Someone once quipped that Israel does not have foreign policy, only domestic. It underscores that even international relations impact Israelis at home closely.
Unlike American two-party politics, Israel is more like a multi-dimensional chess game. People make moves in parallel planes that affect not only the game they are playing (their own political considerations) but other people and parties around them. In doing so, whether on purpose or by chance, they also impact issues and personalities in parallel where other players have no direct counter moves.
For more than a generation, the Israeli left has been politically splintered. Its influence and impact has waned. A handful of parties compete to be the head of the left, but none have had a significant impact or gained traction. In a different context recently, Netanyahu quipped that he doesn’t care how the left divides up the limited votes they get.
For instance, since 1997 there have been 10 different people elected, and then replaced, as Labor party head. For the first three decades of Israel’s existence this was the party that dominated Israeli politics. Now, it's more like a revolving door to a lobby that goes nowhere. A few years ago, they formed an alliance with another smaller party, Hatnuah, and campaigned under the name Zionist Union. Now, the union has split up. Primaries for Labor party leadership will take place next month. There may very well be a change in leadership again.
Pragmatically, Labor will compete with other left wing and centrist parties to become the next head of the opposition. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that Labor could join other centrist parties along with Likud to form the next government. It was widely understood that in forming the most recent government, Netanyahu held some significant government posts vacant to draw the heads of Labor and others into his government.
While Labor and all the other parties that comprise the political left are each having their own respective leadership primaries, the thinking is that no one party can win the next election. Therefore, the only viable option for them is to unite behind a single candidate who can actually challenge Netanyahu. But political divisiveness between presumptive leaders, and the internal party politics they face, make that challenging if not outright impossible. Some won’t unite with what’s considered a left-wing party because they want to underscore being centrist.
In the past generation several new political parties emerged. Some of these became extinct from the political map, entering and exiting the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) in one or two electoral cycles. Of those that remain viable, two are considered relatively centrist, Yesh Atid and Kulanu. While neither of these individually or together can draw enough votes to lead the next government, there’s speculation that with a center-left coalition they could maybe do so. Yet the polls today don’t show it.
The wild card is the emergence of three new center-left parties, and one right wing party, that could change the political landscape. One party, Hosen L’Yisrael, is headed by a popular former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Israel has special reverence for its military leaders. There’s often a political coronation of popular retired generals and chiefs of staff. But sometimes that doesn’t last long. Like a new toy, people lose interest when the generals start campaigning. One thing is for sure, security regularly tops the list of Israelis’ political concerns and governs voting trends.
Another party, Telem, is headed by another former general, chief of staff and minister of defense, Moshe Yaalon. As defense minister, he had a serious rift with Netanyahu and broke away to form his own party. But having been in the public eye, while a competent military leader and strategist, his chances of a strong showing or even making it into the Knesset on his own are limited further by his negative relations with Netanyahu. This means that if he does enter the Knesset, he may be more likely to sit in the opposition and be critical rather than joining a governing coalition with Netanyahu as its head. He is supposedly engaged in talks to join with another party where his military background can be considered a plus.
Early polls indicate that Gantz is the most popular candidate to become prime minister, after Netanyahu. Since neither his personal politics, party platform, or list of candidates are clear yet, the polls are not reliable to suggest any significant challenge. However, under certain circumstances if his party can come together with others that might be inclined to join him in a coalition, it’s possible that he could find himself a contender to be designated by Israel’s (largely ceremonial) president to form the next government.
One advantage Gantz has is that he’s not drawn red lines about which other parties or personalities he’d join a coalition with. Being a political newcomer, he does not have animosities that would prevent this. This means in the right circumstances he could potentially lead a government coalition, or more likely could join a new Netanyahu government.
In the current election season, we are likely to see political parties voting against bills that they might otherwise support ideologically. This could make the next few months of governing paralyzing. Parties may not want to support certain legislation in order to not give Netanyahu any victories before the election.
We are also likely to see parties and their leaders who are not in the government currently campaigning on everything bad about the exiting government, but not offering substantive alternatives and ideas. The lack of ideas and presenting a viable alternative will continue to marginalize parties in the opposition and, sadly, limit meaningful exchange of views. This may also apply to many of the parties that compose the current coalition. Rather than distinguishing themselves from one another in a positive way to draw votes to them, there’s likely to be an abundance of negative campaigning, both against Netanyahu and Likud and against other parties in the coalition, to draw votes away from these.
Hostility and negativity will lead to an inevitable conflict in their potential negotiations after elections to form a coalition. It’s very easy to be negative during a campaign, even grossly so. But when the dust settles, and the votes are counted, the political leaders need to be adults and somehow put aside differences and clean up from the mud slinging to see if they can sit in a government together, or be cast aside to the opposition.
Assuming Likud under Netanyahu wins approximately 25% of the vote that’s being projected, there are two main options for a coalition to be formed, and a third more remote one. Most likely is a right of center alliance including ultra-Orthodox, parties along with some that are focused more on socio economic issues. This may also include one of the “centrist” parties including Gantz’s. The other possible outcome is a center-right coalition with Likud at the helm and a few centrists, and even left of center parties, forming a broader national government, possibly excluding religious parties. This has been done in the past. In a few extreme cases the main parties formed a national unity government rotating roles and the main government ministries (prime minister, foreign minister, minister of defense, etc.)
A third possible but less likely outcome could be a center-left government presumably headed by Benny Gantz. This would only be possible if his party wins enough a significant enough number of votes and if he is able to form a coalition with other parties which also have enough votes and they can cobble together a coalition representing 61 seats. The main way this might happen is the unifying of what are today mostly opposition parties to put differences, red lines about who they will sit in a government with, and personal egos aside in order to unseat Netanyahu. But it’s unlikely to happen at all because doing so would also likely include some ultra-Orthodox parties and that’s a red line for some on the left.
This year’s election features the phenomena of previous Knesset members making a comeback by establishing their own new political parties, and the splintering of existing parties and alliances. In at least three instances so far, existing parties or alliances have broken up, leading to a potential political tsunami for some. In some cases, the parties that have splintered may not win enough votes to pass the 3.25% threshold. This will leave them not only not in the government, but out of the parliament altogether.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to Jewish parties. In the previous election, out of concern that one or more of the Arab political parties that have been represented in the Knesset for years might not cross the electoral threshold, three Arab parties formed a coalition running together as the Joint Arab List. Now, as a result of political and personality differences within the parties that make up this coalition, at least one party has broken away from the Joint Arab List to run on its own, again.
In addition to talk of the need for parties on the left and on the right to combine forces before the election, there’s consideration new micro-alliances being formed as some are uncertain of how they might perform alone.
There are financial implications as well. State funding for political campaigns requires the respective parties to draw a certain number of votes. This creates a financial burden where some of the smaller parties need to invest more to have a better chance of being elected. But if they don’t pass the threshold, not only are they not going to be in the Knesset, but they won’t get government funding for their campaigns. Of course, in many democracies, the whole idea of government funding for political parties is foreign to begin with.
Three new parties being formed would be unthinkable to an American used to a two-party system, and maybe as much as a third-party candidate. It is also unusual to those in other parliamentary democracies where the system is similar, but where it’s unusual for parties to come and go, and merge into other parties, and then break up as happens here in every election. The beginning of this election season is looking like an episode of Divorce Court combined with Survivor where alliances that have been made are broken, new ones are being established, and each has its own personal interest to appear to be working together but at the same time to be working to take down others, sometimes even within their own parties.
As the only stable thriving democracy in the Middle East, Israel’s politics are unique. Nevertheless, domestic politics and certainly the election’s outcome, can be influenced by outside factors in other countries that may or may not have anything to do with Israel directly. In the next article in this series we will explore many of these, some among state and non-state players in the region and some thousands of miles away.
Footnote: If you have thoughts or questions about things raised here, or things not mentioned at all, or wish to have updates as the campaign goes along, please feel free to reach out directly. If you’d like a list of relevant articles to add depth to your understanding, please let me know. I may not be able to answer all the questions in real time but will be glad to do so where I can and incorporate these into updates in the future. Thanks for your interest. email@example.com
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six and became a grandfather in 2018. Throughout his life and career, he has been blessed by the calling to fellowship with Christian supporters of Israel and serve as a bridge between Jews and Christians. He shares insights and experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel, writing for prominent Christian and conservative web sites and appearing on many Christian TV and radio programs. He is the president of Run for Zion and the Genesis 123 Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via www.runforzion.com.