The curious American’s guide to the Knesset’s never-ending Groundhog Day.
It’s finally March: a time when the weather gets warmer, snow is swapped for rain and Israelis engage in what’s now their national pastime — voting. They will return to the booths on March 2, to vote for their Prime Minister for the third time since last summer.
Elections have now become part of Israel’s normal routine, along with signing up for military service, nudging someone on the bus or arguing over… well, politics. If you’re scratching your kippot over the latest developments, you’re not alone. Let’s try to clear some of it up.
Why another election? Why does this keep happening?
In the United States, whoever wins, wins. If election results are unclear, there is a recount, usually in Florida. And just ignore whatever tech problems are happening in Iowa.
But Israel is different. It’s important to remember that the Knesset, Israel’s legislative branch, runs on a parliamentary system. Citizens don’t cast their ballots for people, per se, like they do in the States. They support political parties with a list of representatives. Parties are awarded seats in a proportional fashion: parties get a number of seats determined by what percentage they get in the national popular vote.
Ok, so my team wins. Then what?
Then the horse trading begins. The Knesset runs on a coalition government, which means that leaders need a majority of the 120 seats to “win” — a minimum of 61 seats. It is incumbent upon the winner of the most seats to go around to the parties with the fewer seats to try to form alliances.
Due to the continued failure by all parties to form the country’s next government after the last two elections in September and December, here we are with round three. This has never before happened in Israel.
This is all about Bibi. The first and second elections did not yield significantly different results. There isn’t an expectation that things should change. The issue is that the country wants a center-right government, but many politicians in the center refuse to join a coalition with Netanyahu. So there aren’t enough votes for a left-wing government and there aren’t enough votes for a right-wing government, either. Hence the stalemate.
Cast of Characters
Bibi — He needs no introduction. You know Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already, and surely have feelings about him and his Likud party.
Benny Gantz — Bibi’s challenger, a career military man. He heads the Blue and White party, which tries to occupy the center lane of Israeli politics. He is tall and handsome and just milquetoast enough that no one truly knows where he stands. He’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg in 20 years, or Joe Biden 30 years ago.
Joint List — A consortium of four Arab parties. Their success in the first two rounds shows them growing in power and they voice an often ignored population in Israel. A coalition with them would signal a shift in Arab leadership and power. (Let’s not forget that they don’t represent all non-Jews in parliament. Palestinians in East Jerusalem, for instance, can’t vote. It’s only Arab citizens of Israel who can.)
Is a fourth election possible?
Of course. It might happen that, once more, the majority party will be unable to build partnerships and get to 61 seats.
Why is this election different from all other elections?
Unlike the last two rounds, this time Bibi faces prosecution for three corruption cases, in which he is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Voters can’t ignore that. The legal turmoil is a scarlet letter on his campaign and his legacy.
What’s America’s role in all this?
There is something else happening — the US and Israel’s “very special relationship” is evolving. The terms are being renegotiated in front of our eyes, as the Democratic presidential primary enters in full swing.
Bernie Sanders has gained enough support after winning the Nevada primary to position himself as a legitimate front-runner, and he’s said that the U.S. should “leverage” military aid to Israel in order “to demand respect for human rights and democracy.” That scared many hawks.
Sanders is also courting a more progressive vote, has pledged to skip next week’s AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. and has hired Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour as a surrogate, alarming more right-wing Zionists.
There has been a roller coaster relationship between American and Israeli leaders since Bush left office and Bibi cashed in his morality and any sense of geopolitical etiquette for easy political gains.
This writer is unsure how to characterize the Netanyahu-Trump romance. One thing is clear: Whoever wins the next American and Israeli elections — happening at the same time — has the power to change history.
While the optimism of the Oslo Accords feels like a distant memory, this writer places hope in the next leaders. Will President Sanders and Prime Minister Gantz craft a deal that will lead to practical negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas?
A ray of optimism also stems from the Joint List, full of moderates. At stake is the prospect for peace, because it’s getting farther and farther away by the minute. But we can’t forget about the Arabs in the country who are finally getting the representation they need.
If the Joint List is part of the coalition government, it would change the place of Arabs in society. It means that they have a seat at the table. In practice, this might lead to a role back of some of the legislation targeting NGOs that monitor the Israeli military’s human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories, and bills like the Nation State Law.
What does the election tell us about Israeli civil society?
A working government is helpful for democracy in Israel. (For the sake of transparency, I am owed a reimbursement by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs that is six months overdue, delayed in part by the government slowdown due to the elections. But no hard feelings.)
On a more positive note, Israeli’s willingness to tolerate a non-functioning Knesset is a sign of the relative peace in the region. More volatile security situations surely would have led to protests. That’s one silver lining as Israelis head to the voting booths next week, yet again.