On March 23, Israel will hold its fourth national election in two years. This is a result of political stalemate and politicking that’s placed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against most other parties, with his Likud party showing one of its lowest polling projections in the past three elections. It is not the first election since the pandemic, but the pandemic will play a more significant role than in the previous election a year ago.
This analysis will explain some of the main issues so that after March 23, you’ll understand better whether Israel will be able to form a stable government and move forward, or be doomed to an unprecedented fifth election later this year.
How Israel’s System Works
Israel is a parliamentary democracy. This means that Israelis vote for a party, not a candidate. Each party has its own way of determining the leader of that party, and its respective list of candidates. Some employ a democratic primary, and others use appointments by the head of the party. Factions made up of two or more parties with common interests who have joined forces decide based on internal agreements allocating these positions.
The parliament, Knesset, has 120 members who are determined by a proportional representation of seats based on the number of votes received. Parties must win at least 3.25% of the total votes (the threshold) to enter Knesset. After the election, Israel’s president consults the leaders of all the parties that passed the threshold for their recommendations as to who should form the government. Usually that’s the head of the party with the most votes, but not always, depending on who has the best probability to form a government from among the rest of the incoming Knesset. In order to form a government, one requires at least 61 Knesset members to vote in favor, typically as a coalition of a few to several parties.
Israel has no early voting or absentee ballots. Shortly after the polls close on election day there will be a good sense of the overall shape of the Knesset, but actual numbers won’t be sure until a day or two later when the ballots of soldiers voting on their bases are counted.
There are about three dozen parties running for the 24th Knesset. Most will not receive the required 3.25%. Yet with Israelis suffering election fatigue, it’s possible that there could be a surprise “protest vote” not (yet) represented in the polls that catapults a fringe party into prominence, and a place of influence.
The main parties estimated to pass the threshold and enter Knesset, in general order of their current polling positions are:
Likud—The long-standing party founded by Menachem Begin that’s been one of Israel’s leading parties since the 1970s is right of center and represents much of the wide diversity of Israel’s population. It is headed by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the longest-serving PM in Israeli history.
Yesh Atid—has been on the scene for most of the past two decades, considered to be center-left, is headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid who has served in past coalitions with Netanyahu as prime minister, but who now is one of the leaders of the “anyone but Bibi” camp.
New Hope—a new party established last year by former Likud member and previous minister Gidon Sa’ar who is considered to the right of Netanyahu. While Sa’ar was once close to Bibi, they have long been at odds, and Sa’ar has placed all his chips and future career on replacing Netanyahu.
Yamina—a right-of-center party that’s gone through a variety of incarnations, breaking away from a wider national religious group, merging back, and running on its own. It is headed by former government minister Naftali Bennett who was also once close to Netanyahu and is now challenging him to be PM.
Yisrael Beiteinu—a party headed by another former Netanyahu confidant and government minister, Avigdor Liberman, that combines right-of-center policies with liberal social and often anti-religious views.
Joint List—three Arab parties merged to form this faction to succeed collectively and not have any one of them slip below the threshold. In recent elections they have won enough votes to be the third-largest party in the Knesset.
Shas—an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party made up by and representing mostly Sephardic Jews, whose families are from predominantly Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East.
United Torah Judaism—an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party made up by and representing mostly Ashkenazi Jews, whose families are from predominantly eastern European countries and specific rabbinic dynasties decimated by the Holocaust and rebuilt in Israel.
Labor—from Israel’s founding until the late ’70s, Labor and its predecessors were the predominant political force in Israel. Since then, Labor not only has not won more than a handful of elections, but its representation in Knesset has waned, nearing extinction. It is left-wing socially and politically.
Blue and White—was formed before the last election and is headed by former chief of staff and retired general Benny Gantz. They formed a unity government with Likud last spring that quickly unraveled as the government fell apart.
Religious Zionists—is a right-wing nationalist-religious faction that’s the merger of two parties. They are controversial in having a person on their list who is widely derided as racist and not qualified to serve, but seen as a potential key partner of a Likud-led government.
Meretz—a far-left party that espouses controversial positions considered pro-Arab and anti-Israel by some, that is polling just below the threshold. Meretz could be a key element to having enough seats to form a government, but hard to imagine right-of-center Sa’ar and Bennett sitting in a government with them.
Raam—is an Arab Islamist party that, until this election, was part of the Joint List. It broke away over the Joint List rejecting any government plans, including the heralded Abraham Accords, and not representing the interest of Israel’s Arab citizens.
Jonathan Feldstein and the Genesis 123 Foundation will host a webinar about the election on March 18 at 2:00 p.m. eastern/11:00 a.m. Pacific. Please be in touch at [email protected] for more information.