How and Why Israelis Vote https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/israel-zionism/2019/04/how-and-why-israelis-vote/

A primer on the state of play of Israeli politics, how Israel’s electoral system shapes (and warps) priorities, and why Netanyahu has reason to be worried about his new rival.

April 1, 2019 | Haviv Rettig Gur

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu on a pro-Gantz election billboard in Tel Aviv in March 2019. The Hebrew reads “Who will bring back our soldiers?” JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images.

Twenty years ago, in the post-Oslo 1990s, an Israeli voter knew where he or she stood.

The left had its narrative: give the Palestinians what they want and what they deserve—independence from Israel—and they will reciprocate with the only thing most Israelis want in return: to separate and to be left alone. And who knows? Maybe an end to occupation will drive a deeper kind of peace and reconciliation.

The right had its narrative: the land being proposed for independent Palestine is the heartland of Jewish history. It is also a necessary centerpiece of Israeli security, its rolling hills reaching nearly to the Mediterranean and protecting the country’s major population centers from any enemy effort to cut Israel in half in a future war. Israel (the right’s narrative continued) cannot afford, and the demands of historical justice do not require, that it abandon these West Bank highlands for the left’s fantasy of reconciliation with a deeply anti-Semitic and irredeemably violent Palestinian national movement—as was evidenced in those days by the handful of Palestinian suicide bombs detonating each year in Israel’s cities.

The two camps were roughly equally matched, with the prime minister’s chair switching sides in 1992, then again in 1996, 1999, and 2001.

But beginning in 2000 with the massive suicide-bombing waves of the second intifada, through the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the fall of that territory to Hamas two years later, and continuing in repeated cycles of Palestinian terror and its costly suppression, the sureties that once defined the mainstream Israeli political debate have broken down. From the partisan divisions of the 1990s, the experience of the past two decades has pushed most Israelis to a new consensus.

The essence of the consensus is that both sides were correct. Just as the left contended, extended Israeli control over the Palestinians is undesirable and untenable. Just as the right insisted, and as the intransigent irredentism of the Palestinians has shown, reconciliation is not in the cards.

Most Israelis who once called themselves left-wing now tell pollsters they are no longer sure that, Palestinian politics being what they are, further Israeli withdrawals have any chance of being reciprocated with peace. Most calling themselves right-wing no longer speak (if they ever did) about annexing the West Bank outright, because doing so would leave Israel permanently saddled with the Palestinian conflict.

As a result, each side now defines itself less by what it is than by what it is not. The Labor party under its current leader Avi Gabbay doesn’t speak about “peace” but mostly about the perceived excesses of the right and, in vague terms, about the need for “separation” from the Palestinians. For its part, today’s Likud party, even as it vows not to carry out any further territorial withdrawals (which it anyway characterizes as “leftist” policy), has simultaneously committed itself to refrain from any annexations of territory on the West Bank. Indeed, its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is often criticized by the West Bank settlement movement for allegedly holding back construction in settlements nestled close to Palestinian population centers.

Which brings us to the election scheduled for April 9 and to the curious struggle between Likud and its main competitor, the new Blue and White party, to explain why the other side’s candidate for prime minister is no less than an existential threat to the survival of the Jewish state.

The Netanyahu campaign has adopted as its mantra that Benny Gantz, Blue and White’s leader, is a “leftist” of 1990s vintage who in order to rule will depend on anti-Zionist Arab parties and be vulnerable to international pressure that could leave Israel strategically isolated. Gantz’s campaign, meanwhile, has made the exact same accusation against Netanyahu, pointing to his long history of centrist policies: acting to stabilize Gaza’s economy in order to prevent the collapse of Hamas’s regime and avoid the chaos likely to result from it; acquiescing in some Palestinian demands for greater control on the Temple Mount after waves of violence at the holy site; and even voting for the disengagement from Gaza some fifteen years ago. This record, Blue and White has claimed in its campaign ads, proves that Netanyahu is a “weak” and “indecisive” prime minister, almost a leftist himself, who surrenders at the first sign of Palestinian violence.

Asked what the election is about, most Israelis answer by turning to personalities, and especially Netanyahu’s.

For his part, Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, has hinted at a willingness to seek a separation from the Palestinians, but has vowed not to do so “unilaterally” or irresponsibly, and to keep Israel’s security as the top priority of any agreement. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has likewise vowed not to be irresponsible, has lashed out at Gantz’s alleged plans to withdraw unilaterally, and has asserted that he alone can ensure that an American-led peace initiative, if it comes, will be carried out in a way that does not compromise Israel’s security—his own top priority.

In all this it may be possible to separate the wheat from the chaff, the core policy argument underlying the image-making and posturing; but most Israelis cannot. Asked repeatedly what the election is about, most, from politicians to ordinary members of the public, answer by turning to personalities, and especially Netanyahu’s. It’s an election about him, about his character, and about whether the country needs a change, one that could breathe some fresh air into a national politics felt to be growing ever more bitter as it steadily empties of substantive policy disagreements.

As it happens, there are indeed a number of policy disagreements, and real divisions, in Israeli society and in the Israeli body politic. To understand why they matter less in today’s electoral politics than they did in yesterday’s, and what that may in turn signify, it will help to grasp the workings of Israeli elections themselves.

 

I. How Elections in Israel Work

 

Israel’s national electoral system is a two-step process.

First, a nationwide vote is held in which the whole country forms a single constituency. The members of that constituency vote for preset lists of candidates put forward by each party, or sometimes by a coalition of parties running a joint list. Each voter selects from, as of now, 43(!) such lists entering the race.

Only a single branch of national government—the parliament, or Knesset—is up for election. When the results are in, its 120 seats will be distributed among the competing parties in almost exact proportion to the support each has won among the voters on election day—minus those parties that have failed to clear the 3.25-percent minimum threshold of total votes needed to enter parliament.

There is a purity and simplicity to this system: the parliament that results from each Israeli election directly reflects the expressed will of the public. Gerrymandering is not possible. Nor are enormous double-digit minorities left effectively voiceless in the national legislature as smaller regional constituencies throw their weight to one side or another. The system’s simplicity thus frees Israel from some of the political knots and ills that plague other democracies.

There is a simplicity to Israel’s system: unlike in other countries, the parliament that results from each election directly reflects the expressed will of the public.

Yet—I can hear a reader object—Israeli democracy is assuredly not known for either simplicity or purity! True enough. That is because of what happens in the seven weeks following election day, during which time the public’s will is put through the meat grinder of the coalition-building process.

In the first seven days after an election, each of the two parties that have won the biggest pluralities in the new Knesset—no party has ever won an outright majority—tries to convince other parties to recommend its candidate as prime minister-designate: that is, the individual who will have the first crack at cobbling together a ruling coalition. By longstanding tradition, the president of Israel then gives the nod to the candidate who in the contest for recommendations has received the lion’s share of support.

Note that the winner of this process—and thus of the election—does not have to be the head of the most successful party at the ballot box. In the 2009 vote, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won 27 seats, one fewer than Tzipi Livni’s Kadima faction. But since more of the newly-elected Knesset backed Netanyahu for premier, he was asked to take the first stab at forming a coalition and succeeded.

Once chosen by the president, the prime minister-designate has up to 28 days to construct his or her majority coalition, and can request an extension of the deadline of up to fourteen additional days. Should that effort fail, the nod goes to the runner-up.

 

II. The Players

 

Once the prime minister has been provisionally selected, the real horse-trading begins. Each party fortunate enough to be seated in parliament now tries to wrangle out of the would-be premier as many policy concessions, ministerial appointments, and favorable budgets as it can extract in return for agreeing to join the ruling coalition.

That is, there are really two races under way in any Israeli election: the race among the large parties to name the prime minister, and the subsequent race among the many small- and medium-sized ones to sit in the future prime minister’s coalition and enjoy the influence and largesse thereby afforded. At issue in the first race, usually, are divergent views over foreign and security policy. At issue in the second are contending views of Israel’s religious, educational, cultural, and economic policies.

It is among the smaller parties, for instance, where battle rages between secularists and Ḥaredim; where the Arab community’s various ideological and religious streams find their voices; where aging Russian-speaking immigrants continue to vote their special economic needs; and where a specific domestic concern—for example, the rising cost of housing—can suddenly power an upstart party to ten Knesset seats (as happened to the newly formed Kulanu party in 2015).

There are really two races under way in any Israeli election: the race to name the prime minister, and the subsequent race to sit in the future prime minister’s coalition.

With these preliminary points in mind, what follows below in summary form is a description of the twelve parties (among, again, the 43 running) that most polling firms have consistently forecast to win seats in the next Knesset or to come within a reasonable stone’s throw of that result—along with the estimated range of projected seats that each is expected to win.

This last point deserves a caveat of its own: polls can sometimes be poor guides to ballot-box realities, perhaps especially in an electorate where party identification per se holds relatively little sway over the average voter. Even if the pollsters are accurate, moreover, several parties will inevitably end up hovering right at the edge of the 3.25 percent threshold. This means that only a slight deviation can erase multiple lists that together poll at what could amount to more than a dozen seats in the Knesset. At the moment, those parties tend to be weighted to the right, so their disqualification could dramatically shift the final results toward a centrist bloc.

 

Let’s begin with the two parties that, according to polls, are in the race for the premiership, and from there proceed to the smaller parties vying for places in the ruling coalition.

Likud began as an amalgamation of center-right, hawkish, and economically liberal political parties that in 1973 formed around the conservative Ḥerut party of Menachem Begin. Likud won the national election in 1977 by drawing to its ranks disaffected working-class Mizraḥi voters long ignored by the Ashkenazi-dominated Labor party. Though formally committed to a maximalist position when it came to the lands conquered by Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War, in practice Likud has led every major Israeli withdrawal from such conquered territory, including the pullouts from Sinai in 1982 and from Gaza in 2005.

This flexibility—holding a strong line against concessions while implementing concessions on the ground—has been facilitated by the rank-and-file’s loyalty to the party’s leaders, of whom there have been just four since the state’s founding in 1948: Menachem Begin, Yitzḥak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Likud is now polling at between 28 and 32 seats.

Blue and White is the new alliance of three political parties (two of which are themselves only a few weeks old) hailing from the political center or center-right. Three of its top four candidates—Benny Gantz, Moshe Yaalon, and Gabi Ashkenazi—were once chiefs of staff of the IDF. The fourth, the party’s number-two leader, is Yair Lapid, a secularist and former journalist who made his reputation as a popular author and television anchor before turning to politics in 2012.

Blue and White has built its campaign on the premise that although its leaders have no meaningful policy differences with Netanyahu, they can deliver similar diplomatic, economic, and security results without the “baggage” of the incumbent prime minister’s divisive rhetoric and his burden of legal troubles that mainly involve allegations of corruption.

Blue and White is polling at between 30 and 35 seats.

 

Now to the others, beginning with the Labor party. Once the dominant political force in the country, Labor won every Israeli election from 1948 to 1977. But ever since the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000, its influence and importance have receded; it has failed to win a single election since 1999.

Today a small- to medium-sized party at best, still identified with the goal of a negotiated peace process with the Palestinians, Labor struggles to articulate how that process might be advanced to an electorate growing more skeptical of it with each passing year. It has also become a byword for political chaos, having toppled its leader no fewer than eight times in the past eighteen years. To its critics, it represents little more than an aging Ashkenazi elite.

Labor is now polling between six and ten seats.

As with Labor, it’s easier to talk about what Meretz was than what it is. In its vision of itself, it remains the last unambiguous home of the Israeli “peace camp,” a political identity that harks back to the heady days of the early 90s when an optimistic left was all but certain that peace was at hand.

Meretz’s steady decline—from twelve seats at its founding in 1992, when it served as a key parliamentary bulwark for Yitzḥak Rabin as his Labor government launched the Oslo peace process, to nine in 1996, six in 2003, and just three in 2009—mirrors exactly the diminishing support among voters for its brand of optimistic “peacemaking.” Since 2009, it has hovered between five and six seats, drawing support from a variety of progressives and of voters for its LGBT and environmental activism.

Some polls now show Meretz dropping below the 3.25-seat threshold, though the most optimistic give it as many as seven seats.

 

The Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP), the main slate representing the pro-settlement religious-Zionist camp, is the most controversial of the factions expected to win entry to the next Knesset. It is an alliance made up of three parties. The first two, Jewish Home and National Union, represent communities that, although by no means ḥaredi, are in some ways as distinctive and, critics have argued, as insular as are ḥaredi constituencies. They often win majorities in West Bank settlements, but they also draw voters from around the country, primarily in Orthodox communities that subscribe to the religious ideology of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the founding spiritual leader of religious Zionism.

Then there is the URWP’s third party, known as Otzmah Yehudit (“Jewish Power”). The recent attachment of this party to the two main political vehicles of religious Zionism has drawn a great deal of anger and criticism from within and without. Otzmah Yehudit is made up of the disciples of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose party was barred from parliamentary elections in 1988 on grounds of racism. Today it includes among its top leaders such individuals as Itamar ben Gvir, whose living-room wall boasts a photograph of the Jewish mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein, as well as activists who have held violent protests outside interfaith weddings and/or who support legislation to outlaw interethnic sexual intercourse.

The inclusion of Otzmah Yehudit in the alliance has been a distraction for the other two parties—and also for Netanyahu, who had pushed for the union in order to ensure that right-wing votes wouldn’t be lost if Otzmah failed on its own to make it into parliament. One signal of the internal tension: Otzmah Yehudit’s candidates were not present at the list’s official campaign launch earlier this month.

URWP is polling at six to eight seats.

The New Right party was founded last month by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the two leaders of Jewish Home (see above) who abruptly left that party in order to establish a competing slate. Professing similar views on security, judicial reform, and other defining right-wing issues, New Right takes issue with Likud’s centrist tropisms and differs from Jewish Home in not hewing to the latter’s religious identity and social conservatism. Bennett and Shaked have said they hope their new political option, as right-wing as the religious right but without the religion, will rally more voters to the conservative banner.

New Right is polling at five to eight seats.

Kulanu epitomizes the shifting fortunes of the fickle Israeli center. Founded in late 2014 by Moshe Kahlon, a popular former Likud minister, with the intention of running in the 2015 elections, it all but ignored foreign and security policy in favor of a campaign promise to reverse rising cost-of-living and housing prices.

Kulanu draws a curious mix of Israelis. Demographically, Kahlon’s Libyan roots attract some traditional working-class Likud voters of Mizraḥi origin, while the party’s economic policies, focused on enabling home-buying and child-linked tax cuts, appeal to young middle-class families. The combination highlights the extent to which the party’s electoral fortunes rely more on the popularity of its leader than on its championing of a particular demographic or a particular worldview.

Kulanu is polling at four to five seats. It is worth noting, though, that some polls gave it a similar number ahead of the 2015 race when it went on to win ten seats.

Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) are the two major ḥaredi political parties. The former represents a large swath of Israel’s Mizraḥi ḥaredi population, and the latter its Ashkenazi counterpart. UTJ is itself an amalgam of two ḥaredi factions, the “Lithuanians” of the Degel HaTorah party and the ḥasidic sects of Agudat Israel.

Shas and UTJ have similar, though not identical, political programs. Both seek to defend and to preserve intact the religious institutions and laws inherited from days of old—from, to be precise, the time of Ottoman rule in Palestine. Both are committed to fighting off attempts to encourage a military draft or other forms of national service among students at ḥaredi yeshivas. And historically both have been willing to sit in both left-led and right-led governments, as long as substantial funding is forthcoming for their religious schools and communities.

Each of the two parties is polling at between five and seven seats.

Yisrael Beytenu (“Israel Our Home”), whose voters are primarily Russian-speaking immigrants, straddles multiple fault lines of Israeli political identity.

Since hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Israelis are either not Jewish by the standards of halakhah or are closely related to non-Jews, Yisrael Beytenu opposes any strengthening of the official rabbinate or of rabbinic courts, and is antagonistic to ḥaredi-backed parties and policies.

At the same time, while the party bills itself as “right-wing”—and indeed was established in 1999 because its leader, Avigdor Liberman, was frustrated by the relatively moderate stances adopted by other Russian-speaking parties—it is the only Israeli right-wing party openly to advocate the establishment of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank as well as a redrawing of Israel’s borders to facilitate this end. Its advocacy, moreover, includes the not insignificant proviso that the new state be allowed to take for itself territories within Israel that are home to many Israeli Arabs.

Where does one locate a view that backs a Palestinian state while (a) seeking to remove Arab Israelis from the Israeli civic body and (b) doing so in a manner that will diminish uncontested Israeli territory and expand the territory of the newly liberated Palestine? To some on the right, this sounds like more crackpot left-wing mischief; to many on the left, it sounds like a racist trolling of the classic vision of two independent states. Liberman, for what it’s worth, has called the idea “pragmatic” and dismissed as “messianists” those right-wingers who refuse to contemplate Palestinian independence from Israel.

In most polls, Yisrael Beytenu clears the vote threshold, but only just.

 

Here we begin a thumbnail survey of Arab-Israeli politics.

The Ḥadash-Ta’al alliance pairs two parties that are ideologically different on paper but in practice represent overlapping constituencies and priorities. Ḥadash (a Hebrew word meaning “new,” and here an acronym for the party’s full name, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) combines progressive Arabs and a small but vocal cohort of far-left Jews under the banner of what was once the country’s main Communist party. It is non-Zionist, supports Palestinian statehood, backs expanding the welfare state, and calls for nationalizing Israel’s natural resources.

Ta’al, a Hebrew acronym for Arab Movement for Renewal, was founded by its leader Ahmad Tibi in the 1990s and has carried him to the Knesset in every election since 1999. In contrast to Ḥadash, at least in its official guise, Tibi is an outspoken Palestinian nationalist who served as a senior adviser to Yasir Arafat during the 90s peace process. Among Israelis, to whom he represents and argues for the Palestinian cause, he is known as one of the most eloquent and expert speakers of Hebrew, his second language, ever to have served in parliament.

While their ideologies differ, the practical policy proposals of Ḥadash and Ta’al are nearly identical, as is their middle-class Arab-Israeli voting base.

Ḥadash-Ta’al is polling at six to nine seats.

Ra’am-Balad

Official ideologies aside, if Ḥadash-Ta’al represents in practice the liberal-leaning (and mostly integration-seeking) Arab-Israeli middle class, Ra’am and Balad are home to the other half of Arab-Israeli politics: its Islamists, its polygamists, and, for a few within the ranks, its unapologetic apologists for terror groups.

Ra’am, a Hebrew acronym for United Arab List, is the most popular party among large sectors of Israel’s Bedouin population, where patriarchal habits persist when it comes to the status of women, to polygamy, and to other traditional but now frowned-upon cultural mores. One Ra’am lawmaker, Taleb Abu-Arar, the former mayor of a southern Bedouin town, is an open (illegal) bigamist, priding himself in media interviews on his ability to keep two wives happy.

The Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement of Israel, a moderate but nevertheless ideologically Islamist religious group, is also part of Ra’am’s voter base and political ground organization.

As for Balad, or National Democratic Alliance, it is the favorite party of the more assiduous backers of the Palestinian national movement. Its members include Arab lawmakers who have raised the most hackles among Israeli Jews for, to list just three irritants, supporting Hamas, backing an Iranian nuclear weapon, and labeling IDF soldiers as “murderers” and other similar epithets. All three of these views have been embraced by the outgoing Balad parliamentarian Hanin Zoabi, but not only by her.

Ra’am-Balad has recently slipped in the polls from a consistent showing of five seats to below the 3.25-seat threshold. For the time being, Arab voters appear to be shifting toward Ḥadash-Ta’al.

 

III. The Game

 

We now reach the final stage of the election process, in which the major agencies of state power and the government’s key positions of authority are divvied up in the process of forming the ruling coalition. Whichever of the two election frontrunners, Likud (Netanyahu) or Blue and White (Gantz), is chosen by the president after the elections will have to hammer out an agreement with each prospective partner it hopes to bring in to form a majority coalition. These agreements are public (and available on the Knesset website in Hebrew here).

After the election itself, the major agencies of state power and the government’s key positions of authority are divvied up in the process of forming the ruling coalition.

Some see this process as the source of most of Israel’s political ills. Here, for example, is where the minority ḥaredi political parties manage to squeeze the Israeli mainstream into accepting the rule of Orthodox religious law in many of their key personal life-cycle decisions. Indeed, after the last election in 2015, both Shas and United Torah Judaism included in their coalition agreements with Likud a stipulation that no private bills purporting to change the religion/state “status quo” would be advanced or supported by any members of the coalition. This effectively protected the rabbinate, the state kashrut-supervision apparatus, the rabbinic courts, and other institutions from having any reforms imposed on them through legislation.

It is also in this part of the electoral process that vast funds are handed out to narrow sectors or for the benefit of parochial ideological commitments. For example: in its 2015 coalition agreement, the Jewish Home party obtained hundreds of millions of shekels for West Bank settlements, from security grants to educational funding to a 24-million-shekel allocation for “preserving the heritage of Gush Katif,” the Gaza settlement bloc dismantled by the Sharon government a decade earlier, plus at least 50 million additional shekels for state-funded Ariel University in the northern West Bank.

In all, an estimated nine billion shekels (according to a count by the business journal TheMarker) were promised away by Likud in 2015 in order to bring Kulanu, UTJ, Shas, and Jewish Home into the coalition—a figure equivalent to roughly 2.6 percent of the 2016 state budget.

So it is indeed easy to criticize this stage of an electoral process that adapts national policy and consigns national budgets to the needs of narrow social groups or ideological camps in a frantic bid to prop up a majority coalition. But the horse-trading has its proponents. Some note that since any Israeli government almost by definition enjoys a parliamentary majority, there are few outside restraints on executive power. In addition, since the parliament is elected by the entire country voting for preset party lists, most lawmakers are dependent for their Knesset seat less on voters than on their party leaders. In the end, therefore, it is only an Israeli coalition’s internal tensions that meaningfully rein in a government’s ability to act unchecked.

Nor, one might add, is it an accident that, alongside Israel’s theoretically overweening executive, the country has developed one of the most powerful judiciaries in the free world—too powerful, in the eyes of those who would rein in the country’s “imperial” judges, but needed, in the eyes of those fearful of dismantling what they regard as the only meaningful external check on executive power.

 

IV. Results

 

When all is said and done, and with the reminder that voters often surprise even the sharpest of prognosticators, the basic lineaments of either of the two most probable final outcomes of the April 9 elections are largely known.

Likud’s path to piecing together a coalition is relatively easy. Several right-wing or right-leaning parties are natural fits in terms of political identities and policy priorities. These include either URWP or, if they split post-election from Otzmah Yehudit (as they promised to do when the parties joined in February), Jewish Home and National Union; Yisrael Beytenu; Kulanu; New Right; and the two ḥaredi parties. The new government would thus look a great deal like the current one, pushing explicitly conservative policies in areas like judicial reform, leading a broadly liberal economic policy, and conceding most social and religious issues to the ḥaredi electoral veto.

Ironically, if Blue and White wins, it’s not clear that either the coalition partners or the new government’s policies would be markedly different. In a revealing March 18 leak of a recorded conversation between Gantz and his close confidants, the party leader laid out his governing priorities. They can be summed up in two words: replace Netanyahu.

But not Netanyahu’s policies; those, Gantz has repeatedly argued in his campaign, are mostly correct. Rather, he is heard saying in the recording, Netanyahu in his political style and personal failings has “sold out the country.” To replace Netanyahu, he adds, he himself must be willing “to sell my soul for a coalition with the Ḥaredim.” And that’s not all. In the leaked comments, Gantz suggests that as long as he is the prime minister, he would be willing to have Netanyahu himself as a junior coalition partner.

In any case, a Blue and White coalition would start out with a harder path to a majority. The ḥaredi parties have already said they would not like to sit in a coalition with Blue and White’s secularist Yair Lapid. Left-wing Meretz and Labor might stay out should Gantz follow through on his desire to bring in right-wing factions. Altogether, a centrist coalition would face more incompatibilities of policy and identity than would a more explicitly right-wing counterpart.

Still, these troubles should not be overestimated, and none is insurmountable. Ḥaredi parties have often sat in coalitions with secularist parties, including in the last government. Nor are left-right gaps unbridgeable. In 2009, Labor and Jewish Home coexisted in Netanyahu’s coalition in almost complete harmony.

In brief, then, a Blue and White government would likely include part of the center-left, as much of the center-right as Gantz can buy off, and ḥaredi parties well aware that the neophyte Gantz might need to show greater generosity in his coalition negotiations than would the more secure Netanyahu.

The problem for Gantz, therefore, may lie less in the coalition talks than in the earlier stage of recommendations to the president. Netanyahu is banking on an election result along the lines of the 2009 model in which, even if he doesn’t lead the largest faction, he can claim the most recommendations from right-wing parliamentarians. Gantz, in turn, is banking not on winning over the biggest group of lawmakers but on his party opening a large enough gap with Likud—six seats? eight seats?—to make a case for President Reuven Rivlin to break with tradition and give the significantly larger party first crack at forming the next government.

The race might therefore end up close enough to be decided by the country’s mostly ceremonial president. And such a race—a close contest between two large rivals—means one thing certain for everyone else: whoever wins will be doubly eager to secure the support of every sector and interest, because failure to conclude coalition talks quickly would almost certainly mean the other side will get the nod to try its hand. Whether Gantz or Bibi, therefore, the next prime minister will spend his first weeks in power busily handing out a windfall of concessions to the sectarian margins of Israeli society.

 

Israel’s electoral system is constantly attacked as a major source of the country’s ethnic, religious, and social fissures and as a core cause of its purported political instability. Yet, as certain analysts (including the political theorist Shany Mor and myself) have noted, it has also, over many decades, delivered governments that have proved competent and steady helmsmen of both Israel’s security and its economic prosperity.

One can thus view the coalition horse-trading described above either as a systemic capitulation to narrow agendas or, in the longer-term context of the dangers posed by the country’s fragile social fabric, as a means of securing a commitment to a Zionist Israel from sections of the population that might not otherwise have felt so moved.

One can view the coalition horse-trading as a means of securing a commitment to a Zionist Israel from sections of the population that might not otherwise have felt so moved.

In this connection, one key reason why Yisrael Beytenu is now hovering near the threshold for entry into the Knesset lies in the extent to which Russian-speaking immigrants have moved on from their formerly highly distinctive identity toward fuller integration into Israeli society. Ḥaredim, too, have undergone a noticeable shift, replacing their once almost exclusive insistence on speaking Yiddish with a deeply Israelified Hebrew complete with its characteristic mannerisms and slang, and moving from a once draft-less and largely non-working profile (at least among the men) to ever-rising rates of military service and workforce participation.

These shifts are driven in part by the sense of political inclusion and shared responsibility granted by the coalition-building process. Take that process away, and the nation will remain no less divided but significantly less capable of mediating its divisions in productive ways, or at least not in actively destructive ones.

It may be too early in this young nation’s history to determine whether its electoral system has served as one of the many encumbrances the country has had to overcome on the road to its present prosperity and strength or, as I would argue, a net boon that has helped drive a sense of solidarity among disparate factions by forcing diverse groups with radically different mores to seek out pragmatic common ground. Either way, a new chapter in that history is about to be written by Israel’s voters.