Netanyahu vs. Gantz: Everything You Need to Know About Israel's 2019 Election

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan parties are running neck and neck ahead of Election Day Tuesday, after the most unpredictable race in years. Here is how the next government will be formed

Likud party supporters, one wearing a mask depicting U.S. President Donald Trump, holding election campaign placards, one depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market, April 7, 2019.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

After a supercharged and intense election campaign, Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday to choose their next government. 
 
Most of the world is focused on the bottom line: Whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led the country for the past decade, will be able to hold onto power even under the shadow of imminent criminal indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Or whether Israelis have had enough of Bibi and have enough faith in his rival, former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his newly formed Kahol Lavon, to make a big change. 

Why is the election happening on April 9?

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Officially, Israeli elections take place every four years. In reality, because of the country’s parliamentary system and turbulent politics — in which one party never has enough seats to rule by itself — more often than not some form of governing coalition crisis leads to an early dissolution of the parliament and an early election.  
 
Over his last term, Prime Minister Netanyahu insisted he wanted his government to serve its full term, meaning voters would go to the polls in November 2019. Instead, he chose to dissolve the Knesset nearly a year early, on December 24, and called a snap election for April 9. The likely trigger? The state prosecutor determined that Netanyahu should face criminal charges in three pending corruption cases against him. 
 
On February 28, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in all three cases, pending a hearing. 

Netanyahu seemingly pushed the election earlier, betting on the fact that if he must face criminal charges, he will be doing so as a popular, recently re-elected leader.
 
The record number of parties participating this year — over 40 — reflects a sense that the beginning of the end of Netanyahu’s long domination of Israeli politics is near, whether or not he wins this election or rides out the looming legal battle before him. And so the war of succession is on. Most of the new parties forming to Netanyahu’s left and right are headed by individuals who see themselves as Israel’s next prime minister.

Voting slips for 18 of the 40-plus parties running in the Israeli election on April 9. 2019.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

How is the vote decided?

In the Israeli system, every citizen has one vote — and the head of that party is the party’s candidate for prime minister. The voting system is low-tech: The voter selects a pre-printed slip of paper with the name of the party on it and places it in a ballot box. 

The distribution of Knesset seats in each party passing the threshold of all votes is determined by proportional representation: The division of the number of valid votes by 120 (the number of seats in Knesset), in order to determine how many votes entitle a party to a single seat. 

The electoral threshold is 3.25 percent, meaning that a party needs to win at least 3.25 percent of all votes — representing some four Knesset seats — in order to secure parliamentary representation. If they fall below that number, they do not enter the Knesset and their votes are eliminated from the percentage count. Their “lost” votes are then divided between successful parties via the Bader-Ofer method.

What happens next?

The first exit polls released on Election Day will be published at 10 P.M. Israel time. However, considering the large number of small parties and how many are in danger of falling below the electoral threshold, a significant amount of time will pass before the final results are known. 

Once all the ballots have been counted and the results certified, Israelis will know the composition of the next Knesset — but they won’t know for sure who will be the prime minister and which party will rule the government. 
  
First, all of the elected parties recommend a candidate for prime minister and submit that recommendation to the president, Reuven Rivlin. They are permitted to recommend the head of any of the elected parties, including their own. 

Based on these recommendations, the president then makes the key decision as to which party gets the first shot at forming a governing coalition. 

This party does not have to be the one that received the most seats. While that is obviously important, a party’s ability to form a government depends on its ability to form a large enough political bloc that gives it a majority in the Knesset. 

For example, Netanyahu’s Likud could get a lower number of seats than Gantz’s centrist Kahol Lavan, but the total number of lawmakers in the right-wing bloc who recommend him for prime minister may be significantly higher than Gantz’s. 

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz sitting on a motorbike before leading a motorcade of motorcycles as part of an election campaign event, near the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 7, 2019.
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

In such a scenario where Netanyahu and Likud appear to be the only party with enough allies to form the required coalition of at least 61 MKs, they are far more likely to be Rivlin’s first choice.

This scenario has happened before. In 2009, after a Tzipi Livni-led Kadima party won a tight contest against Likud, Livni was not able to form a large enough coalition. As a result, then-President Shimon Peres tasked Netanyahu’s Likud, not Kadima, with forming the government. 

What is the process for finalizing a ruling coalition? 

The candidate chosen by the president is only able to formally ascent to the role of prime minister after they form a coalition that is confirmed by the Knesset. The candidate is given a maximum of 42 days to form a coalition — 28 days, plus a 14-day extension that the president is permitted to grant. If the candidate fails to win the support of at least 61 MKs in that time, the president can task another candidate with forming a coalition.

Who’s running?

Likud: Netanyahu’s party was widely expected to be in front by a large margin when the election campaign began in December. Instead, by the time the final poll was conducted, it found itself in a tight race with Kahol Lavan with 28 seats. This has led Likud and Netanyahu, always considered to be center-right, to pressure voters considering more right-wing parties to “come home” to Likud — even at the risk of pushing some of the smaller parties below the electoral threshold. This is being widely interpreted as a sign that Netanyahu feels confident he will be able to gain the 61 seats necessary to retain power.   

Kahol Lavan: An alliance comprising three parties: Hosen L’Yisrael, led by former IDF Chief of Staff Gantz; Telem, another new party headed by another former chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon (a former Likud member who quit the Netanyahu government in 2016 after being dismissed as defense minister); and Yesh Atid, the centrist party formed by TV personality Yair Lapid in 2013. On the eve of Knesset slates being finalized, Lapid relented and entered the alliance with Gantz’s party for the election — on the condition that the two men rotate as prime minister, Gantz for the first two and a half years, then Lapid. In final polls, the centrist party whose slogan is “There is no right or left — only what is good for Israel” is tied with Likud on 28 seats. 

Labor Party: The veteran party that built the Jewish state is currently led by Avi Gabbay, the latest in a series of leaders who have tried, and failed, to restore the party to its former glory. At the beginning of the campaign Gabbay initiated an ugly divorce from Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah (the two factions had united ahead of the 2015 election to stand as Zionist Union). The party’s polling numbers have suffered as a result of Gabbay’s failure to catch fire as a leader, but primarily from voters deserting the left-wing party in hopes that more support for Gantz represents a better chance of unseating Netanyahu. The final two polls show the party getting 11 seats, after dipping even lower earlier in the campaign.  

Union of Right-Wing Parties: The most contentious ticket in this year’s election is comprised of three parties that veer from right-wing, religious Zionists to far-right extremists. Habayit Hayehudi lost its two popular leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, late last year, and has now joined up with Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union and the controversial Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit. This right-wing union was encouraged by Netanyahu, who was fearful of seeing his religious Zionist ally fall below the electoral threshold. Controversial as they are, the extremists do seem to have solidified the new alliance, which in late polling has seven seats.   

Hayamin Hehadash leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked at a campaign event in Be'er Sheva, March 31, 2019.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Hayamin Hehadash: Outgoing education and justice ministers Bennett and Shaked made a bold move to strike out on their own that they likely now regret. They hoped to attract both secular and religious voters who like their right-of-Netanyahu politics but don’t want to vote for an Orthodox party. But they have failed to do so, and in the latest poll the newly formed party only wins six seats — with previous polls showing an even more disappointing performance.

United Torah Judaism: The not entirely happy marriage between ultra-Orthodox parties Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah stayed intact in this election, since running separately would put them at serious risk of failing to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold they need to enter the Knesset. Late election polls have them at six seats.

Hadash-Ta’al: In one of the biggest missteps of the 2019 Knesset campaign, the alliance that had united all the Arab parties into a major force — the Joint List, which grabbed 13 seats in 2015 — failed to coalesce and instead split into two. The most successful of them in final polls is the more moderate: Ta’al, led by Ahmad Tibi, and Hadash, led by Ayman Odeh, which is a joint Jewish-Arab effort with Dr. Ofer Cassif as its leading Jewish candidate on the slate. The alliance is polling at six seats.  

Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin in Mahaneh Yehuda, April 4, 2019.
Emil Salman

Zehut: The surprise package of the 2019 election campaign, Moshe Feiglin's party is a curious hybrid of libertarian politics and far-right, pro-annexation policies. While the party's calls for marijuana to be legalized have made headline news and seemingly made it popular among some young voters, its extremist views — building the Third Temple, rejecting U.S. military aid, expelling Palestinians from the West Bank — have also set alarm bells ringing on the left. Some final polls rate its chances high (no pun intended) of securing six or seven seats.

Tamar Zandberg, head of Meretz, at a campaign rally in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Meretz: After dipping dangerously close to the electoral threshold and extinction in the previous Knesset election, the left-wing Zionist party is now testing the popularity of its new leader, Tamar Zandberg. Meretz has polled fairly consistently around five seats over the course of polling during the campaign, and that is where the final polls show it finishing.

Shas: Like Netanyahu, Arye Dery — the leader of this ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party — also heads into the election with possible criminal charges hanging over him. Despite this, the core of Shas loyalists do not appear to have abandoned the party and it, too, has consistently polled at five seats. 

Kulanu: Of all of the party leaders, outgoing Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is one of the most disappointed. His strategy of zeroing in on social issues has proved a failure, as has his presentation of his party as representing the “sane right-wing.” As a result, his party, which was the surprise package of 2015 with 10 seats, is now polling at four seats, indicating a high risk of electoral extinction.

Yisrael Beiteinu: Avigdor Lieberman’s party of hawks and Soviet immigrants, struggling after its leader left his post as defense minister last November, is fighting for its life. In the final poll, it barely survives at four seats, but earlier polls showed it failing to reach the Knesset threshold (which, ironically, Lieberman had successfully led the charge to increase from the previous 2 percent in 2013). 

Gesher leader Orli Levi-Abekasis speaking at the Haaretz election conference, March 28, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Gesher: When Orli Levi-Abekasis broke away from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu in May 2016, few expected her to have enough political heft to launch her own party. She was a surprise success in early polling, but her luck changed and her numbers dropped as the campaign progressed. Barring a last-minute miracle, she is not expected to clear the electoral threshold. 

Balad-United Arab List: Two of the four parties that comprised the Joint List in 2015 make up the second alliance of two major Arab parties. Balad is an Arab citizens’ rights party, while the UAL is an Islamist list. The combination of the dissolution of the Joint List and an expected drop in Arab participation in the election means that the sum of the Arab parties’ parts will be far lower than when they were joined together. Balad-UAL is scraping the electoral threshold in final polling with only four seats. 

This story was updated on Sunday April 7 to include more up-to-date information about the April 9 election.