After an unprecedented second Israeli election in one year, and with results still up in the air, my inbox was full of emails:
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the emails I received this week:
- “Talk to me about what the heck happened yet again with the Israel elections and what now??”
- “Unity government, huh, explain. Please.”
And my favorite:
- “So, Bibi is still prime minister. No, wait, he’s not. Or actually he is, right? Wait, I’m confused. Ok, I’m done. Just tell me what in the world is happening!”
In this edition of the Weekly, we’re going to take a slightly different angle. We are going to unpack the six biggest questions and answers from this past week in Israel followed by a personal anecdote.
Regardless of where we all stand politically, one thing is certain: despite the doomsday prognostications suggesting that Israel’s democracy is on the decline, these elections proved that Israel’s democracy is powerfully at work. The Arab community, the Russian community, the secular and Haredi all turned out to vote. As Bret Stephens noted, “What won’t be happening anytime soon is the demise of Israel’s boisterous democracy.”
With all of our differences, that’s something to unite around and celebrate together.
And, one more thing to excite us all… Israel’s baseball team is headed to the Olympics!
Election Results and Breakdown
- How did this all happen?
Back in April of this year, Israel held national elections. With Likud and Kachol Lavan tied at 35 seats apiece, PM Benjamin Netanyahu (head of Likud) was given the mandate to form a new government, as he was expected to have the greatest chance of forming a coalition of 61 seats. To many people’s surprise, Netanyahu was unsuccessful, primarily due to one man: MK Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu needed the five seats of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party in order to form a coalition, but Lieberman insisted he would only join the government if it passed a bill requiring military conscription of ultra-Orthodox citizens. Since Netanyahu needed the Haredi parties in his coalition, this wasn’t feasible, so Netanyahu pushed Knesset to dissolve itself and “redo” the elections.
See our recent article and video for more background.
- What is the breakdown of seats in the government?
Fun fact: Israel has never elected just one party with enough seats to form a government. The closest came right after the euphoria of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Labor received 56 mandates.
- So, why is this so complicated? Benny Gantz and Kachol Lavan won. What’s the problem?
Not exactly. Here’s how the math breaks down:
Neither Kachol Lavan nor Likud has a majority on its own to form a 61-seat government, requiring negotiations with other, smaller parties to create a coalition to reach a majority. Netanyahu has the backing of about 55 right-wing seats, but would again need Lieberman’s party, now eight seats, to join him in order to form a coalition. Gantz would have trouble forming a coalition as well, as for now, he has sworn off the Arab Joint List, and it would be difficult to incorporate the Haredi parties without major compromises by Lieberman and/or Yair Lapid (Kachol Lavan’s number 2).
It is in light of this that a unity government, in which Likud and Kachol Lavan team up with their 64 seats, might work best, though it’s impossible to say at this point if the two leaders will go this route and share the premiership. It’s also possible that a unity government be formed that does not include Netanyahu.
Another option, which many Israelis hope to avoid, is a third round of elections — if no coalition is formed successfully.
- What was the main point of contention for Israelis going into this election?
As we’ve written about in the past, while the media talks mostly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that agenda was mostly off the table as most of the main Israeli parties generally agree on security issues. The main debate in Israel was regarding the role of religion in the state. Lieberman made this quite evident by refusing to sit in Netanyahu’s proposed government with United Torah Judaism. Issues such as bus transportation on Shabbat, the role of the Orthodox rabbinate in civil issues, and lack of Haredi participation in the army have become a sticking point for much of Israeli society. Arye Deri, the leader of Shas, said in a Ynet article about Lieberman, “You’ll tell us what to teach in our schools? I wish upon his voters that they get some of our education and learn a little courtesy.” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, acknowledged the issue of religion and state as the main issue, saying, “This time the agenda was different. Israelis voted more on religion and state as a result of the political growth and appetite of the ultra-Orthodox parties.” See this article for a historical perspective on the Haredim’s place in Israeli society.
It is also interesting to note that as of Sunday night, the Joint List endorsed Benny Gantz as a potential prime minister in its talks with President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu and others denounced this endorsement because of the various positions of the Joint List. Columnist Anshel Pfeffer, after explaining that Kachol Lavan sees security issues similar to Likud called this a sign of “just how badly the voters [i.e. Israeli Arabs] who sent 13 Joint List representatives to the Knesset want to integrate into Israeli society.”
- What is a national unity government? Is a national unity government possible? Has it ever happened?
A national unity government is when the two biggest parties or multiple parties combine to sit in the government together, as opposed to having one large party in the leadership position. For instance, in 1984, Israel had a national unity government because Labor (or Alignment at the time) garnered 44 seats and Likud had 41. Neither could build the necessary coalition on its own, so something wild happened. Labor’s leader, Shimon Peres, became prime minister for two years, and then Likud’s leader, Yitzhak Shamir, became prime minister for the following two years.
Israel has had several unity governments, including a significant one in the days leading up to the Six-Day War in 1967.
Interestingly, at this point, Lieberman thinks both Gantz and Netanyahu are being “childish” because at this time, he thinks they should just “flip a coin” to see who will be prime minister first.
- Israel has a president and a prime minister: What’s the difference?
In general, the prime minister is the real leader of the country and is the head of government, whereas the president is the head of state and serves a more symbolic role. But after the elections, the president, in this case Reuven Rivlin, gives the Knesset member who has the best chance of forming a government the task of forming a coalition. Typically, that person is pretty easy to identify: it’s the person representing the party with the most votes and who is most likely to be able to build a coalition. In this case, though, it’s not so simple.
A Personal Anecdote on the Elections
Something remarkable happened when I arrived in Israel a day after the elections. I was walking through the streets of Jerusalem, and one by one I interrupted people and asked what party they had supported at the polls.
Two American olim told me, “Kachol Lavan. Of course.”
A third oleh, who was standing next to them, said, “Nope, Likud all the way. I voted for Likud.”
One Russian-Israeli who was nearby said to me, “I voted for Yisrael Beiteinu, but if Bibi was not there, I would probably vote for Likud. Truthfully though, I identify with Meretz the most.”
A gentleman who did not speak much English said to me, “Otzma Yehudit, come on.” When I replied that he wasted a vote because they did not pass the threshold, he said, “So what, do what is right.”
I then interrupted two Arab women from Jerusalem who identified as Palestinian. Mid-bite on their delicious New Deli sandwiches, I asked to sit down with them and started speaking to them in Hebrew. Shockingly, they said, “English please.” (Sidebar: I believe one key to peace in Israel is when Jewish Israelis learn Arabic seriously and Muslim Arabs learn Hebrew seriously. Communication is key. We then had a very long conversation about their experience in Israel, what their dreams and hopes were, what they appreciated about Israel, and why they struggled to find a place in Israel. By the end of the conversation, they told me they were not technically citizens, but only residents. (The history of Jerusalem Arabs and citizenship vs. residency is a “Weekly” for another time.) But, from their perspective, whether Lieberman is in charge, Gantz is running the country, or Netanyahu is prime minister, it would not have much impact on them either way.
Finally, I jumped in a cab on my way to dinner with former students and the driver was a Yemenite Jew, who gave me a 20-minute speech as though it was the State of the Union. I listened intently the whole time, and he concluded with the following three words, “hakol yihiyeh biseder.” Everything will be fine.
Here is the message: Israel is a multi-ethnic society. It has Russians, Arabs, Anglos, Yemenites. It has avowed secularists, extreme rightists. At the end of the day, “hakol yihiyeh biseder.” I deeply believe that.
But, I was left wondering: Why did everyone feel so comfortable discussing their politics? My colleague Simone Katz, an olah from California, helped me understand. In her words, in America and other communities, one’s politics define who one is. In Israel, one’s politics define the society one wants to see.
- Sometimes people are stuck in their perspectives, unwilling to hear from others. Make sure to read through the ideas of Lieberman, Gantz, and Netanyahu. See if you can identify a minimum of one thing you appreciate about each of their perspectives.
- What are the politics of talking about your politics? Who do you feel comfortable discussing your political views with? How do you approach discussing politics in the classroom? What can Diaspora Jews learn from Israeli Jews on this issue?
- Israel’s April elections ended in a stalemate. With no obvious coalition in sight now, some parties might need to compromise dramatically in order to form a government, or else approach a third election. Do you think parties should compromise or hold tightly to their stances?
- Do you agree or disagree with the statement: “In America, one’s politics define who one is. In Israel, one’s politics define the society one wants to see”? Explain.
Practical Classroom Tips
- Browse our collection of articles on Israeli politics to dive deeper into the election drama.
- Watch our Six-Day War series and Moshe Dayan video to learn about the events of 1967 and the government at the time.
- One thing that’s clear from these elections is that Israel is a diverse society with many different people, opinions, and worldviews. Watch this video and then discuss why diversity of perspectives leads to a flourishing society. Break the filter bubble!
- Help students understand the “right-left” divide in Israel by exploring the question of religion and state. Israel is a Jewish state. Does that mean it should be a religiously Jewish state or a culturally Jewish state? Ask students to come up with three reasons why Israel should allow Orthodox rabbis to guide its decision making on civil issues and three reasons why civil issues should not be in the hands of the rabbis.
In Other News…
- For the first time ever, Israel’s national baseball team has qualified to compete in the Olympics, set to be held in Tokyo in 2020. The team is mainly comprised of Jewish American college players and some pros.
- Israeli film Incitement, a drama about Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, won the Ophir Award for Best Picture in Israel. The film will now be Israel’s pick for consideration for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. (Look out for our upcoming video about Yitzhak Rabin.)
- Israeli humanitarian NGO IsraAID has been assisting Bahamas residents affected by Hurricane Dorian. It has distributed relief supplies and provided water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) support, as well as psychological first aid.