What are the core principles of the State of Israel? Religious Judaism? Jewish secularism? A state of only Jews? A two-state solution for peace? These questions and many others are critical to understanding the deep political divisions that have prevented the State of Israel from forming the twenty-second Knesset, the parliament of Israel.
Israel holds Knesset elections for its 120 seats every four years. Unlike in the United States, citizens vote for a political party, each led by a party head, rather than voting for a Prime Minister directly. Often voters decide based on the personalities of party leaders rather than just a platform. Once the votes are tallied, the head of the party with the most votes has the opportunity to form a coalition of 61 seats. If the head of the party succeeds, that person becomes the prime minister of Israel.
Initially, Israel held its first election for the 22nd Knesset in April 2019. The two major parties, Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and Kachol Lavan, led by Benny Gantz, tied with 35 seats each. At first, President Rivlin gave Netanyahu (Israel’s prime minister since 2009) a chance to form a coalition. Each party can join a coalition of parties to form a government. The Likud party is rightward leaning, supporting capitalism and Jewish settlements in the West Bank (Judea/Samaria). Netanyahu attempted to form a government with other right-wing parties, including Shas and Yahadut HaTorah, the two Chareidi parties. Netanyahu did not succeed in reaching 61 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu, a secular right-wing party led by Avigdor Lieberman, refused to join a government that included the Chareidi parties. One of his primary concerns was his opposition to the draft exemption granted to yeshiva students, an issue critical to the Chareidi parties. Kachol Lavan would not join a government led by Netanyahu because of his indictment, which was pending at the time. After five months without a successful coalition, President Rivlin decided a second election was necessary.
The second Knesset election took place in September 2019. The results were similar to the first election with Kachol Lavan winning 33 seats to Likud’s 32 seats. This time, Gantz attempted to form a centrist coalition. His primary aims were to make peace with the Palestinians. A first in Israel, Gantz was the first candidate to be endorsed by the HaRishima Hamishutefet Party, the Arab Party. The Arab Party decided to support Gantz with the hope of removing Netanyahu from office. Gantz tried to convince Lieberman’s secular party to join, but Lieberman refused to join a coalition that included the Arab party.
In late November, as had been anticipated for months, Netanyahu was indicted with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu, who had been Minister of Defense as well, had to resign from that post immediately because, under Israeli law, no one can serve as a minister if he has been indicted. The only possible exception is the position of Prime Minister.
In an attempt to avoid an unprecedented third election, President Rivlin allowed any member of the Knesset to attempt to form a 61-seat coalition. After the allotted 21 days, no one succeeded.
One potential solution to Israel’s political stalemate would be a unity government between the Likud and Kachol Lavan parties. Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz is willing to share the position of prime minister. Gantz led his campaign on the promise to end Netanyahu’s decade-long reign, while Netanyahu would only agree to a unity government if he could be prime minister first. Given Netanyahu’s legal issues, it is doubtful that he could become the prime minister second in a rotation. Furthermore, he can only seek immunity for himself as prime minister.
On Dec. 26, 2019, Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud was challenged by his rival Gideon Sa’ar. This was the first formal challenge of Netanyahu’s leadership in a decade. He won, however, by nearly a three to one margin. Commentators have noted that this strengthens Netanyahu’s political standing going into a third general election in March 2020.
Yair Lapid, a senior member of the Kachol Lavan Party, said, “What used to be a celebration of democracy has become a moment of shame for this building [the Knesset].”
Gifts for Runners
While this year may have encountered challenging moments in Israeli politics, I believe that it is a time of strength for Israel’s democracy. Sixty years ago, if the Israeli government faced the same stalemate it does now, the country may not have survived. During this time of friction between groups of Israelis, it is crucial to appreciate how developed the country has become. It is not despite the political disputes between the people that Israel’s democracy remains intact. It is because of it.