Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Israel's Crazy Election*

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, escorted by bodyguards walks with his wife Sara Netanyahu during a visit to the market on the eve of Israel's general elections in Jerusalem, Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

If you’ve been trying to follow Israel’s election campaign, this primer by Dan Feferman is required reading.

Why This Israeli Election Is Different.

First, you need to know the ground game, which doesn’t follow anything like American rules:

There are many parties. They rise and fall each year alongside the legacy parties, and there is a 3.25 percent threshold for admittance to the Knesset. The left-right paradigm breaks down differently in Israel than it does in the United States or Europe, and within the Israeli context, that paradigm is undergoing a fundamental realignment.

So when you read things like the stories I saw this weekend screaming “NETANYAHU SIDES WITH RACIST PARTY!” you should understand that Israel has tons of crazy little parties that come and go like skirt lengths, and forming temporary coalitions with one or more of them is often the price of victory in Israel’s parliamentary system.

Israel’s left is split (mostly) between Labor and Meretz, perhaps best understood as our Democrats’ left and far-left wings divided into two parties. Plus you have Israel’s substantial Arab minority, which doesn’t fit the left-right paradigm, but whose two main parties generally side with the more-dovish Israel left:

Hadash/Ta’al is more moderate and seeks to integrate into Israeli society, and Ra’am/ Balad is the more Palestinian-nationalist and Islamist party. This latter might not pass the 3.25 percent entry threshold, a ratio that translates to 4 seats out of 120.

Whenever you read about how racist/awful/colonialist or whatever Israel is, keep in mind that they have Islamist-nationalist candidates running in free elections.

On the right is an arguably even more-complicated tangle:

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked broke away from the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party a few months back in order to form New Right, an alternative party that is younger, further to the right, and not beholden to religious interests. They are expected to barely pass the electoral threshold. What remained of Jewish Home merged with two religious-Zionist parties, each more right-wing on security and religious matters, to ensure they all pass the electoral threshold. This is called the Union of the Right Wing Parties and includes the Jewish Power party, whose head was banned from office by the election committee for blatant racism. Together, they are expected to pass the threshold. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) party offers a right-wing approach on security matters with a strong secular appeal, and it draws mainly on older Russian immigrant voters. Russians have integrated more and more into Israeli society, and Lieberman will struggle to pass the threshold.

Are you taking notes? Because we aren’t done quite yet. As Feferman reports, there are also Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas. United Torah is socially and religiously conservative, but less so on economic issues. Shas is just as conservative on religious issues (as far as I can tell) but tends toward socialism on the economy. Both are expected to get enough votes to earn the minimum four seats in the Knesset — at least.

And that super-uber-far-right party that has been garnering so much attention? Zehut feels like a coalition of political outsiders who have banded together because they couldn’t find homes anywhere else, even in Israel’s huge patchwork-quilt of parties:

The last party is the surprise of these elections: Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut (“Identity”) party has shot up the polls based on an original but not fully understood platform that combines Jewish fundamentalism, far-right nationalism, and economic and social libertarianism. A sideshow just two months ago, Feiglin, who is accompanied by a maverick ultra-Orthodox rabbi and an anti-vaxxer, could be the kingmaker in these elections.

And, yes, Feiglin’s mix of authoritarian nationalism, religious fundamentalism, libertarianism, and medical ignorance is proving to be an unexpectedly powerful mix, and he could very well end up playing kingmaker. If so, it’s hard to imagine Feiglin siding with anyone but Netanyahu and his Likud-centered coalition, but in the mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world of Israeli politics, you never can tell.

Stay tuned: Polls close at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.