Vote for Israel - Again? A Brief Overview of Israel's Complex Political System
Four elections in five years, with the fifth election just around the corner. What’s going on in Israel? Why can’t a country that is so successful in so many ways - more startups per capita than any other country in the world, 20th highest GDP per capita in the world, and 13th in the world in unicorns, or billion dollar startups - get its act together to form a government that lasts more than a year?
A lot has to do with the fact that the form of government in Israel is one of the purest and most representative Democracies in the world. It is a unicameral parliamentary system which means, in essence, there is one House of Representatives (no Senate or President that weighs in on legislation) that produces all the laws that govern the country. This requires a tremendous amount of negotiation among the different parties and voting blocs in order to get consensus.
That’s when the old adage - two Jews in a room with three opinions - rears its ugly head.
Here are some basic definitions of the political jargon in Israel:
is the Israeli House of Representatives.
is the main legislative authority and sole government body that can enact legislation and laws that govern the Country.
supervises the work of the Government,
elects the President of the State and the State Comptroller.
has 120 members
is located in Jerusalem.
In a parliamentary system, you don’t vote directly for a Member of Knesset (MK). Instead, you vote for a list, usually representing an ideological party. To be represented in the Knesset, a list must pass the qualifying threshold, which currently is 3.25% of votes cast. A Knesset term is four years, but it may be dissolved any time before that for the following reasons:
A bill of dissolution is passed - which just happened with the current Knesset in March 2022
If the Knesset fails to pass the State Budget within three months of the beginning of the Fiscal year; and
If the Prime Minister determines that the majority of members are oppositional, meaning that a majority of members are opposed to the government so that it cannot function.
To better understand the nitty gritty details of the workings of the Knesset - the electoral system, the list of basic laws that serve as Israel’s basic constitution since it does not have a formal one, how parties choose candidates, the role of the central election committee, how votes are tallied and translated into actual representative seats, as well as the legislative process including parliamentary groups, factions, and standing committees, Knesset plenum, and Plenary sessions - check out the Knesset website here:
The conundrum of a parliamentary system is that small parties with just a few votes wield an inordinate amount of power and can change the entire trajectory of the voting outcome.
The Likud party has repeatedly received the most votes in every one of the previous four elections, however never enough for the majority 61 votes to form a government. Therefore, Likud, like all the other parties who pass the threshold of votes received, is forced to negotiate with smaller parties to form a winning coalition.
Likud is headed by Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the longest serving Prime Minister in Israeli history, and there is a very vocal and organized campaign to unseat him. The “anyone but Bibi” contingent is based on many issues, not the least of which are the current indictments against him, none of which has been proven guilty. That being said, these types of issues create the fodder for the current gridlock. Every party is vying for positions in the government, and negotiates based on those power grabbing issues, rather than the wishes of the electorate, because they want to be part of the winning/ruling bloc.
In the most recent government, for instance, after four successive elections yielded no effective coalition, Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid negotiated with eight of the 13 parties that won seats in the March 23, 2021 elections to cobble together a 61 seat majority. It was a historic government because it comprised the most diverse coalition in Israeli history. It also included an Islamist party for the first time, Ra’am, as a partner. However, none of those parties individually had anywhere near the number of seats that Likud garnered:
The diverse coalition of the Ruling Government, spanning the political spectrum from left, right, centrist, and Islamist, made for great national unity optics. Bennett and Lapid put together a government focused on social issues and building Israel’s social welfare basket, determined to not let security and ideological issues get in the way. Ruling such a diverse group proved to be too difficult since any one of these parties, even with their small seat tallies, knew they could upset the majority by demanding their issue be addressed or they would bolt the coalition. That reality, coupled with an organized opposition in Netanyahu who knew just which bills they could vote against and which ministers they could sway, led to the undermining of the current government after only one year.
So Israel is now faced with yet another general election set for November 1, 2022. Parties are having their primaries to elect their leaders and set their lists. Opinion polls are posted almost daily ( Elections 2022: How to make sense of the opinion polls | The Times of Israel) with tantalizing numbers about which parties will be able to put together a ruling coalition. But voters are dismayed and perhaps disgruntled. Should they vote for a party or a voting bloc as they try to parse out how their vote will affect the election outcome. Voters want to cast their votes based on the issues that are most important to them and for the parties that represent those ideological hot buttons. With each successive election, however, it becomes more of a challenge to figure out where best their vote will have the most impact.
Thrive Study Abroad encourages its students to immerse in Israel's culture and politics. We do this by hosting a Politics Day, where students are given a guided tour of the Knesset and get to meet and interact with Israeli politicians, learning about the behind-the-scenes of Israel's political scene. If you are interested in studying abroad in Israel with Thrive, learn more here!