Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: On Tuesday, Israelis head to the polls to elect a new Knesset, or parliament. This is the fifth time in less than four years that voters have voted. The holding of elections which often can only raise questions. Here are some answers.
Israel has a parliamentary system made up of several parties – none of which has ever received enough votes to secure a majority of seats in parliament. This means parties must team up to form coalitions and reach the 61 seats needed to form a ruling government. These coalitions can also be shaky – lose the support of a party, or sometimes even an MP, and you lose a majority.
The other factor is Benjamin Netanyahu. He has served as prime minister longer than anyone in Israel’s history, is in the midst of a corruption trial, and overall is a polarizing figure. Some high-level centre-right politicians, who agree with him ideologically, refuse to work with him for personal or political reasons.
This has made it difficult for him to build lasting governing majorities after the previous four elections, and last year his opponents managed to cobble together an unprecedented coalition of parties from all political stripes to keep him out of the power. But that coalition only lasted about a year and a quarter before its leaders, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, pulled the plug and called for new elections.
Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party will almost certainly be the biggest party in the Knesset after Tuesday’s vote, if the polls are correct. They will likely win around 30 seats, or a quarter of the total, according to a compilation of Haaretz polls, for example.
Current Prime Minister Yair Lapid hopes his centrist Yesh Atid party will come second.
The man he partnered with to form the last government, Naftali Bennett, is not running this time around; his party has splintered and faces potential electoral annihilation.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz is aiming for a strong showing at the helm of a new party called National Unity, the successor to his Blue and White party, which now includes former Bennett ally Gideon Saar and former leader General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gabi Eisenkot, making his political debut.
A far-right coalition called the Religious Zionist Party, led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, may be the largest far-right group ever to sit in the Knesset.
On the other hand, the once mighty Labor Party and its predecessors, which governed Israel essentially as a one-party state for its first 30 years under David Ben-Gurion and his successors, are now but a shadow of themselves- same and are projected to gain only a handful of seats.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy, where people vote for the party they support. Each party that wins at least 3.25% of the popular vote gets a certain number of Knesset seats based on the percentage of the total number of votes it won.
The 3.25% threshold is intended to exclude very small parties from the Knesset, an attempt to facilitate the formation of government coalitions.
Israel has experimented in the past with the direct election of the prime minister, independent of the Knesset, in the same way that the United States elects the president and Congress separately. It proved unwieldy and the country reverted to normal parliamentary elections.
Final polls suggest Netanyahu’s party and potential allies are hovering just around the 60-seat count and the election night drama will be whether the former prime minister tops it.
If his bloc clearly wins a majority, his path to forming a government is clear and he will return to power.
If the pro-Netanyahu bloc drops below the 61-seat mark, things get complicated. Netanyahu would still likely have the first chance to form a government if his Likud party is the largest in the Knesset, which could lead to days or weeks of negotiations going nowhere.
The current interim Prime Minister Lapid could then have the chance to try to form a government, assuming his Yesh Atid party is the second largest. But his outgoing government included – for the first time in Israel’s history – an Arab party that has since fragmented into smaller parties that may not join another Israeli government (even if he invites them to, which is not certain).
This could mean that no one can form a majority government, which would increase the possibility of… more elections. While party negotiations unfold and until a new government is formed, Lapid remains in place as interim prime minister.
Israelis are concerned about many of the same issues as people around the world – the cost of living in particular.
They are also always safety oriented. In the region, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and support for militant groups are still of concern, and more locally, violence is high this year between Israelis and Palestinians.
Some constituencies have their own specific concerns, such as the ultra-Orthodox, who want state support for their institutions and exemptions from military service; and religious Zionists, who want support for West Bank settlements.
But overwhelmingly, Israeli elections these days are about one issue and one man: Benjamin Netanyahu.