How many of us actually understand how the Israeli Knesset works? Is it a republic or a democracy? And this year, an even bigger question emerges: Why are there elections again?
Because the April elections failed to produce a government, Israel is heading for a fresh round of elections on September 17. Before you read on, we have a new “Explainer series” on YouTube, which will unpack so many questions we have about Judaism and Israel. No better way to start this series than with a video on “Why elections again?” Make sure to watch this video.
- Will Benjamin Netanyahu remain prime minister?
- How does the Israeli government work?
- How can we utilize this opportunity to engage our young people with Israel?
Read on as my colleague Elana Raskas breaks down and unpacks all the key questions we have for the upcoming Israeli elections.
HOW DOES ISRAELI GOVERNMENT WORK?
Israel uses a unicameral system, which means that the 120-seat Knesset is the one governing body for the country. The whole State of Israel is one electoral district and voters cast one vote for a party to represent them in the Knesset, which is comprised of several parties. Voters choose one of these parties rather than specific candidates. The government must be comprised of at least 61 Knesset seats, a simple majority. Typically, no single party receives 61 seats, so a coalition of several parties must be formed. Israel’s president chooses the Knesset member who is most likely to successfully form a coalition, and this person has six weeks to build a coalition. National elections officially take place every four years, unless the sitting government decides to dissolve itself and hold new elections (which is what happened in December 2018 and sparked this whole drawn-out elections process).
Israel’s system differs from the U.S., which has a bicameral system (Senate and House of Representatives), many electoral districts, and an electoral college. It is more akin to the U.K., Canada, and Australia, which use a parliamentary systems, but different in that theirs are bicameral and have many electoral districts. Neither Israel nor the U.K. have a constitution, which is rare.
Ten lists (some comprised of a few parties) are running for election. The two front-runners are Likud, with PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the head, and Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) led by Benny Gantz. Likud is considered a center-right party, while Blue and White is considered center. There are smaller right-wing parties (like Bayit Yehudi, Otzmah Yehudit, and Yisrael Beiteinu), left-wing parties (like Labor, Meretz, and Yisrael Demokratit), ultra-Orthodox parties (like Shas and United Torah Judaism), and Arab parties (like Hadash and Ta’al).
Visit the Israel Democracy Institute to learn more about each party.
A FEW POINTS TO CONSIDER
- Netanyahu under scrutiny – Netanyahu is being charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in various corruption cases. Likud has tried to pass an “immunity bill,” which would help Netanyahu escape indictment, significantly weaken the government’s judicial branch, and possibly jeopardize Israel’s democracy. Many Israelis oppose this law, but will Netanyahu retain his throne despite all of this?
- Arab parties – No Arab party has been part of the governing Knesset coalition in Israeli history. The head of the Joint Arab List, Ayman Odeh, surprised many by announcing that he would join a Blue and White government under certain conditions. Sources close to him said it was “the first time an Arab party leader in Israel had ever expressed willingness to enter the coalition.” But MK Aida Touma-Sliman, second after Odeh on the Hadash party ticket, countered: “there is no change in our stance. We will not sit in a government of occupation, wars and racism.” While a few Jewish politicians, including Stav Shaffir and Amir Peretz embraced Odeh’s sentiment, Blue and White number four Gabi Ashkenazi said, “We will not invite a party that does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” For more, listen to the Israel Policy Pod interview with Ari Rudnitzky of the Israel Democracy Institute about Arab involvement in Israeli politics.
- “I mustache you a question” – Labor party leader Amir Peretz shaved his bushy mustache after 47 years “so that all of Israel will understand exactly what I’m saying and will be able to read my lips — I won’t sit with Bibi.” He certainly caught people’s attention, but will this showy act produce results in the form of votes? Yediot Aharonot columnist Einav Schiff doesn’t think so: “ In the end, no one will remember anything about Peretz’s attempt to stifle rumors of a deal with Netanyahu, save for him sacrificing his mustache on the altar of his own irrelevance.”
- Gil Troy and Natan Sharansky penned an article in July 2018 arguing that one solution to the rift between Jews of the Diaspora and Jews in Israel is to create a Jewish People’s Council. It would be a global forum of Jewish leaders in which they would have some sort of representation in the Israeli government. Troy and Sharansky write: “The Council might at first consist of members of the Knesset along with the existing representatives of major Jewish organizations from around the world. As the enterprise gained credibility, broad popular elections, facilitated by means of social media, could be held for two- or three-year appointments. Thinking through the practical issues surrounding such elections—from determining the eligibility of candidates, to ensuring the integrity of the voting process, to facilitating representative outcomes—is an enterprise in which we happily encourage all interested Jews to participate.” Is this a good idea? What are the pros and cons? Where do you stand and why? Read more about this innovative idea here.
- Assuming there will not be a Jewish People’s Council in the near future, do you think Diaspora Jews should feel comfortable voicing their opinions on political issues, or do you think only citizens of Israel have the right to a seat at the table?
- The Israel Democracy Institute conducted a survey of right-wing Israeli voters. It collected data about their age, gender, district, religious observance and more and drew conclusions about voting habits. Why is this data important? Why is it valuable to know about Israeli voters’ voting tendencies and positions on different issues? Does it enhance your understanding of Israeli society?
- What do you make of the proposed “immunity bill”? Do you think this is a violation of power and democracy, or is it within the Knesset’s purview to establish such a law?
PRACTICAL CLASSROOM TIPS
- Note the diversity within Israeli politics and use this as an opportunity to applaud Israel for having such divergent ideas all come to the fore within a proud democracy. Watch this video, and then discuss why diversity of perspectives leads to a flourishing society. Break the filter bubble!
- Engage in healthy debate – Although things can get heated in the Knesset, it’s important to learn to listen and speak respectfully with others, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye. When opening the floor to debate, be sure to guide students in respectful, civil discourse. Help them “win” and “lose” with dignity.
- Divide the class into pairs. Assign each pair a political party.
- Each pair should research the party leader’s stances and policies and assume his/her persona.
- Give each pair two minutes to make a case for its party.
- Next, you can either invite each party to make counterarguments to the other parties, or you can ask a question about a specific issue (security, economy, religion, etc.) and allow each party to answer based on its platform.
- Decide a winner based on who represented their party best. Or, ask students to vote for a party based on the presentations (they can’t vote for their own); tally the votes.
- Use this model to stage mock elections in your classroom.
IN OTHER NEWS…
- President Trump’s special envoy for Middle East peace, Jason Greenblatt, announced his resignation. The future of the “deal of the century” remains unclear. Journalist Caroline Glick tweeted: “Very sad and distressing, if true. @jdgreenblatt45 is the best, most competent Middle East envoy the US ever had.”
- Israel sent an 11-person delegation to Brazil to help tackle raging Amazon forest fires. PM Netanyahu spoke to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to offer him assistance, which was gratefully accepted.
- Speaking of Amazon, the Internet retail giant, is slated to arrive in Israel this month, ahead of Rosh Hashanah. Shoppers will be able to access local businesses for quick delivery and lower costs.