Unlike the US, the Israeli Knesset is designed on a model based on the British Parliament and requires any ruling government to hold a majority of the seats in order to be able to pass legislation and overcome the danger of gridlock all too common to Americans. The Knesset is comprised of 120 seats and to form a ruling coalition, the Prime Minister must have a 61-seat majority. It seems like the perfect way to overcome gridlock and keep government moving forward smoothly. However, the challenge Israel faces is forming this 61-seat majority.
However, here is where a second major difference between the Israeli and American forms of government becomes apparent. While the US tends to function as a two party system with a few independents or libertarians always trying to convince people a vote for them is not wasted, Israel has a whole menu of different political parties Around 40 parties ran in the spring election and there were 30 on the ballot this past week.
In Israel, there is no clear partisan divide. Every nuance of policy can be represented by a different party. These parties often merge to create larger parties, but still maintain a degree of their own identity and agenda. People cast a vote for a party that represents their views rather than an individual candidate. Any party that receives 3.25% of the national vote will enter the Knesset where the seats are distributed proportionally.
No party has ever gotten close to a single party majority in Israeli history and this election is no exception. Due to this, parties must work together to make compromises and agreements to form a majority coalition.
Now, before we can fully understand what is currently happening in Israeli politics, we need to know the major parties who have played a role in the last two elections.
Likud: Netanyahu’s right wing party stresses their proven track record of keeping Israel safe and developing strong international relations with other countries and has large support from the religious community and the settlers in the West Bank.
Blue and White: A strong moderate party led by former IDF chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid has run on a message of less Orthodox religious influence in government, an openness to peace talks with the Palestinians but affirms maintaining military control over parts of the West Bank.
Yisrael Beiteinu: is led by Netanyahu’s former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman , who advocates for a secular government without the strong influence of the Orthodox Rabbis and has often suggested a population swap that would move Israeli Arab citizens into a future Palestinian State as well as a stronger military response to Hamas’s terror.
The Joint List: The Joint list is comprised of four Arab/Palestinian-Israeli parties, and is led by Ayman Odeh, who has socialist leadings and advocates for a two-state solution, equality and social justice for Israeli Arabs and promoting the cooperation between Arabs and Jews. The Joint List ran as separate parties during the spring election.
Yamina: Is an alliance of right wing parties led by Ayelet Shaked, the first female leader of a right wing party with strong religious influences. They stress an interest in preparing Israel for and Messianic age as well as supporting annexation of the West Bank.
Otzma Yehudit: Before the spring election, Netanyahu engineered a plan for the Otzma Yehudit, (a group whose leader Itamar Ben-Gvir has ties to Jewish extremist ideology and a right wing terrorist group) to join the Yamina alliance. In the fall election, Otzma Yehudit left Yamina to run independently.
The Democratic Camp: Led by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak who left retirement to return to politics after the results of the spring election ran on principles of higher taxes on the top percentage of wage earners, free education and more investment in health care, civil marriage and LGBT rights return to peace talks with the Palestinians.
Labo-Gesher: The left-wing labor party champions social welfare issues and was once the dominate party in Israel, but has seen their support decline dramatically.
United Torah Judaism: This ultra-Orthodox party strongly opposes the draft law that would remove the exemptions religious youth currently enjoy that enables them to participate in religious studies instead of military service. They also seek to maintain their influence and religious control over government affairs.
Shas: In many ways Shas is a Sephardic version of UTJ who also seeks to maintain religious influence in government while representing the Sephardic community.
So, what went wrong this spring?
Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White each won 35 seats. The President authorized Netanyahu to attempt to form a government first. He had the support of the religious Shas and UTJ , Yamina and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and it looked like he had a better chance than Gantz. Then Lieberman refused to work with the religious parties. Without Lieberman, Netanyahu did not have a majority and was expected to pass the opportunity to form a government to Gantz. Instead, he convinced his allies and Lieberman to call for a new election.
Where are we now?
The most recent election resulted in Likud losing 4 seats while Blue and White lost two giving Gantz a lead 33-31.
The Arab Joint List reunified and boosted by a higher voter turnout, gained 3 seats and became the third largest party.
Lieberman increased in popularity after sabotaging Netanyahu and the religious parties and gained 3 seats.
The extremist Otzma Yehudit did not receive the 3.25% required to get any seats and deprived Netanyahu of a potential partner.
Netanyahu with the support of Shas, UTJ, and Yamina is attempting to form a right-wing religious government. They only have a total of 55 of the required 61 seats.
Gantz is attempting to form a center-left government with the support of Labor, Democratic Union and most of the Arab Joint List who has chosen to support a Jewish Prime Minister Candidate for the first time since the Oslo Accords.
However, the Balad faction of the Joint List refuse to support Gantz which means Netanyahu has the lead 55-54.
Lieberman’s 8 seats could put either side in power. Instead, he is trying to force a government with himself, Gantz and Netanyahu; excluding both the Arabs and the Orthodox.
President Rivlin has called for Gantz and Netanyahu to work together, but this will be difficult as Gantz has committed to not working with Likud while Netanyahu is being investigated for corruption and Netanyahu has committed to bringing the religious parties into any government that he forms, clashing with Gantz’s plan to form a secular government.
Netanyahu is probably at his weakest point in his political career. He has already failed once this year to form a government, and now has less seats in the Knesset. He faces a looming indictment hearing next month on corruption charges.
Gantz on the other hand does not have an easy path forward without working with the Arab parties (something he is uncomfortable with) unless Likud stages a mutiny against Netanyahu.
What we can say for sure is that Israel’s newly elected leaders need lots of prayer and wisdom as they attempt to form a government that will best represent the people.
Your feedback is always appreciated. Please feel free to contact Jesse Corey, the author of this blog, with any questions or comments you may have.