This April, Israel will hold elections for the Knesset, its parliament, which will determine the next prime minister. With less than six weeks to go, the country is in full campaign mode as parties and candidates jockey for position. Israel’s system differs greatly from our own and creates a unique playing field.
Because elections for the Knesset are proportional by party, unlike our “first past the post” constituency system, there are lots of small factions running for seats, which can be a problem. To prevent the vote from being split too much, a party must get at least 3.25% and 4 seats to enter the Knesset. Any less and they are left out.
As a result, some smaller parties with similar ideologies join together in a joint list to ensure that they have enough votes to get seats in parliament. This is what the centrist parties Yesh Atid and Hosen LeYisrael did recently, and some polls suggest they may get the most seats if the election were held today.
On the right, a significant realignment has the potential to cause major splintering. The leaders of the Bayit Yehudi party left and formed a new party called the New Right, which means the former might not have enough votes to get into the Knesset. The number of small right-wing parties could lead to a result in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not have enough potential coalition partners to form a government.
This splintering on the right led Netanyahu to encourage some far-right parties to join together by offering them a potential place in a future coalition. Unfortunately, one of these parties, Otzma Yehudit, was founded by racist politicians who subscribe to the anti-Arab ideology of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. The decision to include Otzma Yehudit has been condemned by most major American Jewish organizations, including the major arms of the Conservative movement.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has a history of sacrificing principles for political expediency, as we saw when he cancelled the plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in order to keep ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition. Both in America and Israel, leaders are willing to appeal to the worst fears in voters to get elected.
Initially, when the prime minister called for early elections, it seemed that he was the front runner, but the decision by Israel’s attorney general to indict Netanyahu on bribery charges adds another layer of uncertainty to the election. Will voters put their trust in a prime minister accused of corruption who also associates with racists? We can only hope that whatever the results, Israel will repudiate hatred and live up to the promise of its declaration of independence, to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants”.