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To understand the Israeli elections, one must start with at least a basic understanding of the Israeli electoral system. Israel is a parliamentary democracy. That means that Israel's government is derived from the members of the parliament. There is no actual separation between the executive and legislative branches of the government.
When an Israeli election takes place, the Israeli electorate does not vote for any specific individuals, nor do they vote for a particular candidate to be Prime Minister. Instead, Israelis vote for the parties that will make up the Knesset (parliament). Political parties run on various platforms to receive many mandates based on the number of popular votes they command. One hundred twenty mandates are to be divided.
Once a parliament is elected, the parliament, in turn, elects the government- including all of the members of the cabinet.
Election to the Israeli parliament is based on a system that was put in place at the early Zionist congresses. The Israeli public chooses from a large selection of parties. The number of votes cast is then divided up evenly by to equal 120 Knesset seats. The sum of that number (120th of the popular vote equals the number of votes required to earn one mandate (seat) in the Knesset. Thus, if a party were to get 25% of the votes cast, they would then have secured 30 seats in the parliament. Those 30 seats - even if that party were the largest in the Knesset- would not be enough to form a government.
One needs to support of at least 61 members (over half) to form a government. No one party has ever received that strong of a mandate. This is why the concept of "coalition government" has become the norm. After the election the President of the country holds consultations with representatives of the various parties and tries to ascertain which party is most likely to be able to form a new government-(meaning, who will be able to enter into agreements and compromises with enough other parties to compose a coalition with a no less than 61 mandates). That usually has, but not always, been the party with the largest number of votes. (Earlier in Israel's history the largest parties were more dominant than they are today. Then it was clear which party would form the government. Today, with the consistent shrinking of the larger parties the answer to the question of who will build a successful coalition is sometimes less clear.)
The party that the President appoints has 90 days to negotiate agreements with the other parties to gain the support of a majority (61+) of the members of the Knesset to form a government. After 90 days, if that party does not succeed, the President can grant them an extension, or turn over the creation of a coalition to one of the other parties.
Over the years the number of parties has increased. Parties initially represented the different ideological strains in the Zionism. Parties ranged from the Revisionists on the right to Mapam (which was Hashomer Hatzair, secular socialist Zionists) on the left. Traditionally, there was also a religious Zionist movement, as well as parties that represented the Haredi and Arab sectors.
Since the 1970's a number of new types of parties, have developed. One category of new parties have been aimed at ethnic groups. Two examples of those "ethnic" parties are: Shas (tailored to the immigrants from Arab countries) and Yisrael Beiteinu (primarily the party of Russian immigrants.) In the mid-'70s, new parties in the political middle/center were also formed. Shinui and Dash, both tried to be centrist reformist parties. Since that election a large number of similar parties have emerged, none lasting more than a few election cycles.
As a result of the rise of both the ethnic parties and the centrist parties, the Israeli electorate has become more fractured, with the largest parties in any given election receiving many fewer votes today than in previous elections. This has generally made coalition negotiations considerably more difficult.
Who gets to run Any party can register to run - if they fill out the appropriate form and pay the rather nominal fees to register. Israeli law does not specify how parties should pick Knesset members for their lists. In recent years, some of the main parties, Likud, Labor, Meretz, and part of Habayit Hayehudi, have had closed( member only) primary elections. Other parties, such as Shas, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu have appointed their members.
Israeli law does not allow for advertisements on broadcast media during the two months before the election. The law is silent on Internet advertising, (having been written 55 years ago). Therefore, there are many paid ads on the Internet. Campaigns also spend the money they have on posters, advertisements buses, and billboards, as well as newspaper ads. Each party running gets to run a series of free advertisements on Israeli television in the two weeks before the election. The amount of time that is given to each party is proportional to the number of Knesset members in the outgoing parliament. However, even those parties that have no seats in the outgoing Knesset get a minimum amount to time. The ads run together during special times set up for that purpose.
Each party also receives financing from the government, based on the outgoing number of members in the Knesset. According to the rules politicians are not supposed to appear in the broadcast media and actively promote their campaign. That rule is almost impossible to enforce since the very appearance of the politician is a political promotion. In the weeks before an election politicians fill the airways - they are just stopped when they say: "Vote for my party. "
Voting threshold and extra votes
To get into the parliament, a party must win at least 3.25% of the vote – which translates into between 4 Knesset seats. The threshold number was raised from the original 1% required, to 1.5%, to 2%, and now 3.5% in attempts to keep out very small parties and thereby to limit the further fracturing the Knesset. The final rise was an attempt to keep out the small Arab parties, but they united and became one large party. Votes for any party that does not reach the minimum threshold are lost. Concerning building a coalition, it is as if that person did not vote- (though their vote does increase the total turnout.) On the other hand, if a party gets into the Knesset, they can make agreements to share their "extra votes" -meaning if it takes 25,000 votes to be equal to one Knesset seat, and a party receives 160,000 votes, they have six seats and an extra 10,000 votes. They can choose whether to sign an agreement to give those extra votes to another specific party, allowing that other party to get one more seat they would not otherwise be entitled to receive.
Turnout in Israel
Voter turnout in Israel reached a high of 84% in 1965. The turnout was 72.4% in 2015. There are three main reasons for the continued drop in voter turnout. There has been a drop in Arab participation in elections; as well as a general drop in party loyalty and affiliation. That drop and party loyalty and membership combines with a sense that voting does not matter, keeps down participation. Finally, voters who leave the country remain on the voter rolls. There are no absentee ballots allowed (other than for Israeli Embassy and Jewish Agency personnel). This results in a lower effective turnout at the election itself.
The voting age in Israel is 18.
Does the System Work?
The Israeli electoral system has several positive aspects in its favor as compared with other systems. These include:
1) Systems like Israel&rsquos ensure minority representation. The proportional representation system is arguably one of the most democratic systems ever invented, ensuring that a broad range of different opinions get national expression in an elected body mirroring the views in society at large. In contrast, under the United States&rsquo winner-take-all district system it is theoretically possible, for example, to have a situation in which 49.9 percent of the country votes for the Democratic Party but fully 100 percent of the senators are Republicans. This would happen if 51.1 percent of the voters in every state vote for Republican Senate candidates and thus win each Senate contest. The proportional system is expressly designed to avoid distortions of this sort. It is especially important in a country such as Israel that has well-defined minority populations, such as the Arab population and the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) who might find themselves unfairly shut out of the political process under a different system.
2) Coalitions encourage compromises. When governments can only be formed by coalitions of different parties, government policies are determined by compromises between the different viewpoints represented in the government. This gives the system an automatic tendency to avoid extremist policies.
3) Governments must keep in touch with national sentiments. Under the Israeli system, governments that apply policies that are very unpopular increase the chances that a vote of no confidence will be taken and vote their members out of office. Prime ministers and governments must therefore always stay on their toes and gauge how the electorate accepts their policies.
Unfortunately, there are negatives too, and the Israeli system, like any other, has exhibited some problems.
1) Proportional systems can lead to disproportionate magnification of power for small parties. Coalitions in Israel have frequently taken aboard parties with as little as two Knesset members, just in order to pass the magic number of 61 supporters in Knesset, the number needed to ensure a majority and form a government. In exchange for joining the government coalition, these small parties will get to control ministries and budgets, thus giving them enormous power beyond all proportion to the number of voters they represent. This has caused resentment in other segments of the Israeli public.
2) Coalitions can lead to incoherent policies or government inaction. Due to the fact that coalitions can include parties bringing to the government table different and sometimes contradictory ideologies, government policies in Israel have been known to be incoherent on many issues, with different ministers within the same government supporting opposing views. In the worst cases, governments can be paralyzed into inaction when bold moves are needed, because the members of the coalition cancel each others&rsquo votes.
3) No-confidence votes can lead to instability. Small parties or even individual Knesset members within the coalition, who feel that they are not receiving enough of a budget, support for pet legislation, or attention can threaten to walk out of the coalition if the Prime Minister does not respond to their demands. If their pulling out of the coalition can indeed translate into a successful no-confidence vote and the collapse of the government, this is a threat no prime minister can ignore. Between 1996 and 2009, Israel had no fewer than four different prime ministers, each of whom complained that the amount of time and effort needed to deal with the near constant mini-crises created by coalition members come at the expense of resources needed to deal with true crises in the affairs of state.
In April 1990, Israelis watched with growing unease a drama unfolding in the Knesset. Shimon Peres had a month earlier toppled the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir by a vote of no-confidence, and Peres was attempting to form a new government with himself at the helm, without calling for new elections. At the last minute, Peres fell short of a majority in the Knesset by one vote, and Shamir retained his position. But Peres&rsquo maneuver did succeed in catalyzing broad sentiments in favor of electoral reform. How could it happen, many Israelis asked themselves, that the identity of the prime minister and composition of the government could possibly be changed thoroughly by the actions of 120 members of the Knesset, without the issue being brought to a vote before the collective public?
Ever since then, the question of whether the system works and how it can be improved has been a regular subject of discourse in Israel. Many people express great dissatisfaction with the system and the weaknesses they see in it, but there has been no agreement on the question of how to reform the system.
In 1996, there was an attempt at major electoral reform &mdash the direct election of the prime minister, in which voters voted for individual prime minister candidates separate from the vote for parties vying for Knesset seats. However, given the short and turbulent terms of the two prime ministers elected under this system, the direct elections concept was discontinued following Ariel Sharon&rsquos election to prime minister in 2001. The previous system was restored, returning electoral reform to square one.
Among the ideas perennially suggested to reform the Israeli political system is the replacement of proportional representation with the Anglo-American system of district representatives. This would be accomplished by dividing Israel into 120 districts, each with one Knesset member. The country would be led by a directly elected prime minister who would serve under a mandate from the people rather than being dependent on tenuous and shifting coalitions.
A counter-claim in defense of the proportional representation system points to the fact that district systems have their downsides too. Gerrymandering&ndashthe drawing of district boundaries in order to reduce or magnify the representation of a particular segment of society&ndashis always a concern in district representation, one that is absent in proportional representation systems. Another concern is that representatives of particular districts might favor the interests of their constituents above national considerations.
In response to these objections, a compromise suggestion has been raised, which is based on Central European electoral systems of recent vintage. This idea calls for half of the Knesset members to be district representatives, while the other half would be &ldquoat-large&rdquo members elected under a proportional system, thus attaining the best of both systems.
The half-and-half proposal is currently only one suggestion out of many being discussed by Israelis. Meanwhile, the electoral system remains the same proportional system it has been since the founding of the state, with all the attendant challenges. The next Israeli prime minister will likely need the fortitude to deal with the same type of coalition pressures with which all his predecessors struggled.
Modern Israel at a Glance
Modern Israeli History: A Timeline
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Israel&rsquos government is a parliamentary democracy. The Israeli political system has three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The legislative branch is comprised of the Knesset, Israel&rsquos parliament, which has 120 members.
Members are elected to the Israeli legislature via proportional representation. Each election cycle, the contending parties present a list of candidates and voters opt for a particular party rather than a specific candidate. Parties are awarded seats in the Knesset based on the proportion of the vote they capture.
Historically, the two largest parties were the center-right Likud party and the center-left Labor party. Until 1977, Labor was the dominant force in Israeli politics, with every Israeli prime minister a member of Labor or one of its precursor parties. But following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Labor began a period of decline. As of 2021, Likud remained the largest party in Knesset and Labor held just seven seats.
Since no party in Israeli history has ever managed to secure a 61-vote majority on its own, coalitions are crucial to the functioning of the Israeli political system. This potentially gives smaller political parties more power than they would otherwise have, as their choice to participate in a government can make or break a coalition. Israel has nearly two dozen parties in total, some of which represent the interests of specific segments of society &mdash such as religious Jews, Sephardic Jews, or Israeli Arabs &mdash or particular issues, like environmental protection.
The executive branch of Israel is headed by a prime minister who is the coalition leader of the Knesset. After an election, the president of Israel formally asks whichever party leader is most likely to be successful in forming a government to attempt to do just that and piece together a majority coalition.
The president of Israel is a largely ceremonial role. As head of state, the president participates in ceremonies and serves as Israel&rsquos representative both in Israel and abroad. The president is elected by the Knesset for a single term of seven years.
The third branch of the government is the judiciary, which consists of courts and tribunals and a Supreme Court. While the State of Israel does not have a constitution, it does have a series of Basic Laws, which function in a similar matter to constitutional laws.
The press has been considered by some to be the &ldquofourth branch&rdquo of the government of Israel.
The number of daily newspapers sold in Israel is the highest per-capita in the world. About a dozen independent newspapers in several languages &mdash Hebrew, English, Russian, Arabic, and others&ndashare published daily, in addition to several weeklies. The airwaves are also full of hourly news radio broadcasts and two Israeli TV channels, plus cable television that brings in channels from all over the world. While news is subject to a military censor, the news outlets in Israel are independent, serving as a check to governmental power.
Everybody complains about Israel’s electoral system. But it works
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.
Last month, the stubbornness of one man dragged Israel to an unprecedented second election in a single year.
But which man? Some blamed Avigdor Liberman, the chairman of the Yisrael Beytenu party, whose demands in coalition negotiations on issues like the Haredi draft put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an impossible position. Others insisted the fault lay with Netanyahu, who, having failed to cobble together a coalition by the May 29 deadline, chose to force a new election instead of surrendering his premiership to another MK.
But for most observers of Israeli politics at home and abroad, it was Israel’s electoral system itself that came in for the worst of the criticism. It is a system in which tiny five-seat parties (like Yisrael Beytenu) can seemingly force their will on a ruling party, and bring about the dissolution of a newly elected parliament. Indeed, small sectoral parties have for decades held an outsize role in policymaking and budget decisions because of a coalition system that leaves larger parties dependent on them for their parliamentary majority.
Likud, Israel’s ruling party for the past decade across four consecutive elections, was reduced last month to whining helplessly about Liberman’s puny faction, pronouncing it “leftist” and subversive. Even the centrist Blue and White party, which had won in the latest kerfuffle a rare redo of an election it just lost, was annoyed. After Liberman suggested earlier this month that he would support a unity coalition of Likud and Blue and White following the second race in September, sources in the party quipped in undisguised frustration, “Better late than never.” Here was a 35-seat party bitter at not having been the first choice of a five-seat faction.
There is a great deal to the criticism, and many prime ministers who would agree that the country’s electoral system makes it notoriously difficult to govern. The first Rabin government was felled in 1977 in large part because of Haredi parties’ anger over El Al flights on Shabbat. The right often complains that the Oslo peace process was only approved in the Knesset through Arab and Haredi votes and/or abstentions — that is, that the current system allows questions of existential significance for the entire body politic to be decided by minority groups that in some important ways do not always have the majority’s wellbeing at heart. Ungovernable, with the majority always dependent on the whims of various minorities, and indecisive when it comes to the fundamental questions of public life, from what to do with the West Bank to civil marriage and education reform — that’s the sad reputation of Israel’s much-maligned system of government.
Indeed, the voting method itself, with Knessets elected via nationwide party lists that closely mirror the cultural, ethnic and religious divides in Israeli society, seems to exacerbate Israelis’ tribal politics rather than dissipate it.
But there is more to Israel’s electoral system than meets the eye. It doesn’t just magnify the tribal divides it allows Israeli society to mediate and manage them in ways that help prevent political violence. It forces majorities to pay heed to minorities — sometimes too much, sometimes not enough, but the simple fact that Haredim, religious-Zionists, Sephardi Jews, Russian-speakers, and so on and so forth all get a seat at the table, to the boundless frustration of prime ministers who resent the political juggling act this entails, has shaped some of the best features of Israeli society, from its cohesion to its very democracy.
At the ballot box, Israelis are tribal. How an Israeli votes correlates more with their grandparents’ country of origin than with their most obvious socioeconomic interest. Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, hailing from the Arab and Muslim worlds, vote for the political right by a landslide. Ashkenazi Jews of European extraction lean dramatically to the left. Russian speakers lean heavily to the right. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, themselves divided politically into Ashkenazi and Sephardi camps, each with its own parties, school systems and distinct political agendas, form another electoral tribe. As do the religious-Zionists, the “knit kippas” whose politics are in some ways more right-wing than the Haredim — on security and settlements, for example — and in others more liberal — on religious and social questions.
Thus in the 2015 elections, in the southern city of Beersheba, heavily Sephardi and with a large Russian-speaking minority, right-wing mainstay Likud beat left-wing mainstay Zionist Union by 38% to 12%, with rightist Russian-speaking Yisrael Beytenu taking another 12%. Meanwhile, nearby Omer, a majority-Ashkenazi town that is also, and not coincidentally, Beersheba’s wealthiest suburb, leaned decisively in the other direction (Zionist Union 38%, Likud 22%, Yesh Atid 15%).
Or in Herzliya, Israel’s high-tech capital, the Ashkenazi-majority electorate handed Zionist Union easy victories at all polling districts, except for the two easternmost neighborhoods of Yad Hatisha and Neve Amal, settled by Jews from North Africa. There, Likud took the lead.
The same pattern emerged from the most recent race in April, as ToI’s Simona Weinglass has reported. Likud’s largest wins were in two almost entirely Sephardi towns, Dimona in the south (56% of the vote) and Beit She’an in the north (55%). In Jerusalem, Likud did best in Har Homa (61%) and Katamonim (56-58%), working-class, heavily Sephardi areas, the latter home to a large Kurdish Jewish community. Blue and White won in neighborhoods like Kiryat Hayovel, Beit Hakerem and parts of Rehavia — predictably the fastest-aging, most Ashkenazi parts of Jerusalem.
The figures show the same pattern everywhere, and are even starker for sectoral Haredi, religious-Zionist or Arab parties, which won in some places by literally 99% of votes — the result for United Torah Judaism in a part of the northern town of Hatzor Haglilit populated by Gur Hasidim. It won 80% of the vote in the Haredi West Bank city of Modiin Illit, one of Israel’s fastest-growing municipalities (where Shas took another 17%). In Arara, a Bedouin town in the Negev, Ra’am-Balad took 91%. Hadash-Ta’al took 80% of the northern Arab city of Umm al-Fahm.
Of course, Israel’s tribes are complex, overlapping things. Huge numbers of Jewish Israelis are children of Ashkenazi-Sephardi intermarriages. And within these categories, too, there are vast cultural differences. Yemenite Jews come from a tradition that is Mizrahi but not Sephardi, and are as culturally distinctive from, for example, Moroccan Jews, as they are from many Ashkenazi communities. Such subtleties can loom as large for ordinary Israelis as the broader categories of Ashkenazi or Sephardi. And just as one can drill down to the finer divisions, so can one point to the many ways in which Jewish Israelis experience themselves to be a unified whole, despite these fractures. These range from the civil religion surrounding national holidays, which are increasingly being observed among allegedly non-Zionist Haredi communities, to the unifying cultural touchstones of modern Hebrew, military service, the sense of being surrounded by implacable enemies, and so on.
That is, to focus on Israeli Jews’ tendency to separate in the voting booth into right-leaning Easterners and left-leaning Westerners, or into Haredim and Arabs and srugim (the knit-kippa wearers of the religious-Zionist camp) is to ignore the many subtle shades and diverse affinities that tug at Jewish Israeli identities.
Yet ethnic origins remain a better predictor of voting patterns among Israelis than most other factors, and the old Ashkenazi-Sephardi left-right divide, which first propelled the right to power in the 1977 election, remains a key organizing truth of Israeli political behavior. It is the divide that cleaves Haredi politics in twain between Ashkenazi UTJ and Sephardi Shas. It is the heart of Likud’s campaign rhetoric when, for example, Netanyahu leaped on a comment last week by former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit about “mindless” right-wing voters to accuse: “They called us chahchahim [an old pejorative based on how Arabic-accented Hebrew sounded to Ashkenazi-Israeli ears], amulet-kissers [Shas handed out amulets in past elections, and an Ashkenazi artist warned during the 2015 campaign that the country was being taken over by ‘amulet-kissers’], ‘bots,’ and now ‘mindless people.’ There is no limit to the left’s condescension toward Likud voters. Our response will come at the ballot box.”
Such appeals to the Sephardi experience of marginalization at the hands of Ashkenazi elites are a pillar of Likud’s political rhetoric and identity, a conscious attempt to lay political claim to the suffering of older generations.
The meaning of Israeli politics
That political parties cling to and amplify these divides doesn’t mean they are fake or artificially engineered to serve the needs of the political moment. These identities are, for Jewish Israelis, what politics are all about.
And when measured against the needs of the fractured society it serves, Israel’s electoral system, for all its manifest flaws, delivers where it matters most: it forces cooperation among these competing groups.
Israel’s electoral system is among the simplest in the world. The entire country is a single constituency, and it votes for just one institution: the Knesset. Israelis don’t even elect their MKs directly they vote for a party whose actual list of lawmakers is often set by the party leader. After each election, Israel’s president, who is elected by the Knesset, then chooses a member of Knesset as prime minister-designate. That aspiring PM must then cobble together a majority coalition in the Knesset to form a government.
This system has weathered military emergencies, economic crises and ethnic fractures and strife — despite lacking the institutional complexity and clarity of more established democracies
In other words, there is scarcely a divide, and certainly nothing resembling an American-style check on power, between Israel’s parliament and its executive branch.
Imagine the system framed in American terms: there is only one elected institution, say the House of Representatives, whose majority leader automatically becomes president, meaning the House and the presidency will nearly always, by definition, agree with each other — and that unitary House is elected by the entire country in a single constituency, without states or districts, or indeed, direct voting of any kind for most of the representatives in the House.
Some ramifications become immediately apparent. For one thing, distinctive regional interests or those of small minorities (the Druze, Ethiopian Jews, etc.) are not assured representation. For another, if a majority wants to pass a manifestly unjust law, what’s to stop it?
The simplicity and uniformity in the Israeli system of government constitutes one of the better arguments in favor of a powerful Supreme Court — and may be one of the factors that led to the almost unprecedented power of the Israeli court. When all of government is a unitary legislative-executive, who looks after the minorities, reins in the excesses of populists or ensures the laws are obeyed?
The point here is not to criticize the Israeli system, but to ask a question rarely asked by its many critics at home and abroad: Why does it work at all?
That Israel’s democracy works is evident in the successes and achievements the country can show after 71 years. This system has weathered military emergencies, economic crises and ethnic fractures and strife — despite lacking the institutional complexity and clarity of more established democracies.
Indeed, Israel’s democracy has survived despite Israelis being arguably among the least democratically literate people in the free world.
This democracy was not founded in a moment of conscious philosophizing and exposition like America’s, or after 800 years of careful institution-building and tradition-setting like Britain’s. It came into being almost as an afterthought, in a polity run by East European Marxists who inherited a legal and constitutional order that was a jumble of medieval religious law and British colonial law. Even today many of the rights Israelis enjoy, from equality to free speech to the free exercise of religion, do not appear in clear and explicit fashion in Israeli law.
What scant rhetoric Israel’s founders bequeathed us on the subject — the Declaration of Independence, a few speeches, the scribblings of some ideologues — is no more robust or convincing than the democratic commitments given lip service in most of the world’s dictatorships. There was no Philadelphia Convention and no Magna Carta no document or constitution-setting moment can explain why the millions of Jews who arrived in Israel from nondemocratic lands — most of whom experienced their first free election when casting their first ballot as Israelis — would go on to build a democratic polity that has proven more stable, free and capable of self-critique and self-improvement than many older democracies in the West.
Israel was democratic before it legislated itself so, and has remained so despite never managing to construct a coherent national consensus on what that democracy actually consists of.
And that’s the key to understanding Israel’s maddening electoral system. Measured by the sophisticated institutions of most other democracies, it is unimpressively simple and seemingly unconcerned with the chaos it seems to engender. But it isn’t meant to be measured by that standard. In this informal democracy, whose liberties flow not from legislation or clever constitutional engineering, but from a deeper and more amorphous social compromise, a kind of “grand bargain” is enabled between Israel’s many tribes that has allowed them to act as a coherent whole and to construct on such divided foundations a successful and stable polity.
And its primary means for doing that: the coalition negotiations process, the very same step after the last election that sent the country tumbling toward a new one.
In the straightforward description of the Israeli system of government provided above, few internal checks and balances are evident. But in Netanyahu’s coalition troubles we find a prime minister beset by checks no less powerful and self-limiting than in any other democracy — and it is Israel’s tribes, in this case secularist Russian-speakers facing off against Haredi factions, that force on each prime minister the complicated balancing act so often derided as the great flaw in Israeli governance.
Israelis vote their tribes, and in the coalition talks those tribes negotiate with the broader polity to ensure their interests and concerns are met. Their chief currency in that negotiation is their own commitment to the needs of the whole through the lending of their parliamentary votes to the coalition.
Thus it is in the coalition talks that Likud or Labor governments have historically taken the time to carefully listen to Haredi needs, or where Haredi politicians who insist they are not Zionists take responsibility for major agencies of government and for advancing the policies and interests of the Jewish state. It is here, too, that Sephardi voices from marginalized communities — Morocco-born David Levy, a father of 12 from the northern desert town of Beit She’an who rose to be Israel’s foreign minister, or Moshe Kahlon, the fifth of seven children of an impoverished Libyan family in downtrodden Hadera and the current finance minister — can demand and receive funding and bureaucratic attention to the long-neglected margins of Israeli society, either within the larger parties or at the helm of their own small ones. Both Levy and Kahlon served as cabinet ministers from Likud, and later as coalition partners leading smaller parties.
It is in these coalition talks that parties like Yisrael Ba’aliya and Yisrael Beytenu, led by Russian-speaking immigrants, have helped advance the economic and social integration of fellow Russian speakers, and granted them a powerful independent voice in the national conversation. Israel absorbed and integrated the Russian-speaking immigration not so much via planning and policymaking but by the simple expedient of handing control over relevant state institutions — especially the ministries of housing and immigrant absorption — to the immigrants themselves through the coalition-negotiations process.
At every key point in Israel’s history — from its earliest days with David Ben Gurion’s need to cobble together a coalition of socialists and communists to rule the fragile new state, to Likud’s dramatic pivot in the 1970s toward the disempowered and neglected Sephardi Jews, to the coalition between the left and the Haredim that allowed passage of the Oslo accords, to the single-minded support of the religious-Zionist camp for Likud in the years since out of fear of a renewed peace process — it is in the coalition-building process that the Israeli electoral system has managed to successfully mediate the interests and anxieties of these political tribes in a way that ensured a more unified polity at the end of the process. It is a system focused on bringing the various groups to the table, where together they reaffirm after each round at the ballot box the bargain at the heart of Israeli liberty: that no tribe can be allowed to oppress another.
When ordinary Israelis speak of “democracy,” they don’t mean a specific set of ideas or institutions. The term is shorthand for the live-and-let-live ethos that has shaped the powerful but unofficial processes by which the power of the majority is curtailed, individual liberties are upheld and an underlying solidarity and cooperation in the Israeli body politic are ensured.
“Democracy” to Yesh Atid’s secularist voters means not being forced by religious minorities to obey religious laws. “Democracy” to Haredi party voters means access to state funds and a say in state policies that affect Haredi communities. “Democracy” to impoverished Sephardi-majority communities in the peripheries of the country means a seat at the table when budgets are disbursed, and dignity and recognition in the Israeli civic religion — such as the awarding of an Israel Prize for Literature to a Sephardi laureate, which first happened with Erez Biton in 2015, 62 years after the prize’s founding, or the study of Mizrahi Zionist writers alongside the Ashkenazi forebears of the Zionist movement in the high school history curriculum.
Once the tribal bargaining that underlies the implicit Israeli notion of “democracy” becomes clear, the fight over, for example, the High Court of Justice makes more sense. The defenders of the court on the left know full well that it is stupendously powerful, and in fact has claimed for itself powers not shared by comparable courts elsewhere in the free world, and that calls to limit its power are therefore no mere right-wing populism. But the court is also seen by the left as a guardian of the rights and safety of those — not least the secular Ashkenazi left itself, as well as Arabs and others — who have long been absent from the coalition table, and so from the direct protections of the grand bargain.
At the same time, one is hard-pressed to find among those right-wingers demanding a weaker court any serious explanation about what might replace it as defender of the weak and marginalized (and in parliament, the opposition) in the Israeli system of government. This is not because Likud politicians are unaware that the near-unity of the legislative and executive branches presents such a problem, but because for most, their anger at the court is not really about the constitutional question of the court’s possible overstep of its defined powers, but about the prevailing sense that the court constitutes the last bastion of an aging, arrogant, privileged and exclusionary elite that has long used liberal rhetoric to launder its less noble impulse of maintaining control over the body politic without having to go to the trouble of winning elections. Whether this is a valid depiction of today’s court is up for debate that this image of the court is a driving force for many who dislike it is indisputable.
Since Israeli democracy wasn’t born in a conscious act of constitution-making, Israelis lack a shared and coherent vocabulary for talking about their democracy. And so a debate about the High Court’s constitutional powers can become an avatar of sorts for a more pressing and virulent, though only half-stated, fight over questions of tribe, vulnerability and exclusion. It is therefore a debate of the deaf. For the left, there is too much at stake — “democracy” itself, to be sure — to give even the slightest consideration to the long-term harm that an overpowerful, almost entirely unelected court might cause to the public’s trust in the judiciary. For the right, too, there is too much at stake — they, too, usually claim to be defending “democracy” — to consider that this politically advantageous war against the political rivals of yesteryear, reified in the present-day court, might be demolishing a vital bulwark of Israeli freedom.
Finally, when radicals on left or right challenge the mainstream — such as when activist groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem publicize injustices or acts of violence toward Palestinians — they are derided and rebuked not for revealing these events, but for doing so abroad. These are activists who, in their frustration at an interminable five-decade occupation, no longer believe the Israeli political system, with its indecisiveness and endless obeisance to tribal compromises, is capable of bringing the injustice to an end. And so they reject the demands of solidarity and the promises of eventual reform, and, in the eyes of many Israelis, take to slandering Israel to a hostile and distant world.
Israeli democracy does not demand uniformity from its adherents — its very purpose is to mediate and lessen the tensions between wildly diverse cultural, religious and ethnic groups — but it does demand some basic semblance of solidarity, and struggles to tolerate those who seem not to offer it.
Everywhere one turns in Israeli society, one finds this deeper, more tribal meaning of democracy, of the nature and purpose of politics, and of the roots of Israeli liberties.
There is one group, of course, that remains outside the grand bargain, that refuses in principle to sit in governing coalitions and complains from the sidelines about its continued marginalization: Israel’s Arab minority. Without minimizing the impact of long-term neglect and discrimination on the part of the Jewish side, Arab Israelis’ marginalization flows in some part also from their own refusal to participate in the coalition-building process that lies at the heart of Israel’s democratic life.
Without Arabs at the table demanding their share, the Israeli state bureaucracy must make a conscious effort to act above and beyond its built-in self-interest, to invest in Arab towns and villages without specific political pressure inducing it to do so. Such idealism and self-motivated initiative is not usually found in state bureaucracies. This is no exoneration for said neglect, of course, but only a point about the costs of refusing to take part in the bargaining.
The 21st Knesset was not dissolved merely because of Avigdor Liberman’s whims or Benjamin Netanyahu’s egotism. Both men have plentiful egos and sometimes impetuous whims, to be sure. But each also believes as a matter of personal narrative and purpose that they represent a tribe, a section of Israeli society that depends on them to deliver its interests, and through their tribe and its compromises with other coalition tribes, to represent the interests of Israeli society writ large.
The test of time
There is no question that the September 17 election was avoidable, and a very strong likelihood that the parliamentary math going into the next round of coalition negotiations will not be very different from the last round. It is entirely reasonable to complain about an unprecedented second round of general elections in a single year. But even if the specific actions chosen by the current crop of politicians were foolish or wasteful, the system itself, through which Israel’s fractured society reconciles the centrifugal demands of its competing subgroups, has stood the test of time.
It is not Israel’s halfhearted constitution that makes Israelis confident that their freedoms are safe, but rather the very social compromises that have been such a bane for so many prime ministers.
Or, put another way, the very fact that Netanyahu occasionally has trouble governing under the current system — isn’t that an excellent argument for its wisdom and value?
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The Israeli-Palestinian problem is easily explained, but impossible to solve given the current Arab-Palestinian view of Israel. Put simply, Israel wants to live in peace as a Jewish State, whilst the Palestinians want Israel eliminated - they do not recognize Israel's right to exist.
For Middle East peace, all the Palestinians have to do is recognize Israel as a Jewish state and promise to live in peace with Israel. See video:
1947: Nearly half the land of Palestine was owned by Arabs, nearly half was “Crown Lands”, and about 8% was owned by Jews. In 1947 a UN Special Commission on Palestine recommended that this area be divided equally, with open borders, into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Jerusalem was to be ‘internationalized’. The UN General Assembly adopted this plan as UN Resolution 181. The Jews accepted the UN resolution but the Arabs rejected it.
1948-49: After the 1948 declaration of the State of Israel, Arab nations invaded Israel. At the end of the war Israel held territory beyond the boundaries set by the UN plan (approximately 78% of the area west of the Jordan) and Jerusalem was divided between Jordan and Israel, Jordan holding east Jerusalem. Egypt held Gaza and Jordan held the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). The Arab countries refused to sign a permanent peace treaty with Israel.
1949: At this time around 700,000 Arabs fled to neighbouring Arab countries, whilst over 800,000 Jews were forced to leave Muslim countries after their property was confiscated. Israel offered to repatriate 100,000 Arab refugees in April 1949 but this was rejected.
1952: The UN offered $200m for the refugees but this was also rejected by Arab governments.>/p>
1967: Arab armies again attacked Israel with the objective “to destroy Israel”. Israel defeated the attack even though the Arab armies had huge military superiority. After the war Israel held Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and all of Jerusalem. If Jordan had not joined the attack, Israel would not have taken the West Bank. Even so, Israel had simply taken back land mandated to them under the 1922 Palestine Mandate. Some 1 million Arabs were now under Israeli rule.
1996: Israel withdraws troops from Gaza and most cities and towns of the West Bank. Palestinians authorities take control.
2000: Israel agreed to give the Palestinians a sovereign state in more than 95% of the West Bank and all of Gaza. The PA rejected the offer.
2002: Israel reoccupied all of the West Bank following waves of Palestinian suicide attacks.
2008: Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians an independent state in all of Gaza and 93.5% of the West Bank. He offered them land swaps from Israel to make up for the 6.5% of the West Bank they would not receive. He also offered them half of Jerusalem. By some accounts, the Palestinians turned this offer down, others say they simply never responded to it.
Go Deeper into the Mysteries of Israel
The Israeli Electoral System- A Short Summary - History
Israeli politics are a mess. After its second election in six months failed to produce a governing coalition, Israelis are scheduled to head back to the polls for the third time in a single year’s time this coming March. In the Jewish state’s short history, this kind of political crisis is a first, but its seeds may have been planted at the very founding of the state.
Since its very first election, Israel has chosen leaders through a system of proportional representation (PR). At election time, Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates, and seats are then distributed in the 120-member Knesset in proportion to each party’s share of the vote. The system is simple and democratic, but, argues Neil Rogachevsky in a recent article in Tablet, it is also the source of Israel’s chronic political instability and recent electoral chaos.
In this podcast, Rogachevsky joins Jonathan Silver to discuss his piece and make the case for reforming Israel’s electoral system. He explains why PR systems routinely fail to produce political stability, how they reduce lawmakers’ accountability to the public, and why a “first-past-the-post” system would make Israeli politics healthier and more representative.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble, as well as "We Are Your Friends" by Mocha Music.
THE ARAB ISRAELI VOTE
Opposition vehemence against the Governance Law has largely centered on the fear that Arab Israeli parties will be unable to pass the higher threshold, effectively disenfranchising a fifth of Israel's citizenry. If the 2013 election results are taken as a baseline, then two of the three primarily Arab Israeli parties -- Balad (2.56% of the vote) and Hadash (2.99%) -- would not be represented under a revamped 3.25% threshold, though the third, Raam-Taal, would have just made it in with 3.65% of the vote.
Passage of the proposed electoral reforms may lead these factions to run on a unified party list. Arab politicians have resisted that idea for years given their serious ideological differences, and they may decide to continue running separately despite the new threshold, whether out of confidence in their chances of surpassing it or complete distaste for cooperation with one another. Yet under Israel's political system, they would not have to officially unite rather, they could run on a joint electoral list and then disband it after the election, divvying up seats to the individual parties based on either past electoral results or election-eve opinion polling. Indeed, Raam-Taal itself is a coalition of Islamist and Arab nationalist parties.
More than a few observers have also argued that a unified list would increase Arab Israeli voter participation, thereby increasing their influence in the political system. According to official Israeli election figures, 77% of the valid votes cast in primarily Arab population centers last year went to the three main Arab parties, while just 1.6% of the votes were "wasted" on parties that failed to pass the electoral threshold (compared to the aforementioned 7% national figure for "lost votes"). Moreover, only 56% of eligible Arab Israeli voters went to the polls in 2013 -- 10 percentage points less than the overall national turnout and 20 points less than the Arab Israeli vote in 1999. In other words, the potential exists for much greater Arab Israeli vote tallies that would make the new threshold a nonissue.
Even as they criticized the proposed reforms this weekend, several Arab Israeli politicians publicly indicated that they would run on a joint list in the next election. Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka predicted that a combined list would garner up to fifteen seats (compared to the current eleven seats for Arab Israeli parties), noting that "such a move has impressive public support and would encourage voters to go to the polls." Similarly, Raam-Taal leader Ahmad Tibi, a longtime advocate for a unified slate, argued that a "joint list would increase voter participation in the elections and the number of Arab members in the next Knesset."
As Israel’s short war with Hamas winds down and a cease fire takes hold, the spotlight is back on Benjamin Netanyahu, who was poised to lose his grip on the nation’s premiership in the days before the conflict broke out. Bibi, as he is known, has been prime minister of Israel for 15 years in total, 12 years continuously until now. That’s an Israeli record, and a long time in a nation that itself is only 73 years old. And in a country that savors love/hate relationships with its politicians, Bibi is at once much loved and very much hated.
On May 9, the haters were savoring a long and hard-fought victory: After four elections in two years, it looked like Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party were going down. Bibi had been given weeks to cobble together a government, and wasn’t able to make it happen. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin then handed the mandate to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, and in short order, Lapid had brought together a disparate assortment of disgruntled right-wingers (Naftali Bennett and his Yamina party), Arab-Israelis (Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am United Arab List) and splintered leftist parties (Labor, Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White) to gain the necessary 61 votes to confirm what Lapid likes to call a “change government.” Four days later the dream ended, with Bennett (whose political capriciousness is legend) deciding in the face of Israeli-Arab unrest that he could not be part of a government with the Ra’am party.
Lapid isn’t giving up—he has until June 3 to form a government—but the necessary pieces may not be in place. The question is why? A number of factors are key:
Israeli electoral law: The system of proportional representation is notoriously unwieldy, and has helped give Italy (and Iraq) a reputation for abysmal political instability. A party list (votes are cast not for individuals, but for parties) requires only 3.25 percent to pass the electoral threshold (less means no seats, more means a shot at a proportion of the vote), a tiny sliver that ended up distributing Knesset (Israeli parliament) seats to 13 different lists in the most recent March 2021 election. Netanyahu’s Likud earned 30 seats, Lapid 17, with the remaining hodge-podge apportioned in nine, eight, seven, six and four seat increments. Small wonder forming a government is a nightmare, with tiny parties afforded immense power because of the need to build a 61-seat coalition for a majority.
Anarchy on Israel’s left: Once the political juggernaut of Israel, the Labor party began to collapse in the 1990s. In the last election, Labor won seven seats, more than doubling the three it earned in the 2020 election. Other leftist parties have come and gone, and come and gone again, with stars rising and falling at a dizzying pace. Part of the problem for the left is that it trends toward older and more secular voters, hence a demographic challenge. Another is the willingness of left-wing standard bearers to defect—erstwhile Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is now defense minister in Netanyahu’s government. Then there is the elitism of Israeli liberals, who look much as they did in 1950—that is, Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin), rather than Sephardi (Jews of Arab origin) and middle/upper class, with the working class and Israeli Arabs little more than an afterthought in party platforms. Finally, there is the staying power of the Likud, which has, with very few exceptions, managed to hold substantial electoral power since it delivered the first loss to Labor in Israel’s history in 1977. Indeed, where the Likud has leeched support, it has largely been to other anti-Netanyahu conservative parties and not to the left.
Security: Modern Israel is a powerhouse per capita income is $43,500, its military and intelligence are forces to be reckoned with, and the Jewish state is no longer the pariah it once was, with six Arab states deciding peace with Israel is better than war. But that still leaves Iranian-backed Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic itself, not to speak of Lebanon, Syria, and assorted Salafi-jihadi groups still eager to destroy the Zionists for once and for all. The latest war with Hamas (see The Dispatch’s takes here, here, here, and here) and the complex challenge of Israeli Arabs joining the fight all play to Israel’s right, and particularly to Netanyahu, whose reign has delivered long stretches of peace and security for the embattled state. Indeed, such is the “security advantage” to Bibi that his increasingly hysterical detractors—Tom Friedman included—have suggested that Netanyahu engineered the conflict with Hamas to derail Lapid’s efforts to form a government.
The two-state solution: Another issue is the waning interest in a solution to the long festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last formal peace talks were in 2014, and Palestinian leaders have since pursued a policy seeking unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, bypassing Israel completely. Israel too has shifted gears, embracing the so-called “outside in” approach that envisions growing diplomatic ties with Arab nations and the marginalization of the Palestine question. And while there are plenty of critics of both the Palestinian and Israeli approaches, most of those critics aren’t Israeli voters polls show waning Israeli (and Palestinian) support for or interest in a two-state solution. Because the question of how to address Palestinian territorial claims has long defined left and right in Israel, lack of support for a peace process ends up advantaging the right.
The other side: Because this is the Middle East, Israeli politics is not the only factor destabilizing the Holy Land and upending the political scene. Another complicating factor—and part of the casus belli for Hamas in this recent iteration of conflict—is Palestinian electoral politics. Mahmoud Abbas, in the 16th year of his four-year term as Palestinian president, recently called off elections slated for June. The odds favored a Hamas victory, which would have been a blow to his own Fatah party. Absent elections, Hamas (and its backers in Iran) saw an opportunity to demonstrate its political and military might in attacking Israel. And while Hamas’ decision may well have thrown the advantage to Netanyahu, the terror group’s motivations had far more to do with its own political fortunes and Iran’s desire to press its advantage while the Biden administration is focused on the nuclear talks.
Where does it all end? The simplest answer for Israel is in yet another election, the fifth in two years. But like the others, another trip to the polls promises much the same result. Rather, the answer should be a period of soul-searching for Israel and its body politic. Answers to hard questions—what about Arab-Israeli rights? Who represents Israel’s working class? How to bridge the religious-secular divide? How about a better electoral system?—would go a long way toward resolving Israel’s political quagmire. Israel knows how to defeat terrorists it is still figuring out how to manage itself.
Abstract and Keywords
Both the parties and the party system of Israel have undergone significant changes during the last seventy years. This chapter begins by delineating the transformation of the political parties in Israel, from classic mass parties to a plethora of types that coexist somewhat uneasily, and from parties focused on domestic socioeconomic issues to ones dominated by foreign policy and security concerns. It then shifts to its main focus, assessing the changes in the party system. The chapter argues two points: first, that while the Israeli parties were extremely volatile, the party blocs were surprisingly stable and second, that while the Israeli party system exhibited two very stable periods during the first fifty years—albeit with a short, transformative interim phase—during the last twenty-five years it has exhibited accelerated change and instability.
Reuven Y. Hazan, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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This chapter, which focuses on the Israeli electoral system as a prototype of an extreme PR system, has five main sections. First, it uses the 2015 election results to analyze the properties of the electoral system and the nature of its outputs. Second, it reviews the three prominent features of the Israeli electoral system and their origins: its PR electoral formula, its nationwide electoral district, and its closed party lists. Third, it examines the developments that led to the consideration and implementation of reform initiatives. Fourth, it assesses the political consequences of the system for parties and the party system, for government formation and durability, and for the legislature and legislative behavior. Fifth, it addresses the puzzle of increased personalization despite the absence of a personalized electoral system.
Reuven Y. Hazan, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Reut Itzkovitch-Malka, Open University of Israel
Gideon Rahat, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel
Access to the complete content on Oxford Handbooks Online requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription.
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If you have purchased a print title that contains an access token, please see the token for information about how to register your code.
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