From the Rabbi’s Desk April 2019
Rabbi Carla Freedman
On April 9th, the State of Israel will hold an election. I have been asked recently about the Israeli electoral process, which is unlike either the American or the British system of representative democracy, and very complicated, to boot.
The original process was based upon the structure of the World Zionist Congress meetings, which recognized a large number of factions with differing views of what a Zionist state would look like and value. So there were many small “parties” participating in the votes at the Congress meetings. The State of Israel continued this tradition, and originally there were many small parties, most with a very specific issue that it championed.
Each party presents a list of its candidates for the 120 seats in the Knesset, or Assembly (the smaller parties field a much shorter list, recognizing that they will never have that many Knesset members). There are no separate electoral districts (like congressional districts in the American system, or constituencies in the British system). Voters all over the country vote on the lists submitted by the parties, the order indicating the importance of the individuals on the list; voters cannot vote for a specific individual or rearrange the primacy of specific candidates. It currently takes 3.25% of the popular vote to obtain a seat in the Knesset. This system thus allows for many parties to be represented in the Knesset, and to date, no party has ever won a clear majority.
Though there were many parties originally, some have them have come together to form a unit, and there have been two dominant blocks, one on the right and one on the left. In the current election cycle, a new force has emerged, a coalition of centrist parties that could radically shift the power in Israel from the two ends of the political spectrum.
The president of the country invites the leader of the party with the most votes to form a government; that of necessity has required the leader to invite some of the smaller parties to join in a coalition government. This gives the smaller parties in a coalition a lot of power, because they can withdraw from the coalition if they don’t get their way on certain matters, thus forcing another election. The ultra-Orthodox have used precisely this feature of the system to exert power disproportionate to their numbers in the population, to impose their values upon the whole country. The most recent and flagrant example of this was the Netanyahu government’s reneging on its commitment to build an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
A government is elected to serve for a four-year term, but it can call an election sooner if it thinks that will be advantageous, or it can be forced to do so by a vote of non-confidence in the Knesset.
Though there are many pressing issues in Israel, such as the economy, the governance of religion, international relations, immigration, etc, the dominant concern is usually security, which in Israel speaks directly to the matter of the occupation of the West Bank and terrorism. So far, Benjamin Netanyahu has successfully persuaded the Israeli electorate that other parties and other leaders cannot keep Israelis safe as, arguably, he has done.
This time might be different, because Netanyahu himself is now under indictment on three separate counts of corruption. Israeli law apparently does not require him to step down because of this. And no one knows what will happen if he is re-elected and then convicted of these crimes.
Regardless, it will be interesting to see how Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel, fares in the legal arena. It is an embarrassment to acknowledge how many of Israel’s former leaders… ministers, prime ministers and even a president…have been convicted of crimes and served prison sentences.
There has been a lot of manoeuvering amongst the smaller parties on both ends of the continuum, as well as in the center, with a number of former generals entering politics, and some of the familiar faces leaving.
So this election is more interesting than any in recent memory, and it is very hard to predict the outcome. But, as it draws closer, I hope this brief explanation of the Israeli electoral system helps you to understand what you are seeing.