The Upcoming Israeli Election: A Quick Guide For The Perplexed

Israeli election and its aftermath will shine a spotlight on the probability of an all out war between Israel and Iran

The Knesset building in Jerusalem
Copyright: Chris Yunker from St. Louis, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The main thing to know about Israeli politics and Israeli voters is that they divide into sectorial and non-sectorial parts. The non-sectorial voter votes based on his or her vision for the country as a whole. The sectorial voters vote substantially based on what they perceive as the fundamental interests of their “sector”. The sectors in Israeli politics today are as follows: Arabs, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox, Religious Zionists/Nationalists/Settlers, and ex-Soviet Union repatriates.

The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has 120 members representing a voting population of roughly 6.3 million. With that in mind, each seat in the Knesset is “worth” around 53,000 votes.

A government must enjoy the confidence of at least 61 Knesset members representing around 3.2 million Israelis.

If recent polling is roughly correct, non-sectorial center parties (Likud and Blue and White) garner between them 62 seats, with the Likud getting 31 and Blue and White 30. Non-sectorial left wing parties get around 13 seats.

Sectorial parties break down as follows:

Arabs – 11, Religious Zionists – 10, “Russian” repatriates – 10, Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox – 7, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox – 7.

This picture is particularly challenging for both of the large parties, because none of them can form a coalition with its “natural” partners.

On the center left, Blue and White plus the left yields only 43 seats. Even if it added both ultra-Orthodox, unlikely as it sounds due to the anti-religious posture of many in Blue and White, it would still have only 56. The addition of either Arabs or the vehemently secular “Russians” to this coalition is unthinkable.

On the right, the Likud with the religious Zionists and both ultra-Orthodox parties yields only 55 seats, quite a bit shy of the necessary 61.

This makes Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the secularist, but right-leaning Israel Beitenu “Russian” sectorial party the putative kingmaker, but there is one problem. While Lieberman can certainly make a religious-right government happen, he cannot (as explained above) do the same for a left of center government without sacrificing either the secularist or the right-wing ideologies of his voter base.

Joining a religious-right coalition would make Lieberman look downright silly as he could have done so after the April election, sparing the country the expense and the “mishigas” of an unnecessary election in the fall.

This leaves Lieberman only one option: using his leverage to force a “national unity” government with the two major parties and his own party yielding a highly stable majority of over 70 seats. Considering the personal animus among many in these two parties and the over-sized egos of their respective leaders, Bibi Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, such a coalition may be an uphill climb to say the least.

There is, however, another reason why a national unity government is unlikely. The betrayal by the Likud and Blue and White of their natural partners on the religious right and the socialist left, respectively, would make any future narrower coalitions very difficult. Memories are long in Israeli politics and wounds take decades to heal.

The way things are looking now, Lieberman will have to accept a token “victory” from the ultra-Orthodox in the form of some arcane concession on the topic of military service for yeshiva students and consent to join a religious-right government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

But there may be a surprise outcome as well. Israel has a history of forming national unity governments in times of existential crises. If war with Iran and its proxies is indeed imminent, a national unity government with broad support from substantially all Jewish members of the Knesset is a possibility.

Earlier in the week PM Netanyahu ordered that the leader of Blue and White, Major General (ret.) and ex-Chief of General Staff of the IDF Benny Gantz, get a full security briefing on the latest developments in the “war between the wars” with Iran and the Hezbollah. The briefing was conducted by Netanyahu’s personal military secretary. This could be a routine move or it could be preparation for putting Israel on a war footing with a national unity government. The next few weeks will tell.

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