2009 election preview: Israel


The first big election of 2009 will take place on 10 February when Israelis go to the polls to elect a new Knesset. The election was triggered in late 2008 following the resignation of Ehud Olmert as leader of the governing Kadima party. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was elected Kadima leader but failed to get the agreement of all coalition parties, which has resulted in an election being called a year early.

Israeli politics is one of the most fragmented and confusing political systems in the West. This is derived both from the ultra-proportional electoral system and the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on domestic politics. Israelis vote for a 120-member Knesset on a pure party list system. No MKs represent local electoral districts, rather all are elected to represent the entire country. Parties must receive at least 2% of the vote to gain representation in Parliament.

This system is primarily responsible for the large number of parties. Twelve parties won representation at the 2006 election, with five of them winning at least 10 seats. Israeli politics is also dominated by issues of security and the approach to the peace process. The left-right spectrum more reflects attitudes towards relationships with Palestinians, with parties like Meretz on the left-wing end of the spectrum more amenable to working with the Palestinians, and parties on the far right being the most opposed to cooperation.

Israeli politics for most of the last 35 years was dominated by Labor, the main centre-left party, and Likud, the dominant conservative party. Yet neither party has held a majority government, except for a short period in the late 1960s. Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left Likud in late 2005, joining with fellow defectors from both Likud and Labor to form the centrist Kadima party, due to divisions in Likud regarding Sharon’s disengagement plans. Sharon suffered a devastating stroke in early January 2006, and has remained in a coma ever since. His deputy Ehud Olmert led Kadima into the election, which he won.

In addition to the three major parties, there are also a number of right-wing religious parties, including Shas and United Torah Judaism, who both represent different Ultra-Orthodox communities, and National Union-National Religious Party, a generally nationalist and zionist right-wing party.

There is also Meretz, a social democratic party. The neoliberal party Shinui has also previously had representation in the Knesset, a split before the 2006 election saw the creation of the Hetz party, and both were knocked out of the Knesset. Some polls have also suggested that the Greens may finally break through the 2% threshold after polling 1.5% in 2006.

Yisrael Beiteinu, a party representing Russian immigrants, and Gil, a party standing for pensioner rights, also have representation. There are also three Arab parties representing Israeli Arabs. Due to their anti-zionist policies, the option of including Arab parties in coalition governments is a non-starter, making it even harder to form a 61-seat majority.

As of the 2006 election, the numbers were:

  • Kadima – 29
  • Labor – 19
  • Likud – 12
  • Shas – 12
  • Yisrael Beiteinu – 11
  • National Union-National Religious Party – 9
  • Gil – 7
  • United Torah Judaism – 6
  • Meretz – 5
  • United Arab List – 4 (Arab)
  • Hadash – 3 (Arab)
  • Balad – 3 (Arab)

After the 2006 election, a coalition was formed with Kadima, Labor, Shas and Gil, for 67 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu has also participated in the government.

Despite the poor performance of Likud in 2006, the party has recovered under the leadership of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Polls since October have put Likud ahead of Kadima, while Labor lingers far behind. Kadima will be led into the election by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, while Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who was Prime Minister from 1999-2001, will lead Labor.

According to the latest Dialog poll of December 31, Kadima would lose two seats, Labor three, and Likud would gain twenty. If you group the smaller parties, you come up with:

  • Likud – 32
  • Kadima – 27
  • Labor – 16
  • Yisrael Beiteinu – 11
  • Arab parties – 10
  • Meretz – 7
  • Right-wing religious parties – 17

If you assumed the right-wing religious parties went with Likud, while Meretz and Labor went with Kadima (not necessarily the case), you would have Likud 49, Kadima 50, with Yisrael Beiteinu in the balance of power. This clearly indicates that the race could go either way at the moment between Netanyahu and Livni, although the numbers would suggest that Kadima is slightly stronger, as you would think that, with 10 Arab MKs, and 50 if Labor and Meretz go with Kadima, it is extremely difficult for Likud to gain a majority.

The biggest factor in this campaign has clearly been the conflict in Gaza, and how that plays out over the next month could very much influence the campaign. In particular, it appears that Livni and Barak, as the key figures in the government during the campaign, are hoping to gain support amongst right-wing Israelis and dent Netanyahu’s support. How Gaza plays out over the next month will likely determine the next Israeli Prime Minister. In particular, the campaign appears to have greatly assisted the Labor Party’s campaign, with an increase in campaign workers volunteering for the party.

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  1. I reckon so. It’s certainly a rich country, and its inhabitants are of largely European origin (not totally, but a lot). It certainly doesn’t fit in with its neighbours economically or socially and definitely not politically.

  2. Fair enough. I guess “the West” has become a pretty encompassing term that can relate to a country’s system of government, economy, social system or ethnicity.

  3. I would say “the West” is a term referring to countries that are:
    -Relatively wealthy
    -Generally allied to the US during the Cold War
    -Governed by a representative democracy.
    -Largely white population.

    I put in that last point because otherwise the conditions would include Japan, Korea, Taiwan, but those probably wouldn’t be considered Western.

  4. Great post, Ben!
    Well researched and with good analysis on a complicated topic.
    I’d just like to make a couple of points regarding your categorization of the different parties and the subsequent difficulties for setting up a coalition:
    * Yisrael Beitenu is a militarisitc, right wing party based around a charismatic leader (Avigdor Lieberman: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avigdor_Lieberman) with almost neo-fascist beliefs. I would tend to believe that a coalition including Meretz, based on the implicit support of the Arab parties, could not include Yisrael Beitenu. If Livni wants their 10-11 seats she’s going to have to form a more centre-right coalition (she’ll even have trouble with the more left-leaning elements in Labour).
    * It would be a mistake to include Shas (and even United Torah Judaism) in the right-wing religious category as they have shown themselves to be much more flexible on issues of Israel/Palestine and more economically progressive than others. Many religious parties in Israel are much more concerned with issues of religious rule in Israel (e.g. Sabbath Laws, Marriage rights, Gay rights) and, even more importantly for them, funding for their respective religious institutions. I think that they would be much more amenable to joining a left-centre (militarily) coalition if their social demands were met.

  5. Thanks for the input Ofir. Do you think there’s any scenario where the Arab parties would not be in opposition?

  6. If, by opposition you mean ‘not part of the governing coalition’ then absolutely not. Even in the most left wing government of my political experience, the Labour-Meretz coalition of 1992-1996, the Arab parties were an external force that generally voted with the government but were not officially part of the coalition.
    This is the case with most centre-left coalitions, receiving the support of the Arab parties (at least when it comes to confidence and appointment ratification votes) but not including them in the coalition due to a fear of being considered less Zionist/Partiotic/Jewish.
    There is also another side to this, with some very populist Arab party leaders (see Azmi Bish’ara, Achmed Tibi) not being able to be seen as providing the support for Zionist government that membership in a coalition would entail.
    I think that a coalition based including Kadima, Labour, Meretz and Shas would probably get necessary support from the Arab parties.

  7. Could you find yourself in a situation where, say, there are 10 Arab MKs, 55 MKs supporting a Kadima/Labour-led coalition and 55 supporting a Likud-led coalition, that that would be enough for Livni and Barak to rule, with the Arab parties effectively supporting the government outside the coalition.

  8. Whoa. So much for democracy.

    Well, I guess a lot of Arabs just won’t vote, but some might vote for the most left-wing party available. The Communist Party still includes Arab candidates.

  9. Good article ben,

    Israeli elections always throw up some interesting parties, the taxi drivers party (not sure if they are standing this time around) are a personal favourite. New parties often seem to do very well at one election and then disappear off the map at the next election. So there is always a chance one of the smaller parties or a new party could come from nowhere and grab votes unexpectadly. Labor and Kadima’s polling is up since the conflict in Gaza began, so they may be able to hobble together some kind of coalition with the smaller parties, this would be extremely fraught as they would have to promise these minor parties quite a lot.

    Possibly Likud, Labor and Kadima could form a coalition together which would cut out the minor parties but would involve 3 rather large egos who would possibly have to rotate the Prime Ministership. This would probably mean an early election which Israelies are fairly used to.

    In regards to the banning of the Arab parties this happened in the lead up to the last election and was overturned by the Supreme Court, so hopefully this will be the scenario this time around.

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