As many of you probably know, Israel parliamentary elections are tomorrow. In case you’re curious I’ll give you my own little run down. Call it my own little primer, sans the need for journalistic integrity.
Israeli elections are based on entirely proportional representation. Seats in the 120 member "Knesset" (parliament) are awarded proportionally based on percentage of votes garnered, which a minimum vote threshold so that the minimum number of seats in this election is three. As in all elections, all 120 seats are up for grabs. There are no districts and thus no constituencies. This stands in stark contrast to the US systems where all legislators represent states or districts and to many European parliamentary systems where some legislators or one house represent districts.
To form a government, a coalition of parties holding 61 or more seats my join the government. the leader of the largest party in the coalition becomes Prime Minister.
After the elections, the President will ask the leader of the party most likely to be able to form a coalition to attempt to form a government. Usually, this means the leader of the party that got the most seats, but not always. A few years back, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the most seats, but Likud’s Netanyahu was asked to form a government when it became clear that Livni could not build a ruling coalition.
While in this year’s election, it is almost certain that Netanyahu’s Likud, which has merged with right wing radical Avigdor Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beiteinu” party to form “Likud Beiteinu” will win the most seats, the key becomes which secondary party will represent the “tipping point” to get the 61st seat. Obviously, middle parties that represent the potential 61st seat have a lot of leverage to negotiate what they want in exchange for joining the governing coalition. Smaller parties are often able to achieve cabinet posts, social programs or appropriation promises by agreeing to form the government. Once a government has 61 seats, the rest of the parties become dispensable, though it is always safer to have a wider coalition so as to have more leverage against no-confidence votes.
I will briefly describe the important parties, in general from right to left on the political spectrum. Whereas in the US we look at left to right as being primarily on the economic axis, in Israel the dominant issue is always security, with right being hawkish and left being dovish. There is also the left-right economic debate in Israel as here, with the loose trend that hawkish parties are more likely to be free market advocates with more dovish parties being more likely to have socialist tendencies. I will skip minor parties that are unlikely to be part of the government or impact the government’s functioning.
HaBayit HaYehudi (Lit. “The Jewish Home&rdquo
This is the successor to the National Religious Party and represents religious Zionism. They will almost certainly be part of the government coalition. They are polling very strongly at around 15 seats
Likud Beiteinu – This is Netanyahu’s party. At one time polling as high as 40 seats of more, it is now projected to win as few as 32 seats; though a higher number is still a strong possibility. While there’s little doubt of its status as leader of the ruling coalition, any slippage may put more pressure on it to accept some of the smaller parties into its coalition.
UTJ (United Torah Judaism) – This is an ultra-Orthodox party. Counterintuitively, ultra-Orthodox parties are usually moderate on security. They are not Zionists, though they do believe in the importance of Jews residing in historical Israel. Foremost for this party is the issue of drafting Yeshiva students. Though Yeshiva students have always been granted deferrals routinely to stay in their studies, a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision has forced the Legislature to settle the issue. Also, as usual, social funding is a key issue to this constituency of large families and generally low incomes. They are polling at about 6 seats.
Shas – The other ultra-Orthodox party, this party represents Sephardic Jews (mostly Jews expelled from Arab countries and/or African immigrants). While ultra-religious, it is economically liberal and will support a dovish or hawkish agenda in exchange for appropriations and house. Support from non-religious Sephardic Jews makes this party significantly larger than UTJ. It is polling at around 12 seats.
HaTuna – This is Tzippi Livni’s centrist party. She was once the leader of Kadima but when she lost the leadership election of that party to Shaul Mofaz, she bolted and started her own party. She appear poised to cobble together approximately 7 seats.
Kadima – After Livni’s split, this party has struggled mightily. The question is whether it will meet the vote threshold and get three seats or fall short and get zero.
Labor – Historically a powerhouse, the party led Israel from its inception well into the 1970s. Economically leftist and moderate on security, this was the party of Yitchak Rabin, Shimon Perez and Ehud Barak, but took a huge fall after their peace efforts went for naught. New charismatic leader Shelly Yacimovich looks to start a comeback for Labor and appears to be posed to pick up as many as 16 seats. However, it is extremely unlikely to land in the ruling coalition.
Yesh Asid (Lit, “There is a Future&rdquo
Run by Yair Lapid, more moderate son of virulently anti-religious and leftist Tommy Lapid. Though far less militant, he stands for essentially a dovish secular society championed by his father. Already a popular figure in Israel from his acting and commenting days, he stands to make a splash in his opening election and could pick up as many as 15 or 16 seats, though 13 or 14 is more likely.
Meretz – The is far left in Israeli politics. They are an old party by Israeli standards, dating back to 1992. This is the Israeli Green party, championing civil rights, a socialist economic agenda and a complete separation of “church” and state. It best case scenario is something like 6 seats.
What to look for:
HaBayit HaYehudi and Likud will be the lion’s share of the ruling coalition. The question is what comes after that. The easiest path to a coalition would be for the right wing parties to form a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Those 4 parties is a guaranteed coalition, with close to 70 seats. The only problem is that to get the ultra parties, they will need to agree to appropriations to religious organizations and families and will need to make some sort of face-saving capitulation on the drafting Yeshiva students issue. This is a do or die issue for both ultra-Orthodox parties.
The other alternative is to form a government without the ultra-Orthodox parties but with Livni’s HaTuna (and Kadima, if they make it). However, the middle parties will probably get less than 10 seats. Therefore, HaBayit and Likud will have to supply the other 50+. This is where the difference between 32 and say, 38 is so huge for Likud. If Likud gets 32 and HaBayit say, 16, that’s only 48. This means that to form a coalition, they will need at least one ultra-Orthodox party.
The other possibility would be to bypass the ultra parties and HaTuna and reach out to Labor. A joint Likud/Labor government is not unprecedented, ad Labor joined Ariel Sharon’s government about a decade ago. Yacimovich has announced that she will not join a Netanyahu government, but in Israeli politics, those sorts of announcements are only good until they’re not.
This would only be possible if Netanyahu really doesn’t want to give in to the ultra-Orthodox and does not have enough seats with HaTuna. Also, it is possible that he hates Livni so much that he won’t want to make any concessions to her. Going around her to Labor would certainly embarrass Livni to no end. Nevertheless, this is very unlikely as, to get Labor, Netanyahu will need to make concessions on security (read: probably a settlement freeze and a promise to cooperate a little more with Obama and the Europeans) and I don’t think Netanyahu is ready to do that. Besides, it might cause a revolution on the right side of his coalition, especially amongst the Lieberman wing of his party.
[Hey, you didn’t think that now that the US election is over, I could tear myself away from horse race politics. Did you?]