Israeli National Elections Explained (Knesset Dissolution December 2018)

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What Happened?

Israeli Knesset coalition, led by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, has decided to dissolve itself and head to early elections. The coalition, which held a razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the Knesset, issued a statement explaining the decision: 

“Out of national and budgetary responsibility, the leaders of the coalition parties decided, by unanimous agreement, to dissolve the Knesset and go to new elections at the beginning of April after a four-year term.” 

Both the coalition and the opposition are satisfied with the new arrangement. The coalition will have a chance to gain a larger margin and pass laws, and the opposition will have a chance to oust Netanyahu.

The elections are slated to take place in April 2019 rather than the previously scheduled November 2019.

Before diving into an analysis of this unfolding situation, which will continue to develop in the coming months, we offer some background on the Israeli electoral system in order to orient your students. 

I. Three Key Ways In Which Israel’s Electoral System Differs From America’s

1. Unicameral System: The 120-seat Knesset is the one governing body for the country (unlike the US, which has both the House of Representatives and Senate). The whole State of Israel is one electoral district. Voters cast one vote for a party to represent them in the Knesset.

2. Political Parties: The Knesset is comprised of several parties at once (the current Knesset has 17). Voters vote for these parties rather than specific candidates. The parties themselves choose the members who will represent them and gain seats based on the number of votes they receive. The government must be comprised of at least 61 Knesset seats. Typically, no party receives 61 seats (the record is 56), so a coalition of several parties must be formed.

3. Political Leader: Israel’s president consults the party leaders and chooses the one with the most recommendations or most likely to form a viable coalition (usually, but not necessarily, the chosen leader is from the party that won the most seats). That person has six weeks to form a coalition with other willing parties. If the coalition is approved by the majority of the Knesset, the leader of the coalition is typically the leader of the party with the most seats, and then becomes prime minister. Once the coalition is decided, the rest of the members of Knesset are part of the government but become the “opposition.”

II. How Often Do National Elections Occur?

Officially, Israel’s national elections take place every four years. However, the Knesset can decide to dissolve itself early and hold new elections before the four years are up, by the vote of a simple majority and passing a law to this effect (this is what happened this week). The last time the Knesset lasted for the full four years was in 1988. 

On the other hand, the Knesset can extend the four-year session under special circumstances, by a two-thirds majority and passage of a law to this effect. The one example of this was during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when Golda Meir remained the Prime Minister.

III. Why So Soon?

News outlets have reported various reasons for Netanyahu’s calling early elections, including:

1. The prime minister is facing corruption charges. The attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, will likely postpone his decisions regarding these charges until after elections.

2. President Donald Trump is planning to unveil his peace plan for the region, which Netanyahu might be worried about. It will shake things up politically in Israel, so when Netanyahu meets with President Trump this coming March, he can ask him to postpone the plan’s reveal until the next government is formed. 

IV. Election’s Hottest News

Bayit Yehudi leaders Naftali Bennett (Education Minister) and Ayelet Shaked (Justice Minister) announced Saturday night that they are leaving the party to start their own: HaYamin HeHadash (the New Right). They plan on distancing themselves from a predominantly religious party and attracting new voters by building a party that is a “true partnership between secular and religious.” Critics on the right say the pair will weaken the right’s vote, while those on the left claim the party is the “same old” under a new name.

V. Setting The Stage In Teaching The Election: First Culture, Then Knowledge

1. Set ground rules for a healthy classroom experience and implement these ideas:

  • “Make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear” both sides of the argument.” – Talmud, Chagiga 3b. Rather than listening in order to react or disagree, try to understand what the other is saying. 
  • Watch Julia Dhar’s video on how to find common ground in your disagreement.  Note that the moment we describe an idea as “left-wing” or “right-wing,” we malign the idea without giving it serious thought. et the students allow the marketplace of ideas win out instead of epithets like “liberal” or “conservative,” or even “Democrat” or “Republican,” or in this case, “Likud,” “Meretz” or “HaYamin HeHadash.” Calling someone a name ends dialogue before dialogue even begins, and it’s just a tactic to attack someone without having to think through their ideas. Debate ideas, not identity. 

2. Identify the biggest items to look out for in these upcoming elections. Teach the students about Benny Gantz, a former IDF Chief of Staff who created a party called “Choshen LaYisrael,” meaning “resilience of Israel.” It is unclear if Gantz will merge with Avi Gabbay of the Zionist Union or move forward alone, but ensuring your students know about Gantz in advance of the election could be significant. As Eli Kowaz and Evan Gottesman point out, “Gantz’s potential electoral success makes sense, as military officers have a long history of national leadership in Israel: think Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon.” See here to learn more about Gantz.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. Noam holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design. Before joining Jerusalem U, he was the principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he spent 9 years actively engaging and empowering students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.

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