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Elections: Israeli Style

By Shmuel Katz

Although it bears a direct correlation to the security and quality of our lives here in Israel, I do not pay daily attention to the political maneuvering and machinations here. I simply trust very little of what the politicians say and find it hard to get excited by all the rhetoric. Most people pay attention and are quite passionate about politics here. I am in the minority.

That is not to say that I do not participate. I have voted in the only election held since we made aliyah as well as in the Likud Party primaries (I joined the Likud a few years ago at the request of some local activists who were trying to get the party interested in focusing some effort and attention on Bet Shemesh; my membership in the Likud has lapsed and I did not renew). You may remember that I voted for Likud/Netanyahu nationally and for Moshe Feiglin in the Likud leadership elections.

With the dissolution of the current Knesset and the call for new elections in January, Israel will be jamming into three months what you have been going through for the past couple of years. The whole process is ridiculous and the fractured nature of our country leads to unusual and unforeseen coalitions and government conditions. It is amazing what people will do for power.

It all starts with the political parties. Do you want to found a political party in Israel? I think it costs $20,000 (I really don’t remember) and a certain minimal amount of signatures (which are easy to come by—just stand on a street corner and tell people that you need signatures for a new party that will “change” the way the government works). It is too late to found a party for the current elections; planning ahead is important.

Once you have a party, you have to come up with the bylaws and charter. These will determine how the election slate (or candidate list) for the party is chosen. Some of the parties have straight-up primary elections where the party members vote for the candidates, who are slotted, by ranking as the slate. Other parties may have primaries, but allow the party chair to change the results as he sees fit. And there are others that simply let their chairman assign their candidate lists.

The list is a ranking of the party members that the party is recommending for election to the Knesset. Bibi Netanyahu, as head of the Likud, is number one on their party list, which can contain as many or few members as the party wishes. After the general elections, when a party is awarded a specific number of seats in the new Knesset (there is a minimum of three seats to qualify for the Knesset), those seats are then awarded to the candidates in those rankings on the party list.

If, for instance, the SHMU party (fictitious) would win four seats, candidates 1 to 4 would be new MKs. Furthermore, if any MK on the SHMU list would leave the Knesset for any reason, they simply go back to the SHMU candidate list and install the person who was listed as number 5 on the SHMU list as the replacement.

Which should be simple. But, because the smaller parties are wary of the three-seat minimum to qualify for the Knesset, they often form a mini-coalition of sorts to combine their votes in an effort to ensure their new party garners the necessary votes. An example is United Torah Judaism (currently five MKs), which is a longtime (since 1992) combination of Degel HaTorah and Agudah.

You can imagine the negotiations that are involved in determining who is listed in the top three spots on a unified party’s list, as well as the next three or four spots. The saying “politics makes strange bedfellows” will be proven true over and over in the next couple of weeks as the parties and politicians all jockey for position.

Once all this settles down and the party lists are published, we get to the election. You already know how Israeli elections run. The party with the best chance of forming a majority coalition is tasked by the President of Israel to do so, and if they are successful, the next government is born.

The problem is with the majority coalition part. Since our country comprises an extremely diverse population as well as broad political differences, a multitude of parties gain election to the Knesset. These parties have responsibilities to their voters, essentially an obligation to use their best efforts to see that the platform under which the party campaigned becomes reality.

Discounting corruption and the desire of some to line their pockets or achieve some other gains not helpful to their constituents, the negotiations that accompany coalition-building here are intense and costly. In effect, the “winning” party’s chair must figure out how to “buy” the participation of MKs from other parties in forming a coalition. Sometimes the price is very steep.

This is one of the reasons that certain segments of the population have been so successful in funding their projects and activities for their constituents. For instance, with 16 seats between them (out of 120 seats in the Knesset), the aforementioned UTJ and Shas are a large block of votes. By offering them funds and political control over certain ministries in exchange for participation in the coalition, the “winner” gives them the money and authority to achieve their goals.

Often, these deals also include agreements that the government will not follow certain policies or enact certain laws. This limits the leader of the government in the achievement of his own party’s goals. This is why I voted for Likud in the last elections rather than a smaller party with which I might more readily identify. I wanted our leader to have a strong hand and not be restricted by limitations placed upon him by the little parties (even though they might be limitations I agree with, simply because there will be many other restrictions that I disagree with).

In 2009, I admitted that I had very little trust in Bibi’s honesty or trustworthiness. However, I saw him as someone who would do as much as he could to make sure Israel remained safe and secure and that he would be able to do it better had he not been encumbered by a coalition of a bunch of little parties. I also saw (and continue to see) him as the best international spokesman we could have, with fluent English and a terrific ability to capture an audience (his most recent performance with simplistic visual aids at the UN notwithstanding).

Many people think I was wrong in not voting for a small party that would work toward enacting an agenda closer to my heart. As I said, I am not as passionate as most about politics and I decided that it was the best use of my vote. Which is why they still actually hold elections—to provide everyone who can vote with the opportunity to decide how to vote and do so.

I am pretty confident that Bibi will remain the prime minister in the next government as well. Unlike prior elections, he did not dissolve the Knesset and call for new elections because the coalition failed. He called them voluntarily.

This was not done because of a budget impasse. I believe that everything is about money and power. Thus, he would only have called the elections for one of two reasons: to prevent a possible erosion of his strength if he waited until October for elections (not so likely according to polling data) or to hasten a strengthening of support for him and his continued leadership of the government (which is more likely).

Kadima stands to lose a whole bunch of seats (and thank G‑d for that). Labor will probably gain most of those seats. From what I have read, it seems that the left and center will be busy scurrying to retain their Knesset seats while it seems that most of the parties on the right are confident that they will maintain their support and perhaps even grow a bit.

A couple of new parties will make some noise and add to the mix, but again it looks to me that they will gain most of their support from the center and maybe left, with little from the right (although I could always be wrong). We may even end up with the same odd results as last time according to some pundits (Likud was the second-largest vote getter, but with Kadima unable to even try to form a coalition, Likud essentially “won”), with some other party playing the role of Kadima.

However we get there, the next few months should be entertaining and interesting to watch. Israeli politics are emotional and passionate. We are making life-and-death decisions here.

I must admit that it was a lot easier to decide how to cast an absentee vote for the U.S. elections (my sole criterion: Israel, Israel, Israel) than it will be to vote in the upcoming Israeli elections. As we move to the elections, I will try to share what I see here and I invite you to e-mail questions as well. v

Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a gap-year yeshiva opening in 2013. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at shmu@migdalhatorah.org.

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Posted by on October 25, 2012. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.