With voting taking place in just 1 week, on Tuesday, the 17th of March 2015, the elections campaign for the twentieth Knesset has entered its final stretch. And as usual with Israeli elections, predictions about the outcome and its consequences are worth less than the paper they are printed on. As any follower of Israeli politics knows, expecting the unexpected is a must. But even on the Israeli scale of surprising results, next week’s vote might turn a big surprise. It just might be that the next Knesset (the Israeli parliament) will not be as fragmented as it used to be.
The reason is that the electoral threshold has been raised from 2% to 3.25%, meaning that a party should win at least 4 rather than 2 seats to be in the Knesset (out of 120 in total). Many parties running, both established ones and newcomers (Meretz and Yahad, see below) are balancing just above the threshold. With that in mind, voters may at the last moment cast their ballot for a party that is sure to get into the Knesset, rather than risk having their vote lost with a party that just couldn’t make it. Other factors that complicate the eventual outcome are the application of the Bader-Offer method and the surplus-votes agreements. I’ll spare you the technical details, but it comes down to a slight favouring of bigger parties. So, the Likud got 38 rather than 36 seats in the 2003 elections after the numbers were crunched.
The surprising outcomes are not only a function of technicalities though. The main source of surprises is that Israeli politics is very poorly understood outside Israel. The way I see it there are 3 causes for the failure to understand Israeli politics.
Firstly, most coverage comes from left-wing affiliates. So, Omri Marcus, an Israeli who wrote a guide to “Israeli Politics for Dummies“, has named no less than 3 right-wing parties in Israel “extreme” and guess how many left-wing parties got that title? Right, zero! Not even the communists of Hadash were deemed worthy of the “extreme” label by Omri.
Secondly, It’s the economy, stupid. The Israeli politics is almost uniformly framed as revolving around security in the international media. Yet the Israeli governments usually fall on economic issues and election campaigns are largely focused on social-economical topics like the high cost of living, taxes and child support. Since this aspect of Israeli politics is by and large ignored outside Israel, outcomes of the elections do not fail to come as a surprise.
But the third and perhaps main reason the Israeli elections are so confusing is that, well, there’s just too much going on. This time, there are no less than 25 parties participating, with 10 or 11 standing a real chance of scoring seats in the Knesset. Granted, 25 is less than the over 30 that participated in previous campaigns, but its still a huge amount to choose from.
To enable understanding Israeli politics would take more than a blog post. But I will try to make the Israeli political map a bit more understandable, by presenting some definitions and the main actors, discussing them, where possible, in more general political terms. Without further ado, here’s my best attempt to make sense of Israeli politics.
The political map
The classical definitions of “left” and “right” apply in Israel as well. The “left” is pro-state involvement and government spending, the “right” is about privatization and less taxes. In security terms, as elsewhere, the “left” and “right” are “doves” and “hawks“. In Israel, in addition to traditional opinions on crime and immigration this means the “right” is Jewish-nationalist or Zionist and the “left” is… well, slightly less fervently Zionist. And, of course, there are the Arab parties, which are anti-Zionist.
At least part of the Israeli politics is arranged around ethnic lines. In the Jewish majority the “black” are the Sefardi Jews and the “white” are Ashkenazi. With the ethnic divisions being rapidly erased as Jews of different origins happily intermarry, the division becomes less pronounced, with some notable exceptions (see below). The black-white division correlates slightly with the left-right, Sefardi Jews being on average poorer, less educated and more right-wing oriented than Ashkenazi.
Religion plays a large role in Israeli politics, with at least 4 of the 10-11 main parties including a significant Jewish religious component, supplemented by the Arab Islamist party. Most Jewish religious parties are nationalistic, but their economic platform ranges from ethno-socialism to more republican-style views.
The main players (with the number of seats in the latest poll)
Despite what some would like you to believe, Likud is nothing like the Tea Party. In social-economical terms Israel is more European than American and Likud is a classical central-right movement that can be best compared to the British Conservatives, the German Christian-Democrats or the milder Republicans.
Zionist Union (24)
The split and fractured remains of the Israeli Labour party have re-united for the 2015 elections under their traditional banner “anything but Bibi [Netaniyahu]”. A classical Social-Democratic central-left party (left-wing Democrats in the US).
The Joint Arab List (13)
Recognizing the very real possibility of being wiped out by the elevated electoral threshold, 4 Arab parties have formed an unholy alliance of Arab nationalists, Islamists and Communists, united only by their rejection of Israel as a Jewish state. Syriza is the best parallel, although if there’s one sure thing in Israel is that the Joint Arab List is not going to be a member of the coalition government.
Yesh Atid (12)
A secular centrist party, that came out of nowhere to become the second-largest party in the outgoing Knesset. As usual with secular centrist parties in Israel, is going nowhere after having failed to achieve any of its goals despite being a major coalition partner with Likud. Comparable to European Liberal-Democrats, or the right-wing of the Democratic Party in the US.
Jewish Home (12)
As you probably guessed from its name, a Jewish nationalist-religious party. Its economic agenda is more right-wing than that of other religious parties, so its probably comparable to the right-wing of the Christian-Democrats or mainstream Republicans.
This campaign’s centrist newcomer. Formed, as usual, by a Likud fugitive who is unsure of most things except wanting to head his own political movement. See Yesh Atid.
A Sefardi (“black”) Jewish ultra-orthodox religious party. Its program is a unique blend of social demands with religious propaganda. The “left-right” definitions fail here as Shas will sit in any government that will provide its MP’s a reach into the public funds.
United Torah Judaism (6)
The Ashkenazi (“white”) branch of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy. See Shas.
Yisrael Beiteinu (5)
Rather unique bird in Israeli politics, this is a secular right-wing party. Rapidly disappearing as its Soviet-made electorate assimilates into the Israeli society. Has a love-hate relationship with Likud, as the two keep merging and splitting.
The last remains of the Israeli left. Dreamy left-wing extremists, attempting to save themselves from (political) extinction by including a green agenda, much as the European Green-Left movements are doing. With about the same very limited success.
A splinter-movement of Shas, running together with the scarier components of Jewish right-wing extremism. Stand a real chance of just failing to pass the electoral threshold. Again.
The Day After
If you thought the Israeli politics was confusing, wait until the day after the elections, when the dust has settled and the seats in the Knesset have been divided. Since Israel has a multi-party system, and no party ever gets a majority, a coalition has to be formed. Whether the polls are accurate or not, it seems as if even the two biggest parties (Likud and Zionist Union) will get less than a 1/5th of the seats each. In the most optimistic scenario where they bridge their deep divisions and overcome the mutual resentment, they will need a third partner to achieve a majority. Yesh Atid is the most likely candidate, but even that might not be enough for 61 (out of 120) seats. Any other coalition will have to bring together at least 4 parties and be an even less probable combination of political views. All I can say is stay tuned for what may very well be the best show on Earth!