When all the ballots were finally counted, my Facebook feed filled with exclamations of depression. A bit melodramatic, I thought. I also wondered how many here in the U.S. actually understand not just how Israel’s parliamentary system works, but how Israeli politics work.
The basics are clear. In Israel, there are no geographic breakdowns and individual candidates aren’t fielded. Parties submit lists of candidates, people vote for the party they want, and based on the number of votes, a proportional number of seats are awarded and that many people from each list get in. The exception, though, is impactful. Parties must pass a threshold of a minimum number of votes. If they don’t, then they do not get in at all and those votes are reallocated to other parties, increasing their number of seats. This threshold has gone up over time.
The government is made up of a coalition which is made up of enough parties (whose seats total at least 61) willing to work together. To cobble together a coalition, differently sized parties must cooperate.
Twice Israel succumbed to public pressure and held a direct vote for Prime Minister alongside the regular vote, once in 1996, and following a vote of no confidence, again in 1999. It wasn’t a successful experiment and in fact, a third election only for Prime Minister had to be scheduled in 2001 after Ehud Barak resigned. I lived in Israel in the 1990s and vaguely recall a number of early elections called due to Knesset votes of no confidence in the government. Coalition partners do not always agree on everything, and at that time, the threshold was much smaller and so there were far more little parties with too much power doing what they could to meet their own objectives.
All of this is tied into how Israeli politics work. And this is why we cannot compare what goes on in the two countries. The horsetrading that takes place for smaller parties to agree to be in a coalition is something to be watched. They make demands. For certain portfolios. For promises. And with each trade, the majority party dilutes its power. Politics in Israel is the national pastime. Grab a tub of popcorn, sit back and watch. (But first, do read all the linked articles, please.)
Even before the election, parties may voice with which other parties they would agree to sit in a government – and which not. Sometime after the election, each party meets with the president to express their desire as to whom they would to see as Prime Minister and then the President chooses whom to invite to put together a coalition. It does not have to be the largest party, but usually is. What is unusual this year is that President Rivlin has said that the discussions he will be holding with parties will be broadcast across all media platforms and not held behind closed doors.
I’ve seen headlines where Benny Gantz has said his second place Blue and White party would consider sitting with Likud and one more, which would then preempt the need for getting most of the smaller parties involved (when the two largest opposing parties decide to form a government together, this is called a national unity government, although ego and ideology don’t often allow for too much unity…) but Yair Lapid has vehemently disagreed. Likud apparently would consider it as well – and I think it could be a good thing to consider. I’ve also seen Hadash’s Israeli Arab leader Odeh Ayman say he could recommend to Rivlin that Blue and White form the government, while Gantz has said they won’t sit with any Arab parties. So there is this.
There is also the disappointment that resolving the conflict took a back seat. Parties take positions on a number of platforms, and the sad truth that the American left doesn’t want to hear, is that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t top the list. Security is paramount in the minds of many. Diplomatic achievements. Having the religious serve in the army. The economy. All of these are more achievable now than getting back to the negotiating table. Algemeiner’s analysis of why Bibi won along with this solid analysis of what happened from The Atlantic and Times of Israel piece on why younger Israelis voted right may shed some light. Uri Pilichoswki’s letter to American left wing Jews is also informative. Very few on either side seem to think that it will get resolved any time soon. (But that is why I so want both sides to take Jared Kushner’s still-to-be-unveiled peace proposal seriously, despite Palestinians boycotting anything American and Israel reluctant to talk about anything which might ask it to give up land. My fear is that if this proposal is not used as a means of getting back to the table, nothing in the foreseeable future will be. It needs to be treated as a welcome launching point, if not a final word.)
To get back to the elections for a second – the smaller Arab and left wing parties could’ve gained more seats, but the Arab turnout was incredibly low. They hurt themselves by not voting. Saeb Erekat may bemoan how Israeli voters voted, but he should also berate Arabs for not turning out to help their brethren. Hanan Ashrawi too, interpreted the election outcome as thwarting peace. But as pointed out above, Israelis do not see that there is anyone to talk to on the Palestinian side. It is not that they are for controlling another people’s lives, but they are against putting their own safety in jeopardy. And nothing they see from Abbas or Hamas indicates that there is someone to hold good faith negotiations with. I cannot help but wonder what Erekat and Ashrawi have to say about Palestinians’ own lack of elections, despite recent polls showing that Palestinians do not trust their leadership and would like elections.
Bibi and the Likud resorted to loathsome tactics in their attempt to get votes. There was an ugliness and a desperation in messaging, in using cameras, in promising annexation without negotiation. These cannot be forgiven. But they do not mean the end of Israeli democracy. There are too many variables, too many parties, too many ways to lose leverage in order to retain power.
While Trump can unilaterally make appointments, decisions and pronouncements that the GOP may or may not agree with, Bibi as Prime Minister cannot act alone. He will have a coalition he needs to cooperate with – and a trial hanging over his head. America’s firm two-party system and Israel’s parliamentary system with a history of parties growing and shrinking, coming into existing and fading away, operate very differently.
While the left has good cause to wring their hands at the lack of progress at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issues, I do not think that they need fear the end of democracy in Israel because the Likud headed by Bibi won.
What we do need to worry about finding a way to get both sides to actually think about what it would take to move us closer to resolving the conflict. And as we get ready to watch Ruby Rivlin speak with the different parties and get their recommendations for who should form the next government, I leave you with this food for thought, “Eight steps to shrink the Israeli-Palestinians conflict,” another worthy read out of The Atlantic.