Elections in Israel — “It’s More Complex Than Meets the Eye”

On March 17, 2015, Israeli citizens voted in a new governing body to represent the public’s demands and lead the country into a secure and promising future. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won a surprise victory and added 10 Knesset seats to the party, a fifty-percent increase from pre-election size. Most of his campaign, reaching its climax with his speech before the American Congress, focused on the security threats facing Israel – from Hamas and Hezbollah, to Iran and ISIS. The months leading up to the elections turned into a tense battlefield between the political left and right in Israel and it became very clear that there were two opposing courses for the future of Israel and it was up to the people to decide.

In order to help provide a deeper understanding into the political terrain in Israel and how the policies set forth by the new government will impact the different sectors of society, it is necessary to explain how the electoral and parliamentary system is designed. Unlike in the United States, there are not three branches of government in Israel. Israel has a parliamentary system based on nation-wide proportional representation and the Knesset is the legislative body. The Knesset is made up of 120 seats, all of which are divided proportionally to the different political parties according to the number of votes received. There exist more than a dozen political parties in the Israeli parliament ranging from leftist to centrist to rightist with varying persuasions on issues like security, the economy, the peace process, Israel’s standing among the international community and so forth. Each faction, or political party, determines its own list of candidates, either by internal election or appointment. In order for a faction to be counted among the 120 seats in the Knesset, it must receive at least 3.25% (a minimum of four seats) in the overall number of votes. No party has ever won a majority in the elections. This means that every eventual prime minister has to form a governing coalition with smaller parties to gain the minimum number of seats in the Knesset, 61. Once the results of an election are revealed, the president of Israel consults with each of the party leaders and selects the Knesset member most likely to form a viable coalition government of 61 or more seats. In most cases, the leader of the party with the largest number of seats is the one chosen to form the coalition. However, there have been instances in the past where the leader of the faction with the most seats is not always capable of becoming the next Prime Minister. This happened in 2009 when Tzipi Livni, the head of the left-centrist party Kadima, won more seats than Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, Likud. However, when she was unable to form a coalition with enough seats, Netanyahu became Prime Minister.

Knesset elections must be held once every four years. If the coalition cannot survive a full-term due to political instability or stalemate, a majority of the Knesset may vote to dissolve the body and call for early elections to be held within 90-150 days. The most recent elections on March 17 were a direct result of this very kind of dissention. After two years, per request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Knesset voted to dissolve the current governing body and send Israelis to the polls to re-elect a new government. This overhaul was triggered after Netanyahu and his coalition partners Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni were unable to agree on a budget.

Now, what role does the smaller factions in the Knesset play in the government and why would anybody vote for a party that they know will not win enough votes to become Prime Minister? This is what is called strategic voting. Israelis will freely put their votes to a party to which they align ideologically in hopes that giving that party more leveraging power when forming the coalition and creating future policies. It is also a place for party members to leverage with the prime minister for placement in the different ministry departments. For example, in this year’s election, the party that received a large amount of headline coverage was a smaller centrist party called Kulanu, headed by Moshe Cachlon. This party’s main focal point throughout the campaign has been concentrated on improving the Israeli economy and strengthening the depleting middle class. It became obvious that regardless of who won the most votes, both the rightists and the leftists would need this party when forming the future coalition. For the people of Israel, the economy and security were the two predominant concerns in this year’s election, so giving more votes to Cachlon would help to ensure that the issues such as housing prices and the cost of living would be addressed in any future coalition deal. This gives Cachlon, along with other smaller, but influential parties like him, a great deal of power to leverage the kinds of policies they want to see addressed, as well as increasing his chances to be offered the position as Finance Minister in any future government.

This same kind of strategic voting was evident in the 2013 elections. However, the men in power this time were Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett. They had enough mandates, or seats, in the Knesset that Netanyahu needed them to form his coalition of 61 seats. They used this opportunity to block out the ultra-orthodox party from the coalition for the first time in history. Their participation in the coalition was conditional on the basis of the exemption of the ultra-orthodox party. By doing this, the Knesset was able to pass a bill requiring the ultra-orthodox to serve in the military.

These are just a few examples to show dynamic complexities of the Israeli parliamentary system. It is not always about voting left or right or even for the most powerful man, woman, or party. Israelis use their democratic rights to vote for the party leaders that fit their personal values and principles. They do this to widen the level of representation across political, economic, and social spheres. It is our job as believers first and foremost to pray over this entire political process. We can continue to pray that God will place in authority the men and women that will lead the people of Israel down a godly path which aligns with biblical principles and prophecies.

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