An early election in Israel is on the cards after one of the junior coalition partners in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government pulled out and another quit after not being given the vacant ministry.
UPDATE 19/11: Rumours of an early election may (just may) have been exaggerated. Neftali Bennet, the leader of The Jewish Home (the second party referred to above) has decided not to pull out of the coalition. This means Netanyahu will stay in power for now. But an early election at some point still seems more likely than not.
Early elections aren’t exactly new in Israel as governments are usually multi-party affairs and Prime Ministers beholden to the whims and foibles of junior partners. An attempt to make them more stable by directly electing the PM was tried from 1996 to 2001 but abandoned after those government’s also ran short.
Why is the system so fragile? Partly because of the national list system of electing Members of the Knesset (MKs). There are 10 parties and one independent in the 120 member unicameral Parliament despite efforts to tighten the system in recent years. In the past there was a 1% threshold before parties could gain a seat. That was progressively raised from 1988 to 2014 to the 3.25% limit that currently exists which means that parties entitled to fewer than 4 seats won’t get any at all. However there is nothing to prevent two or more parties running on a single list and, once in the Knesset, splitting apart again.
But the voting system cannot be held solely responsible. The fractured nature of Israeli politics (no party has more than about 30% support and there are many in the 3-6% range) has led to parties representing every strand of religious and political opinion.
Prime Minister Netanyahu leads Likud into this election as the strongest party and polls suggest that the centre right coalition of Likud and the religious parties will be the predominent force after the election. And so it might seem legitimate to ask why an election is needed at all. My reading is that an election allows each key actor to test their strength and take their place in the new Knesset (and government) accordingly. New parties come and go all the time in Israeli politics and it may be that one of these becomes a significant player.
The 2015 coalition was formed of just 61 MKs, the bare minimum for a majority and comprised Likud, Jewish Home, UTJ, Kulanu and Shas. Yisrael Beiteinu joined the coalition a year later. Negotiating coalitions is not the quickest process in the world and Netanyahu had to ask President Reuven Rivlin for an extension to the normal timetable for forming a government and came in only 2 hours before the revised deadline.
The major change since the 2015 election is the collapse of the Zionist Union. This coalition of Labor and Hetnuah parties was created in order to challenge Netanyahu’s dominant position. It didn’t succeed and won just 24 seats to Likud’s 30. Hetnuah itself was only established by former foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in 2012 as a breakaway from Kadima, which was itself a splinter of moderates from Likud.
Yesh Atid has emerged as the biggest challenger to Likud. Yesh Atid are a centrist party seeking to represent the secular middle class founded in 2012. As such they compete directly with Zionist Union and climbed as high as 27% in the polls last year. However they now rest at around 16%.
But things will likely change again before voters have their say. Orly Levy split from Yisrael Beiteinu to sit as an independent MK and has stated a desire to form her own party. In addition, the Achi Yisraeli party has been created and former army general Benny Gantz has indicated a desire to enter politics either by founding his own party or with Achi Yisraeli. Both will encroach on the secular centre or centre right market and it will be interesting to see whether they can draw votes from Likud as well as Yesh Atid and Zionist Union.
The voting process in Israel is open to all citizens aged 18 or older on election day. Voters are given a ballot envelope and take the ballot slip corresponding to their chosen party or list when in the privacy of the polling booth.
Voting is conducted on the basis of a closed national list with seats allocated by the d’Hondt counting system.
A further quirk is the ability of parties which run separately to be considered to have run on a joint list when it comes to surplus votes. The d’Hondt system marginally favours larger lists over smaller. So if parties run together they are more likely to pick up the last allocated seats. Such agreements have been signed by Likud with Jewish Home, Yisrael Beiteinu with Kulanu, the Zionist Union with Meretz and Shas with UTJ.
Turnout in 2015 was 72% after a run of four elections with participation rates in the 60’s. The record turnout was 87% in the first election in 1949.
Likud ran in 2015 on an anti-Iran, economically right-wing platform whilst also walking away from any idea of support for a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s polling day exhortation to supporters to vote in order to save the Israeli nation was criticised by US President Barack Obama and he later said he regretted making it.
Likud (and Netanyahu in particular) has a history of producing controversial but amusing election adverts, such as this one.
Leader: Benjamin Netanyahu 2015 seats: 30 Current polling: 29-32%*
The Zionist Union of Labor and Hatnuah had the teething problems of any joint ticket in 2015. In a pledge which brought to mind the Alliance campaign of the UK’s 1983 election, the parties pledged to have rotating prime ministers, although Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni retracted that pledge the day before polling day when she announced that Labour Leader Isaac Herzog would be Prime Minister. The platform of the list was all about reigniting the peace process as well as social reforms. In 2015, the Zionist Union proved strongest in Tel Aviv and the more wealthy areas of Israel and won the most votes in 28 of the 33 richest areas of the country.
Leader: Avi Gabbay 2015 seats: 24 Current polling: 11%
The Joint List ran on the basis of a peace based on UN resolutions and the formation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
Leader: Ayman Odeh 2015 seats: 13 Current polling: 12%
Yesh Atid went into the 2015 election having been the kingmakers in 2013. But after taking on the finance ministry the party reneged on apparent pledges made to its supporters and implemented austerity cuts in order to cut the deficit. The party’s platform in 2015 was decidedly middle-ground on issues of peace and Iran and re-iterated pledges to invest more in health, education and welfare spending.
Leader: Yair Lapid 2015 seats: 11 Current polling: 16%
Kulanu, as a new party, ran in 2015 on the promise of breaking up monopolies and lowering the cost of living. Leader Moshe Kahlon formed the party after breaking away from Likud and sought to deflect questions as to whether he would back a Likud or Zionist Union government. His deputy Yoav Galant suggested a favouring of a left-leaning government but, in the event, the party joined the Likud-led coalition.
Leader: Moshe Kahlon 2015 seats: 10 Current polling: 8%
The Jewish Home ran in 2015 as a single state party backing small businesses and the middle class.
Leader: Naftali Bennet 2015 seats: 8 Current polling: 11%
Yisrael Beiteinu, which had run in 2013 on a joint list with Likud, was on its own in 2015. Avigdor Lieberman had proposed his own peace place which was controversial due to the huge population swaps which would have resulted. The party also supported a mortgage plan portrayed as right-wing and the return of the death penalty for terrorist cases.
Leader: Avigdor Lieberman 2015 seats: 6 Current polling: 8%
United Torah Judaism (UTJ) is an alliance of Haredi and Hasidic supported parties and favours a lasting peace, less government involvement in the economy and more help to ultra-orthodox families.
Leader: Yaakov Litzman 2015 seats: 6 Current polling: 8%
Shas, an ultra-orthodox party seeking the support of the sephardic haredic community ran on the basis of there being no opportunity for a peace process as there was no viable leader seeking peace on the Palestinian side. So their focus was purely socio-economic. However in 2015 the party was struggling after a number of years of controversy following the conviction and later release of Aryeh Deri, the former leader who once again was given the number one slot on the electoral list.
Leader: Aryeh Deri 2015 seats: 7 Current polling: 5%
Meretz is the most vocal party within the peace camp and urged a two state solution and agreed land swaps. The party also proposes a left-wing economic programme.
Leader: Tamar Zandberg 2015 seats: 5 Current polling: 6%
A further 15 parties failed to win seats in the 2015 election, albeit only two of these won more than a handful of votes.
Un-named Levy party
Leader: Orly Levy Current polling: 6%
Leader: Adina Bar-Shalom and Michael Biton Current polling: ??
*Israel has a vibrant polling scene. For regular updates, see here.