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Israel goes to the polls – again

Oct 28, 2022 | AIJAC staff

Israelis are going to the polls yet again on Nov. 1, the fifth Israeli election in less than four years. Will this vote break the political deadlock? (Image: Flickr, IDF)
Israelis are going to the polls yet again on Nov. 1, the fifth Israeli election in less than four years. Will this vote break the political deadlock? (Image: Flickr, IDF)

10/22 #03

 

Next Tuesday, Nov. 1, Israel is heading to the polls again for the fifth time in less than four years. This Update is devoted to basic facts about the election, what to watch for as the results come in, and what different outcomes might mean.

It does not, however, contain a detailed breakdown of the stances and candidates of the 14 or so parties with a realistic chance to be elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament – for that we recommend this article on the “Parties and their Prospects” from the just-released edition of the Australia/Israel Review. AIJAC has also prepared a short video on Israel’s political parties.

We also strongly recommend a new video analysis by AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro, looking at the ads and slogans produced by the various parties in this campaign.

We lead with a basic explainer about the election from Monash University academic and AIJAC Research Associate Dr. Ran Porat. He carefully explains the peculiarities of the Israeli electoral system and also the roots of the political deadlock that has seen a lack of stable government for four years. He goes on to note the issues on the agenda in this poll, including the rising vote for far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir, as well as  some things which have not been a major part of this campaign, such as the Palestinian issue. For this essential background,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is an unsigned piece from the Israeli paper Israel Hayom exploring the four possible outcomes of this election. These are: a majority for right-wing former PM Binyamin Netanyahu; a victory for the anti-Netanyahu bloc led by current PM Yair Lapid; a compromise possibly involving Defence Minister Benny Gantz getting the top job; or yet another deadlock leading to new elections. It looks at the likelihood of each, and why. To read it, CLICK HERE.

Finally, British writer Calev Ben-Dor explores in detail some marginal issues likely to have a big impact on the election outcome. These are: one or more parties failing to reach the electoral threshold of 3.25%; turnout among Arab voters; and the question of how a substantial bloc of currently floating right-wing voters will end up casting their votes. He has some excellent insights into why all three of these electoral unknowns matter, and what might decide their outcome. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

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Israeli election explainer: Everything you need to know

Ran Porat

The Lens, 28 October 2022


Israel acts as a single electorate and Israelis vote by selecting a slip of paper representing their preferred party list in the voting booth and putting it into an envelope. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons). 

The electoral system

To Australians, the Israeli voting system may seem odd. All of Israel is one voting electorate, and citizens entering the voting booth pick only one party. Their votes are tallied, disqualified votes removed, and then divided by 120 – the number of members in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

A party needs to win at least four seats, or 3.25% of the legal votes, to enter the Knesset. Each party presents a list of candidates prior to the election campaign, and if a party wins, for example, 10 seats in the Knesset, the first 10 people on its list are elected. Primaries or internal committees determine the candidates on the list, and their order.

The current electoral system is a result of numerous changes over the past decades, most of which were designed to reduce the power of small parties.

Governing Israel is all about coalitions, because no single party has ever won a Knesset majority.

Yet Israeli politics is also traditionally dominated by two or three major parties – mostly right-wing Likud versus a centre-left party (such as Labor, Kadima, and today Yesh Atid) – so in the past, parties with one or two seats were courted by both sides to join their coalition, often leading to exaggerated demands, and even personal corruption.

The historical political deadlock

Which leads us to the main characteristic of Israeli voting patterns since the 1980s – a deadlock between the Likud and “the rest”.

The Likud has been the biggest party in the Knesset for most of the past few decades, and certainly since Likud leader Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu won the 2009 election. Yet, Likud has always needed religious and right-wing parties, and sometimes centrist ones, to assemble the required 61-plus MKs required for a coalition government.

Until recently, the divide in Israeli voting was mainly ideological, revolving mostly (but not exclusively) around the extent of possible Israeli compromises vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

The 1993 Oslo peace accords changed that dynamic, leading first to the tragedy of the 1995 assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin by right-wing extremist Yigal Amir, while after 2000, the failure to reach peace, and ongoing major Palestinian terrorism, gave a boost to the right-wing camp in Israel, which persists today.

Corruption and bribery indictments against Netanyahu in 2019, and the opening of his trial in 2020 have recalibrated the political balance. Two camps were created – the Likud and its allied, staunchly pro-Bibi parties, against the “anti-Bibi” camp, which includes left and centre parties, as well as new parties led by former senior Likud members who are now Netanyahu rivals.

The result is one solid right-wing camp against myriad ideologies and agendas on the other side.

After four election campaigns that each ended with an effective tie between the two “camps”, somehow in 2021 the “no-Bibi” camp was able to form a narrow government comprised of eight parties, including – for the first time in Israel’s history – an Arab Islamic anti-Zionist party (Ra’am).

But this “coalition of change” barely lasted a year before falling apart – blocking Netanyahu wasn’t enough of a platform to glue so many different parties together for any length of time.

What’s at stake in this election?

On 1 November, Israelis will vote again, for the fifth time in less than four years. In addition to the “to-Bibi-or-not-to-Bibi” question, two other issues will determine the outcome.

The first is the voting participation rate of Arab citizens of Israel. Plagued by internal divisions, the majority Arab parties are split into at least four major rival lists.

Many Arab Israeli citizens feel apathetic or disenchanted with their politicians, as endemic problems within their sector, such as crime, inadequate infrastructure and corruption, aren’t properly addressed by their Knesset representatives.

A low Arab turnout would favour Netanyahu by reducing the numbers of MPs in the anti-Netanyahu camp.


A screenshot from the notorious 1995 TV appearance by Itamar Ben Gvir, then a teenage rabble rouser and now a far-right politician, holding an emblem from then PM Yitzhak Rabin’s car and announcing “Just as we got to his car, we’ll get to him, too.” (Image: Youtube screenshot). 

Right-wing racist extremist Itamar Ben Gvir is the second significant political issue of the elections. He became notorious as a teenager when he appeared on TV in 1995 holding the emblem stolen off then PM Itzhak Rabin’s car while announcing: “Just as we got to his car, we’ll get to him, too.”

A few weeks later, Rabin was assassinated.

A follower of the late racist agitator and politician Rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir often acts aggressively towards Arabs, and calls for deportation of “non-loyal” citizens, among other things.

A Netanyahu ally, he’s become a media and political star, and a joint slate of his “Jewish Power” party with two other right-wing national religious parties is predicted to win up to14 seats.

Ben Gvir’s rise has been flagged as a danger to Israeli democracy by many on Israel’s left and centre, while warnings about nominating him as a minister in the next government have been voiced by US officials, American Jews, and Israel’s new Arab allies, such as the UAE.

One thing not on the agenda this election is the Palestinian issue. This is despite a recent terror wave emerging from the West Bank, especially from northern areas, where the corrupt and deeply in-debt Palestinian Authority (PA) has become too weak to exert control.

While the Israel army has been conducting intensive operations to try to shut down terror cells, everyone – in Israel, the Arab world, Washington, and among the Palestinians themselves – is waiting for 86-year-old Mahmoud Abbas to finally step down from his role as PA chairman.

The latest violent flare-up only confirms the thinking of many Israelis that the Palestinians aren’t ready, and won’t be ready anytime soon, for serious peace talks. Their votes are thus primarily based on internal Israeli issues, not the Palestinian question.

Recent Israeli polls predict either another hung parliament or a narrow victory for the Likud-led coalition.

Israelis are weary of political deadlock, and long for a functioning and stable government. But it will likely take many weeks after 1 November until the votes are fully counted and a new coalition is negotiated to determine whether that hope can be answered, if at all.

Dr. Ran Porat is an Affiliate Research Associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University. He is also a research associate at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Reichman University in Herzliya.


Ready to vote? A guide to the 2022 Knesset election

 

In Israel’s fragmented political system, neither Netanyahu nor Lapid are expected to win outright majorities in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

By AP and Israel Hayom staff

Israel Hayom, Oct. 27, 2022


Neither current PM Yair Lapid (top), nor Opposition Leader and long-serving PM Binyamin Netanyahu (bottom) will be able to form government outright, so this election will be about who can amass a 61+ seat governing coalition. (Photos:  Shutterstock, Gil Cohen Magen and Alexandros Michailidis)

Israel is holding its fifth national election in under four years, and once again the race is shaping up as a referendum on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fitness to rule.

Netanyahu has been campaigning while standing trial on corruption charges. As Israel’s opposition leader, he has portrayed himself as the victim of a political witch hunt and promised to reform a legal system he sees as profoundly biased against him. His main opponent, caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, is marketing himself as a voice of decency and national unity.

In Israel’s fragmented political system, neither Netanyahu nor Lapid are expected to win outright majorities in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament. That means each will have to turn to smaller allies in hopes of securing the 61 seats required to form a new government. Opinion polls say the race is too close to predict.

Here is a look at the potential outcomes of Tuesday’s election:

NETANYAHU WINS

Netanyahu’s Likud party and its allies, an extremist ultra-nationalist party and a pair of ultra-Orthodox religious parties, are projected in polls to come close to winning a parliamentary majority. If they can pull it off, Israel’s next government will be a narrow, but cohesive and well-disciplined coalition poised to take a hard line against the Palestinians, including Israel’s own Arab minority, cement Orthodox control over many aspects of daily life and attack the country’s legal system.

The leader of one of Netanyahu’s main partners, Religious Zionist Party, is Itamar Ben-Gvir, a lawmaker who has called for deporting Arab politicians and brandished a pistol during public run-ins with Palestinians. Another senior figure in the party once compared gays to wild animals. He later apologized, but has repeatedly made anti-gay comments and said he opposes “LGBT culture.”

Netanyahu’s allies have indicated they will try to take over the process of appointing judges and give parliament power to overturn Supreme Court rulings. That could pave the way to dismissing Netanyahu’s corruption charges.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, a former Netanyahu ally turned bitter rival, says a Likud victory will mean “regime change” for Israel. “They don’t want evolution. They want a revolution that will destroy the independence of the courts and prosecution,” he says.

LAPID WINS

Lapid, the founder and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, faces a harder task than Netanyahu. His party is projected to finish a distant second to Likud and with his current allies appears poised to fall short of a parliamentary majority. That would require some creative thinking.

Lapid was the mastermind of putting together the outgoing coalition – a patchwork of small and midsize parties that banded together last year to oust the long-serving Likud leader. But members of that alliance, which included the first Arab party ever to sit in an Israeli government, had little in common. The coalition was torn apart by infighting after just a year in power.

Even if Lapid pulls off a miracle, he will once again have a difficult time finding common ground among members that include Arabs, secular and dovish Jewish parties that support peace negotiations with the Palestinians and hawkish hard-liners who oppose Palestinian independence.

If neither the pro-Netanyahu nor anti-Netanyahu blocs are able to gather a 61-seat majority, Defence Minister Benny Gantz appears to be the only one who might be able to draw enough support from the opposite bloc to cobble together some sort of unity government. (Image: Flickr, Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)

GANTZ HAS A CHANCE

Since entering politics in 2018, former military chief Benny Gantz has seen his fortunes rise and fall. Initially seen as the great hope for ousting Netanyahu, Gantz later disappointed his followers by entering into a disastrous and short-lived power-sharing agreement with him. Gantz, currently defense minister, has now carved out a niche as the head of a midsized, middle-of-the-road party.

With one small Arab party unlikely to endorse either Netanyahu or Lapid, it is possible neither side secures a majority.

That is where Gantz could emerge as a power broker – and even an unlikely winner.

Gantz appears to be the lone candidate in the anti-Netanyahu bloc with some crossover appeal. He could potentially steal votes from Likud to prevent Netanyahu from securing a majority. And if that happens, he also could seek to lure ultra-Orthodox parties away from Netanyahu and into a coalition with Lapid.

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD

The parties have nearly three months to cobble together a new coalition. If they fail, Israel will return to the polls early next year and do it all over again. Beyond costing millions of shekels, the elections have exhausted Israelis and eroded their confidence in the country’s democratic institutions.


Fine margins and the Israeli Election – three that will determine the result

by Calev Ben-Dor

Fathom, Oct. 25, 2022

As Israelis head to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years, and with little to separate the pro and anti-Netanyahu blocs, Calev Ben-Dor argues that the elections will ultimately be determined by three key issues – turnout in the Arab community, the political home chosen by the ‘soft-right’, and whether any of the major parties fall below the electoral threshold.

 


The balance of seats in Israel’s Knesset may depend on some “fine margins” – small changes that could tip the vote tallies enough to make a major difference to who can and cannot form government. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

It’s difficult to remember now, but the difference between the stalemate in Israel’s first election in this current marathon and a Netanyahu victory was just under 1400 votes, the amount by which Naftali Bennett’s ‘New Right’ party failed to pass the electoral threshold. Those extra votes would have provided Netanyahu with a stable right wing and ultra-Orthodox government that, over three years on, remains tantalisingly out of his grasp.

Sports scientists and coaches often discuss fine margins, those small changes that make the difference between success and failure. So too for Israelis preparing to vote in the country’s fifth elections. Polling numbers have consistently shown little difference between those who support Netanyahu and those who oppose him. The Netanyahu bloc – including Likud, the far-right Religious Zionist party and two Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism – has been polling at between 59 – 61 seats. Yet the devil is in the details, or in this case in the 3-4 per cent margin of error. It’s like predicting the markets’ response to Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s budget would have been somewhere between broad approval and utter rejection. The difference between 59 and 61 is immense. The former represents abject failure (again), the latter a famous victory.

Once again fine margins will likely determine the result, in the form of the effect of the electoral threshold, turnout within Israel’s Arab community, and voting made by the ‘soft right’.

The Threshold Question

In March 2014, the Knesset raised the electoral threshold from 2 to 3.25 per cent, thus significantly increasing how many votes each party needed to gain seats. In 2013, this number was approximately 75,800 votes. In 2015 it was 123,500 votes. In 2019, when Bennett’s party came agonisingly close, it was 140,000. The larger threshold may play an oversized role in this election. Israeli Arab party Balad, which pushes a Palestinian-nationalist agenda, will almost certainly fall below it – it is thought to have support from an estimated 40,000-80,000 people. Ayelet Shaked’s Jewish Home party is also consistently polling below the threshold. This in turn has created a vicious circle which disincentivises prospective voters from considering her. After all, why potentially ‘waste’ a vote?

A whole raft of other parties are polling above the threshold but slightly too close for comfort. If polls are to be believed, Arab parties Ra’am and Hadash-Taal, left wing Meretz and Labour, and right-wing Yisrael Beitenu should be fine come election day. But it only needs a few tens of thousands of voters to switch allegiance, and one or more may find themselves out of the Knesset. With all these parties firmly in the anti-Netanyahu camp, any such shock would strengthen Likud’s chances of forming the next government.

Voter turnout in the Arab community

A related issue to the threshold question is voter turnout in the Arab community. Correlation generally exists between turnout and the extent to which the four main Arab parties – Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad – run on a united slate. For example, in the elections of March 2015, September 2019 and March 2020, when the Joint List comprised all four parties, turnout was 63.5 per cent, 59.2 per cent and 64.8 per cent. In the elections of April 2019 and March 2021, when Arab parties ran in two separate lists, it was 49.2 per cent and approximately 45 per cent. For the first time since 2013, this election sees three separate lists – Hadash-Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad.

Low voter turnout coupled with three separate lists could be disastrous for Arab representation and constitute a boon to Netanyahu getting to 61. Dr Salim Bariq recently warned that a turnout of under 42 per cent would lead to no Arab parties in the next Knesset. (As Ziyad Abu Habla demonstrates in his essay ‘Arab Voting Patterns in the Elections for the 24th Knesset’ 80 per cent of those who voted in the last election chose Arab parties rather than Jewish-Zionist ones).

Arab voter turnout will be a critical factor in this election – and that turnout may depend on how Israeli Arabs evaluate the unprecedented decision of Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas to bring his Islamist party into the last Israeli government. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Turnout isn’t just influenced by Arab parties displaying unity. It will also relate to how the community perceives Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas’ decision to join the Bennett-Lapid government. That historic move helped pave the way for a budget for the Arab community totalling NIS 30 billion (7.5 billion pounds) which aimed to address healthcare, social welfare and education as well as over 2.5 billion (625,000 pounds) to fight violence and organised crime. Yet with the government’s early collapse much of the money is yet to reach its intended audience. The murder rate in the Arab community has remained high. How will Abbas’ move be seen – as a sign that greater political cooperation with the Jewish majority is beneficial, or that even when Arab parties engage with the mainstream it makes little practical difference?

Leading expert on Jewish-Arab relations Mohammed Darawshe told me that around 25 per cent of the Arab public never vote, some due to apathy and others due to ideological opposition to the Jewish state. The remainder sway from election to election between voting and not believing it will make a difference – ‘voting with their feet rather than their hands’ says Darawshe. Yet the ratio between these two latter groups is key – it can range from anything between 65 per cent against 10 per cent during high turnout to 40 per cent vs 35 per cent in lower ones The decision by this group between voting and staying at home in frustration will determine whether Netanyahu returns to power. Key to this decision will be their position on Abbas’ political gamble.

The Right wingers without a natural political home

In the March 2020 elections, over 1.35 million Israelis cast a ballot for Likud, which gave the party 36 seats and almost 30 per cent of the total votes. Yet a year later – following perceived mismanagement of the Corona pandemic, increasingly aggressive discourse within the Likud coupled with Netanyahu’s inability to pass the budget and failure to honour his rotation agreement with Benny Gantz – they received 300,000 fewer votes, losing seven seats.

Where did these Likud voters go? Some likely made their way to former popular Likud MK Gideon Saar, who ran on a right wing but anti-Netanyahu ticket. Some may have gone to Naftali Bennett, another right winger who called to replace Netanyahu (but who refused to rule out joining him in a coalition). Others simply stayed at home.

Eighteen months on, the political party chosen by these former Netanyahu supporters (as well as the 225,000 who voted for Bennett’s Yamina) will be critical. But none of their prospective choices are ideal. Bennett is now taking a timeout from politics. Ayelet Shaked’s right wing Jewish Home is polling below the threshold. The Religious Zionist party has a strong Kahanist component which many former Bennett or Likud supporters might be loath to strengthen. Netanyahu led the charge against Bennett as PM with poisonous rhetoric meaning any right-winger who supported Bennett’s move is unlikely to ‘return home’ to Likud.

Best placed to sweep up the ‘right wing disillusioned with Netanyahu and Likud’ crowd would have been Gideon Saar. But his union with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party – intended to create a mamlachti / statesmanly right-wing party with strong security credentials – has ironically given their list a leftist hue that some right-wingers find off putting.

Indeed, Saar and Gantz’s success in bringing former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkott into their ranks may come to haunt them. Eisenkott was a popular Chief of Staff and was considered an electoral asset. But his comments in favour of separating from the Palestinians – he called for active policies to prevent the dangerous development of a bi-national state, which he called a danger to the Zionist project – may put off those ‘soft right’ voters the party is trying to grab.

These right wingers may no longer feel they have a natural political home. But the decision they make will be critical to the results.

On election night in March 2021, moments before the initial exit polls were published, TV announcers declared a ‘dramatic decisive victory’. It turned out to be the opposite of decisive – the blocs were tied, and political deadlock continued until the diverse and previously unimaginable Bennett-Lapid government was painstakingly fashioned. Eighteen months on, it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu or Lapid (or even Gantz) will gain a decisive victory. Their success will ultimately be determined by the above key issues. In any event, it promises to be dramatic.

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