On December 26, Israeli lawmakers voted to dissolve the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, scheduling early elections for April 9. Despite bringing the governing coalition to the brim of collapse with a razor thin 61 seat majority, it was not November’s Gaza crisis which brought down Israel’s 20th Knesset. Rather, it was a clash between secular and religious parties within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. The Israeli Supreme Court gave the Knesset until January 15 to pass an military enlistment bill after striking down the Knesset’s draft exemption for Haredi Jews. Unable to pass the bill, coalition leaders formalized the process for dissolving the 20th Knesset.
The Knesset is a unicameral body with 120 members elected through a party-list proportional representation system. Each political party forms a ranked list of candidates and Israeli citizens vote directly for their political party. The 120 Knesset seats are then distributed amongst the political parties proportionally and parties fill these seats using a ranked list of candidates. Under Israel’s 2014 Governance Law, an electoral threshold was set at 3.25% of the popular vote. This means that any party receiving over 3.25% of the popular vote receives a proportional number of Knesset seats and parties under this threshold receives none. As a multi-party system, it is difficult for any one party to receive a majority of Knesset seats. Consequently, the party that wins a plurality of votes is tasked with forming a coalition government of at least 61 seats. Under this coalition system, the ideological beliefs of individual parties greatly influences the ideology of the governing coalition. Further, the 3.25% threshold makes it difficult for smaller parties to enter the Knesset. As a result, parties of similar ideology often form political alliances to ensure that they will receive enough votes to pass the threshold.
The Israeli political spectrum — Left, Center, and Right — is fundamentally different from the American spectrum. While the political spectrum in American politics is largely decided based on the clash between Conservatism and Liberalism, applying this definition to Israeli politics would only cause confusion. Israeli politics are based on three different spectra. Whether a party is left-wing, centrist, or right-wing depends largely on three stances held by that party. Most important is their position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Do they support Palestinian statehood and how do they balance the need for security? Second is the religious ideology of the party. Do they base their stances on religious concerns or do they support secular policy? The final piece is the American-esque question. Is the party economically liberal or conservative? A far-left Israeli party generally supports a two-state solution, secularism, and liberal economic policy. Conversely, a far-right Israeli party generally supports religious and conservative policy, while opposing Palestinian statehood. What complicates the political landscape, however, is that most parties are not far-right or far-left wing and most parties do not fit neatly into these political spectra. As such, their stances blur the lines of what is right-wing and what is left-wing. For example, the right-wing religious Shas party often supports strong welfare policies while opposing Palestinian statehood, the right-wing Russian-interest Yisrael Beiteinu party is a strong advocate for secular policy, and the secular center-left Yesh Atid and Hatnuah parties have both joined Netanyahu’s right-wing governing coalition in the past.
Despite these blurred lines, it’s possible to elicit several trends during this campaign season. The first major trend is the rise of the Center-left. During Israel’s early history, the left-wing Labor party dominated Israeli politics, controlling each government for Israel’s first 29 years. Since the election of Menachem Begin’s Likud party in 1977, the Israeli Right has been a powerful force, controlling seven out of eleven subsequent Israeli governments. Since 2001, only right-wing coalitions have governed Israel. This power shift from left-wing to right-wing parties can largely be attributed to the failure of the Oslo Accords, championed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his Labor party. The lapse in security control over the West Bank following the 1995 Oslo II Accords gave way to the Second Intifada and the death of 719 Israeli civilians. These deaths have caused a shift in Israeli sentiment and the rise in belief that peace cannot not be achieved while also sacrificing security. A decade since the Second Intifada, however, there is now a rise in center-left parties such as the newly founded Hosen Yisrael party and Yesh Atid. There parties offer secular liberal economic policies and remain tough on security while remaining committed to peace. Though the Netanyahu led Likud government has expanded diplomatic relations with numerous, once-hostile Arab nations, they have made no progress in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The rise of the Center-left seeks to capture the desire for peace while maintaining security and avoiding the devastation caused by the Oslo Accords and the Second Intifada.
Though we are examining the Center-left from the perspective of political ideology, it is important to understand that the Center-left rejects this very notion. According to Benny Gantz, Hosen Yisrael leader and former IDF Chief of Staff, “Right and Left are concepts that have to be reconsidered in Israeli society.” This strategy targets the large bloc of voters who have been raised to support the Likud since birth. As a party marketed to be outside the political spectrum, a vote for Hosen Yisrael may not feel like a betrayal of the Right for many Likud voters. So far, these tactics by the Center-left have been successful. Despite little being known about its political stances, Hosen Yisrael is polling at 12 to 14 seats. Extensive scenario polling suggests that if Yesh Atid and Hosen Yisrael formed a political union, the bloc could win enough support to form a left-wing government. Further, Gantz and Yesh Atid Leader Yair Lapid are the only politicians besides Netanyahu with significant numbers in preferred prime minister polling. With rising support for center-left parties, the once-powerful Labor party has lost much of their base, polling at less than a third of the 18 seats they held in the 20th Knesset.
The second trend critical to this election season is the secularization of the Far-right. This trend was best seen on December 30 when Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked broke off from their far-right Habayit Hayehudi party to form a mixed secular-religious party, Hayamin Hachadash. According to Bennett, the party was split in order to capture a greater portion of the secular nationalist vote; Habayit Hayehudi’s religious stances had distanced many secular voters. The split also detaches Bennett and Shaked from the Tkuma faction of Habayit Hayehudi, an ultranationalist faction that paints the entire party as racist, according to the Jerusalem Post. Bennett believes that without the political baggage of the Tkuma faction, his new party will draw in secular Likud voters and give the Far-right more representation in a Netanyahu-led coalition.
Bennet’s political divorce, however, comes with significant risk. For many Israelis, Bennett and Shaked defined Habayit Hayehudi. The duo’s staunch opposition to Palestinian statehood drew clear contrast from Likud’s wavering stance on the two-state solution. Without Bennett and Shaked, Habayit Hayehudi is only polling at four to five seats. A third of polls conducted since January 1 even show Habayit Hayehudi falling behind the electoral threshold. Thus, Bennett’s political divorce is more of a political gamble. If Habayit Hayehudi fails to pass the threshold, Bennett could be throwing away critical right-wing votes. Should both parties enter the 21st Knesset, however, far-right politics will be an influential part of the governing coalition and any policy considerations.
A final point of complexity in this election season is the possible indictment of Netanyahu. There are currently three main corruption investigations ongoing against the current Prime Minister. On December 2, the Israeli police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery in Case 4000. This case alleges that Netanyahu approved the merging of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq and satellite TV company Yes in exchange for favorable news coverage on Bezeq’s popular media site, Walla!. With the Israeli police’s recommendation, it is now up to Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to decide whether to issue an indictment. The Jerusalem Post reported that Netanyahu moved for early elections in order to go to the polls before Mandelblit issued a possible indictment. Despite this maneuver, Mandelblit promised to announce whether or not he will be indicting Netanyahu prior to the April 9 elections. In a possibly politically motivated leak, a senior Israeli Justice Department official told Hadashot TV that Mandelblit plans on indicting Netanyahu.
With a strong challenge from the Center-left and with a likely indictment on the way, Netanyahu appears to face a significant challenge during this election. Despite this image, polling suggests that Likud will receive a plurality of Knesset representation — 26 to 33 seats. These number, however, may not be enough to guarantee Netanyahu’s return to leadership. Though Likud sees strong polling figures, it is not evident that the Right, as a whole, will receive enough votes for Likud to build a 61 seat coalition. Polling on this question is highly inconsistent. Whether Likud will be able to form a right-wing coalition after April 9 will boil down to two factors: has the Center-left fever struck hard enough and will Bennett’s political gamble pay off.