On March 17, the citizens of Israel will return to the polls less than two years after the previous election. Voting for the 20th Knesset in Israel’s short, 67-year history, Israelis hope that the new government will last the full four year term, unlike most of its predecessors.
Israel has a parliamentary system consisting of one house with 120 MKs (Members of Knesset). While Americans are used to thinking in terms of a presidential candidate, that is technically not what Israeli elections are about. We, that is those Israeli citizens who are currently in the country (or are diplomats abroad), will vote for the party of our choice, from among the many that are vying for mandates (that is, seats) in the next government. Individuals are not on the ballot, only parties. Israelis vote for party lists, not individuals. Those who become MKs owe their seats to their place on that list. For example, if X is #10 on the party list and that party wins 12 mandates, X becomes an MK.
The parties, none of which is expected to come close to a majority of the votes (none ever have!), range from broad politically oriented ones like Likud, to medium sized parties with particular agendas like Shas (Sephardi religious), to small ones which appeal to a certain segment, such as the Green Leaf party (marijuana). The candidates from the parties are not chosen by geography, but are picked by a party primary, by the party leader, by a select committee, or by a combination of the above. Consequently, MKs don’t represent voters’ home districts, although there are a few exceptions.
Once the votes are counted, the President meets with the leaders of the winning parties, those which have won at least four seats in the new Knesset. After receiving their choices as the preferred party to lead the government (usually, but not always, the party with the most seats), the President designates the leader of that party to attempt to form a ruling coalition within six weeks, including at least 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Parties with less than four mandates are not included in the Knesset.
If that leader fails to form a coalition, such as happened to Tzipi Livni in 2009, then the President turns to the next party leader whom he thinks may be able to accomplish the task. Failing that, Israel would be in uncharted territory!
The 19th Knesset failed after only a year and a half because Netanyahu, the leader of the coalition, could not manage to put together a viable coalition. While many Israeli voters believe Netanyahu when he says that security is the paramount issue, others, especially the younger, middle-class voters, take security for granted and are fixated on social problems, mainly the very high cost of living in Israel and the skyrocketing price of homes in the more popular areas of the country.
Consequently, Netanyahu’s chances to lead a third consecutive government (his fourth in total) are iffy. An opposing party, the leftist Zionist Union (aka Labor) headed by Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni, is leading in the latest polls. As explained above, just winning the most seats is not enough. The essential factor is whether Herzog, if asked by the President to form the new government, will succeed in cobbling together a coalition from the newly elected parties, which the polls indicate are mostly inclined to the right.
This week we attended a parlor meeting where we heard Benny Begin speak. Begin, the son of one of the icons of Israel, Menachem Begin, served in the government for decades before retiring from the Knesset two years ago. He was enticed to rejoin the Likud, with a very realistic chance of becoming an MK, by the need to support Netanyahu in his uphill battle to keep the country fixated on its precarious security position.
Begin, who is well known for his integrity and lack of pretension, is a geologist by training. He explained to the large crowd which filled our friends’ apartment that he had really enjoyed his brief sojourn away from politics but, nevertheless, he and his wife decided that he must return to politics to help Netanyahu retain his position as prime minister.
Begin did not deny that social problems are of high importance to our country and all of its citizens. He noted some of the tremendous changes which have been put into place under Bibi’s watch, especially the huge project moving the country’s military establishment to the Negev desert, from the densely populated center of the country. He told us that the 20 billion shekel investment ($5 billion) in the move will have a multiplier effect of at least double or triple, while clearing the way for scores of thousand of apartments to be built in the highly desired center. An expected result of the move is that Beersheba and its environs, the northern Negev, will become the high tech nexus of Israel, due to the huge amount of high-tech activity engendered by the Israel Defense Forces. The Negev, which accounts for nearly 2/3 of Israel’s area, currently has a dramatically smaller percentage of the population, a situation which demands change.
Many Israelis debate whether to vote for one of the two largest parties, the ones which will determine who the country’s prime minister will be. Or, whether they should vote for a smaller party closer to their inclinations. A major factor in the choice is whether the voter thinks that voting for a smaller party will lessen the chance that the party of the premier they prefer will gain enough votes to have the opportunity lead the government.
I made my decision to vote for Likud because I want to help ensure that Netanyahu remains Israel’s leader. I was helped in my decision by the way Bibi stood up to the shoddy behavior accorded to him by the American president, especially after Netanyahu accepted an invitation to speak at the world’s most influential congress on the most vital issue confronting Israel. There is no other Israeli leader, perhaps no other Western premier, who could stand up to the world’s most powerful leader like Netanyahu did. He did it for political reasons, yes, but more importantly for the absolute imperative that the West recognize the nascent power of Iran, which already has eclipsed Turkey (the other non-Arab Muslim power in the region) in the quest to rule over the 400 million Arabs of the Middle East.
Though this may sound fanciful to those not familiar with history, both Turkey (Ottoman Empire) and Iran (Persian Empire) ruled the Arabs for centuries, establishing caliphates which extended across a large part of the globe.
With its precarious position at the nexus of Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel must devote its energies to solidifying its geopolitical position. Progress in improving social issues will continue, but as Benny Begin emphasized, social benefits mean nothing if Israelis no longer have a Jewish state.