Understanding The 2015 Israeli Elections: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For this post we bring in our first ever guest writer Matthew Spencer-Kociol, friend and colleague from the University of Utah.  Here is Matthew's analysis on the Israeli elections and what it all means for the Middle East. 


Get Hype!

Get Hype!

The State of Israel held its national Parliamentary elections on Tuesday.  In Israel, the Knesset is the primary governing body which is elected every two years.  They, in turn, choose the Prime Minister of the country for the same two year period.  There are many different parties which have to form coalitions in order to establish a coherent governing body.  This year, the outcome of this Israeli election could have meant the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's regime.  If Netanyahu’s Likud party had lost the majority of seats in the Knesset, Israel could have experienced a political sea change- with liberals in charge for the first time in years.  But nay, Netanyahu has eked out a solid margin of victory, snatching it from the jaws of defeat, much to the chagrin of Arabs and liberal Israelis who fought so hard to prevent another Netanyahu term.  But, does this mean that we are going to see several more years of the right-wing Likud party dominating Israeli politics?

Well, not exactly.

It’s not that simple, of course. This is Israeli politics, after all.

Bibi’s party won 30 seats compared to the his competitor, the Zionist Union’s 24 seats.  The deal breaker in this election will be the economy-focused centrist party Kulanu, which could (in the coming coalition building phase) swing right or left, ultimately deciding whether a right-leaning or left-leaning coalition will run the Knesset. If the liberals win the long game,  it’s very possible that a party known as the Joint Arab List will actually play a vital role in decision making in Israel’s new government and could influence Israel on some ground-breaking issues. But according to the New York Times, Netanyahu is confident he can fold Kulanu into his coalition, handily giving him 63 Knesset seats and thus sealing victory for Likud.  But of course, this isn’t quite set in stone.


One second, that’s a lot to take in. These new parties seem to have come out of nowhere! Zionist Union? Joint Arab List? Kulanu? And how do coalitions in a parliament work? And only in Israel could you have groups called “Zionist Union” and “Joint Arab List” work together for common political gains.  To best understand how Israeli politics work, or even function, a lot of context is required to even understand the basics. So without further ado:


An American’s Guide to the 2015 Israeli Elections!


 The Knesset: It takes two parties to tango, or 3, or 4 or...

The Israeli parliamentary system is rooted in coalitions. Various right-wing parties form a coalition based on common interests, and on the other side of the aisle, Leftists do the same thing. In order to have an outright majority to form the governing force in the Knesset, the winner of this election will need the backing of at least 61 of the Knesset members in order to guarantee an appointment of a Prime Minister from their party.  The most recent Knesset, the 19th, was formed back in 2013 and was able to form a coalition run by two large parties.  These were the Jewish Home Party, and Likud, with the backing of two smaller right-wing religious parties. This coalition was only 60 seats, but the opposition was split by the Arab votes that don’t typically get folded into the Israeli left.


(Courtesy of the National Post)    Here today, gone tomorrow: This graph shows us “Today’s Knesset” to give us an idea of the political makeup of Israel and its coalitions, but it won’t look like this for long!*

(Courtesy of the National Post)

Here today, gone tomorrow: This graph shows us “Today’s Knesset” to give us an idea of the political makeup of Israel and its coalitions, but it won’t look like this for long!*

So regardless of which politician wins the most votes, it is whoever is popular enough in the Knesset to to form a multiparty coalition that truly counts. The two largest parties to lead respective coalitions are Likud for the right wing coalition, and the Zionist Union for the leftists. There are countless political parties in Israel (unlike in the United States, it’s very common and popular for Israeli politicians to jump from one party to the next). Tzipi Livni, one of the more prominent members of the Knesset, has herself formed political parties in the past only to leave them and join other political parties! It can get confusing so a brief breakdown of current party platforms are the most important things to consider.


The parties of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu Jewish Home, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Ha’am Itanu (or the Yachad Party) are all considered right leaning. They run the gamut, ranging from right of center moderates to far right religious fundamentalist parties.  The parties of the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Meretz are considered more liberal or left-leaning parties.  Now down the middle, the party that will probably decide the new coalition for the 20th Knesset will be the Kulanu party, which has ties to Likud.  But unlike the right wing parties of Israel, Kulanu also stands on a platform of compromise with Palestinians and puts a great emphasis on fighting Israel’s economic problems. Lastly, we have the Arab political parties. For reasons of the new minimum threshold percentage laws for holding seats in the Knesset, the Arab political parties have merged into a Union party. It’s a bit separate from the Israeli left, but the Arab parties and the liberal parties have a lot of platform commonalities.


This is a merely a brief list but you can check out  this amazing interactive   infographic    for more information (Courtesy of Mideast Monitor). Just like this infographic, Israeli politics is long-winded full of lots of little details.

This is a merely a brief list but you can check out this amazing interactive infographic for more information (Courtesy of Mideast Monitor). Just like this infographic, Israeli politics is long-winded full of lots of little details.


To give a bit more of an understanding of what the Left in Israel is doing, it’s important to take a look at the Zionist Union. In years past, the political left in the Knesset has been represented by more well known parties like Kadima or the Labour Party (A classic political party that has existed in Israel for decades). The Zionist Union is probably better described as a merger of Tzipi Livni’s most recent political party, Hatnua (see how quickly things change up?) with the inveterate Labour Party. The head of the Zionist Union is Isaac Herzog, who is gaining support not by virtue of his own charisma, but rather by the frustration of the Israeli public with Bibi.  Why is this?  Not only has Netanyahu’s recent visit to the U.S. congress outraged a lot of Americans, it has greatly distressed a lot of Israelis who genuinely feel that their prime minister is threatening their country’s vital relationship with the United States! (Source: The Diane Rehm Show)


Co-leader of the new Zionist Union Party,  Isaac Herzog

Co-leader of the new Zionist Union Party, Isaac Herzog


However it’s important to never underestimate Netanyahu because he has some powerful wealthy friends. Notably, Shel Adelson- the American billionaire casino tycoon who has a near monopoly on free media outlets in Israel.  He runs free propaganda papers such as Israel Hayom, which circulates more than any other newspaper in Israel and overtly endorses Netanyahu and his Likud party. Just like in the United States, Adelson’s wealth has bought an awful lot of political influence for the movements he has supported, especially the pro-settler movements that have stifled the two state solution and peace progress.  Competing right wing parties and politicians have been hit hard. Naftali Bennet, the economic minister who threatens Netanyahu’s hold on Right wing Israelis, has seen his competitive edge worn away thanks to Adelson’s exclusive support of Likud.


And lest we forget, Ain’t no party like a Joint Arab Party! Previously, The varying Arab political parties always made up a sizable minority of Knesset seats.  However, recent laws introduced by Avigdor Lieberman, a right wing colleague of Netanyahu, dictated that political parties in Israel needed a larger percentage of votes to hold seats than they did in the past (from 2% of the voting public up to 3.25%).  This seems subtle, but it had a huge effect on the Knesset. As a result of this change, the various small Arab political parties decided to merge together in order to maintain any representation in the Israeli government. This new Joint Arab List seems to have gained some serious momentum.  As of this week's election results, it is set to be the third largest political party in Israel.


Considering that the new electoral threshold rules were introduced by Netanyahu’s political forces, the fact that Arab politicians were actually strengthened by this reform can be seen as a really ironic backfire for the hard-Right Israelis opposed to Arab empowerment. In fact, the new leader of the Joint Arab List is Ayman Oudeh, a liberal Arab Israeli who is committed to working with Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union party in order to push back against Netanyahu and Likud.


(picture 2nd from the right )  Ayman Odeh , the up and coming Arab Israeli politician, is well liked by Left Leaning Jews and Arabs alike. (Courtesy the Jewish Daily Forward.)

(picture 2nd from the right ) Ayman Odeh, the up and coming Arab Israeli politician, is well liked by Left Leaning Jews and Arabs alike. (Courtesy the Jewish Daily Forward.)


In short, here’s one sentence to sum up the problems Israeli voters are deeply concerned about:


(No, seriously, it really is!)

(No, seriously, it really is!)

Due to rising housing costs, it “Is-raeli” hard to buy a new home in Israel (The writer takes full responsibility for that awful pun). Despite this, Netanyahu’s last minute appeals to the anti-Arab & right-wing settlers seems to be the factor that swung the vote! Again, as noted earlier, Israelis are highly concerned by Netanyahu’s divisive speech to the U.S. Congress given several weeks ago. That is on top of the fact that international issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s nuclear program are not the top concerns of Israelis. This may sound hard to believe since both those issues could play a role in Israel’s security, but presently there is a housing crisis in Israel.


Unlike in the United states, lending regulations are very strict and young people trying to start their lives don’t have access to easy loans to afford the increasing price of homes in Israel. Overall, the situation in Israel hasn’t been the best for the country’s middle class, and that could be the main concern of voters today. Opponents of Likud have run campaign ads claiming that Netanyahu has used scare tactics regarding Iran and Palestinian extremists to distract from the Prime Minister’s inability (if not refusal) to acknowledge that Israelis have unmet economic and housing needs. 


The nuclear menace, according to some Israeli critics...

The nuclear menace, according to some Israeli critics...

Is merely a distraction!

Is merely a distraction!

Here’s the entertainingly animated attack ad against Netanyahu.

This will almost certainly create further problems for the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The subsidies for settlement expansion (as well as the inability for young people to afford homes in Israel proper) amplifies the expansion of settlements and eats away at the proposed Palestinian state. This creates a sort of double whammy against the peace process.  This is in part thanks to policies backed by Bibi Netanyahu, who recently came out to say there will be no two state solution while he is in office. That last minute statement seemed reckless, but this desperate bid for Netanyahu to get right wing voters at the polls to back him appears to have worked. The obvious tension between Netanyahu and President Obama will likely further increase the difficulty of a meaningful resolution to the conflict within the foreseeable future.



At the end of the day we see this: partly in thanks to the new percentage rules for holding seats, the Knesset seems to be on its way to transforming into a de-facto three party system.  Right wing, Left wing, and Arab parties are forming unions to gain strength- which seems to be an added layer to the reality that already existed in the coalition-building atmosphere of the Israeli Parliament.  What remains to be seen is how effectively the Knesset's new coalition can tackle Israel's domestic issues and increasing isolation within the international community.


Matthew is a self-styled "bagel snob and chronic complainer." He lives in Utah with his wife, son, and two very domineering Siamese cats. Special thanks to Eli Sennesh for assisting in finding the political attack ad.

*Correction: The National Post info-graphic incorrectly labeled Yesh Atid as a center-Left party.  Yesh Atid is more correctly attributed as a centrist party.  Special thanks again to Eli Sennesh for catching this!*