On April 9, the citizens of Israel will return to the polls nearly four years after the previous election. Voting for the 22th Knesset in Israel’s short, 71-year history, Israelis hope that the new government will last the full four-year term, which the current one, unlike most other previous governments, almost accomplished.
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. Israeli citizens who are in the country at election time (and diplomats abroad) will vote for the party of their 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 parties, not individuals. Those who become MKs owe their seats to their place on their party’s list. For example, if someone is #12 on the party list and that party wins 12 mandates, he or she becomes an MK.
Voters choose their party, which is in effect a list of possible MKs. The list is selected by a party primary, by the party leader, by a select committee, or by a combination of the above. Consequently, MKs don’t represent individual voters, generally aren’t beholden to them, and rarely are requested to help constituents as is done in the US.
Once the votes are counted, the President of Israel (who is elected by the Knesset for a single, 7-year term) meets with the leaders of the winning parties who have won the required percentage of votes, currently 3.25%, and polls them on their preferred choice to lead the new government. The President then chooses an MK (not necessarily the leader of the party with the most seats) to attempt to form a majority coalition.
If a government isn’t formed within six weeks, the President will choose an alternate MK for the task. When 61 MKs or more are united in a coalition, the new government is declared and #1 on the list of the party leading the government becomes the prime minister.
As of February 21, the party lists are completed and the combination of parties into blocs is also fixed. Major factors put PM Netanyahu’s incumbency in doubt. First, he has up to three indictments hanging over his head. If he is indicted on any serious charge, which is quite possible, some voters will not vote for him. Second, the President might not call on him to form a government, even if his party, Likud, wins the most mandates, indicted or not. Third, if Netanyahu is indicted, he may be required to resign his position, either immediately or later.
The fourth impediment to Netanyahu continuing as Prime Minister (and becoming the longest-serving one in Israel’s history) is the last minute combination of two center-left parties, headed by former general and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and former media personality Yair Lapid. The new, combined Blue and White Party is currently slightly ahead in polls predicting the outcome of the election.
Netanyahu faced this situation two elections ago, when Likud lost the election to a center-left bloc. In that case, Tzipi Livni, the president’s choice to form a coalition to run the government, failed to accomplish it. Subsequently, Netanyahu was given his chance and succeeded.
As of now, if President Rivlin designates General Gantz to form a government, I don’t see a majority of center-left and left-wing parties emerging. It’s a given that ultra-Orthodox parties won’t join that bloc and that Arab parties won’t be asked to.
I can see how the center-right and right-wing parties might be able to build a viable coalition, including the ultra-Orthodox parties. Druse and Arab MKs may be part of the government if they are members of the coalition parties and are high enough on the party lists.
President Rivlin will probably ask either Gantz or Netanyahu to try to form the coalition after April 9. If Netanyahu is indicted before the election, all bets are off and there will be a balagan (confusing mess). If he is not indicted, the Likud party will gain mandates at the expense of the Blue White Party. Whatever happens, sometime in the spring Israel will have a new government.