clock menu more-arrow no yes

The Israeli election, explained

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

Israelis are voting in national elections today - and no one knows for sure how it's going to turn out.

Israeli polls can be unreliable, and in the Israeli system, getting the most votes doesn't guarantee that your party's leader gets to lead the new government. The latest numbers show a very tight race, though the lead opposition faction, the center-left Zionist Union made up of Isaac Herzog's Labor Party and Tzipi Livni's much smaller Hatnua, has taken a bit of a lead over incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-leaning Likud Party.

The big issues in the election are, of course, security — on which Netanyahu has centered much of his campaign, in large part by emphasizing his opposition to Iran — and the economy, on which the left seems to have more of an advantage. But issues alone will not determine the Israeli election: you've got to understand that the present state of Israeli politics, and the somewhat peculiar structure of the country's electoral system, give the Israeli right a real structural advantage.

The stakes, however the election turns out, are high, with potentially significant implications for Iran, the United States, Palestinians, and, of course, Israel itself.

Netanyahu's opposition on the left is benefiting from the election's economic focus

isaac herzog

Isaac Herzog at the market. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

When the elections were first called in December, polls showed the left at a distinct disadvantage. But since then, things have changed: polls show a very close race, and some of the most recent numbers have Herzog's list actually ahead of Netanyahu's. Part of that can be attributed to this election's heavy focus on the economy.

The cost of living especially has risen as an issue of public concern. Housing is a particularly important example. In late February, Israel's comptroller released a report finding that Israeli housing prices rose by 55 percent between 2008 and 2014, and that the government's response had done little to make housing more affordable.

The report's findings seemed to ratify a longstanding Israeli perception that ordinary Israelis were being priced out of their own country. In July 2011, Israel saw a wave of massive demonstrations, largely oriented around housing and cost of living: the rising price of cottage cheese, a staple in Israel, became something of a metaphor for the broader problem.

This economic focus has been to the left's benefit: the Zionist Union can pin the failure to arrest rising costs on Netanyahu, who's been in power for about six years. This all plays into the "anyone-but-Netanyahu" sentiment in Israel, which is also a major part of Labor's appeal (Herzog himself isn't necessarily a major draw).

The left is politically weaker on security issues. After the collapse of the '90s-era peace process, the Second Intifada, and the Gaza wars, the Israeli public has shifted to the right on security, which favors Netanyahu. The more the election ends up centering on cost of living, the better off Herzog and the left will be.

The US and Iran are big parts of the election, and that could favor the right

obama netanyahu (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Netanyahu and Obama on October 1, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This is still Israel: security is a major political issue. That is focused especially on Iran and on Israel's relationship with America — for both issues, a lot rides on the outcome of this election.

Netanyahu's focus on Iran in the election can be fairly described as obsessive. He's constantly warning of the threat posed by Iran and its nuclear program, and has sold himself as the only candidate capable of confronting the Iranians. This is a strong message in Israel, as many Israelis share Netanyahu's concern about their enemy to the east. His Iran message, then, is a smart strategy for countering Herzog's advantage on the economy.

But the left and moderate parties have attacked his approach, particularly as it relates to the United States. Israelis generally don't like when their prime ministers fight with their most important ally. Netanyahu's deep, public animosity with the Obama administration, particularly after his recent speech to Congress over Iran, has become a lightning rod: Netanyahu has sold it as evidence of his strength, while his opponents have attacked it as undermining the critical relationship with America.

This isn't just campaign rhetoric. Netanyahu's testy relationship with the Obama administration and de facto alliance with Republicans could be dangerous for Israel in the long term, even if in the short term it produces American policies toward Israel that Netanyahu sees as beneficial. In the US, though both parties are staunchly pro-Israel today, support is shallower among Democrats. Netanyahu's conflict with the Obama administration threatens to accelerate long-term trends that could turn Israel into a partisan issue in America.

A Herzog win would likely ease this conflict with the US, as his government would be less likely to fight so openly with Obama on Iran or West Bank settlements. A re-elected Netanyahu, by contrast, would be very likely to keep feuding with Obama.

It's tough to say how the election will affect Israel's Iran policy. On the one hand, the general consensus in Israel that Iran is a major threat. On the other, public disagreements between Netanyahu and former Israeli security chiefs over how to handle the issue suggest there is not consensus among the Israeli leadership on how to deal with the Iranian threat going forward. A lot hangs on whether the US manages to strike a deal over Iran's nuclear program by the March and July deadlines.

As important as these issues are, though, one should not overstate their role in the race.

"For many Israelis, Iran — important as it is — is a distraction from the issues they care about more: the cost of living, the economy, social equity and social divisions inside Israel," Natan Sachs, a Brookings Institution expert on Israeli politics, writes.

The Israeli right has a big structural advantage in this election

naftali bennett

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

To understand the right's advantage, you have to know about some of the more unusual mechanics of Israeli party politics and the country's electoral system.

The basics of the Israeli election system are simple. If your party gets more than 3.5 percent of the national vote, then you get to sit in the parliament. Beyond that, seats in the parliament are allocated proportionally by vote counts: the more votes you get, the more seats (here's the technical formula for seat allocation). The Knesset has 120 seats. When a coalition of parties gets in position to organize a group that controls 61 or more seats, then that coalition becomes the government. The party with the most seats within the coalition generally gets to name the prime minister.

In practice, this system gives an outsize role to tiny parties, of which there are lots in Israel — and that can lead to chaos.

This election is a perfect example of how this works. Neither Netanyahu's Likud nor Herzog and the Zionist Union are anywhere near popular enough on their own to form a governing coalition. When Sachs averaged out Israeli polls on March 16, the Zionist Union had a slight advantage: 25 seats to Likud's 21. But both of those totals are well short of the 61 needed to form a government. So both Likud and Zionist Union would need to attract support from lots of smaller parties in order to get a large enough coalition.

This leads to a system in which tiny parties have the ability to extort concessions from major parties, potentially giving them influence well beyond their popularity. It also produces unstable coalitions, wherein parties with deep ideological tensions end up being stuck together. Governing coalitions can end up seeming perpetually on the brink of collapse.

Currently, this system benefits the Israeli right. Beyond the Zionist Union, the left is fairly small. The right, by contrast, is quite numerous. It also seems quite capable of working together despite fundamental disagreement on some issues and some personal disagreements between its leaders.

The smaller parties that will help determine Israel's leadership

moshe kahlon

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon. (Gil Cohen Magen/AFP/Getty Images)

To understand this right-wing advantage, you need to take a close look at the smaller parties that look like they could hold seats in the Knesset. The best way to understand their role is by running through the major ideological and political groupings in the election, focusing on some of the parties currently polling well.

1) The resurgent right: Jewish Home, led by the charismatic Naftali Bennett, is one of the strongest parties outside of Likud and the Zionist Union. Bennett's party is religious and ultra-nationalist, staunchly opposed to a Palestinian state. Bennett and Netanyahu have personal problems, but their parties are natural allies. Jewish Home is polling around 12 seats.

Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, a secular nationalist party largely supported by Russian immigrants, is polling around five seats. Eli Yishai's Yahad, a hard-line religious party that splintered from the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, is polling around five. Both now appear very likely to support Netanyahu for prime minister.

2) The emaciated left: Beyond the Zionist Union, there's really only one significant identifiably left-wing party. That's Meretz, long the party of Israel's staunchest doves. Despite polling stronger earlier in the campaign, Meretz now looks likely to capture around five seats. Compare that with the 20 seats polling to go to the right-leaning parties listed just above. The exact numbers will likely shift, but this illustrates how much of a leg up Netanyahu has over Herzog in forming a coalition.

3) The ultra-Orthodox parties: It's tempting to lump all ultra-Orthodox parties with the right-wing ones, but that's missing important nuance. Both United Torah Judaism and Shas, the big ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, could theoretically be wooed by Herzog with the right mix of concessions on economic and synagogue-state issues. They're more naturally inclined to the right (Shas' leader has declared an intent to support Netanyahu), but they're still in the mix.

4) The Arab parties: This year, the parties that represent Israel's Arab citizens are running together in an alliance called the Joint List. They're polling strongly: about 13 seats. Theoretically, their concern for Arab equality and the Palestinians should incline them to support the left. The problem, though, is that they object so fundamentally to the way Israel's government works that they almost certainly will not join any coalition.

5) The crucial center: There are two centrist parties focused principally on the economy and domestic issues: Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu. It is a near certainty that Lapid will support the left bloc — he was in Netanyahu's last Cabinet, but his disagreements with the prime minister collapsed the coalition and forced these elections. Kahlon is a wild card. His new party is often identified as center-right, but he sounds a lot like Labor on the economy. The way the math is looking right now, both Netanyahu and Herzog would need Kahlon to form a government — putting him in an extremely strong bargaining position.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't a big election issue, but the election will affect the conflict

Palestinians flag prisoner release

Palestinians wave the national flag. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

The conflict with Palestinians isn't playing a major role in the campaign. Israelis are tired of dealing with the issue and mostly don't believe the conflict will be resolved in the short term. The economy and Iran appear far more pressing.

But just because Israelis are ignoring the conflict with the Palestinians doesn't mean the conflict is ignoring them. Whoever is prime minister after this will face an immediate crisis: a collapse in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Years of Palestinian frustration with the peace process has boiled over; the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has begun acting unilaterally to try to pressure Israel into ending the occupation. The recently successful Palestinian bid to join the International Criminal Court — which could theoretically one day lead to potential prosecution of Israelis — prompted Israel to withhold tax revenue the Palestinian Authority needs to pay its employees. The Palestinian Authority will not be able to function effectively without that cash, and is already threatening to suspend its security cooperation with Israel in retaliation.

"The current state of relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians is grim," Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras write in Foreign Policy. It threatens "the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank’s potential transformation into an ungoverned space that could become a haven for terrorism."

It's entirely possible the Palestinians are bluffing — they've done it before. But the problem is acute, and will demand immediate attention from Israel's next prime minister. The US may very well be planning to push the issue as well, whether Israel wants to hear it or not.

"The Obama administration ... will want to work in one way or another on the Palestinian issue" after the election, Martin Indyk, who served as Obama's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations until mid-2014, said at a Wednesday Brookings panel. It'll make a big difference whether the US is dealing with a hard-right Netanyahu government or a more dovish Herzog coalition.

So who's going to win?

herzog livni

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

The truth is that no one knows what's going to happen in the election. While polls can be decent guides to the rough strength of different factions, they have a relatively poor track record at predicting specific results. One reason, among others, is that "several large subsets of Israeli citizens are hard to reach by phone surveys, including soldiers, ultra-Orthodox, and Arabs," Alan Abbey, director of internet and media at the Shalom Hartman Institute, writes via email.

Most observers see one likely pathway each, for Netanyahu and Herzog, to outright victory. Netanyahu could form a right-wing coalition with Bennett, Lieberman, Yishai, the religious parties, and Kahlon. Herzog, meanwhile, could cobble together a rickety centrist coalition with Meretz, Lapid, Kahlon, and the ultra-Orthodox parties — which means Netanyahu would no longer be prime minister. An unexpected result, like a late surge in support for the Zionist Union, could change these scenarios substantially.

The process for how those coalitions actually happen is a bit more complex, and could throw a monkey wrench in any election result. After the election, each party recommends a prime minister to Israel's president, currently Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin then gives the party with the most recommendations an opportunity to form the coalition.

Theoretically, Herzog could beat Netanyahu in total votes, but support from the numerous right-wing parties could give Netanyahu the right to attempt to form a government first. Only if Netanyahu failed to assemble 61 votes would Herzog get his own stab at it.

And it gets even more complicated. Rivlin — who doesn't like Netanyahu very much — could also recommend that the parties that won the most votes should form a national unity government. In that scenario, Netanyahu and Herzog could end up rotating as prime minister. This happened in 1984, when Labor and Likud formed a national unity government. Labor's Shimon Peres served as prime minister for the first 25 months, while Likud's Yitzhak Shamir served as foreign minister. Then they switched, and Shamir was premier for the next 25 months with Peres at the foreign ministry.

"Barring the usual polling-day surprises," Sachs writes, "a national unity government of some form now appears to be the most likely outcome."

If that happens, Sachs suggests, such a government might focus principally on reforming Israel's election system and then hold new elections under the new system with the goal of producing a more conclusive result.

As always in Israeli politics, things aren't shaping up to be simple.