A guide to the Israeli Election

17 Mar 2015

Today, Israelis go to the polls to decide their next government. The last election took place in 2013 but, after huge divisions in the coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid and announced elections for this March, two years ahead of schedule.


Every Israeli citizen — Jews and Arabs alike — who is aged 18 or above will vote for one political party. As long as they have more than 3.25% of the vote (the threshold which parties have to reach in order to gain seats), the parties are given their share of the seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.


After the voting is complete and seats are allocated, the parties nominate a candidate for Prime Minister. The President chooses the candidate who is most likely to form a coalition. The leader of the party that comes first will not necessarily be able to become Prime Minister because he or she might not have enough support from other parties to form a coalition. For example, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party came second in the 2009 elections but since Tzipi Livni (then of centrist Kadima party and now part of the left-of-centre Zionist Union) was unable to form a coalition and Netanyahu had the backing of enough parties to gain a majority, he became PM and formed his own government. Therefore, if the Zionist Union win the most seats (which the latest opinion polls are suggesting they will) but are unable to win enough backing from other parties to gain a majority in the Knesset, they will not be able to form the next government.


The candidate chosen by the President is given 42 days to form a coalition or else the President will ask another politician to form a government. If this fails, the President will ask the Knesset to choose a third candidate who will be given 14 days to form a coalition. If this fails, Israelis will go back to the polling booths.


It is also possible that the President will ask the parties to form a unity government, although he does not have the power to unilaterally impose this decision. Since the Likud and the Zionist Union are currently running at only 21 and 25 seats respectively in the latest polls, this scenario is more likely.


When a coalition is finally formed, the Knesset has to confirm it in a vote and the new Prime Minister and government can be installed. So it’s rather complicated, isn’t it? Here are a list of some of the parties who are fighting for control of Israel. I have added in brackets the number of seats each party is expected to win according to the last poll of polls for Haaretz (out of 120 seats up for grabs).


Likud (21)

The party of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s second longest serving PM of history, is right-of-centre, secular and economically free-market. Likud members are also, on the whole, more hawkish on the peace process than Netanyahu himself. Danny Danon, a Likud MK (member of the Knesset), was fired from the government after he publically criticised the Prime Minister’s handling of the operation in Gaza in July and August last year. The party was opposed to the Gaza disengagement plan forcing then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to quit the party and start a new one — Kadima.


Over the past few weeks, it has released a number of adverts which have been noted in the international press. In one rather silly advert, Netanyahu bills the election about “who will care for our children” — obviously asking voters to decide who will safeguard the country better. In another, more chilling advert, Islamic State militants are seen asking for directions to Jerusalem, to which an Israeli answers “Just Take Left”, i.e. the Zionist Union.


Zionist Union (25)

The Zionist Union is a “joint list” of Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party and Livni’s Hatnuah Party. It is a left of centre union, formed in order to try and give the left a big enough bloc to form the next government. The two leaders have agreed that they will alternate their roles, with Herzog becoming PM for the first half of the term, with Livni then taking over, if they form the next coalition.


Livni was Foreign Minister from 2006 and 2009 and has headed up a number of negotiations with the Palestinians. Herzog has far less experience and is distinctively uncharismatic. He was once described “no doubt one of the dullest, most ordinary, monotonous, uninspiring politicians this country ever gave birth to”. The bloc has been endorsed by former PM Ehud Barak and former President Shimon Peres.


Joint Arab List (13)

Possibly the most interesting change to the election list, the Arab parties decided to form a joint list in order to further their chances of gaining as many seats as possible. Usually, very few Arabs vote (many see it as a legitimisation of the State of Israel or the occupation in the West Bank and at the last election, Arab Israeli turnout was 10% lower than the national average) meaning that the Arab parties do fairly badly on their own. Since a party must win at least 3.25% of the votes for this election, the Arab parties have created their own bloc in order to win as many votes as possible. Latest opinion polls have put this Arab bloc as the third most popular with far more Arabs predicted to vote. The list includes Islamists, communists and Arab nationalists.


Jewish Home (11)

Run by Naftali Bennett, the Jewish Home is a right-wing, socially conservative and religious Zionist party. The party believes in annexing Area C of the West Bank (around 60% of the West Bank which is fully controlled by Israel) and is fundamentally opposed to a two-state solution.


Yesh Atid (12)

Translated as “There is a future”, Yesh Atid focuses more on domestic and civil issues, such as improving healthcare, education and housing. The centrist party was part of the last coalition, before its leader, former journalist Yair Lapid, was sacked by Netanyahu. The party was successful in ending the exemption from military service for ultra-orthodox students.


Shas (8)

Shas is an ultra-orthodox religious party which focuses on Jews of Sephardic and Mizrahi descent. Women are banned from running for political office for the party.  Its current leader, Aryeh Deri, was given a three year jail sentence in 2000 for taking $155,000 in bribes whilst serving as a minister.



United Torah Judaism (6)

A bloc between two ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi parties, it also bans women from running for political office.


Kulanu (9)

This party was formed last November by Moshe Kahlon, formerly a Likud MK, and focuses more on domestic issues, such as the cost of living and housing crisis. Very popular personally among voters, Kahlon successfully broke up the telecoms monopoly, making it cheaper for Israeli internet and mobile phone users. However, Kahlon has given contradictory views on the peace process and conflict with Palestinians — he was once against the idea of a Palestinian state but has grown more conciliatory in recent months. It is socially liberal, supporting the legalisation of cannabis for example.


Yisrael Beiteinu (5)

Headed by Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister, who is known for his outspoken, hawkish views, the party is a secularist, right wing party that also stands for immigrant (and in particular Russian-immigrant) interests. Lieberman called for greater action against Hamas in Gaza last summer, advocated “disproportionate” military action against Hezbollah after clashes broke out in January and recently argued that disloyal Israeli Arabs should be beheaded. However, although portrayed as an ultranationalist, he currently strongly supports a two-state solution. The “Lieberman Plan” calls for borders to be rewritten to create two ethnically homogenous states. Many of the West Bank settlements would be annexed (although in the past Lieberman said he would leave his settlement home as part of a peace agreement) and a number of Arab-Israeli areas would be transferred to a Palestinian state. Domestically, the party supports decreasing the powers of the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) in Israeli politics.


Meretz (5)

A left wing, secular and social-democratic party, its leader, Zehava Galon, was once director general of the human rights group B’Tselem. It supports the dismantling of most Israeli settlements in the West Bank, calls for a Palestinian state and argues for the separation of religion and state.

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