Jews moving to live in Israel usually find Israeli politics incomprehensible. With these primers, I’ll attempt to simply what’s going on within Israeli elections – if that’s possible.
Israel is a party-only parliamentary democracy with a single level parliament of 120 seats. This means voters vote for 1 party and nothing more. Parties earn seats in the parliament depending on the percentage of vote received. If there are 3,000,000 people who vote in the national election, each 25,000 votes a party receives earns them 1 seat in the parliament.
Parties present an ordered list of candidates. If they get 1 seat, the first person on the list is in the parliament. If they get 2 seats, then the first two on the list, and so on. A special rule is in place for this election, a party must get 4 seats to qualify for any seats – less than 4 seats (less than, in my example above, 100,00 votes) and they get no seats and the votes for them are discarded.
It takes 61 seats, the majority, to “form a government”. If no party gets 61 seats (none will, the largest parties might get 25), then the party that gets the most seats is invited to make deals with other parties to put together a group (a coalition in the political terminology) that equals 61 or more seats.
Parties associate themselves, by their own choice, with ideas or ethnic or religious segments of society. There are no representatives – no member of the parliament “represents” my city or area of the country. Some parties have associated themselves with the kibbutzim (communal towns), the settlements, the ethnic sephardim, the Arab Israeli citizens, or the ultra-orthodox Jewish Israeli citizens. But this is only by party choice, any other party could come along and try to appeal to that same group (a constituency). Associating with a group means declaring it’s important and funneling government money to schools or communal organizations that service the group.
Overview – The Left
Israel is a country with a socialist history but a strong free market capitalist trend, high tax rates, a heavy mix of Judaism, contested holy sites, constant threats from neighboring countries and terrorists, strong entrepreneurialism and high tech startups, and constant pressure to “sacrifice for peace”.
The Left – the left ran the country from it’s independence in the 50’s until the late 70’s, and have frequently run it since then, though less and less since the 90’s.
-- The Left supports maintaining a strong socialist government system, including some economic controls.
-- The Left considers Israel’s very high tax rates to be too low, and sometimes promotes confiscatory approaches to high income earning – though sufficient loopholes for the politicians themselves and their supporters are always baked in.
-- Income disparity is a major concern, solutions involve forcing higher wages for low skill jobs and taxing high wage earners more. (An example of this – port workers at Israel’s ports currently earn approximately 1.5x what a doctor earns.)
-- They feel Israel is making insufficient concessions for peace, and don’t want to see more young men die to maintain an extra bit of land just because it might be strategic in the future, which can be compensated for with technology, or part of historical or biblical Israel. (An example – the Iron Dome system was green lighted and pushed by a leftist defense minister otherwise considered incompetent.)
-- Parts of the left are strongly for separation of synagogue and state, or even pro-atheism. They would see the religious authority’s control of marriage, divorce, and burials discontinued, and some or all of state support for religious institutions discontinued. They would cancel some or all of Israel’s blue laws (laws that support religion by preventing commerce or public transit on Shabbos for example).
-- Parts of the Left are strong supporters of the Kibbutzim organizations and towns. In Israel’s early days these communal communist style collective farming towns were a major part of the country and members became leaders in the military and political system. Today they are a very minor factor, with only a small percentage of the population and economy, and have rarely succeeded to the 3rd generation without transitioning to a private or industrial model.
-- Generally speaking the Left would abandon the settlements to their own fate and/or force evacuation of them when convenient.
-- The “standard” Leftist parties are Labor and Meretz. This election season the Labor party is playing name games, currently calling itself “The Zionist Camp” though saying that’s a temporary name.
Overview – The Right
-- The Right, in theory, supports a capitalist market system… with a solid socialist government support basket. “In theory” because while being in power for many years only parts of the economy have been fully privatized or marketized.
-- The Right considers Israel’s very high tax rates to be adequate, occasionally adjusting them slightly down (and then sometimes slightly back up depending on the government budget need).
-- Some parts of the Right consider the poor a concern, and would create more government education programs and entrepreneur support programs. Others would just leave things as they are.
-- In general the Right feels Israel has done everything reasonable for peace, and feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. “Managing the situation”, keeping it as stable as possible is the only reasonable approach. Other parts of the Right feel that Israel should assert greater rights over the West Bank and be more forceful with the Palestinians. One Right approach which has been somewhat effective has been to strengthen the Palestinian economy, to give people something to lose if they get involved in terrorism.
-- The Right tends to be stronger religiously, with segments strongly involved with Judaism. The Right supports the “Status Quo”, the general understanding of Israel of Judaism’s relation with the State (meaning religious services covered by the State, Blue Laws and so forth).
-- Parts of the Right are strong supporters of the settlements, and a number of Rightist politicians live there. While this position weakened for many years, after the Gaza evacuation debacle (the debacle being getting rockets fired at Israel after leaving to reduce friction) it has become strongly resurgent while being moderated to “support and strengthen the current structure without any additional land claims”.
-- The “standard” Rightist parties are Likud, The National Religious Party, now in it’s new incarnation as Bayit Yehudit (The Jewish Home party), and Yisroel Baytaynu (though they may shift Left in the current election).
Overview – The Center & Others???
Certainly it will surprise no one that some Israel voters want “a bit of this and a bit of that”. And Israeli politicians have become famous over the last 20 years for trying to ‘tack to the center’ and grab that “middle vote”. Almost every election a new “Center Party” has popped up… and two elections later has disappeared.
Shinui – the Change Party, who was going to be economically right, peace middle, and strongly religiously left. They had 1 big election, small next one, and were gone.
Kadima – the Forward Party, was a break away from lead politicians of the left and right who were going to bring the magic middle way. They led the evacuation of Gaza and pretty much nothing else. They had 1 massive election win, a smaller next one, a tiny next one, and will disappear with the upcoming election.
Yesh Atid – the There Is a Future Party (founded by the son of the Shinui party founder). All members were non-politicians, they were going to bring new blood and new ideas to Israeli politics, with leftist peace ideas, rightist military strength, and reform the religion-state relationship. They had 1 big election, are predicted a small one in the upcoming election, and then will be gone (assuming they follow the pattern).
Kulanu – the We Are Together Party. Founded by a breakaway Likud parliament member who has had good success with addressing economic reforms (of the socialist system), bringing some serious price competition to some areas of major interest to consumers. So far as I can tell he stands for better consumer prices and being middle of the road. He is predicted to have mid-level success in the election.
The other side of the “Others” is the strong sectorial parties. These include 3 Arab-Israeli parties, who have done absolutely nothing for their constituents beyond yelling a lot in the parliament, and the ultra-orthodox Jewish parties – which were two and have now split into three. Briefly…
Arab Party Balad, National Struggle – out to transform Israel into something else.
Arab Party Ra’am Tal, the United Arab List – supports Bedouin rights, Islamic Movement rights in Israel, and the formation of a Palestinian state.
Arab Party Hadash, the Front for Peace and Equity – a communist party, and supports evacuation of all settlements.
United Torah Judaism – supports rights and religious funding for Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jewish sector.
Shas – supports rights and religious funding for Israel’s Sephardic Jews and ultra-orthodox Jewish sector. Current chairman supports leftist principles.
Yachad or Ha’am Itanu – a breakaway from Shas with similar standards, but supports righist principles and less focus on only ultra-orthodox Jewish issues. This will be their first election.