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Analysis

The painfully complex act of voting in an Israeli election

The electoral system is simple: Voters have one choice to make, and there are no regional constituencies or extra chambers of parliament. So why is it so complicated?

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Shas party supporters at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 19, 2021, four days before the general election. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas party supporters at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 19, 2021, four days before the general election. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At first glance, Israel’s electoral system is one of the simplest in the world. The voter has just one choice to make in the voting booth: their preferred party slate.

That’s it. All slates that win over 3.25 percent of the total vote then take their seats in the Knesset in proportion to the number of votes won.

There’s no second house of parliament and no direct vote for the executive branch, and only a vanishingly small number of Israelis — a few tens of thousands in a busy year — have any say via party primaries in who actually sits on the party slates.

Indeed, most parties don’t even hold primaries. The vast majority of MKs are appointed by their party leader (as in Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Yamina), by a rabbinic council that in practice does whatever the party leader asks (Shas), or by complicated arrangements between smaller sub-factions of the party (Joint List, United Torah Judaism).

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri delivers a statement to the press at the party’s headquarters in Jerusalem a day before the elections on March 22, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That detachment between MK and voter is important. It makes an Israeli election less an expression of a social contract between governor and governed and more a kind of tribal survey. Each party identifies with and draws its strength from a particular religious or ethnic subgroup in the Israeli population – Shas with Sephardic Haredim, Yesh Atid with generally Ashkenazi and secular middle-class voters, Ra’am with the Bedouin and other conservative Muslim groups, and so on. The parties’ relative ballot-box success serves as a kind of cultural and demographic snapshot of the Israeli population.

Tribal, uncomplicated and, on the face of it, predictable.

Chaos

Then, suddenly, it all gets complicated.

Israeli society isn’t composed of a single tribe, but a dozen or more, and so the Knesset itself is home to not one but between eight and 12 parties, each with differing loyalties and competing agendas.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2021 three days before the general elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s easy to elect a Knesset, but it can be excruciating to then try to carve a majority coalition out of it.

Take the 24th Knesset, set to be elected on Tuesday, as an example.

From what we can guess about it from polls now four days stale (it is illegal to publicize polling conducted after Friday), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu very nearly has his victorious right-religious coalition. The Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism have pledged their allegiance to him in writing (a promise later dismissed on national television as “nothing” by UTJ leader Moshe Gafni, but still), the Religious Zionism slate owes Netanyahu its political existence after he engineered its union with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, and Naftali Bennett will be hard-pressed to refuse to join the right-religious coalition if his Yamina party will clinch it a majority of seats on Tuesday.

That would make five parties in the coalition, or perhaps six if Religious Zionism splits into its constituent parts, as some of its leaders have said will happen after election day.

Across the aisle, things are even messier. Meretz is hovering near the vote threshold and may disappear altogether; if that happens, Netanyahu almost certainly has his majority. A renewed Labor is struggling to find its footing once more. Blue and White’s Benny Gantz is out to prove that he’s a survivor. Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party wants to shake up the Arab Israeli political debate. The rest of the Arab parties, still organized as the Joint List, hope to beat the unflattering polls. And Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu is aiming for an election surprise after running a campaign with a laser-like focus on ousting the Haredi parties.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli visits at the Jaffa market in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2021, three days before the general election. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Finally, over the broad, diverse and in many cases mutually antagonistic “center-left” stands a 20-seat-strong (again, a rough figure drawn from pre-Friday polls) Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid.

Enter the Israeli voter, who must chart a path through the chaos to find a worthy recipient for their vote. It’s no easy task.

Tactics

When Israelis head to the ballot station, they’re not thinking about election day. They’re thinking about the coalition negotiations process that follows the election, where actual victory is achieved in the Israeli system.

Consider the complexity of their decision. They must navigate each party’s public declarations of loyalty and vows of boycott. Netanyahu won’t sit with Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, the Joint List or Ra’am. New Hope, Beytenu, the Joint List, Blue and White, Labor, Meretz and Yesh Atid won’t, in turn, sit with Netanyahu. Liberman won’t sit with the ultra-Orthodox. Bennett won’t sit under Lapid, but hasn’t ruled out sitting with him. Shas won’t leave Netanyahu’s side; UTJ has backtracked from its loyalty pledge and announced it’s not in anyone’s pocket.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem the day before the general election, on March 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

As the election reaches its final hours, the maneuvers have become frenetic. Labor’s Merav Michaeli warned on Monday that Lapid – yes, Lapid, who refused to enter last year’s unity government with Gantz – might join a Netanyahu government. Netanyahu, after crowing about a dramatic victory over the past three days, has now begun to warn ominously that he’s on the cusp of losing. UTJ’s MK Yaakov Asher explained on Monday that for all his anti-Haredi bluster, Liberman “sees us as partners,” suggesting the head of secularist, Russian-speaking Yisrael Beytenu has worked well with Haredi lawmakers in the past and will do so again in the future.

None of those statements, or any of a hundred others like them thrown into the ether over the past few days, have any connection to the truth. (That’s not to say any particular statement is necessarily false; only that whether it is true or not has no bearing on the motive for uttering it.)

All such statements and dire warnings are attempts to influence the Israeli voter as the latter tries to navigate their way through the noise toward the party they support and the final coalition they hope to see established.

Is a vote for Lapid really tantamount, as Labor has occasionally claimed, to a vote for Netanyahu? Are Haredi MKs suddenly embracing Liberman (Asher isn’t the only example) to express a commitment to future cooperation, or to drive his secularist voters away from him? Netanyahu’s warnings of an imminent loss precede every election, including his most successful ones; either Likud’s internal polling is consistently bad, or Netanyahu’s statements have little to do with polls and everything to do with driving apathetic voters to the polls.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during an election campaign tour in Hod Hasharon, March 19, 2021, four days before the election. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Such tactics aren’t merely part of the campaigns, they are the campaigns. As Israeli voters know well, victory isn’t achieved at the ballot box, but at the coalition table.

That simple fact has turned the Israeli voter into a highly tactical creature – and made the campaigns exceptionally good at manipulating his or her tactical calculations.

The three kinds of Israeli voter

There are three kinds of Israelis when it comes to deciding where to place one’s vote.

1. The ideological/identity voter

This is the voter who supports a party based on the most straightforward conclusion of all: that they support the party’s ideas, worldview or cultural or religious tribe, or simply believe the party’s leader is trustworthy and deserving of their vote.

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party at an election campaign tour at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 19, 2021, four days before the general election. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Such a voter might vote Labor for the simple reason that Michaeli’s outspoken feminism appeals to them, or for Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism because they believe he is an uncompromising defender of the religious-Zionist community and its ideals.

2. The tactical bloc voter

This person is too worried about the final coalition to vote for the party they like the best. They vote to help the bloc, not the party.

For example, to make sure Netanyahu has his right-religious majority the day after the election, this pro-Netanyahu voter, even if they’re secular and uncomfortable with the Religious Zionism slate, will give their vote to Smotrich to help ensure he passes the vote threshold and grants Netanyahu his majority.

Or conversely, to ensure the Lapid-led center-left is as large as possible, they might vote for progressive Meretz – not because it’s their favorite among the parties, but because without it Lapid’s chance of unseating Netanyahu disappears entirely.

Meretz party leader Nitzan Horowitz, front, MK Tamar Zandberg, third right, and MK Yair Golan, left back, call potential voters to persuade them to cast a vote for Meretz in the upcoming Israeli general elections, at the Meretz party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 21, 2021, two days before the general election. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

3. The coalition hedge voter

This is the voter who takes their tactical considerations to the next level: considering not only which bloc they support, but how best to place their vote to influence the deeper policy impulses and priorities of the next coalition.

Consider, for example, a generally conservative voter who finds the far-right distasteful. Such a person may agree with Netanyahu on most issues and with Lapid on fewer issues. They may prefer Netanyahu as prime minister over Lapid.

But to such a voter, the race isn’t really between the two men, but between the two very different coalitions that each can cobble together. It is a choice between the narrow Netanyahu-led coalition of perhaps 61 or 62 seats that because of its razor-thin margin would be constantly beholden to the Kahanist lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir for every significant parliamentary vote, from budget votes to no-confidence contests – or a Lapid-led coalition similarly dependent on and reined in by its rightist edge, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and perhaps Bennett’s Yamina.

Such a voter might vote for the right-wing but anti-Netanyahu Sa’ar – that is, they might vote to empower the rightist edge of a centrist coalition – rather than the narrow and wholly right-wing coalition sought by Netanyahu.

New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar, front, and party candidate Ofer Berkovich, back, visit at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City a day before the elections, on March 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Consequences

Tactical voting can be found everywhere on the political spectrum, from the Joint List to Religious Zionism. And it can have a profound effect on the results.

A Bedouin man’s vote for Ra’am may end up propping up a right-wing Netanyahu coalition – but, this Bedouin voter might hope, that right-wing coalition would not fail to take notice of a new supporter’s needs. A vote for Lapid, meanwhile, may turn out by the Escheresque logic of coalition math to be a vote against Lapid if it drives Meretz below the threshold.

In the April 2019 race, Netanyahu sought to weaken Bennett’s party, then called New Right, and warned in the final days of the race that Likud was on track to lose the election if right-wing voters didn’t concentrate their support on Likud. Tactically minded right-wing voters believed him and switched their support to the ruling party.

The result: Bennett failed to clear the vote threshold by just 1,400 votes, a loss to the right-wing camp, and to Netanyahu himself, that changed everything. When Liberman turned his back on Netanyahu’s right-Haredi coalition during the coalition negotiations in May of that year, Netanyahu was left without a parliamentary majority, and decided to engineer the second-run election in September.

Israeli voters have a simple task before them on Tuesday: pick a party, any party.

But as they seek to break the deadlock of the past two years, and as they contemplate the coming coalition and the shape of things to come, that simple task can get very complicated indeed.

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