Election Time Again

Unlike the US electoral system, there is no set election schedule for Israel’s national elections. Technically, the Knesset serves a four-year term, but rarely does; the last one was 30 years ago. Rather, the government can call for new elections at almost any time. This is usually precipitated by one of the coalition parties dropping out of the governing coalition, thus causing the government to be unable to pass legislation. In the most recent case, the party headed up by the former Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned from the coalition due to dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the continuing crisis at the Gaza border. With their resignation, the governing coalition was left with a one seat majority. At the same time, the government was under a Supreme Court mandate to address the military drafting of the ultra-Orthodox, who oppose the mandatory draft for its young people, claiming the study of Jewish religious texts protects the country from its enemies more so than military service. Since a new draft law had to be passed this month due to the Supreme Court decree, the government realized that without the support of its ultra-Orthodox governing partners, the law could not pass, and the governing coalition could not survive.

Also unlike US politics, Israel’s election campaigns last just a few months, not two years, and most campaign funding comes from public coffers, not private ones. While many in the US feel the two party system does not represent them adequately, the huge amounts of money required to fund alternative parties makes it almost impossible to form new national parties. This is not the case in Israel. From before the founding of the State, there have been numerous parties. Today, the Knesset has ten/eleven political parties, ranging in size from five seats to thirty seats out of a total of 120. The largest party is Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, also the Prime Minister.

The next election is set for April 4. As of now, the generally unreliable Israeli polls have Netanyahu and Likud well ahead of their opponents and likely leading the next government. This could change with the expected indictment of the Prime Minister for corruption. He is currently under four separate criminal investigations. The police have recommended indictments in three of the cases. The state attorney is recommending at least two of them move forward. The final decision on an indictment rests with the Attorney General. Assuming indictments are leveled against the Prime Minister, the timing becomes important. If they are done prior to the election, they could have a dramatic impact upon the election’s outcome. If done following the election, assuming Netanyahu’s party does well, the Prime Minister could argue that he should not be removed from office when he just won a resounding victory at the polls. As of now, Netanyahu claims that he will not resign if indicted (he’s not required to), and the actual legal cases against him could take years. On the other hand, a Prime Minister under criminal indictment would be politically handicapped and probably be forced from office by other parties who had joined the new coalition government.

Adding to the election chaos is the recent formation of brand new parties, which have the potential to strip voters from existing parties. The three most significant changes are the formation of Israel’s Resilience, a party led by General Benny Gantz, the former chief of staff of Israel’s military; the departure from the Jewish Home party of Neftali Bennett (Education Minister) and Ayelet Shaked (Justice Minister) and their formation of another party, the New Right; and the split in the Labor Party of the current party leader, Avi Gabbay, from Tzipi Livni, who heads the Hatnuah (Movement) party that joined with Labor in the last election. I’m even thinking of forming a party – the Hebrew Illiterate party. Anyway, expect more changes before Election Day.

As many know who read my newsletters, I am active with Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) headed by Yair Lapid. The party currently has eleven seats, is a centrist party and is generally associated with leading the opposition to the current government. According to polling last year at this time, Yesh Atid was running neck and neck with Likud, and Lapid was considered the main contender to Netanyahu. More recent polls show the party dropping back, especially with the proliferation of newer parties. The most recent poll shows Yesh Atid with 17 seats, compared to Likud with 26, putting them within striking distance of prevailing, especially with the looming indictments of the Prime Minister.

Interestingly, many, if not most, Israelis do not like Netanyahu, but don’t see an adequate replacement. The Israeli economy is strong and growing, and as James Carville, former campaign manager for Bill Clinton, famously said, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Additionally, particularly in the past year, Netanyahu has been traveling the globe, making deals with “moderate” Arab states and strangely welcoming far right political leaders from various countries. This creates an image of a strong leader. Nevertheless, if Yesh Atid does well in this election, it could position itself to take over if the next Netanyahu-led government falls due to corruption charges.

While I don’t agree with everything Yesh Atid stands for, there are three positions that I find compelling. 1) The party stands for religious plurality. It argues that the ultra-Orthodox should not hold the monopoly in Israel on religious matters, especially when they represent around 10% of population here, and far less outside of Israel. This position could ultimately redound to the benefit of Messianic Jews. 2) The party stands for personal integrity. The last Prime Minister recently was released from jail. The former President of Israel is still in jail, and the current Prime Minister easily could end up in jail. Yesh Atid vets all of its members who are on the Knesset lists. In fact, two of its former MKs (Knesset Members) were removed by the party in the past year due to corruption. 3) The party stands for a final resolution with the Palestinians. More than anything, the Palestinian situation in the territories is the albatross around the neck of the country. Israel basically controls a people group with few rights. The party believes a regional conference with “moderate” Arab nations, the Palestinians, and the US could fashion a reasonable solution, thus eroding constant international criticism of the country and further enabling Israel to become a light to the nations.  

Next Sunday, Yair Lapid will be presenting in English to an audience in Tel Aviv. He had a similar presentation in Jerusalem several months ago that was very well attended. I will be involved again in the event’s organization. The next few months will be increasingly busy with electioneering. Please pray for the upcoming election and that corruption in high places be exposed.