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Israeli politics for dummies (2015 edition) – the morning after

Just a week ago, I’ve published a summary of the Israeli political system titled “Israeli politics for dummies (2015 edition)”. And its so good to be able to say “told you so”. The opinion polling in the run-up to the elections has failed spectacularly, again. This failure includes the exit polls, who predicted a draw between Likud and Zionist Union, with 27 seats for each – the outcome was… slightly different.

Benjamin Netaniyahu might keep his job after all.

The exit polls

Party name – results {exit polls} (last preliminary polls) [current number of seats]

Likud – 30 {27} (21) [31 – together with Yisrael Beiteinu]
Benjamin Netaniyahu, like a phoenix, has risen again from the ashes, and stands a real chance of retaining his seat as a PM. The clear winner of these elections, Likud has beaten the polls for who knows which time. In football they say “you play for 90 minutes and the Germans win”. In Israeli politics, apparently, you wait for the final results and Likud wins.

Zionist Union – 24 {27} (24) [21 – with Hatnua]
Isaac Herzog, the darling of the left, son of a President, the leader of the Zionist Union wakes up to a massive hangover. His campaign to oust Benjamin Netaniyahu seems to have been fruitless, despite support from pretty much everyone, including Barack Obama. Obama increasingly turns into King Midas, with the slight difference that everything he touches turns not into gold, but into shit. Still can’t eat it, and it smells. Perhaps Obama should stop supporting people.

The Joint Arab List – 13 {13} (13) [11-divided among 3 parties]
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, will not be heading the opposition as a unity government of Likud and Zionist Union seems unlikely, which means the Zionist Union will lead the opposition. The Arabs of Israel have shown their true colours by refusing to pretend to support the Zionist left, making the Joint Arab List the third largest party in the Knesset. Whether their elected leaders will actually start taking responsibility, instead of shouting from the sidelines, remains to be seen.

Yesh Atid – 11 {12} (12) [19]
Yair Lapid is the shlemiel of these elections. Crash and burn – no other words. Having pulled the plug out of the cabinet Yesh Atid (“There is a future”), can now change its name into “No Future”.

Jewish Home – 8 {8} (11) [12]
Naftali Bennett was the first person who Benjamin Netaniyahu has called after the exit polls. The Jewish Home has paid the price for keeping Likud in power, but Netaniyahu will reward its political frenemies.

Kulanu – 10 {10} (9) [0]
Moshe Kahlon considers himself a longstanding member of both Israel’s “national camp” and its “social camp”, so he can be appropriately described as a national-socialist. Not the best of associations, but he’s got only himself to blame here. His populist agenda has put him in the head of a major political party. Based on the exit polls, Kulanu was in the position to make or break governments. The final results though give Bibi a wide array of options to choose from, and Kulanu will have to work hard to prove its a reliable partner.

Shas – 7 {7} (7) [11]
Aryeh Deri is the other phoenix of Israeli politics. Convicted for corruption, he served major jail time, returned to head Shas, and has split with former “crown prince” Eli Yishai. The split has left Shas critically injured but alive. Yishai seems to have bet “all in” and lost (see below).

United Torah Judaism – 6 {6} (6) [7]
Yaakov Litzman‘s ultraorthodox party was left out of the previous government. This time, things might be different. But there are long-terms concerns. The huge increase in potential voters due to explosive birth rates in the ultraorthodox community has not increased the party’s political power. Is the youth secretly voting against the advice of the Rabbi’s?

Yisrael Beiteinu – 6 {5} (5) [together with Likud]
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Foreign Minister and the left’s favourite boogie man, has all the reasons to be pleased. And he will probably be rewarded for his support of Bibi by being offered any post he wishes (Minister of Defence, that is).

Meretz – 5 {5} (5) [6]
Zahava Gal-On is the first casualty of the results. Barely passing the electoral threshold, she admitted failure and resigned. With the Arab support waning, the party is increasingly out of touch with reality. Its most vocal supporter, the antisemitic Jew, Haaretz writer Gideon Levi has already said that “if this is what the nation wants, we need a new nation”. With this kind of attitude Meretz will not be in the next Knesset.

Yachad – 0 {0} (4) [0]
The Israeli extreme right has learned nothing from the mistakes of the past. In 1992, Tehiya has just missed on seats in the 13th Knesset, leading to the loss of the right-block’s majority and indirectly causing the disaster of the Oslo Agreements. Exactly as I thought last week, the extreme right, this time as “Yachad”, just failed to pass the electoral threshold. Again. The right-block is still victorious, but not thanks to Yachad.

The final results

When all the votes will be counted, the picture might still look different. The Bader-Offer method and the surplus-votes agreements can add or subtract a seat or two, just tipping off the balance of power. But the changes will be minor, if any. What’s next?

The coalitions

Since no party has the majority, a coalition government has to be formed. And its not as simple as the largest party providing the PM. After consulting the fraction leaders, the President assigns the task of forming a government on one of the MP’s. That person has to try and put together a coalition, that is to say, find at least 61 MP’s to have a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Here are some possible arrangements:

National Unity Government – Likud-Zionist Union-Yesh Atid/Kulanu/both – 65/64/75 seats
The exit polls indicated this a likely scenario, albeit one that would require the partners to swallow a huge amount of pride and forget an even bigger amount of pre-election insults. The final result, though, is Likud’s resounding victory, and a right-wing coalition is much more likely.

Same-same but (a bit) different – Likud-Yesh Atid-Kulanu-Jewish Home-Yisrael Beiteinu – 65 seats
Presuming that the 10 seats of Kulanu are gained from the losses of Likud and Yesh Atid, the partners in the previous coalition have now together approximately the same amount of seats they had before the elections. Find the coalition agreement from the previous elections, re-print it and put the same people back on the same posts. Probably the cheapest option and apparently what the voters want. With 5 members, perhaps a bit too wobbly to be a first choice. And Yesh Atid is not exactly Bibi’s favourite after they brought down his last cabinet from the inside.

Anyone but Bibi – Zionist Union-Yesh Atid-Kulanu-Jewish Home-Israel Beiteinu – 59 seats
Based on the exit polls, there was a possibility that in an attempt to be true to its name, the Zionist Union could try and forge a union of Zionists with centrist, right secular and mildly religious parties. This betrayal of its traditional ally Meretz would not go down well with the party’s left wing, but again – its politics, so a scenario that includes a betrayal was actually more, not less, likely. The final results mean that the Zionist Union will not be forming the coalition, as there is almost no possible way in which it could get a majority.

Left-winged with a vengeance – Zionist Union-Joint Arab List-Yesh Atid-Kulanu-Meretz – 63 seats
Theoretically, a left-leaning coalition is possible. In reality, the Joint Arab List will not sit in a Zionist government, and even if it would, Kulanu would probably refuse to join to such a coalition.

All-right – Likud-Kulanu-Jewish Home-Shas-United Torah-Yisrael Beiteinu – 67 seats
This is the coalition that is most likely at the moment, as the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid are too shell-shocked to be even considered and have said too many times they won’t sit in Bibi’s government. But the right-religious-nationalist camp is splintered and shattered. And there’s no love lost between its members. Besides, a coalition of 6 parties that can be toppled by any of its members – such a house of cards is too difficult even for Bibi to build and hold together. And satisfying the substantial financial demands of the ultraorthodox parties and the national-socialist populist agenda of Kulanu (pun intended) might break the back of Israel’s economy.

So Israeli legislative elections 2015 – drama? Yes. Surprises? Plenty. Newcomers? In abundance. Real change? No. The winners are the same (Likud), the losers too (Labour and extreme right). When are the next elections?

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Israeli politics for dummies (2015 edition)

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.

Read on and this will make (at least some) sense! Image source – Wikipedia

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

Left-Right
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.

Black-white
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.

Religious-secular
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)

Likud (22)
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.

Kulanu (9)
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.

Shas (7)
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.

Meretz (5)
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.

Yachad (4)
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.

BARUCH2

That’s me (on the right) in Hebron, with Baruch Marzel, the scarier component of Jewish right-wing extremism. This was way back in 2001, apparently he lost a lot of weight since. I do not support his views. I think he’s a fool.

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!

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Israel goes to vote (yes, again…)

 

David Ben-Gurion, an outlier in the Israeli political statistics (among other things) (source: Wikipedia)

On the 17th of March 2015 Israel is going to vote for the 6th time in the 21st century. Even if we discount the 2001 prime ministerial election, that is still a very impressive rate of voting. Parliamentary elections were held in 2003, 2006, 2009, 2013 and, as mentioned, will be held in 2015. Not only are elections held frequently in Israel, the coalitions are forged and re-forged during the parliament’s term, so that more than one cabinet during a parliament’s term is not rare in Israel – record holder is the 2th Knesset (the official name of the Israeli parliament) that has seen no less than 4 cabinets. In the 66 years of Israel’s existence the country has had 33 governments!

Terms of the Israeli governments in years since 1949

Duration of the terms of the Israeli governments in years since 1949

All this chair-dancing means that every time Israel goes to vote (which is rather frequently) the by now familiar cry over the instability of the Israeli democracy is heard. The rapid occurrence of elections is supposedly a sign of the breakdown of society and the dysfunction of the political system. Are frequent elections really that bad? It is true that no Knesset has seen the end of its formal term, so all elections in Israel have been early elections. But that is a sign of stability in itself – it is by now a rule, and a rather strict one, since it knows no exceptions yet. Besides, what sort of stability is desirable? Iraq under Saddam Hussein was rock-stable. In Russia and North Korea elections are held and parliaments serve their terms to the minute, but are these examples of functioning democracies? And in the USA, a president can only be removed from power before the end of his term by death (Nixon is an exception that underlines the rule). Does this mean the political system in USA works well? Stability of government is not a goal in itself in a democracy. On the contrary, a government that can be removed by peaceful means if it has lost the trust of the public, despite formal terms or other barriers, may be what makes a democracy.

Terms of the Israeli parliaments since 1949 (without the last one, the trend line would be flat)

Duration of the terms of the Israeli parliaments since 1949 (without the last one, the trend line would be flat)

Besides the semantics we have the statistics. And an unbiased view of the history of government in Israel tells a rather surprising tale. The long-term trends are clear. Despite all the crises (and there have been A LOT), elections in Israel are not much more frequent. The last parliament’s term was a short one, but otherwise the trend line would be a flat one. Also, the average term a coalition government survives is growing, albeit slowly. The only indicator showing a clear downward trend is the length of the term of a PM. But even this one has a catch. The first (and third) PM of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, has been an exceptional figure in many ways, including his political role. If we exclude him from our statistics, as an obvious outlier, the trend of a PM term becomes flat – meaning that on average, the length of the term in office of a Prime Minister in Israel has been stable for decades.

Length of term in office of Israeli PM's since 1949 (black dotted trend line excludes David Ben-Gurion)

Length of term in office of Israeli PM’s since 1949 (black dotted trend line excludes David Ben-Gurion)

Does this mean Israel has a healthy, functioning political system? Probably not, but then again, who does? To me, this means only that there are many ways to look at the political situation, and the conclusions you draw will probably depend mostly, if not solely on your assumptions. But the way I see it, is that things are by far not as bad as some would have you believe.

*All data is from the website of the Knesset:
https://www.knesset.gov.il/description/eng/eng_mimshal_res.htm
https://www.knesset.gov.il/govt/eng/GovtByMinistry_eng.asp

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