July 5, 2022
Sondra Oster Baras
Israel is going to elections! Again! Just last week the government fell and elections have been set for November 1st. This will be the fifth election round in 2 years—an absolutely ridiculous situation. And although some attribute the chaos in the Knesset to ever-deepening divisions within the country, the actual ideological divisions are fewer and less significant than ever before. The source of the divisions are the politicians themselves. The source of the chaos, of the political instability, is the Members of Knesset who can’t figure out how to work together even when they agree on policies.
A classic example is what happened as the Knesset was being disbanded. But first a short recap on Israeli government law. Israel has a parliamentary system but it works differently than the British system. Individuals don’t run for office — not for Knesset membership and not for prime minister. Parties run for office. Each political party puts forward its list of candidates for Knesset, in the order in which they will enter the Knesset depending on how many votes each party gets. The voter goes to the polls to select a party. There are no regional or local candidates but every citizen of Israel votes with the same choices — a list of parties to choose from.
After the votes are tallied, the Knesset seats are divvied up based on the percentage of votes each party received. The heads of the larger parties are considered candidates for prime minister but the prime minister is actually selected by the Knesset. Once the Knesset seats have been apportioned, the person who can put together a government that will command a majority of the Knesset — 61 out of 120 seats—will become the prime minister. Since there has never been any one party which commands a majority, after the election results are known, the largest party is usually given the first chance at putting together a coalition government that will be supported by the Knesset.
In the recent election campaigns, we have reached a stalemate. But the stalemate is not a result of an ideological impasse. Indeed, for the past decade if not more, Israel is decidedly a right-wing country. There is more respect for faith and tradition than ever before, there is a more hawkish approach to defense issues shared by wide sectors of the population, and there is consensus that peace with the Palestinians is nowhere on the horizon. There are still left-wing parties but it is well-known and assumed that their electoral support is minimal. Most parties are competing for the right and center voters.
Which brings us to the stalemate and its root causes. Binyamin Netanyahu has become a major point of contention, with some politicians loving him, some hating him, some frightened of him and others relatively neutral. Which means there are political parties, regardless of their ideological bent, that refuse to sit in a government led by Netanyahu, would like only to sit in a government led by Netanyahu, or who are neutral with regard to Netanyahu.
This most recent government was a hodge-podge of left, right and center, including one religious Islamic Arab party, because one of the right-wing parties (New Hope led by Gideon Saar) refused to join a Netanyahu-led government and Yemina led by Naftali Bennet was willing to sit with either Netanyahu or Lapid. But the resulting government, while accomplishing a number of positive things — a balanced budget, economic growth and decisive advances against Iran to name a few—was not sustainable. Arab members revolted against their party leadership and refused to renew the Judea and Samaria regulations while right-wing members of the Yemina party became tired of the ongoing cooperation with the Arab parties and the extreme left.
The problem is that as we enter the newest election campaign too little has changed. Bennett resigned from politics and Yair Lapid is the interim prime minister. Yemina is now headed by Ayelet Shaked. Both Yemina and New Hope are hovering around the minimum threshold of four Knesset seats. Any party that does not muster the minimum votes to ensure four Knesset seats does not enter the Knesset at all and those votes are effectively lost. So if Yemina and New Hope do not pass the threshold, that may give added weight to left and center votes. Many would like to see the two parties join together and run a joint list for Knesset, providing a right-wing option for right-wing voters who dislike the Likud. But the two parties are divided on one major issue — Saar will not sit with Netanyahu and Shaked will. All of which just reinforces the stalemate.
Once Naftali Bennett resigned, there was total consensus in the Knesset to vote to disband the Knesset and call for elections. Seemed simple with not much to argue over. But arguments went on for days. Three possible election dates were squabbled over between the parties. Vital legislation that commanded a majority of Knesset members on such consensual issues as the Tel-Aviv subway system, electronic monitoring of violent criminals, and economic measures, were held hostage over the fight for an agreed election date. Legislation that is not passed in a given Knesset session must begin the legislative process from the beginning in the next Knesset, a huge waste of time for important bills. As each side paraded before the media microphones, they sounded like a bunch of kindergarten kids fighting on the playground.
I know that many of you face the same political morass as you observe your own political leaders. While each system is different, politicians all over the world have figured out a way to manipulate the system for purposes that have little or nothing to do with serving their country.
Israel is a fabulous country with wonderful people. We have differences of opinion and those differences are often found within families and amongst friends. But they never lead to hostilities, because we share so many common values. And family and community ranks high up there — we won’t do anything to damage those supreme values. We deserve politicians who can put aside their ego and figure out ways to work together. To work for the common good based on so many shared values. I hope and pray that we do better next time. But even if we don’t, I draw enormous strength from our people. And in the end, it is the people who matter!