Your Comprehensive Guide to Israel’s Chaotic Election

By an IPS Contributor

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks likely to remain in office following Israel’s fourth election in two years. Photo: AP

On Tuesday, March 23rd, Israel held an unprecedented fourth election in two years. The outcomes were mixed and indecisive, with neither Prime Minister Netahyahu nor his opponents seemingly able to form a government majority. If no governing coalition is formed before the electoral deadline on April 7th, a fifth election will be on the horizon.

Israel’s democracy is dissimilar to America’s in many ways. To begin with, Israel has no constitution. The nation’s only founding document is the Declaration of Independence, which outlines many principles for governance but tends to be short on specifics. In place of a constitution, Israel is governed by a series of Basic Laws to be passed and repealed only by a supermajority of the governing body, an institution known as the “Knesset.” Unlike the American House and Senate, the Knesset is a unicameral legislature of 120 seats. The leader of the Knesset is the person who is able to gain the support of a coalition (a collection of parties) consisting of a majority of Knesset members (at least 61). This person is known as the prime minister and is the most powerful member of the government.

The Knesset is comprised of roughly a dozen parties, sharply dissimilar from the American two-party system. Due to the diversity of choice, it is nearly impossible for one party to gain an outright majority of seats. If you look at the graph below, you can see a visual representation of the spread of votes among various parties. The biggest party, Likud, earned only enough to control one quarter of the Knesset. As this is the case, parties need to form coalitions in order to govern. As a general rule, the right-wing parties form coalitions with right-wing parties, and the same is true for the left.

Perhaps the main positive aspect of the coalition system is the abundance of choice. In American democracy, voters are (for the most part) forced into two camps, Democrat and Republican. Individuals whose ideas do not line up with either party are forced to vote for a candidate they do not truly align with if they want to be civically engaged. That is not an issue in Israel, where parties cover all lengths of the political spectrum. Israel also offers choices for different ethnic and religious groups, as the Knesset features prominent parties for Arabs, Russian Jews, and ultra-Orthodox Jews. There is further variety here as well, as both religious Jews and Arabs have several parties that cater to them.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of parliamentary coalitions, however, is the inherent instability. In a coalition-based government, any party in the majority can defect at any time, forcing elections and making it very difficult to make important decisions. Say, for example, a ruling coalition of 63 Knesset members is comprised of multiple parties ranging from 4 to 30 votes. If the smallest 4-member party leaves the coalition, the ruling group drops to 59 members. Since this is not enough to control a majority, new elections are called and the government is dissolved. This forces leaders to constantly appeal to all the parties in their coalitions, hampering decision-making processes, and, in Israel’s case, causing endless deadlock and elections.

Final vote tallies and likely alliances for most recent Israeli election. Source: Haaretz

In November of 2018, the Russian center-right Yisrael Beiteinu party left the ruling coalition over disputes about military action in Gaza. The resulting election in April of 2019 failed to produce a coalition of 61, so new elections were held in September of 2019. This election, too, failed to form a government, so new elections were again scheduled, this time for May 2020. This time, incumbent right-wing Prime Minister and leader of Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu, succeeded in forming a government. However, he was only able to do so on the condition that he allow his rival, Benny Gantz, the center-left leader of the Kahol Lavan party, to take power several months down the line. However, this agreement was short-lived; Benjamin Natanyahu’s coalition opted to dissolve in November of 2020, before Gantz was set to become prime minister, forcing new elections that were held on March 23rd. This level of governmental instability is unprecedented in Israeli politics.

Before discussing possible outcomes, it is important to understand which parties are in Knesset. Below are descriptions and important information about all the parties receiving sufficient votes to qualify. Party divisions are not on religious or ideological lines. Modern Israeli parties divide themselves into three groups — pro-Netanyahu, anti-Netanyahu, and undecided. Parties are listed in order of most votes received.

The Pro-Netanyahu Bloc

Likud: Likud is the largest party in Knesset and is led by longtime Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Founded in 1973, Likud first rose to power in 1977, with Netanyahu beginning a term as prime minister in 1996. Although Likud was defeated in 1999, Netanyahu regained power in 2009 and has served as Israel’s leader ever since. In many ways, Netanyahu is a lightning rod for controversy. The PM has been criticized by many for overly hawkish positions on Palestinian issues and adherence to the wishes of the religious right. Netanyahu is also currently being indicted on fraud and bribery charges for allegedly accepting money and gifts from businesspeople and promising favorable policies to a newspaper in exchange for more positive coverage. Despite these scandals, many voters are impressed with Netanyahu’s track record of diplomacy and choose to discount his personal failings. Under Netanyahu’s governance, Israel has known relative peace and sports a strong economy that remained largely untouched by the 2008 recession. Furthermore, since many of the parties in Israel are just various flavors of right wing governance, many elections are seen as a referendum on Netanyahu.

Netanyahu supporters were jubilant with what they saw as an election night victory. Photo: Dan Balilty/NYT

Shas: Shas is one of two right-wing parties targeted at ultra-Orthodox Jews. There are tensions among Israeli Jews between Ashkenazim of European extraction and Sephardim who come primarily from Iran, Spain, Morocco, and Arab nations; Shas represents religious members of the latter group. Shas’s political platform centers on maintaining the exemption of religious Jews from military service and increasing presence in the disputed West Bank territory. Their leader, Aryeh Deri, served a 22 month prison sentence for bribery from 2000–2002. Deri returned to lead his party in 2012, although he was indicted for tax evasion only a few months ago.

United Torah Judaism (UTJ): UTJ is the other side of the Sephardi-Ashkenazi coin, representing the desires of ultra-Orthodox of European origin. They have similar policies as Shas, and they are made up of two smaller Ashkenazi parties. They are led by Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman.

Religious Zionism (RZP): RZP party is considered by many to be the most dangerous in the Knesset and its power highlights a flaw in parliamentary government. RZP is a new party, formed out of the union of Noam, the anti-LGBT party, and Otzma Yehudit, a party grown out of an ideology of Kahanism, an idea many have compared to “Jewish supremacy.” Noam leaders have made disgusting remarks about LGBT Israelis. Prominent Noam leaders have called gay men “perverts” and “disgusting people,” while lamenting that Israeli politics is supposedly “tainted” by homosexuals. Noam’s platform of hatred failed to secure sufficient votes to gain seats in Knesset in previous elections, but they found their ideological mate in Otzma Yehudit. No proponent of LGBT rights themselves, Otzma Yehudit points the majority of their hatred towards Arab-Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. Otzma Yehudit advocates for the “emigration” of Arabs from the state of Israel. Party leaders have claimed that “the majority” of Arab citizens of Israel are enemies of the state and that the Palestinian territory of Gaza “should be levelled.” Otzma Yehudit comes from the ideas of a Rabbi named Meir Kahane, who infamously argued for the expulsion of Arabs from the state of Israel. Otzma Yehudit glorifies a terrorist and follower of Rabbi Kahane named Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in a Mosque in 1994. The proximity of this reprehensible party to Netanyahu highlights the power extremist parties can wield in parliamentary government. Netanyahu will more than likely need to pander to racist, homophobic fear-mongerers to remain in power, giving RZP a heightened influence. Extremism in parliamentary systems is often unavoidable, and RZP is a scary reminder of what that can mean.

RZP leader Betzalel Smitroch celebrates the ascension of his ultra-nationalist party into the Knesset. Photo: Sraya Diamant/Flash90

The Anti-Netanyahu Bloc

Yesh Atid: Yesh Atid is a centrist party and the 2nd largest party in the Knesset, behind Netanyahu’s Likud. Led by Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid supports increased secularism, more social programs, and initiatives for weeding out corruption and wasteful government spending.

Kahol Lavan: The center-left Kahol Lavan, Hebrew for “Blue and White,” (Israel’s national colors) is a shell of its former self. Founded in 2019, Kahol Lavan was meant to be the main opposition to Netanyahu’s Likud, and, for a time, shined in that role. Kahol Lavan’s leader, Benny Gantz, is a retired Israeli General who promised good governance without the strife and drama of Netanyahu’s regime. Above all, Gantz provided hope to a base that wanted Netanyahu out of office, no matter what. In March 2020, in the face of a burgeoning pandemic, Gantz disappointed his voters by supporting Netanyahu as prime minister, with an agreement that Gantz would become prime minister in 18 months. Netanyahu agreed, but broke the deal in November 2020. Broken and without credibility, the opposition to Netanyahu lost their only viable and popular leader. Kahol Lavan, which held 33 seats this time last year, now holds only seven.

Yisrael Beiteinu: Founded in 1999, Yisrael Beiteinu is a center-right party that represents primarily Russian Jews and emphasizes secular values. They have placed themselves in opposition to both Netanyahu and the growing influence of religious orthodoxy in Israel. Orthodox Jews in Israel enjoy exemptions from mandatory military service and have significant control over civil institutions (see this IPS article about Israeli marriage for more information on this topic). Yisrael Beiteinu squarely opposes these privileges.

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beitenu. Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg

Labor: After governing the country for the first thirty years of the nation’s existence, the Left-wing Labor Party has seen a precipitous decline in influence. Labor and the Labor predecessor party held between 28 and 49 seats in every election from the founding of the state to 1996. Since the start of the millennium, however, Labor has failed to capture more than 19 seats. In the last four elections, Labor controlled between 3 and 7 seats, a dismal performance for a once-great party as Israeli politics move rightward.

New Hope: Founded by Gideon Sa’ar, a former member of the Likud Party, New Hope promised to be a right-wing party without Netanyahu. Sa’ar’s policy positions mirror many of the ideas put forth by Likud, with only minimal difference. New Hope’s existence and opposition to Likud shows the extent to which this election is about Netanyahu’s fitness to govern.

Joint List: Joint List is a primarily Arab party, consisting of a conglomeration of smaller parties that banded together to cross the necessary threshold of votes to enter Knesset. The smaller Arab parties that comprise the Joint List range from communist-leftist to capitalist-conservative, making the Joint List historically unstable. Their priorities include stopping violence against Arab-Israelis and addressing the housing crisis in Arab communities.

Meretz: Meretz is the furthest left of the non-Arab-oriented parties. They are the only non-Arab party to vocally support a Palestinian state. Other policy positions include increased secularity and broad social programs. Their leader, Nitzan Horowitz, is Israel’s first openly gay party leader in Knesset.

Undeclared Parties

Yamina: Yamina (literally “right” in Hebrew), is as far right as Israeli non-religious parties get. Yamina is dedicated to rightwing ideas without the religious aspects that generally come with conservatism in Israel. Although the leader of Yamina, Naftali Bennett, has formed governments with Netanyahu in the past, the two politicians have a complicated history and Bennett harbors well-known prime ministerial ambitions of his own.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett famously declared in 2018 that we would be Israel’s next prime minister. Photo: Ammar Awad/Reuters

United Arab List (UAL or Ra’am): The UAL is the other major choice, along with the Joint List, for voters looking to support Arab parties. The UAL differs from the Joint List in two main ways: they are open to working with Netanyahu and they have strong anti-LGBT policies. Drawing their support mainly from Bedouin communities, the UAL’s position towards Netayahu is unusual among Arab institutions, given Netayahu’s history of statements and policies characterized by many as anti-Arab.

So what exactly happened on the 23rd? The immediate results of the election are inconclusive. The pro-Netanyahu faction amassed 52 votes, the anti-Netanyahu bloc earned 57, and undeclared parties represent 11 votes. By themselves, no coalition has the 61 votes necessary to gain a ruling majority in Knesset. There are several ways it could play out, and I listed them below in order of likelihood in my estimation.

#1: An unprecedented fifth election. This is solidly the most likely outcome, as no party has a clear path to a stable coalition. Netanyahu would have to court all 11 undeclared votes to get his coalition to a ruling majority, while his opposition is likely too splintered to form a coalition should the undecided parties swing its way. Since it will be very difficult for either side to get to 61, another election to decide the fate of the country may be inevitable.

#2: A Netanyahu government with UAL. Things quickly get wacky in this scenario. Netanyahu would need to court both Yamina and UAL to his side to gain a majority, which would be shocking for a number of reasons. First, UAL is ideologically opposed to many of the parties in Netanyahu’s would-be coalition, many of whom have anti-Arab histories and policies. The Kahanist RZP in particular is anti-Arab to the core, making a coalition with UAL uncomfortable and unstable, if nothing else. Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and PM Netanyahu also have well-documented histories of anti-Arab sentiments. On top of that, an Arab party has only been in the majority once in Israel’s history, when Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin made significant headway in the peace process in 1993. Netanyahu, with his apathy towards a Palestinain peace agreement, is no Rabin. With that said, UAL leader Mansour Abbas stated that he is not “…obligated to any bloc or any candidate,” making him, along with Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, the wildcards of this election.

#3: An opposition government. Unfortunately for the opposition, dislike of Netanyahu is the only idea uniting these parties. The anti-Netanyahu bloc needs to pick up either UAL or Yamina to form a coalition, and even if they do, it would be a fractured one. The opposition has representatives from the right, left, and center of the political spectrum, most of whom would normally oppose each other. An anti-Netanyahu coalition would also have to overcome the fact that Arab parties rarely serve in governments. Even if these parties somehow formed a group of at least 61, the ideological diversity would likely make this coalition unproductive and liable to fall apart at any moment, forcing another election anyway.

These unprecedented four elections, along with the probability of a fifth, reveal a key issue in Israeli politics. Voters seem evenly split on whether or not Netanyahu is fit to serve, and no matter the number of elections, the result seems resistant to change. Hopefully, a fifth election will produce a different result. If not, a sixth in three years is not nearly out of the question.

Israel Politics Society @ NYU is an explanatory journal dedicated to clearing up the conversation around Israel.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store