Israeli Election 3.0

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Elections here, elections there, elections are truly everywhere. Whether it is the World Zionist Congress or Israel’s national elections, chatter about politics is ubiquitous in the Jewish world at the moment. 

When the Israelis returned to the voting booth for a second time in a year this past September, we could not dream that there would be a third election. And we even made an explainer video about the September elections. Well, we were wrong — and here we are again…

With Israel’s unprecedented third elections a little less than three weeks away, we wanted to make sure that this is your primary destination – your one-stop shop – for all things related to this critical topic. 

  1. Why are Israelis heading back to the polls?
  2. What are the wedge issues this time around? 
  3. How should I talk about politics with my students, children, and colleagues?
  4. What is a sound educational model for teaching about the upcoming elections? 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, comments, and feedback.

Best,

Noam

What Happened?

Over the past year, Israel has been in a political deadlock. Two elections – in March 2019 and September 2019 – failed in forming coalition governments. Therefore, Israel is heading to an unprecedented 3rd election in less than a year on March 2, 2020. For a list of the candidates of each major party, see here

A Refresher: How does the Israeli electoral system work? 

  1. Unicameral System: The 120-seat Knesset is the one governing body for the country. 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. 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 in order to rule as the majority. A party will only enter the Knesset if they receive at least 3.25 % of the total vote (the electoral threshold), which equals 4 seats.
  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 four 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.”

What are the biggest issues this time around?

Netanyahu or not Netanyahu? – That is the Question

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, is pushing his “league of his own” campaign, with a big focus on his multiple diplomatic successes. Netanyahu himself has argued that “Only a big Likud will form a government and prevent fourth elections and a government with Ahmad Tibi and Gantz.” Netanyahu has also promoted himself as the only leader who will be able to lead the implementation of the “Deal of the Century.” In regards to his indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, Netanyahu has called it a “witch hunt” and “a coup attempt.” 

One of the only political billboards around the country this time around is Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s 2020 campaign “We must move forward.” The slogan is a reference to both the frustration of repeated elections, as well as moving forward from Prime Minister Netanyahu. Gantz has argued that the choice for Israelis is either the “Kingdom of Netanyahu” or the State of Israel, and he maintains that his party will not sit with the Likud under Netanyahu’s leadership, due to his legal problems and the criminal charges against him. Gantz said: “We must move forward. The citizens of Israel face a clear choice: a prime minister who will work for them or a prime minister who is busy with himself.” 

Trump’s “Deal of the Century” 

Another major issue related to this election is the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” After the initial release of the plan, Netanyahu was quick to announce that he would work to bring plans to annex the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements for cabinet approval within the next week. On Monday, Netanyahu said that he would map out the territory in close coordination with the United States. Going along with his “league of his own” campaign, Netanyahu argued that only he could secure American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and settlements of the West Bank, adding, “I don’t trust (chief rival) Benny Gantz.”

Blue and White leader Gantz has also expressed support for the US plan but has promised to implement it “in coordination with the international community.” Blue and White co-leader Yair Lapid said that Netanyahu has turned a US initiative for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a campaign “stunt.” Lapid declared that his party is against any “unilateral steps” to annex parts of the West Bank and added that the Blue and White party would prefer direct negotiations with the Palestinians rather than imposing a framework upon them.

Member of Knesset from the Arab Joint List party Ahmad Tibi derided the plan as a “travesty” that would “lead to apartheid rather than peace,” adding that he hoped that European countries would come out against it. The leader of the Joint List, Member of Knesset Ayman Odeh, said that the Trump plan is an “assassination of the two-state solution” and that “at the end of the day, there are two nations here, and they will remain two nations and they have to learn to live together.” 

Inclusion of Arab Parties

Based on the results of the September 2019 election, as well as the polls for this coming election, breaking the deadlock is not looking like a serious possibility. Without forming a unity government with the Likud (or joining up with right-wing or Haredi parties), Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party would need to form a coalition with left-wing parties, including the Arab Joint List. After the last Israeli election in September, the Arab Joint List party recommended Gantz to be prime minister, the first time the party had recommended a Zionist candidate in 27 years. It seems like this time around, Gantz’s potential alliance with the Joint List will be in trouble due to Gantz’s support of the Trump peace plan. 

Member of Knesset Yousuf Jabareen said the Joint List would not back the Blue and White Party after these elections, saying “we will not support Gantz in forming a government due to his support of this project they call the ‘Deal of the Century,’” adding that the plan “ignores the rights of the Palestinians according to law.” Netanyahu has been quick to condemn Gantz for his potential partnership with the Joint List, in one campaign ad declaring: “You voted Gantz, you received Tibi.” Soon after, Gantz tweeted that he will not include the Joint List in a potential coalition because of major differences between the two parties regarding policy, nationalism and security for the state of Israel.

A note to all educators:

We’ve all heard the following adage: “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company.” 

That advice is often sound, but it’s only sound when we lack healthy frameworks for discussions and conversations around these emotionally sensitive and often ideologically driven conversations. Even as partisan proselytizing is dangerous, political education is often necessary. If our goal is to help prepare young people for a life in a democracy in which they must learn how to “play in a sandbox” with people who have multiple perspectives, we need to ensure we teach students to “weigh evidence, consider competing views, form an opinion, articulate that opinion, and respond to those who disagree.” 

Right? 

Discussion Questions

  1. Watch this video from i24 with your students. In Israeli politics, a wide variety of ethnic, religious, political, and ideological groups are represented. Ask your students, “If you could start a political party based on one issue that matters to you, what issue would it be, and why?”
  2. Israel’s electoral system is often scrutinized because the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset is low (3.25%). Therefore, there are many parties making it difficult to form and maintain a ruling coalition. But some people make the opposite argument. Read the following quote from Haviv Rettig Gur:

    “There is more to Israel’s electoral system than meets the eye. It doesn’t just magnify the tribal divides; it allows Israeli society to mediate and manage them in ways that help prevent political violence. It forces majorities to pay heed to minorities — sometimes too much, sometimes not enough, but the simple fact that Haredim, religious-Zionists, Sephardi Jews, Russian-speakers, and so on and so forth all get a seat at the table, to the boundless frustration of prime ministers who resent the political juggling act this entails, has shaped some of the best features of Israeli society, from its cohesion to its very democracy.

    Do you believe Israel’s electoral system needs to change (ie. fewer parties? raise the electoral threshold? have political representation for geographic areas?), or should it be left as is?
  3. What effect might three consecutive elections have on a country and its people?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Share the following link from Israel Policy Forum with your students and scroll down to “Party Quiz” to take a fun quiz to determine which Israeli political party their views align with. Discuss the results in class.
  2. Watch this video from the iCenter utilize the questions found below.
  3. Use this educational tool from Heterodox Academy to help your students engage in viewpoint diversity in a healthy way. 
    1. Each student should pick a party/idea they feel passionate about.
    2. Each student should then interview someone in the group with whom they strongly disagree.
    3. The interviewer should then ask clarifying questions to the interviewee. 
    4. The interviewer can ask probing questions.
    5. The interviewer will then write a short reflection on the interviewee’s perspectives and how they internalized the interviewee’s perspective. 

Mock Elections Process – a full educational plan

  1. Student Inquiry – Have students write down any questions they have about the upcoming Israeli elections. This can be in a notebook or on large pieces of paper hanging on the wall.
  2. Student Survey – What campaign issues are your students most interested in learning about? Students can use this link from the Israel Democracy Institute or this link from Makom for their research.
    • Security/Israeli-Palestinian conflict
    • Education
    • Religion & State
    •  Economy
    • Agriculture & Environment
    • Health
  3. Party Research – Divide the students into groups of three to represent different parties (based on request, as much as possible). Each group should prepare:
    • A one-page write-up on the party leader, including: name, personal and professional background, party platform, specific disagreements with other parties/candidates, picture and one campaign poster.
    • A PowerPoint presentation with the above information, for when they present.
    • A real campaign ad of their choosing, together with an introduction and summary of what message the candidate is conveying and which voters s/he is targeting.
    • A profile of an Israeli voter who would vote for this party/candidate.
  4. Presentations – Each student should take on a role within the group:
    • Party leader: Prepares and delivers a speech about why voters should choose him/her.
    • Campaign manager: Prepares talking points to convince students to vote for this party.
    • Voter: Creates profile of a person (young, old, religious, non-religious, etc.) voting for this party and why.
  5. Ideally, run through the presentation once… Then have students present their parties to another group of students who will then vote based on what they have learned. The students can be a younger grade, another class, etc. Students should be dressed to play the part. After presenting to the listening group of students, take questions and/or mingle with them.
  6. Elections – The listening group votes in a “voting booth” using small slips of paper printed with the names of the parties. (You can also build a google form if it’s easier.) Tally the votes to determine the number of 120 Knesset seats each party won (by percentage). Although it doesn’t always work like this, assume that the leader of the party with the most Knesset seats will become prime minister! Announce the results to all students.
  7. Student Reflection – Ask students to share, either in the classroom or via a feedback form, what they experienced and learned from this activity. Include questions such as:
    • What was something that surprised you about your party?
    • What was something that surprised you about another party?
    • What is something you learned about Israeli elections that you didn’t know before?
    • What questions are you left with?
    • Would you be interested in becoming involved in Israeli (or your country’s) politics?
    • Do you think Israel’s citizens would ever agree on only one party? Why or why not?
    • What is your most important takeaway from this project?

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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