The Israeli people have spoken. Israel held its parliamentary elections this past Tuesday and to say the least, the results were surprising and did not necessarily go as expected. Voter turnout was higher than the previous four elections and at exactly 10:00 p.m., when the first exit polls were announced, 83% of Israeli households with television sets were watching one of the news channels – an all-time record for any broadcast in Israel.
As things now stand, it is very likely that current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will remain in his position. His party, Likud Beiteinu, received the most seats, by far, but that number was still considerably less than the party (and political pundits) expected. Although the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merged party may well have cost the party some seats, in the end, the move ensured that the combined list came out with a number that is far larger than any other party.
The real surprise winner in the election was Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, whose performance stunned the “experts,” won the second highest number of seats. The party is only one year old and is comprised entirely (including Lapid himself) of brand new politicians who have never even served as members of Knesset, and certainly not as cabinet ministers.
The 120 Knesset seats are divided 61 seats for the right, and 59 for the left. Basically half and half. But the Knesset is not actually divided 61-59. It is split four ways – 43 for the right, 48 for the center-left, 18 for the haredim (religious) and 11 for the Arab parties.
It is important to note that the haredim have been called the “natural partners” of the right, though they are free to link with any party. And the Arab parties have never been asked to join a coalition, which makes them all but irrelevant to the process of forming the next government.
HaAretz newspaper has an interesting graphic showing the breakdown of each party’s results.
In many ways, these elections were a strong expression of last year’s social protests in Israel against the “old order.” In the United States the vast majority of sitting members keep their seats. After Tuesday night, almost half of the 120 current Knesset members lost their seats. Several parties focused on effectuating change in several key areas dividing Israelis: a fair share for the haredi community in the national requirement of military and/or national service; the rising cost of living; and the growing gaps between rich and poor. With many Israelis deeply pessimistic about the chances for imminent peace, a significant number of voters went for those parties that made socioeconomic issues, not security, the centerpiece of their campaigns. This represents a sea change from past elections when campaigns were seemingly all about security.
So where does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu go from here? His party, Likud-Beiteinu, is the biggest at 31 seats, and probably will be asked to form the coalition. He has 77 days. That’s how long Israel’s quasi-constitutional basic law allows, from the moment the vote results are officially published, for a would-be prime minister to negotiate with other parties, forge a viable coalition and win a Knesset vote of confidence.
Here’s how it works: Israel’s ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, has seven days to consult with all the parties, hear their recommendations for prime minister and then tap the likeliest contender. Peres’s choice gets 42 days to craft a coalition. If he or she fails, the president can pick someone else, who then has 28 days to try. Failing that, the Knesset is dissolved and new elections follow. With the blocs basically tied and the sides seemingly polarized, that’s not inconceivable.
I believe David Horovitz in The Times of Israel said it best, “The weeks of intense coalition-building negotiations Israel likely now faces might be seen as reflecting an unwieldy electoral system that is again putting a dozen parties into a 120-seat parliament. But ours, in turn, is an unwieldy, sectoral public, with its mix of Jews, Arabs, radical righties, radical lefties, the ultra-Orthodox, the fiercely secular and all manner of folk in between and far beyond. If Netanyahu is indeed the (battered) winner of the tortuous election process, his next task is still more arduous — putting together and maintaining a government that can represent the domestic socio-economic interests of a wide proportion of our divided electorate and steer Israel effectively through the complexities of an unpredictable, threatening region.”
We will all watch the upcoming weeks as a new coalition government is formed. Which parties are included and who takes leadership positions in the Cabinet will certainly be of great interest as Israel moves into the future.
Some interesting facts about the 19th Knesset and its 120 members (from the Jerusalem Post):
The incoming Knesset will have a record 26 women, five more than the previous, record-setting one. Three of the parties have female leaders, while some parties do not allow women to run on their slate of candidates.
Fifty out of a total of 120 Knesset’s members will be first-time lawmakers, including the entire slate for the Yesh Atid party.
Nearly one-third of the Knesset members are considered Orthodox – either religious Zionist or haredi.
One-fourth of the Knesset is from Sephardi decent, even though Sephardim make up 51% of the Israeli population.
Eleven seats in the Knesset are divided between three Arab parties.
Israel is a democracy…the people have spoken…and now it is up to the country’s leaders to lead.
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