On 26th December 2018 a final vote was held to dissolve the 20th Knesset and head to early elections after a 3.5-year term. Voting day was fixed for 9th April and the nation sat back to watch the fierce campaigns unfold in typical Israeli election style.
Three months passed and 10pm on 9th April – election day – arrived. Israel’s top news outlets were reporting conflicting results. There were indications that Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party had secured the majority vote and had succeeded to topple a Likud-led government. At the flick of a switch, there were reports of Likud taking top spot and continuing their premiership. Across the country Israelis went to bed confused as to who had clinched top spot watching on as both party leaders gave their victory speeches.
The results were clarified within a few days and it became clear that Likud had received the majority share of the vote at 26.46% equating to 35 of 120 seats. Blue and White narrowly missed out by receiving a 26.13% share of the vote, but the same number of seats at 35, confirming polling suspicions that a high proportion of Israelis were seeking change in these elections.
Nominated to form a coalition by the majority of incoming parties, Netanyahu was tasked by President Rivlin to form a government. He had a four week deadline to mastermind these tense negotiations and received a two week extension when it was clear talks were grinding to a halt.
Why is Israel heading to the polls… again?
After a six-week struggle, Netanyahu had negotiated a coalition of 60/120 seats with; Likud (35), The United Right (5), Shas (8), United Torah Judaism (8), Kulanu (4). Needing one more seat to form a working majority, Netanyahu worked to convince Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman to join, bringing with him an additional 5 seats.
As with all political conundrums, there were two very different narratives detailing what had gone so disastrously wrong ultimately sending the nation back to the polls.
Lieberman attests his refusal to join the coalition was based on an unconditional passing of a controversial law. In a trade-off for his 5 seats, he requested assurance that legislation raising the quota of ultra-Orthodox males required to serve in the army would be passed immediately with no amendments. Lieberman reported that his request could not be met; Netanyahu had already been held hostage by his ultra-Orthodox counterparts.
Netanyahu’s version of events painted a different picture. He claimed the legislation Lieberman was championing would barely change reality as the majority of ultra-Orthodox males qualify for exemption. This was not a landmark law worth bringing down a government, it was a political tool where Lieberman held the balance of power.
Once it became clear negotiations had failed, Netanyahu had two options. Not willing to run the risk of handing over his premiership, Netanyahu sought out the less-than-orthodox option of dissolving the government, sending the country back to elections – the first time this has happened in Israel, and scapegoating Lieberman for the dramatic turn of events.
Just shy of midnight on 29th May, the 21st Knesset lasting for four weeks passed a final reading to dissolve the Knesset and head back to elections.
It remains to be seen whether Lieberman’s gamble to fight as the champion of Israel’s secular-right will pay off. It will certainly be one of the main narratives of the election.
The new elections are currently in a phoney war period, with intense campaigning not expected to start until September as many Israelis are currently away on holiday, a fact not lost on the Blue and White party who have taken up large Hebrew-language adverts in Cyprus and Greece.
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 32 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 latest polling shows that Likud is predicted to win 30 seats, and Netanyahu’s principle challenger Blue and White 29 is narrowly behind on projected seats. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu is polling at 10 seats, and The New Right and Joint Arab List are both projected to win 11 seats. Labor and Shas are both polling at seven seats, and United Torah Judaism is on eight seats. If this materialises, it will likely lead to a similar stalemate to that of April.
Among the main parties running:
Likud (The United) – 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.
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.
Yemina (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.
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 Labour across, he was able to negotiate a merger with Meretz the traditionally leftist party emphasising social justice, human rights, religious freedom, environmentalism. The Union was able to convince popular Labour MK Stav Shaffir to change allegiance with the hope that some of Labours voters would join too.
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, Labour leader Avi Gabbai retired from politics allowing the party to run primaries electing Amir Peretz as leader. Labour have formed a coalition with Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher Party who failed to pass the threshold previously.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Zehut – Led by Moshe Feiglin, Zehut is right-wing on security and diplomatic issues, but socially libertarian. It supports the separation of religion and state and the legalisation of cannabis. Zehut didn’t reach the threshold previously receiving only 2.73% share of the vote, despite receiving significant press attention during the campaign.
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.