Published On: Wed, Mar 24th, 2021

Israel Votes 2021 – The Day After

As of now there is no clear winner.

Israel Knesset (Unsplash)

It has been more than twelve hours since the polls close in Israel and as of now only one thing is certain: no one knows what is going to happen. The polls were wrong. Binyamin Netanyahu does not have a sure path to a 61 seat majority in the next Knesset. No one does. Will Israel need another round of elections?

That is what it is looking like right now. The major change from last night is the Arab Ra’am Party. Last night it was thought that it would fail to pass the needed 3.25% threshold for getting into the Knesset. This equates to four seats. Well now it seems that Ra’am will get five seats. These seats, however, seem to have come at the expense mostly of the anti-Netanyahu camp. The Arab Joint list and left party Meretz both dropped by several seats from last night’s estimates.

But the Likud Party lost a seat too. Last night Netanyahu had a majority if the right-wing Yamina Party joined him in a coalition government. Today this is not necessarily so. Likud Minister and Netanyahu buddy Tzahi Hanegbi appeared on Israel’s Channel 12 morning news program today. To the surprise of the panelists he refused to discount the possibility that Ra’am might join a Likud led government. The Arab Party hinted during the election campaign that it would support a Netanyahu government provided that it would get what it wants passed by the Knesset.

The problem with this is that the right-wing Religious Zionist Party will also need to be in such a government. It probably would not agree to sit with Ra’am. And Ra’am probably would not agree to sit with them.

So can the anti-Netanyahu block form a government? Probably not. The ultra-orthodox won’t sit with the left-wing Meretz Party and neither Meretz nor Yvette Lieberman’s Israel Our Home Party will agree to the demands of the Haredi community. These include continuing the exemptions from military service for their people and the Israeli Rabbinate controlling all Jewish marriages in the country.

As a Jewish grandmother might put it — the Americans should have such problems! Last year there really was no doubt who won the Presidential elections. It took just a few days for Joe Biden to be acknowledged as the victor. The extra time was needed only because the Coronavirus crisis required more people to vote by mail. President Trump’s legal challenges aside, the American public knew right away who would be inaugurated their President the following January.

The only glitch came with the need for not one, but two run-off elections for the U.S. Senate in the same state, Georgia. This determined who would control the Senate. But everyone knew that the issue would be decided one way or another once those runoff elections were held.

Unfortunately, Israel does not have runoff elections. Maybe it should.

The press are already talking about a fifth round of elections. This is because these elections were seen as round four for those begun in April 2019. In spite of a government being formed after round three, it lasted for so short a time that people see it as just a temporary stopgap created so that there would be no need of more elections during the Covid crisis.

We now have two months to wait and see if someone, anyone will be able to form a new government. Maybe Benny Gantz will surprise everyone and agree to continue as Defense Minister, giving Netanyahu the support of his party’s six seats. If not, there may be more elections in less than six months from now. They have a few months to try and form a government and then a three month campaign season.

If that happens then all Israelis accept for one will be the losers. Binyamin Netanyahu has continued to serve as Israel’s Prime Minister for the two years now since the first round of elections were held. New elections will mean that he will get another six months in office. All while on trial for corruption.

Perhaps the big lesson here is that politicians and political parties need to learn to promote a positive agenda instead of just condemning the other guy all the time. For the fourth time in a row the “Netanyahu is bad” campaign made by multiple parties failed to sway the public. Maybe these groups will learn their lesson and push more positive campaigns in round five which emphasize what they plan on doing for the Israeli public.

Another positive to come out of the chaos are growing calls for a reform of the elections system. Perhaps there should be some sort of runoffs in Israel. Perhaps if no government can be formed then instead of new open election there should only be an election which includes the parties which did get into the Knesset. Or perhaps the minimum vote threshold needs to be raised in a second round, but only the parties which ran the first time can run again and with the same lists.

In Israel there is proportional representation. People vote for a party and not a candidate. A party gets seats in the Knesset proportional to its share of the vote. The last time Israel had such a deadlock was in the 1980s when the two major parties – Likud and Labor – basically ended the elections in a tie twice, in 1984 and 1988. This led to a national unity government with both major parties being formed both times.

This led to an attempt at electoral reform which brought Israel direct election of the premiere. Instead of just voting for a party people voted for a party and a candidate for prime minister. But this proved to be even worse so it was scrapped after just two full national elections.

The real problem with the Knesset is that it was never intended to be permanent. Like America under the Articles of Confederation, it was meant to be a provisional form of government to lead the nation in its infancy as it was still fighting for its independence. It was based on the system established by the British under the Mandate. The British established the Jewish Agency and for more than twenty years its representative body was chosen in elections with proportional representation.

After independence no one could agree on a better system so proportional representation remained. For decades this sufficed in a small country with just a few million people and not that many issues of national importance to divide it. But this is no longer the case.

The proportional representation system seems to have run its course. So whether or not there will be a fifth round of elections within a few months, right now most Israeli are probably hoping for some sort of electoral reform.

However, it may very well be that like with direct election of the premiere no other option will be better. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Israel’s electoral system may be the worst form of government in the world, except for all the rest.”

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