The past few months have been a period of great change for Israel, with Israelis turning out for the polls, to express their political views, and vote for a new Knesset that will serve as Israel’s government for the next several years. These elections proved very heated, as the many hotly contested issues that bitterly divided the previous Knesset continued to form major points of debate in the current election. These include the rights of Israeli Arabs, the future of the West Bank, the possibility of future settlement building, the possibility of a law officially declaring Israel to be the Jewish state, and Israel’s high cost of living.
The results were nothing short of surprising. The Zionist Camp, made up of an alliance between Israel’s center left Labor leader Isaac Herzog, as well as Tzipi Livni, the leader of Israel’s Hatnua party, was expected to receive a triumphant plurality. Livni had been dismissed from the previous coalition by Benjamin Netanyahu in order to instigate new elections, and form a more cooperative, conservative coalition. The Zionist camp favors negotiations toward a possible Palestinian State, while Netanyahu declared before the election that such a state would never be created during his tenure as prime minister. Although this statement infuriated the US Government, it succeeded in garnering votes.
Even after exit polling, both parties appeared to be tied at 27 seats, but the final count once again showed these polls to be false. This Zionist Camp plurality, which appeared to rise in the polls, did not end up holding true however. The party ended up getting 24 seats, slightly lower than expected. Netanyahu’s Likud, however, which only polled at 20-23 seats, managed to receive the most votes in the end, with 30 seats. Finally, late on the 17th, Isaac Herzog conceded, with Netanyahu soon to be charged with forming a new government.
Additional election successes were seen by the Joint List, an alliance made up of Israel’s four major Arab parties, Ta’al, Balad, Hadash, and the United Arab List. They were forced to work together to remain in the Knesset, which recently passed legislation raising the threshold for a party receiving seats from 2% to 3.25%, which would have kept the separate parties out. Instead, the Joint List earned 13 seats, making it the third largest faction in the Knesset. Kulanu, a new party that focuses on lowering Israel’s high cost of living, led by Likud breakaway Moshe Kahlon, also saw electoral success, gaining 10 seats.
For all other parties, the election proved to be a loss. Far right parties, Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, and The Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, focusing on settlement construction and maintenance of Israeli rule in the West Bank saw losses of seven and four seats respectively. Yesh Atid, which saw huge successes in the 2013 election, until leader Yair Lapid was sacked from the government, lost eight seats, leaving them with eleven. The two major ultra orthodox parties, Shas, and United Torah Judaism saw losses of four and one seat(s) respectively. Finally, Meretz, the Israeli far left party saw a loss of two seats, making it the smallest party in the Knesset, barely above the 3.25% threshold, prompting party leader Zehava Galon to resign. Two parties that did not make the cut, but received substantial votes were Yachad, a far right party created by a rift in Shas, and Ale Yarok, a pro-marijuana legalization party, who promised all donors a free share of marijuana, should the drug be legalized.
Two hours prior to the deadline, the government of the 20th Knesset was formed, after nearly two months of attempts from to assemble a majority coalition of supporters. These negotiations consisted of many deals, calls, and promises, as Netanyahu appealed to the other right wing parties, offering various terms for joining. Naftali Bennett, for instance, stated that he would only join such a coalition, should Netanyahu hold true to his promise of never allowing a Palestinian State, something Netanyahu was equivocal about during the election campaign. Additionally, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin expressed support for a Likud-Labor unity government, an unlikely prospect, given the current state of political affairs. The success of the coalition was ultimately dependent on Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, which although thought to be a likely member of the coalition, made clear that participation relies on certain economic deals, and control of key financial ministries.
Following the extensive negotiations, an agreement was reached. Likud will head the coalition, joined with The Jewish Home, moving the coalition farther to the right. The two major religious parties, United Torah Judaism, and Shas will be in the government, receiving many concessions, as well as Kulanu. Key cabinet positions will be given to party leaders, with The Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennet set to serve as education minister, while Jewish home member Ayelet Shaked will serve as justice minister. Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon will serve as finance minister. Likud’s previous electoral partner, Yisrael Beiteinu refused to join the coalition, after its leader, Avigdor Lieberman showed resentment at the disappearance of the controversial Jewish state bill. Also notable in the new coalition is the fact that it only consists of 61 members, the bare minimum needed to form a government, as compared to 68 in the previous coalition, thus giving the opposition more members.
As Young Judaeans, it is important to pay attention to this period of political change in Israel. I hope all Judaeans remain informed, read frequently about the current Knesset and hope for a peaceful, sustainable coalition within this new government, one that is best able to carry out both the interests of Israel, as well as the Jewish people.
~ Ben Weinstein
Ben is the outgoing Merakez Pirsum on the National Mazkirut. He is working at Camp Tel Yehudah this summer and studying in Taiwan in the fall.