Israeli Elections Primer: The Good, the Bad and the Nitty-gritty

As the nation gears up for another round of elections in January 2013, it can be hard to stay on top of the details. Here's what you need to know.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Q. Why is Israel voting now?

A. Because this is the best timing for Netanyahu.

By Israeli law, elections must be held by the third Tuesday of the Jewish month of Heshvan, after four years have elapsed since the previous elections. This Knesset could serve until October 22, 2013, but Israel will be going to the polls on January 22, nine months early. Early elections are usually held when the government loses its Knesset majority and no other party can form a coalition or if it can't pass the annual budget. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition is relatively stable and he could have passed the 2013 budget after the regular horse-trading with his coalition partners. Despite that, he announced early elections, citing the government's inability to achieve a "balanced and responsible budget."

In other words, Netanyahu realized that with the country facing an economic slowdown, it would have to be an unpopular austerity budget. Since the prime minister and his coalition are currently strong in the polls and the opposition is in disarray, it made more sense letting the electorate weigh in as soon as possible, rather than jeopardizing his electoral advantage.

Q. How will the elections work?

A. Very simply.

Israelis will be voting for parties that have presented lists of candidates for the Knesset. Fourteen parties are represented in the current 18th Knesset (12 were elected but there were two splits) and 34 parties will be contending in these elections.

Some of the parties have held primaries to select their candidates, while others had selection committees or the candidates were chosen by the party leader or by rabbis. Voters will not get to choose Knesset members, but instead cast one vote for one party.

Every Israeli citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote but only voters on official government postings abroad and merchant seamen can vote outside the country's borders. Voting is not compulsory, though the percentage of voters has been generally high: in the higher seventies up until a decade ago, and about 65 percent since.

Israel has a nationwide proportional representation electoral system. The 120 Knesset seats are divided between the parties that have crossed the electoral threshold (by receiving at least 2 percent of the valid votes cast) according to their proportion of the vote and allocated to the members by the order in which they appear on their party's list of candidates.

Following the elections and consultations with the president, one of the party leaders forms a government with the support of at least 61 MKs.

Q. What are the issues?

A. That depends on which party you ask.

There is no dominating issue on the agenda and each of the main parties will try and take the debate to areas where they feel more confident. These will be the defining issues:

  • Iran: Netanyahu, with some justification, believes that it was his incessant warnings of the Iranian nuclear threat that put the issue on the global agenda, and led to crippling sanctions. His UN General Assembly speech in September, with the bomb cartoon, was actually his first campaign speech. Likud-Beiteinu's platform will be very clear: Netanyahu was the man who warned the world and he is the only one capable of making sure that the world remains focused on Iran. At least one other party leader will emphasize Iran in his campaign: Kadima's Shaul Mofaz will be reminding us that not only was he an IDF chief of staff, he was also born in Tehran and, unlike hysterical Netanyahu, he can deal with the Iranians quietly and efficiently.
  • The economy: This is Netanyahu's comfort zone and a debate he wants to have (though not about the budget cuts due immediately after the elections). No other local politician comes close to his mastery of macroeconomic jargon, which enables him to singlehandedly take credit for Israel's financial growth in an era of global downturn. Other, more socialist parties will try and deflect the discussion from the healthy national fiscal indicators to the nitty-gritty of the widening social gaps.
  • The social gap: This is the debate Netanyahu does not want to have and that Labor, in particular, is trying to impose upon him. Why isn't more of Israel's prosperity trickling down to the middle class? Why is it harder than ever to buy an apartment in central Israel? And why are the country's social services crumbling? Last summer's mass protests prove there is a large constituency for this message and an opening for Labor's leader Shelly Yacimovich, who so far is the only politician to articulate it. A number of the social-justice protest leaders have joined Labor and will feature prominently in its campaign.
  • Who runs Israel?: A number of parties, mainly from the center-left, will run on the fashionable slogan that the country is ruled by small cliques of politicians/ lobbyists/tycoons/rabbis/generals rather than by us hardworking middle-class Israelis, and that the whole system needs to be overhauled. It is a brand of "politics of envy" that, while working well around the world, has seldom succeeded in Israel. But that won't stop them from trying.
  • The Arab uprisings: Netanyahu will constantly tell voters that in a volatile environment, Israel cannot afford to embark on experiments, make concessions and rely on untrustworthy Arabs. (This point will be made more succinctly by the parties to the Likud's right.) His rivals to the left and center will struggle to convince Israelis that this is the time for Israel to re-engage with the region and will probably prefer not to mention its neighbors' instability very much.
  • America: Israel's relationship with the United States could become a major issue in this campaign. Following Barack Obama's re-election, Netanyahu's rivals will accuse him of jeopardizing Israel's strategic alliance with the U.S. They will also seek to highlight the staunch support he receives from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. There are no mega-donors in Israel, as political donations here are capped by law, but Adelson has found a way around this by founding and financing a free newspaper, Israel Hayom, which for the last five years has supported Netanyahu to the hilt.
  • The peace process: Not long ago the main issue in every Israeli election was the future of the territories and the peace process with the Palestinians and Israel's neighbors. During this campaign, with the peace process in a deep freeze, the dominance of the Iranian issue and the instability of the region, as well as Labor's focus on social issues, it will remain largely in the background. The parties on the left will try to remind voters of the ticking time bomb in the West Bank and Gaza while the far-right parties will rally the faithful by saying they are the only ones who resolutely defend each and every settlement and outpost.

Q. Who will win the elections?

A. Almost certainly Netanyahu.

Apart from the short period (1996-2001) when Israel experimented with direct prime ministerial elections, there has never been an outright victor since no party has ever won a majority of Knesset seats. The election winner, therefore, is the party leader who convinces other parties to join a coalition which commands the support of at least 61 MKs. This isn't necessarily the leader of the largest party.

The winner's coalition may be clear on election night but it could take weeks and even months until one leader secures sufficient MKs. A clear victory is achieved immediately only if there is a "blocking bloc," a group of parties from right or left who will not support a leader from the other side.

The polls currently have the right wing and religious parties holding a blocking bloc of 66-68 MKs which would allow Netanyahu to form a similar coalition to his present one or bring in centrist parties. Either way, he remains prime minister.

Q. Will there be other winners?

A. Many.

Only one party, Likud-Beiteinu, expects to form the next government. All the other parties are competing for lesser prizes.

On the left, Labor is hoping to re-establish itself as a viable alternative party of government, while Meretz is trying prove there is still such a thing as an ideological Zionist left. In the center, Kadima is fighting for political survival, while Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid is trying to establish itself as the new party of the secular middle class in Kadima's place. Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah is presenting itself as the real alternative to Likud, promising to fulfill what Kadima failed. On the right, Shas and Habayit Hayehudi are slugging it out to be the second-largest party in Netanyahu's coalition. Hadash, Ra'am-Ta'al and Balad are still locked in a three-way struggle to emerge as the largest party in the Arab sector. And, of course, there are the parties like Am Shalem, who are scrabbling for every vote just to cross over the electoral threshold and avoid political oblivion.

In each of these micro-contests there will be winners and losers.

Q. What could still surprise us?

A. Probably not much.

The biggest surprise of all would be the movement of sufficient votes from the right-religious coalition toward the center that would break Netanyahu's blocking bloc and theoretically allow an alternative leader to form a coalition. That would need a swing of at least 5 percent, improbable in the short time left but not unheard of.

Failing that, the main surprise could be the appearance of a clear leader of the center-left who will champion the opposition to Netanyahu in the new Knesset and challenge him in the elections after that. Shelly Yacimovich is on track to restore Labor to its status as second-largest party but does not yet seem popular or experienced enough to lead the opposition. Shaul Mofaz, facing the electoral decimation of Kadima, lost his chance in the disastrous 70-day grand coalition adventure with Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni twice had the chance as Kadima leader to form a government but failed. She has yet to show the killer instinct and willpower a potential prime minister needs. Yair Lapid, with his new Yesh Atid party, is untested and lacks gravitas.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was for a while the great white hope of the center, but was prevented from contending by his corruption trials. Even if he had run, he will prove a liability rather than an asset to the opposition. There is a bit here about Tzipi Livni that is no longer relevant. Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gabi Ashkenazi is eager to capitalize on his tenure as the most popular IDF chief of staff in a generation, but is still in his three-year "cooling-off" period (which prevents senior defense establishment officials from jumping into politics) and has yet to face the fallout from a comptroller's report on skullduggery within the General Staff. Prevented from running in these elections, he will have to choose between remaining on the sidelines and joining a party to stake his future political territory.

One of these figures could possibly overcome the obstacles and emerge as Netanyahu's main challenger, but it probably won't happen before the elections. The most likely scenario is that the opposition will remain divided and leaderless for a long while.

Q. Where are the undecided voters?


The rapidly shifting political sands have left few "tribal" voters who stick with the same party election after election. The great majority are "floating voters," deciding each campaign afresh. These are mainly generic voters with a number of parties to choose from. They are Israel's diverse tribes - ideological right-wingers, ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, Israeli-Arabs, leftists, and the secular middle-class. This last group is the only one that can shift the balance between the main blocs and potentially change the ultimate outcome.

Middle-of-the-road Israelis, who comprise a quarter or perhaps even a third of the electorate, have regularly moved back and forth in recent years between Likud, Labor, Kadima and the now extinct Pensioners, Center Party and Shinui. The fluctuating fortunes of each of these parties prove just how flexible these voters are. (In 2009, Likud more than doubled its vote after plummeting in 2006 to just 12 MKs.) Half a dozen parties will be competing for their votes and while Netanyahu has a clear edge for now, that could change. If not in January, then next time around.

Q. How will the parties campaign?

A. Mainly online.

Television and radio networks in Israel are forbidden to sell airtime to political parties. Each party is allocated a broadcasting quota according to its size in the current Knesset. The propaganda is beamed out on a timetable mandated by the Central Election Commission. These broadcasts were once watched by most voters and were hugely influential but as the country entered the multi-channel era, they lost much of their significance. Mass election rallies are also a thing of the past; today's campaign events are relatively small affairs, often held in private homes or closed venues, usually for diehard supporters only.

Most campaigning is done in the mainstream media and few news organizations actually endorse a specific party, although many have clear favorites. The campaigns are increasingly online, especially social networks. A new party, Eretz Hadasha, has so far made the most effective use of the Web with a series of clips revealing secrets of Israel's senior politicians. The first one, on Netanyahu's habit of carrying bundles of dollar bills in his socks, immediately went viral.

Q. Will there be debates?

A. Almost certainly not.

From 1977 onwards there were seven televised debates between the leaders of the largest parties, Likud and Labor. The most memorable debate was in 1996, when an energetic Netanyahu, trailing in the polls, trounced a lackluster and tired Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Three years later, now Prime Minister Netanyahu was eager for a debate, hoping to close in on Ehud Barak's poll lead. Barak refused Netanyahu an opportunity to get back into the race, believing correctly that voters would not punish him for staying away. In 2001, it was Prime Minister Barak trailing Ariel Sharon demanding a debate. Sharon refused for the same reasons.

That has remained the case ever since. Leading candidates are not prepared to jeopardize their lead in a debate and there is little public pressure to do so. Shelly Yacimovich has invited Netanyahu to a debate but he has yet to respond and has little reason to do so. Even if he was willing to debate it's unclear who his opponent should be in these elections.

Q. What will change?

A.Very little.

Unless all the polls are seriously off or a major shift in the public's mood occurs over the next three months, Netanyahu is well on track to forming his third government. He will be able to choose between a very similar coalition to the one he has today or a more centrist one.

The main difference between the 18th and 19th Knessets will be the wider ranges of options for Netanyahu to choose from. If he sticks with the same right-wing and religious parties of his current government, we will see few policy changes. He could, however, discard some of his present partners and make a deal with some or any of the three or four center-left parties in the new Knesset and pursue new, more moderate or flexible domestic and foreign policies.

Elections also mean a different, probably more right-wing Likud parliamentary faction, which could force Netanyahu to limit his coalition choices to basically what he has today.

Israeli ballots.Credit: Tess Scheflan



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