key issues that led to the failure was Netanyahu’s insistence of bringing his entire right wing coalition into the unity government. This was opposed by Gantz who said: “I will not cooperate with an effort to turn the majority of the people to a hostage being held by a small group of extremists.”
Netanyahu Characterizes Gantz as Accommodating Terror Sympathizers
For his part, Netanyahu accused Gantz of attempting to form a minority government propped up by Arab members of the Knesset whom he said were terrorist sympathizers.
There was also disagreement on the rotational premiership which was a key subject of the negotiations. Netanyahu’s insistence that he should have the first go was rejected by Gantz who had already vowed not to serve under a Prime Minister facing criminal charges.
A similar scenario could play out in the coming weeks or months if a unity government is proposed. Gantz is still maintaining his stand of not serving in the same government as Netanyahu because of the charges Netanyahu is facing.
Another contentious issue that is likely to hamper the talks is the question of Jordan Valley and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. While Netanyahu has vowed to annex the Jordan Valley, Gantz has promised to do so only in cooperation with the International community.
Since the trial of Netanyahu is slated to begin two weeks after the elections, perhaps many would want to know whether he would be able stay on as prime minister in case he is re-elected. Legally, Netanyahu won’t be required to step down unless a conviction is secured. Furthermore the process is likely to take years, giving his allies a chance to pass legislation that will prevent him from being jailed.