Israel Goes to the Polls: What's Next for Netanyahu?

The Israeli governing coalition led by Binyamin Netanyahu has collapsed, the 19th Knesset has been dissolved, and Israel faces new elections in March, less than two years after the 19th had been formed.

Israel has a parliamentary system. The 120 members of the Knesset are all elected at large in the country under a system of proportional representation (there are no districts directly represented). One does not vote for individual candidates, but for a party slate. This is considerably more democratic than the system employed in the United States; it also guarantees a fractious ensemble of parties.

At no time in Israeli history has any one party held a majority of seats (the closest any party ever came to that was the 56-seat delegation of the old Ma’arach party, direct ancestor to the modern Labor party, from 1969 to 1973). The country has always been governed by a coalition of several parties commanding at least 61 seats. After the election results have been determined, the Israeli president exercises one of his few non-ceremonial functions by appointing the head of one of the parties to form a governing coalition (logically, this is usually the head of the party with the largest delegation). If he or she succeeds, then that person becomes prime minister, and wields executive power until the coalition collapses or a statutory period of six years passes (the longest any government has lasted is a bit more than four years).

The ruling coalition is referred to as the government, and all the ministers are serving Knesset members from the ranks of the participating parties. The other parties constitute the opposition.

The coalition sworn in on February 5, 2013, consisted of the following parties: Likud Beytenu (31 seats), headed by Netanyahu; Yesh ‘Athid (19 seats), headed by Ya’ir Lapid; HaBayit haYehudi (12 seats), headed by Naftali Bennett; and HaTenu’a (6 seats), headed by Tzipi Livni.

The election was actually something of a disappointment to Netanyahu: in the previous Knesset, before the Likud and Yisra’el Beythenu parties decided to pool their strength as one party, the two had held 43 seats between them. In a monumental miscalculation, Netanyahu (apparently on the advice of an American consultant) came to believe in the simplistic existence of an Israeli “right” and a “left.” He believed that the many religiously observant voters who had been supporting Likud in recent years would continue to vote for the party, even though it amalgamated with the militantly secular Yisrael Beytenu. Some did, most bolted, and between them they lost 12 seats.

This election primer is to help readers avoid making the same mistake. Though one can speak of a secular “right” and “left” wing, there are actually at least five major groups of parties which must be taken into account in understanding the Israeli political scene (some would say more).

Various tensions between the parties over the government’s short run caused the break-up of the coalition, which was presaged when Yisrael Beytenu again separated from Likud. Tzipi Livni, always to the left of Netanyahu on foreign policy issues as well as domestic ones, sniped at him constantly. Naftali Bennett, considerably to the right of Netanyahu, did the same. Ya’ir Lapid’s mishandling of the budget and a populist -- if economically nonsensical -- proposal to create a tax break for certain categories of first-time home buyers also contributed to the break-up.

So who are these five groups, and how are things shaping up for the March 17 elections?