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?

1. “The Right”: Two secular parties are truly to the right of center, Likud and HaBayit haYehudi. The former is a long-time coalition between three former smaller parties, by far the largest of which was Menachem Begin’s old Cheruth (“Freedom”) party (Likud means “Bloc”). It espouses a relatively free-market, liberal economic system and a relative hard line on territorial and other concessions to the “Palestinians,” though the party has officially embraced the “two-state solution” of the Oslo Accords being pushed by the EU and the U.S. Currently at 19 seats, the current polls suggest that Likud will probably win 20-25 seats in March.

HaBayit haYehudi (“The Jewish Home”) is a coalition of two former smaller parties, one by the same name and the other the Iggud ha-Le’ummi (“National Union”) party, each of which had held three seats in the Knesset before last. The two previous parties had been splinters of the old National Religious Party, which had come into existence shortly after statehood, and was the political expression of the religious Zionist ideology -- the old “Mizrachi” movement. Under the leadership of Naftali Bennett, a self-made millionaire, HaBayit haYehudi has become a very nationalist, hard-line party, only one of whose components, Tekuma (“Rising, Restoration”), can be considered “religious” in any sense. It grew to 12 seats in the last Knesset. There had been rumors that Tekuma might leave the party and run independently, but that has not happened (though some of its members have left; see below). Current polls suggest that HaBayit haYehudi is likely to gain around 15 seats in March.

Also on the right, certain members of the old Iggud ha-Le’ummi party who ran as Otzma leYisrael (“Strength for Israel”) but failed to make the minimum threshold in the previous election are thinking of running again. Though current polls suggest that they will not pass the current threshold of 3.25%, they could nonetheless take votes and seats from the other parties of the Right.

2. “The Left”: The previous Knesset contained six parties which could be described as Leftists, ranging from: the Communists (who call themselves Chadash or “New”) with four seats; Meretz (“Energy”) with six seats; HaTenu’a (“The Movement”), Tzipi Livni’s party, also with six seats; Qadima (“Forward”), the rump of Ariel Sharon’s old party with two seats; Yesh ‘Atid (“There is a Future”), Ya’ir Lapid’s party, with 19 seats; and ‘Avoda (“Labor”) with 15 seats. Though the latter three would all try to characterize themselves as “centrist” parties, they are de facto Leftists in terms both of their domestic policies and their foreign policies (Labor is an official member of the Socialist International).

For the present election, Labor and Ha-Tenu’a have joined forces, and current polls suggest that they will stay roughly where they currently are, that is, with 20-25 seats (in most polls, Likud is one or two seats ahead of Labor/Ha-Tenu’a). Qadima is expected to disappear from the scene; Yesh ‘Atid is expected to decline as precipitously as Ya’ir Lapid’s popularity to around 10 seats; and Meretz and Chadash will probably remain the same.

3. “The Center”: Israeli politics in recent decades have been characterized by a secular search for the mythical center between Labor and Likud, a search which began in the 1980s with the formation of the now-defunct Shinui and Ratz parties. Such parties usually generate some excitement when first formed, and then rapidly decline as they inevitably move leftward. The current candidates for this “central” position are Yisrael Beytenu, originally a party whose constituents were primarily immigrants from the former USSR, which holds 11 seats at present; and a new party, Kulanu (“All of Us”), formed by Moshe Kachlon, a former Likudnik. Current polls suggest that Yisrael Beytenu (militantly secular and leftish domestically, mildly nationalistic in foreign policy) will decline to five to ten seats, and that Kachlon will similarly take between five and ten seats.

4. “The Religious Parties”: Sometimes called the “Chareidi” parties (“Fearful,” “Trembling," based on Ezra IX, 4). The non-Zionist religious sector of the Israeli populace is represented by two parties at present: Shas (an acronym of Shomrei Sefarad, “Guardians of Sefarad,” the name is a pun, since the same acronym serves for Shisha Sedarim, the “Six Orders” into which the Talmud is divided) with 11 seats; and Yahadut haTorah (“Torah Jewry”), usually called “United Torah Jewry” in English, with seven seats.

Yahadut haTorah is an amalgam of two parties representing Ashkenazi religious Jews (i.e., those of generally European extraction): Agudat Yisrael (“Association of Israel”), which has come to represent primarily Chassidic Jews; and Degel haTorah (“The Flag of Torah”), originally a splinter from the Aguda, which represents the non-Chassidic (“Lithuanian”) population. For the past couple of decades they have run a joint list while retaining their separate identities. The polls all suggest that they will gain a seat in March and hold eight.

Shas represents the religious Jews of Sephardic (Spanish) origin, as well as those of generally Middle Eastern origin. Shas has undergone a crisis of leadership since the passing of its founder, Rabbi ‘Ovadia Yosef, of blessed memory. In the last election, Shas was challenged by two splinters, ‘Am Shalem (“A Whole People”) and Koach leHashpia‘ (“Power to Influence”), neither of which made the grade, but which probably deprived Shas of three to four seats between them. In the current election, Shas has split into two, one party bearing the old name under the leadership of Rabbi Aryeh Der’i, and Ha‘Am Itanu (“The People are With Us”), a new party formed by the former head of Shas, Rabbi Eli Yishai, and Yoni Chetboun, formerly of HaBayit haYehudi. If the present division continues, Shas is expected to get fewer than ten seats, and Ha‘Am Itanu not more than three, if they pass the threshold at all. In addition, Rabbi Chaim Amsalem (a former Shas member who founded the ‘Am Shalem party) is considering making another try. He is also not expected to succeed, but can be expected to draw votes from Shas and especially Ha‘Am Itanu.

There are countervailing forces, trying to reconcile the Sephardic factions on the one hand and also trying to unify all of the religious parties into one bloc. Should they succeed in creating a joint list, it is possible that they may gain as many 20 seats between them; otherwise, they are likely to win between 10 and 15 seats.

5. “The Arabs”: There are currently two parties representing Arabic-speaking, non-Jewish Israelis (roughly 20% of the population): Balad (Arabic for “Country” and an acronym for Brith Le’ummith Demoqratith, or “National Democratic Covenant”), with three seats currently; and Ra’am-Ta’al, acronyms for two previous parties which now run jointly, also with three seats. Both parties are generally subversive and hostile to the policies of the state as a whole (Chadash, which also has many Arab voters, is often grouped with them). As most polls suggest that Balad is likely to disappear, they are expected to amalgamate, and again win six seats between them. Though rumors had been floating about the possible launch of a new party to represent Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel, nothing seems to have come of them as of this writing.

Most recently, there are rumors of an attempt by Binyamin Netanyahu to forge a “centrist” government with Labor in order specifically to exclude Yesh ‘Athid, HaBayit haYehudi, and the Chareidi parties, all of whom he finds unpalatable for various reasons. Though this has the ring of truth, the arithmetic suggests that they will only have 45-50 seats between them, and they will be unlikely, barring some dramatic, unforeseen change, to reach the magic 61 seats and a governing coalition without at least one of the three.

But stay tuned, new developments are occurring daily, and I will try to keep you informed.