Explained: Why Does It Seem Like Israel Is Always Having a New Election?

The government last completed a full four-year term in 1988, the same year one Benjamin Netanyahu entered the Knesset. He might call for another early vote.

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Israel's 34th government, May 19, 2015.
Israel's 34th government, May 19, 2015.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

For anyone following events in Israel, it might seem like the country is always heading for an election or just coming off one. The latest iteration: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to seek an early vote if his demand to kill Israel’s new state broadcasting corporation isn’t met. So in general, what fuels Israel’s early-election mania?

Stability is so ‘80s

In Israel, the government is supposed to serve a four-year term, but it rarely does. In fact, Israelis have gone to the polls no less than seven times since 1999, with the government's average shelf life spanning about two and a half years.

FILE PHOTO: Likud leader and candidate for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sarah (L) wave to supporters in Jerusalem before embarking on a helicopter tour to parts of the country 29Credit: AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA

Indeed, only seven of Israel’s 20 Knessets have ever completed their term; this happened in the parliament that served from 1984 to 1988 the same year a young Likudnik named Benjamin Netanyahu first won a seat.

Who can call an Israeli election?

As in many countries around the world, Israel’s government is a coalition of parties that form a majority in parliament. Officially, elections can be called by either the prime minister or the Knesset itself. If the government fails to pass a budget or a no-confidence motion wins an absolute majority, the Knesset must disband.

Also, if the prime minister decides, as Netanyahu has in the past, that he wants to dissolve parliament and wins the president’s blessing, a new election must be held unless a majority of lawmakers votes against the move.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres look amused during the Mimouna celebrations, Jerusalem, Israel, March 15, 1988.Credit: Harnik Nati / GPO

Why do Israeli governments commit suicide?

Surprisingly, it’s often the ruling party that wants an early election. For example, in 2013, Netanyahu brought an election forward by almost six months, claiming he couldn’t pass the budget. Two years later, Netanyahu called for an early election again.

But it’s not just politicking that sends Israelis to the polls so often. After Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, took over, but it was clear that with terror attacks on the rise and the peace process in jeopardy, a new election was needed. In a cliffhanger decided overnight, “Israelis went to sleep with Peres and woke up with Bibi.”

Likewise, in 2009, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he was stepping down as corruption charges piled up against him. His foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, failed to form a new government and Israel went to the polls, letting Netanyahu return to power.

What will change after the elections? Very little, probably. Credit: AP

Why does Israel hold so many elections?

The key to understanding why Israel is constantly heading to the polls is its electoral system. Again, in Israel, as in many countries around the world, you vote for a party, not an individual. (The exceptions were the elections of 1996, 1999 and 2001, in which Israelis also voted directly for the prime minister.)

After the votes are tallied, the Knesset’s seats are distributed among the parties based on their percentage of the vote. So if your party wins 10 percent of the vote, it gets 12 seats in the 120-seat Knesset or more if some parties don’t capture enough votes to make it into parliament.

The prime minister isn’t the person who wins the most votes, but the person who heads the party that manages to bring together enough parties to form a coalition controlling a majority in parliament. In the same way, parliament can realign itself, with different parties forming a governing coalition without an election being held.

Benjamin Netanyahu (center) at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. Credit: Screenshot

Election as a style of government

As a result, Israel has had 20 elections for the Knesset but 34 governments, leading critics to claim that elections are sometimes a political ploy. Israel’s two longest-serving prime ministers founding father David Ben-Gurion and Netanyahu both mastered the art of calling an election for their own political benefit. In 1961, only two years after a landslide victory, Ben-Gurion decided to send Israelis to the polls as a way to end a power struggle in his ruling party. But the move backfired, with his party losing seats.

According to some analysts, this might be the case with the current threat to hold an election. Polls show Netanyahu’s Likud maintaining a high number of seats, with his enemies both in the government and in the opposition doing poorly. Thus an early vote could let Netanyahu deal himself a better hand while sapping his opponents’ power.

Timeline of Israeli governments.

Is Israel heading to a new election?

Netanyahu’s current coalition, said to be Israel’s most right-wing ever, is stable, but tensions are rife over everything from settlements to Israel’s new public broadcaster to Netanyahu’s attacks on the media. The new broadcasting corporation the brainchild of Netanyahu’s last government might be the kiss of death for his current one.

Though a raft of compromises have been reached to set up the new broadcasting corporation, Netanyahu said Saturday he had suddenly “changed his mind.” The reason, he said, was the “heartbreaking” stories he heard from employees of the outgoing broadcaster the same one he and his previous government assailed as decrepit, inefficient and biased.

A cabinet meeting headed by David Ben-Gurion, 1949.Credit: David Eldan. GPO

Nowadays, however, he calls the new corporation a leftist stronghold, even though it was the government that appointed its directors.

Indeed, Netanyahu’s battle for control of the media is what sent Israel to an election the last time. Netanyahu has admitted this himself, saying that when he realized that a bill targeting his mouthpiece, the free daily Israel Hayom owned by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, was likely to pass, he called for the Knesset to be dissolved.

During the last election, Netanyahu ran on a promise to increase political stability, an issue favored by the man who’s now his defense minister, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, but this wide-ranging reform has failed to materialize.

Netanyahu’s recent statements that his coalition partners have failed to meet their part of coalition agreements, coupled with the corruption investigations against him, seem to indicate that Netanyahu will indeed recommend an early vote or at least wants to scare his coalition partners into thinking he does. Judging by his history, the question of whether Israel is heading for an election seems more linked to Netanyahu’s political survival than any burning political issue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem on March 14, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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