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What will the new Knesset look like?

Now that the candidate lists for the September elections are closed, we can sketch the profile of Israel’s new team of parliamentarians
The number of women in each Knesset. (courtesy, Israel Democracy Institute)
The number of women in each Knesset. (courtesy, Israel Democracy Institute)

The election campaign has reached an important milestone. After long weeks of mergers, alliances and splits, the candidate lists have been finalized. Now that the dust has settled and the picture is clear, we know what lists will be competing and who is running on them. This allows us to sketch a picture of the new Knesset. Who will be our 120 representatives? Will the number of women MKs continue to backslide? Will the low level of Arab representation improve as a result of the Arab parties’ decision to once again run on a united list?

Needless to say, the analysis that follows must be taken with a grain of salt and with the appropriate caution. The election is still six weeks away. This is a long time, during which the balance of power among the various lists can be expected to shift. Some will gain in strength, while others will fall behind. In the last five election campaigns we saw significant fluctuations in the projected allocation of Knesset seats right up until Election Day itself. In 2006, for example, there was the last-minute surprise of the Pensioners’ Party. Three years later, Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni, after having lagged behind the Likud throughout the campaign, pulled ahead during the last week before elections, and emerged as the largest party in the Knesset. In 2013, there was a wave of support towards Yesh Atid on the last two or three days. In 2015, Netanyahu prodded tens of thousands of voters to the polls at the last minute, and the Likud wound up with 30 seats, more than any poll had predicted. This past April, the two largest lists (the Likud and Blue and White) were able to gobble up voters from the smaller lists and emerged with 35 seats each — again, more than the pollsters had predicted. On the other hand, the New Right and Zehut parties did worse than expected, and failed to cross the electoral threshold.

Still, after taking all these caveats into account, we can cautiously forecast the human tapestry of the 22nd Knesset. What follows is based on three public opinion polls conducted on August 1 and 2 by Channel 13 News, Israel Today, and Radio 103.

Women

The number of women in the Knesset has grown significantly over the last three decades. Only seven women MKs were elected in 1988; in 2015 there were 29, more than a fourfold increase. During the term of the 20th Knesset, as a result of resignations and the entry of candidates further down the lists, the total reached an all-time high of 35. In the last elections (April 2019), 29 women made it into the Knesset, the same number as four years ago. According to the recent polls, the 22nd Knesset will take office with 32 or 33 women. If so, this will be a record for an incoming Knesset (discounting changes in membership during its term).

Israeli Arabs

The 20th Knesset set the record not only for women’s membership,  but also for non-Jewish MKs, with 16 — 12 of them representing the Joint List and one each from the Likud, Labor, Meretz, and Yisrael Beitenu. The inability of the Arab parties and Hadash to coalesce in a single list for the April elections, along with the extremely low turnout in the Arab sector, reduced Arab representation in the 21st Knesset to 12 members. This time, we can expect the number to rise to 13 or 14.

“New Immigrants”

It will soon be two decades since the end of the wave of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, so today we must put “new immigrants” in quotation marks. The number of “Russian” MKs peaked at 12, after the elections in 2006 and 2009. Since then the figure has been declining; only six “Russians” were elected to the Knesset in April — three representing Yisrael Beytenu, two from the Likud, and one in Blue and White. The resurgence of Yisrael Beytenu predicted by the pollsters means that this time we can expect to have nine “Russian” MKs. Two Ethiopian Israelis were elected to the 21st Knesset, both on the Blue and White list. Its decline in the polls would leave the new Knesset with only one Ethiopian MK — Pnina Tamano-Shata.

Settlers and Kibbutz Members

Changes in Israeli society are also reflected in where Knesset members reside. Once upon a time, the kibbutzim were significantly overrepresented. In 1949, 24 members of the First Knesset came from kibbutzim; 35 years later, in 1984, the 11th Knesset had only eight — but this was still significantly higher than their share in the population. Since then, kibbutz representation in the Knesset has plummeted — to only three MKs in 2009, and an unprecedented figure of zero in 2013. This time, it is likely that one or two kibbutz members will be elected to the Knesset on the Blue and White list.

The sector that replaced the kibbutzim in over representation in the Knesset is the settlers. The number of MKs living over the Green Line peaked at 12 in 2013, before falling to 10 in 2015 and only five in April, because of the poor showing of the United Right and the total failure of Zehut and the New Right. This time, if the pollsters are on target, and Otzma Yehudit and Zehut fail to make it past the threshold, there will be only a slight increase in the number of MKs who live in the territories, to six. This will still be a moderate over-representation considering the settlers’ proportion in the voting-age population.

Young Adults

In the democratic world, there is no shortage of young politicians (including in senior leadership positions), but in Israel, the phenomenon is rare. Even those elections that produced a wave of young parliamentarians — notably 1992, 2003, and 2013 — yielded no more than eight MKs under the age of 35. In April, there were seven MKs aged 35 or younger; and in the current elections, the forecast is even gloomier. This is mainly because many of the younger candidates have been assigned low slots on the two main lists — slots which, according to the polls, are not likely to get into the Knesset. At present, it looks as if the 22nd Knesset will have only two or three MKs under the age of 35.

“Generals”

A military career has always been prominent among the various backgrounds of MKs prior to their joining the Knesset.  In the 1980s, the Knesset included four former IDF chiefs of staff, and another two to four retired major generals. The number has been dropping since then: in 2016, after Moshe Ya’alon resigned, for the first time since 1959, there wasn’t a single former chief of staff in the political arena. The April elections “corrected” this trend and brought back senior officers to the Knesset. This time, too, a large number of them are expected to take their seats in the Knesset: three former chiefs of staff (without Ehud Barak, whose tenth slot in the Democratic Camp is not considered to be realistic), four retired major generals, two brigadier generals, and three colonels.

All in all, the human landscape of the Knesset continues a trend of an improved representation, which better reflects the heterogeneous Israeli society. Still, several groups are still under-represented, mainly women, non-Jews, young adults and “Russians.”

About the Author
Dr. Ofer Kenig is a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute and a Senior Lecturer in Ashkelon Academic College. He recently co-authored the book, "From Party Politics to Personalized Politics.".
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