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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s third government has fallen, and new elections will be held on March 17, 2015. In the end, his coalition, which comprised parties with different, sometimes opposing, agendas and priorities, simply could not hold together. Former Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, for example, was committed to the peace process and an independent Palestinian state, whereas Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party and many Likud members of the Knesset adamantly opposed such an outcome. Meanwhile, Yair Lapid, the finance minister, who belongs to the Yesh Atid party, clashed with Netanyahu over economic policy.
The coalition’s demise is not unusual. In fact, only one government (Netanyahu’s second, from 2009 to 2013) has managed to serve most of its full four-year term since 1996. The issue is a much deeper problem with Israel’s electoral system, which means that it won’t go away after new elections.
Electorally, Israel functions as a single district; parties are elected to the 120-seat parliament on the basis of one of the purest forms of proportional representation in the world. They need only pass a low vote threshold—raised from two percent to 3.25 percent just this year—to win a seat. Meanwhile, voters choose from among a set of lists (comprising members of parties running for the Knesset or members of two or more parties who form an alliance during the election). It is a closed list; voters cannot alter the names or the rankings on it, which are selected through internal party procedures.
Israel’s electoral system can be traced back to the World Zionist Organization, created in the late 1890s. At that time, Zionist leaders felt an urgent need to gather as many of the disparate Jewish communities from around the world to the movement as possible. To do that, they opted for proportional representation. In the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, the Zionists adopted the same measures when they set up their political institutions. And when Israel was established in 1948, its leaders simply transferred these rules and systems over to the new state (at first as a temporary measure, later as a permanent feature).
The upshot is that Israel’s political system includes a wide variety of interests. It’s common for 30 or more parties to campaign during the election and for ten or more parties to win representation in the Knesset. This, in turn, means no party has ever won a majority of seats (61) or formed a government on its own. Because the biggest parties, for a long time Labor on the left and Likud on the right, have had trouble overcoming their personal and political differences, each has sought the support of the smaller, more narrowly focused parties to back them as senior partner in government. These parties have for the most part been willing to support whichever big party pays their asking price.
The 2015 election will not be any different. Although it is impossible to predict the outcome at this early stage (campaigning has not officially started), it’s likely that the same general trends that have operated for the last several years will continue.
The conventional wisdom at this point is that the next government will be more right-wing. Netanyahu’s Likud will likely maintain its plurality of votes. And since the centrist parties (Yesh Atid and Hatnua) are not polling well, he can rely on his “natural” allies—the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas—to build a government instead.
Even then, though, the math requires Netanyahu to bring in other parties on the right, including Bayit Yehudi and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. And that is where his problems could begin. There are serious policy disagreements between Bennett and Lieberman on the one side and the ultra-Orthodox parties on the other. Both Bennett and Lieberman want to reduce ultra-Orthodox control over the country’s religious affairs, and Lieberman wants to do the same for Israel’s personal status laws. The probable bickering between these sides could well cause another governmental collapse.
Meanwhile, although many Israeli voters are loyal to the left or right, there is a large portion, about 25 to 35 percent of the electorate, that in recent years has stuck to the center. These voters—Ashkenazi, secular, middle-class, and urban—are not ideologically tied to either camp, but they deeply mistrust the left’s solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they view the message of negotiations and withdrawals as naive. And although they support a two-state solution, they are pessimistic about Palestinian intentions. The right, represented by Likud, is seen as more security-oriented and suspicious, which gives them peace of mind.
More than security, however, centrist voters are interested in social and economic issues. They have been open to the left’s policies, but they are also willing to support center and center-right parties or parties further along the spectrum if they can make a good case for something different. This explains the dramatic rise of Yesh Atid and the support Bayit Yehudi received in 2013 from those who don’t share the party’s religious Zionist identity. Yesh Atid might have won 19 seats in that election, but the voting center rarely stays put. New parties generally have no organization or grass-roots support and are led by individuals popular at a given moment. When their popularity declines, so does the party’s. The only centrist party to do well in more than one election was Kadima, which won 29 seats in 2006 and 28 in 2009 before plummeting to two seats in 2013.
In early polls before next year’s vote, Yesh Atid has been decreasing in popularity, while a brand-new centrist party has been rising—polling around ten seats. The new party will be led by former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon. Of Sephardic heritage, Kahlon is known for his focus on economic issues and calls for a more equitable distribution of resources but is closer to the right on policy toward the conflict. Kahlon’s rhetoric is similar to Lapid’s in 2013; he would pull votes from Likud, Yesh Atid, and Labor but can be expected to join a Likud government if invited in. His gains will be all the more impressive if economic concerns start to outpace security concerns for a broader cross section of Israelis. That happened in 2011, when social justice protests knocked security issues off the agenda. A similar domestic outburst could do it again, given that economic conditions have not improved all that much for middle-class and low-income earners.
On the other hand, renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence would help the right-wing parties, as would a U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal or an Israeli attack on Iran. But general weariness with Netanyahu and Likud, which have been in power for several years now, will also figure in, as will factional infighting in Bayit Yehudi, which itself was the result of a merger between two different factions. A merger between center and left-wing parties or changes to Likud’s electoral list as a result of upcoming primaries could have their own effects. And there is no telling whether the Arab public will come out to vote, and if so, for whom. Under the increased threshold for winning a seat, the three existing Arab parties will have to work closely together or risk not getting into the Knesset.
The Israeli election process is complicated and volatile. This makes it interesting to watch, but difficult—if not impossible—to predict. Still, the nature of the system and the difficulty in crafting electoral reforms, combined with the power of the voting center, means that no matter who wins in March, the government would have to be an exception to the rule of the last several years to last out its full term.