Israel Elections 2019

This April Israel will be having elections for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In Israel’s parliamentary system, no party will receive more than 50% of the vote (the top party could well be around 25%). After the elections, the president, a primarily ceremonial position, will task the leader of the top party with forming a government. This leader will then have to make deals with other parties by offering various ministerial appointments, policy promises, etc. to secure more than 50% of the votes in the Knesset. If the leader of the largest party is able to accomplish that, he or she becomes the Prime Minister.

One of the many consequences of this sort of system is that there is a huge number of different parties. However there are four main blocks of parties, so while there will likely be lots of movement among voters between the different parties between the previous election and the upcoming one, there is likely to be little movement between the different blocks. The four blocks are right wing, centrist, left-wing and tribal.

On the right, we have parties like the Likud, the party of our current Prime Minister and largest current party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), HaYamin HaHadash (the new right). These parties tend to be strongly nationalist, want to devote fewer resources to social issues, take a hard line on security and be against a two-state solution. They differ on which right-wing solution they support to the Palestinian issue (should we maintain the status quo and wait? Annex some portion of the West Bank immediately? Annex the whole thing?) and what role religion should play in public life. Historically, many of their supporters are Jews from Middle Eastern countries (Iraq, Egypt, Syria, etc.), though I’m not sure this is as clearly the case today as it once was (especially with the arrival of a million immigrants from the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s who tend to vote right wing).

In the center, we have parties like Yesh Atid (there is a future), Kulanu (all of us) and a slew of other parties that have recently formed. They tend to dwell less on Palestinian and international relations issues and focus more on domestic ones, especially the cost of living, which is a huge problem in Israel. When they do talk about the Palestinians, they tend to take something of an exhausted, pragmatic view-creating two state will be a terrible and painful compromise that may well lead to tremendous bloodshed, but it’s the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

On the left, we have Labor and Meretz. Labor dominated Israeli politics for the first 30 years of the state-it’s the party of David ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minster-but in recent years has fallen on hard times, as has the entire Israeli left. This, in my opinion, is due to a breakdown of their fundamental position, which argued that if we play nice with our Arab neighbors, they’ll play nice with us. Among Israelis this notion is now completely rejected based on three events: the Second Intifada, a period of great violence with many suicide bombings from 2000-2005, the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000, which was met with attacks from Lebanon into Israel leading to the Second Lebanon War, and the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which was met with ongoing rocket fire and tunnel attacks from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The Israeli takeaway was that any attempt at compromise, any concessions, would simply be met with greater violence. As a result, the Israeli electorate has tacked to the right, believing that our Arab neighbors will only respond to force. While the left in Israel supports a wide variety of social and economic issues that I think many Israelis could support, I do not feel like they have successfully convinced the electorate that they can keep us safe (I don’t necessarily agree), which is far and away the most critical issue in Israeli politics.

The final block of political parties is what I’ve described as, “tribal”. These parties tend to be less about specific policy positions (though of course those matter as well) than about identity. Ultra-orthodox Jews vote mainly for Ultra-orthodox parties like Shas and UTJ and Arab Israelis vote primarily for Arab parties, which have recently been combined in the Joint List.

While there can be a great deal of movement between specific parties-the centrist Kadima party went from 28 seats in the 120 member Knesset in 2009 to 2 in 2013-there is very little movement between blocks. Check out the results of the last three elections in the table below.




As you can see, there’s not a lot of movement. The last three governments were led by the Likud party and contained some combination of right, center and Ultra-orthodox parties. In fact, historically the Ultra-orthodox parties tend to wield political influence beyond their numbers, due to their willingness to be a part of virtually any coalition. This is one reason that their communities have been able to secure a number of unusual benefits, such as the ability to define marriage for the whole country as a purely religious institution and to receive government handouts allowing nearly half their adult men not to work.

There are likely to be significant changes in Israel’s political parties this election. There are a number of important new parties, such as the new Israel Resilience party, founded by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. It’s unclear how Bibi’s myriad legal troubles will affect his prospects. But at the end of the day, the election is likely to shake out into the same major blocks as usual.