The Israeli election campaign is underway, heading toward a vote on April 9. Rapid-fire reporting on the continuous polling has since ensued, which has been the norm in Israel in recent election years. Most of the polls show a small decline for the Likud (the senior partner in the government coalition) and for the Labor-led Zionist Union, as well as a rise in the number of center, center-right and right-wing parties.
What is it about the Israeli system that encourages so many parties to emerge, disappear and merge so often, which in turn can confuse outside observers?
1. The electoral system that was adopted in 1948, at the country’s establishment, was meant to be a temporary structure.
At the time, Israel was engaged in both an inter-state war (with the surrounding Arab states) and an inter-communal war (between Jews and Palestinian Arabs within the new state’s borders). There was also a focus on absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants streaming into the country from Europe and the Middle East, the need to construct a national economy, and other pressing issues. Different parties disagreed over what a Jewish polity should look like. Orthodox groups, for example, wanted more emphasis on the Torah and Jewish law.
Under these constraints there wasn’t the time to spend on debating what a new political-electoral system would look like. Instead, the first governments of Israel decided to adopt the political institutions of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in the Mandatory Palestine, and work things out later. But the system stuck.
2. That system had been broad-based and inclusionary.
During the Yishuv, the leading parties, dominated by Mapai, the predecessor of the Labor Party, wanted as much involvement in the governing institutions as possible to present a united front to the British and the world, and to enhance the legitimacy of the institutions. Those who opposed the institutions — Arabs, most Orthodox and the Communists — were the only ones excluded. This encouraged a wide range of interests to participate in elections.
3. The country functions as a single electoral district, and the voting system utilizes a proportional representation method.
Every party is competing for the exact same votes, and parties are represented in the Knesset (the parliament) roughly according to the percentage of the popular vote they receive. The original threshold (percentage of the vote needed to enter the Knesset) was 1 percent but was raised over time; in the last election, in 2015, it had been raised to 3.25 percent — about 137,000 votes. The low threshold also encourages different interests to run, because they know they have a good chance to obtain representation.
4. Fragmentation of the party system
This fragmentation has convinced individuals who form a new party that they have a shot at becoming prime minister or, at least, a kingmaker in coalition bargaining and, thus, a senior partner in the government. Israel was dominated from 1948 to 1977 by the Labor Party. From 1977 to 1992, Likud was the senior partner in all governments. Between 1992 and 2009, the government was switched off between Labor, Likud and — briefly, from 2006 to 2009 — Kadima. Yet the combined share of Labor and Likud’s seats has dropped from 95 in 1981 to 49 in 2015. That includes the Zionist Union, an electoral alliance between Labor and a smaller party, Hatenua. These big parties now need the support of at least a handful of smaller parties to form the government.
5. Americanization of election campaigns
Israel’s election campaigns have become Americanized over the years. In Israel, voters select among parties or, more accurately, lists: rolls of party members in a set order. A list can include a single party or a combination of parties running together on a single ticket. As a result, Israelis have focused on the party itself since a single person, including the leader, is only part of a larger whole.
But over the years individual leaders have become more relevant in campaigns, overshadowing the party itself and convincing voters that it’s the leader who matters most. This trend was popularized in the 1990s, as American political strategists — including James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Arthur Finkelstein — came to Israel to help Labor and Likud with their campaigns. Part of their advice was emphasis on the leader, in both negative and positive messaging.
This process has convinced individuals that they are “white knights,” able to easily enter politics and save the country. In 2015, six out of 10 lists that entered the Knesset were officially named for their leaders: Likud chaired by Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister, Zionist Union chaired by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, Yesh Atid chaired by Yair Lapid, Kulanu chaired by Moshe Kahlon, Bayit Yehudi chaired by Naftali Bennett, and Yisrael Beiteinu chaired by Avigdor Liberman.
Probable win for the political right
Combined, these processes have given voters a lot of choice and made bargaining over the formation of the government more difficult. They have also made it appear as though the election results are unpredictable, with a good chance that Netanyahu can be defeated. But barring a major surprise, such as Netanyahu’s indictment or arrest, another war with Hamas, or an outbreak of protest within Israel, the existing patterns make it likely that the political right will win the election again and form the next government.
That’s because the fundamentals of the political system are still in place: a weak Jewish left unable to offer a viable alternative to Likud and Netanyahu, a young generation that leans right, and a mass of centrist voters who prefer center-right and right-wing parties. The excitement and confusion of all the emerging new parties obscures these basic trends and structures.