With just one week to go until Israelis return to the polls, the political arena has been a little quieter than usual this election undoubtedly due to its bi-annual nature. It came as no surprise that the majority of political parties chose to hold-off campaigning until the summer holidays ended, leaving little more than two weeks to convince the public that this election would be the one to bring about change.
The latest polls show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is still neck-and-neck with the centrist Blue and White coalition, with no obvious route to a majority (61 seats and more). As with the April election, it appears that Netanyahu won’t be able to form a working majority with right-wing parties as former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party is expected to again hold-out leaving Netanyahu with only 58 seats. With Lieberman keen to play the kingmaker role, he is looking to form a unity government with Likud and Blue and White, and keeping religious parties out of the coalition.
After the quiet summer, the election has heated up significantly in the last week. As the summer came to a close, so too did the Zehut party’s aspirations to form part of the incoming government. Moshe Feiglin, the right-libertarian former-Likud MK who became a surprise electoral story earlier this year, unexpectedly pulled out of the race hot on the heels of reports that Netanyahu was encouraging small right-wing parties to withdraw to prevent right votes being ‘wasted’ on parties that will fail to past the 3.25% threshold. Moments after the news broke, reports emerged that Feiglin had negotiated a deal with Netanyahu to secure a cabinet position in a Likud government, the legalisation of medical cannabis (a major party policy), and support for Zehut’s key platform agendas. The ultimate decision came down to a member vote receiving 77% support for the deal.
Zehut’s deal failed to tempt additional parties to follow suit and produced unexpected results in the polls. With a deal brokered, assumptions were that Zehut’s voters (2.73% of the vote in April 2019) would pledge allegiance to Likud. Unexpectedly, Likud fell from 32-31 seats, and far-right Otzma Yehudit suddenly passed the electoral threshold with a projected four seats for the first time this election. This trend has held steady since Zehut’s exit and would suggest Zehut’s members are now aligned with Otzma Yehudit, not Likud.
In a first for Israeli politics, the Joint List (a coalition of Arab parties) Chairman Ayman Odeh was quoted in the Israeli press that he would be prepared to join a Blue and White led coalition on the following conditions; a retraction of the Nation State Law, construction of a new Arab town and a hospital in an Arab-majority area, and reducing crime in Arab towns. Odeh’s comment triggered polling that suggested 78% of Israeli-Arabs would support joining Gantz’s coalition if preconditions were guaranteed. This surprising turn of events indicated that the Arab community may be looking to play a more active role in shaping the country as no Arab party has ever sat in a coalition.
Just days later it seemed that Odeh had taken a U-turn. During a follow-up Odeh clarified his position stating that he would never be asked to join a coalition and he has no intent to sit in government “while the Palestinian people are under military rule and we [Israeli Arabs] are second-class citizens”. Despite having abstained from recommending a party leader for Prime Minister previously, Odeh suggested he would consider recommending Gantz in a bid to oust Netanyahu.
In recent days, the election storm has hit Likud from every angle. It began with a failed attempt to pass legislation seeking to allow party observers to film inside polling stations during voting and counting with the stated intent of ensuring electoral integrity. The issue caused controversy in the April 2019 election when it emerged that Likud had installed 1,200 cameras in polling stations, mostly in Arab towns, in an attempt to combat electoral fraud, but was ruled unlawful by Israel’s Supreme Court.
On Tuesday night, Likud’s key movers and shakers along with the media were summoned to a press conference with a promise of an announcement that would shape the election. With voting day around the corner, the announcement elicited significant speculation. The Prime Minister used the conference to vow that if re-elected he would controversially apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley (in the West Bank), securing Israel’s eastern border.
Shortly after his announcement, the Likud team continued their roadshow travelling to the southern town of Ashdod. Mid-way through the rally, two rockets were fired from Gaza threatening to disrupt the event with the Prime Minister and additionally a Blue and White rally in the neighbouring town of Ashkelon. While both rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome and no injuries were reported, the Blue and White party criticised the Prime Minister for leaving the stage with his security detail and accused him of failing to deal with the missile threat posed by Hamas.
Who are Israelis voting for?
Israeli political parties can generally be divided into four camps; right-wing, left-wing, centrist and niche parties.
There are dozens of parties confirmed to be running on 17th September. Several alliances have formed between parties who will run on the same ticket in hope of increased voter support and ensuring smaller parties pass the electoral threshold.
The first week in September saw voters abroad cast their vote for the upcoming general election. 5,000 Diplomats and Emissaries were eligible to vote, and the voter turnout was 69% matching predicted voter turnout for the country.
The latest polling suggests Netanyahu’s principle challengers, Blue and White, are predicted to secure a win of 32 seats with Likud falling narrowly behind for the first time this election season projecting at 31 seats. The Joint List is polling at 10 seats with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Shaked’s Yamina set to secure 9 seats each. United Torah Judaism and Shas are projecting at 7 seats respectively, with the Democratic Union following on with 6 and Labor with 5. For the first time this season, Otzma Yehudit are predicted to pass the electoral threshold and are polling at 4 seats.
The uncertainty surrounding the outcome these elections can be felt across the country. It’s a clear race between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White. If polling is correct, the share of the vote will be so close that it almost becomes irrelevant and the integral decision becomes who receives the mandate from party leaders to form a coalition.
Among the main parties running:
Likud – Headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud stands for national and economic liberalism and has been the traditional home of the mainstream right-wing since the 1970s when it was founded by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. In April, Likud received the greatest share of the vote securing 35 of 120 Knesset seats. Likud have merged with Moshe Kahlon’s economically focused Kulanu Party for the upcoming elections, who received four seats earlier this year.
Polling at: 31 seats
Blue and White – Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz joined forces with Yair Lapid in February under a new centrist ticket named Blue & White. The centrist alliance has emerged as the principle challenger to Likud losing out by just one seat (less than 0.5% of the vote) in April. If they succeed, Gantz and Lapid have agreed a rotation for Prime Minister, with Gantz taking top-spot for the first 2.5 years.
Polling at: 32 seats
Yamina (The United Right) – A bloc of pro-settler and far-right parties running on a joint ticket; Jewish Home, The New Right and The National Union. With the bloc’s disappointing result in April (5 seats) they have since removed Otzma Yehudit (Israel’s extremist right wing party) and welcomed The New Right who failed to pass the threshold. With The New Right came leader Ayelet Shaked, former Justice Minister and popular among the secular-right who has taken over the leadership of the bloc.
Polling at: 9 seats
The Democratic Union – Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has made a political comeback in this election hoping to unite the left-wing parties onto one ticket. Unable to tempt Labor across, he was able to negotiate a merger with Meretz the traditionally leftist party emphasising social justice, human rights, religious freedom, environmentalism. The coalition also includes the less known Green Movement. The Union was able to convince popular Labor MK Stav Shaffir to change allegiance with the hope that some of Labor’s voters would join too.
Polling at: 6 seats
Ha’Avoda (Labor Party) – Traditionally perceived as Israel’s main party on the left, they support pragmatic foreign affairs policies, social democratic economic policies and a two-state solution. After a disappointing result in April dropping from 24 seats (whilst running under the Zionist Union with other left-wing parties in 2015) to 6, Labor leader Avi Gabbai retired from politics allowing the party to run primaries electing Amir Peretz as leader. Labor have formed a coalition with Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher Party who failed to pass the threshold previously.
Polling at: 5 seats
Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) – Led by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing secular nationalist party traditionally held a base for secular, Russian-speaking Israelis. Scapegoated for halting Netanyahu’s coalition and leading the country into elections, Lieberman’s vehement opposition to Netanyahu will likely cause continued challenges in the next round of coalition negotiations.
Polling at: 9 seats
The Joint (Arab) List – Four-strong Arab alliance comprising of: Ta’al (Arab Renewal), Hadash (Jewish/Arab Communist), Ra’am (Islamist) and Balad (Arab-Palestinian nationalists). The Joint List ran together in 2015 but dissolved into Ta’al-Hadash and Ra’am-Balad pairings for the April elections receiving six and four seats respectively. To prevent falling below the threshold, the parties have reformed The Joint List led by Ayman Odeh.
Polling at: 10 seats
Shas – Led by Aryeh Deri, an ultra-Orthodox party which primarily represents the interests of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews. Since its founding 1984, Shas has always formed part of the governing coalition regardless of who the ruling party is.
Polling at: 7 seats
United Torah Judaism – An alliance of Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, two small Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties. The two parties have not always agreed with each other about policy matters; however, they have cooperated in order to win the maximum number of seats since 1992.
Polling at: 7 seats
Otzma Yehudit – A far-right political party often referred to as anti-Arab and associated with politics of the Kahanist movement. Led by Michael Ben-Ari their key policies focus on the removal of infiltrators and enemies of Israel, a country run by strict religious guidelines and the sovereignty and settlement of Jews over the entirety of the State. In the April Elections they formed a coalition with Bennett’s New Right Party, but they failed to pass the threshold. For the upcoming elections, Otzma Yehudit have decided to run independently however 2 candidates have been banned from by the Supreme Court due to previous racist incitement against Arabs.
Polling at: 4 seats
The voting system:
Israelis will be voting for a party, and not a Prime Minister, in an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation. This means that the number of seats which every list receives in the Knesset is proportional to the number of people who voted for it.
According to this system, the country votes for a party list, not for a particular person on the list. Some parties hold primary elections to determine their list, while other party lists are determined by the head of the party or other decision makers (such as Ultra-Orthodox rabbis). Party lists were finalised on Thursday 1st August with 32 parties registered for the upcoming election in comparison to the 41 parties registered for the April elections.
The electoral threshold is currently set at 3.25%, meaning that a party needs to win at least 3.25% of all votes (translating to four Knesset seats) in order to secure parliamentary representation. This threshold is the reason that some smaller parties may join up with other factions, in a bid to give themselves a better chance of passing the electoral threshold.
After the votes are counted work begins to assemble a coalition (which needs at least 61 of the 120 Members of Knesset in order to function). The leader of the coalition will then be recommended as Prime Minister.
The voting day, 17th September, is a national holiday in Israel with most places of work closed for the day. Voter turnout is one of the highest in the world, with 68.5% of the voting population turning up to vote during the last elections in 2019.