When Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” he wasn’t talking about the Israeli elections. But he might as well have been.
Israelis return to the polls on Tuesday, less than six months after doing so in April. Why is this happening? What’s at stake? Who’s going to win? We’ve got you covered (except maybe on that last one).
How often are elections held in Israel?
Officially, every four years, though they usually happen more frequently. That’s because Israel has a parliamentary system, like Britain and Canada, so elections can be called basically whenever the prime minister wants them to happen.
There are 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and a prime minister needs a majority -– 61 -– to pass laws and do all the other things governments do. No Israeli party has ever won an outright majority of Knesset seats, so leaders have needed to build coalitions with smaller parties whose interests intersect or overlap. Often, elections are called because one such party pulls out of the coalition — or threatens to — over a policy (or personal) dispute, leaving the government without a majority.
Tuesday’s will be Israel’s fourth election in six years.
Okay, but twice in six months? Why?
In the April 9 balloting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won 35 seats, the same number as its main rival, a new party called Blue & White, led by the retired head of the military, Benny Gantz. But Netanyahu, who was on track to serve a fourth consecutive term and fifth one overall, struggled to form a coalition with the other right-wing and religious parties that had been mainstays of his past governments.
The holdout was Avigdor Liberman, a Netanyahu protégé-turned-frenemy, who leads the nationalist but secular party Yisrael Beiteinu. Liberman refused to serve in a coalition unless Netanyahu promised to pass a bill that would conscript yeshiva students into the Israeli army -– which the Orthodox parties refused to accept.
Usually, Netanyahu’s failure to assemble a coalition would have opened the door for Gantz to try. But Netanyahu used his power as an incumbent prime minister to call another election instead, hoping that Israelis would deliver a different result.
President Trump was one of many observers who were baffled. “Israel is all messed up with their election,” he said in June, adding, “They ought to get their act together.”
What’s at stake?
At the top of the list: Netanyahu grabbed headlines last week by pledging to annex the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, a move sure to provoke an international outcry. The Blue & White party hasn’t come out for annexation, although they have said that the valley “is a part of Israel forever.”
Also, the outcome of the election could significantly affect Israel’s relationship with the United States — and with American Jews. Netanyahu and Trump are close allies. Trump has made several moves that have helped Netanyahu at home, like moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. That tight connection between the two countries could loosen if someone dislodges Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s office. On the other hand, Trump is disliked by many prominent Democrats, and divisive among American Jews, who tend to vote Democratic. Those who don’t like Trump but do support Israel might actually feel more comfortable with a Jewish state that’s less closely allied with the American president.
In Israel, the outcome of the election and the makeup of the coalition will affect several religious issues important to Diaspora Jews. A secular coalition, for example, would be likelier to liberalize rules for conversion and marriage, and to allow men and women to pray together at the Western Wall.
This election could even determine Netanyahu’s freedom. The prime minister is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to hold a pre-indictment hearing on those charges in October. If Netanyahu doesn’t stay in office, he’s vulnerable. On the other hand, a new Netanyahu-led coalition could pass a law giving the prime minister immunity from prosecution.
Who can vote?
All Israeli citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote regardless of race or religion. That includes about 6.5 million Jews and about 1.8 million Arabs. Jews who live in the occupied West Bank can vote in Israeli national elections, while Palestinians there cannot (they are eligible to vote in Palestinian elections, but those haven’t happened since 2006).
The approximately 430,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem have Israeli residency, but not citizenship, so they are not allowed to vote on Tuesday (they can vote in Jerusalem city elections, but the vast majority choose not to, which is something to dig into another time.)
There’s no absentee voting unless you’re a diplomat or in the military, so Israeli expats often fly home for a short election getaway.
How does voting work?
Instead of voting for a specific person, Israelis pick a political party. The Knesset’s 120 seats are divvied up according to the parties’ share of the votes cast. So if the Hummus Party gets 10% of the votes, they win 12 seats - 10% of 120.
Before the election, each party publishes an ordered list of candidates. So, if the Hummus Party wins 12 seats, candidates one through 12 on its slate get seated, and the others on the list go back to their day jobs.
But in an effort to keep things manageable, Israeli law sets a vote threshold — currently 3.25% — below which parties do not qualify for the Knesset. Any party that doesn’t get at least 3.25% of the total votes cast gets nothing, and the votes for them are effectively wasted.
That’s what happened in April to Naftali Bennett, the education minister and one-time darling of the religious Zionist movement. His New Right party got 3.22% of the vote, so Bennett and his comrades lost their Knesset seats.
Isn’t this kind of confusing?
That’s what people say about the Electoral College.
And, anyhow, the elections are only phase one. Phase two is the coalition negotiations, and we saw in April how important those can be.
Who could have predicted that a people who spent centuries arguing over whether you can eat beans on Passover would have such a complicated process?
The wheeling and dealing of coalition building means that smaller parties have outsize leverage, and can extract a lot of promises in order to help the bigger ones reach the magical 61-seat number.
Say the Challah Party got 50 seats, the Matzah Party got 45, and the Shawarma Party 25. The Shawarma Party knows that both big parties need it to form a coalition, so it can play them off each other in the hopes of getting major posts in the Cabinet and pledges to pass their legislative agenda.
Last week, most polls showed not only Netanyahu and Gantz’s party neck and neck, but neither of them likely to get to 61 with what are known as their “natural partners,” potentially leaving Liberman, who won five seats in April but now looks like he might get double that number, as kingmaker again.
There are 31 parties running, though most of them are tiny, like the Pirate Party (motto: “We’re all in the same boat”).
The two biggest contenders are Likud, the right-wing party of Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, and Blue & White, a coalition of centrist parties formed for the April election and led by Gantz, whose main selling point is that he is not Netanyahu.
But several other parties will play a key role in forming the next Israeli government and shaping its direction.
On the right: the two Haredi Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which primarily care about maintaining the status quo of religion in Israeli life; Yemina (Rightward), an alliance of far-right parties opposed to Palestinian statehood; and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength), religious settlers whose members include acolytes of the racist terrorist rabbi Meir Kahane.
On the left: Labor, the center-left party that championed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the 1990s and has been sinking in popularity ever since; the Democratic Union, a collection of dovish Zionist groups that includes the veteran leftist party Meretz and former Labor Prime Minister (and Jeffrey Epstein associate) Ehud Barak; and the Joint List, the group of Arab parties, which have said that they would consider supporting a Jewish party in the Knesset if it meant the end of Netanyahu’s tenure. (Gantz has said that he would not bring the Arab parties into a coalition but has not ruled out relying on them for key votes.)
Then there is Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Liberman, whose hawkish Russian-immigrant base is now being buttressed by secular Israelis who want an end to special treatment for Orthodox Jews.
Who’s going to win?
Nobody knows. For starters, Israeli pollsters are notoriously unreliable.
Anecdote: My Aunt Rachel loves taking part in polls. The pollsters love her and call her constantly. She told me not to take polls seriously. I was surprised and asked why. She told me she votes Likud but tells pollsters she backs @AvigdorLiberman to make the polls inaccurate.— Gil Hoffman (@Gil_Hoffman) September 13, 2019
And just because a party wins the most seats doesn’t mean they can form a coalition.
But here are some possible outcomes:
Netanyahu wins. If Likud and other right-wing or religious parties get enough votes to form a coalition without Liberman, it would likely lead to West Bank annexation and criminal immunity for Netanyahu.
Gantz wins. If Likud falters and Blue & White far outperforms the polls, it might be able to form a coalition with Liberman and the liberal parties, likely leading toward a cautious restart of the peace process.
Liberman “wins.” Liberman has said that he wants a unity government including Likud, Blue & White and himself. But he and Gantz also say they won’t join any government led by Netanyahu. So they’d have to convince Likud to depose its longtime leader and accept a power-sharing agreement, perhaps with a rotating prime ministership.
Nobody wins. If neither Likud nor Blue & White can form a coalition, and Netanyahu thwarts an internal party coup and prevents a unity government, then it could be back to the ballot box all over again.
The world wins. Faced with the prospect of voting for the third time in a year, Israelis pray for a miracle, with a power and unity the likes of which haven’t been seen in millennia. This causes the arrival of the Messiah, who is unanimously appointed prime minister and deputy minister of transportation.
This has to be the weirdest election in Israeli history, right?
Not even close.
In fact, there are a lot of strange incidents to choose from.
There was the “stinking trick,” the 1990 scandal when a would-be government fell apart because one unscrupulous politician only waved his hand over the coalition contract instead of signing it, a deception that was only discovered days later.
Or the 2006 elections, when Gil, the party of elderly Israelis, got seven seats and joined the coalition thanks to protest votes from young Tel Avivians.
But the most notorious incident was in 1977, when Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, a Jewish-French businessman who fled to Israel after being accused of embezzling $60 million, ran for the Knesset because elected officials aren’t allowed to be extradited. Despite being a one-man party, he won two seats.
When will we know the results?
Polls close at 10:00 PM local time (3:00 PM Eastern in the United States), and results should trickle in over the next few hours.
Over the following few days, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will meet with each party leader and ask them who he should tap to get the first try at forming a coalition - usually, but not always, the leader of the party with the most votes. That leader will have 42 days to cobble a coalition together. If they can’t, another party leader will get 28 days to give it a try.
If you still have questions about the elections, ask our new editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren.
Plus, you can read our opinion pieces about the election below: