Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday, and while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to gain enough votes to form a coalition, the main question Israelis are asking is: Will the new government be strong enough and stable enough to govern?
A total of 34 parties are running, but only 12 or 13 are expected to pass the 2 percent threshold – or 70,000 votes – to be elected to the 120-seat Knesset.
Unlike in the United States, the entire country is considered one voting district, and the electoral system is proportional. That is, the number of votes each party receives dictates the number of seats it secures in the Knesset. So a party that gets 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of the seats in the Knesset.
Because no party has ever won more than 50 percent of the vote (61 Knesset seats), the greater intrigue occurs after the votes are counted. Usually, the largest party is tasked with forming the next governing coalition, but to achieve that, it has to first traverse a gauntlet of negotiations, bartering and bargaining to convince the smaller parties to join. If it’s Netanyahu, he will have up to 28 days to form the coalition.
Here’s a cheat-sheet of the largest parties expected to win Knesset seats, and the number of seats polls predict they will win:
RIGHT WING PARTIES
Likud-Israel Beiteinu (32 seats)
In an effort to shore up support, Netanyahu and coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman decided to merge their two parties – Likud and Israel Beiteinu. If polls are correct, it appears that decision may cost them a lot of votes. Presently, they hold a total of 42 seats in the Knesset, and the latest polls show they are expected to win 32 seats on Tuesday. If that’s the case, they will have lost almost one quarter of the seats they currently hold.
Concerned about its loss of clout, the party is using the last campaign days to urge its traditional supporters wooed by smaller parties that Netanyahu’s victory is not a done deal. Translation: the left could still potentially muster the support to form the next government.
Ofir Akunis, a Likud member of Knesset, tells Ynet: “A Likud government isn't a given…If, as the polls predict, we'll get only 32 Knesset seats there's a chance the 1992 scenario will repeat itself and the Left will form a unified bloc and will form the next government."
Member of Knesset Danny Danon tells the paper: "If the national bloc will not vote for Likud, the next Israeli government will look like a Turkish bazaar."
Netanyahu is crafting his campaign around his strong leadership in the face of Israel’s many security threats. In fact, his slogan is “A strong prime minister, a strong Israel,” and his ads show images of him meeting with Israel Defense Forces officials and speaking at the U.N. about the threats of Iran’s nuclear march.
In an interview Saturday night to Israel’s Channel 2, the prime minister said Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas were closely watching the elections. He said, they "want to know one thing, whether the ruling party has grown or shrunk. They want a weak Israel, a divided one and the most challenged country in the world must not be divided."
Netanyahu also says he won’t stop building in Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, despite international condemnation – including from the U.S. – over that policy.
This Likud ad called "When Netanyahu speaks the world listens" shows Netanyahu speaking to a joint session of Congress and to the U.N.:
Jewish Home (14 seats)
The party most responsible for siphoning votes from Netanyahu’s party is the Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff (TheBlaze’s profile of Bennett can be found here). Polling at 14 seats, the Jewish Home which sits further right than Netanyahu opposes any territorial compromise with the Palestinians and supports annexing parts of the West Bank.
A former army commando, hi-tech millionaire and spokesman for Jewish settlers, Bennett has been the hip, savvy face of the religious party, but other members of the list who have kept a low profile during the campaign have drawn the scrutiny of rival parties. The latest controversy: In 2011, Jeremy Gimpel, number 14 on the list, told an American audience that "it would be incredible" if the Dome of the Rock were "blown up." The Dome of the Rock is a Muslim mosque that sits atop the Temple Mount – the holiest site in Judaism.
He said: “Imagine today if the golden dome, I’m being recorded so I can’t say blown up, but let’s say the dome was blown up, right, and we laid the cornerstone of the Temple in Jerusalem. Can you imagine what it would... None of you would be here. You would all be like whoosh going to Israel, right? No one would be here. It would be incredible.”
After the clip emerged over the weekend, the Hatnua (“the movement”) party said it plans to ask the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Gimpel on the grounds he was inciting to racism.
In a statement, Hatnua said: “The strange list that he [Bennett] is taking to the Knesset seeks to inflame the Middle East and to bring on a third world war with its crazy visions of building a temple.”
Gimpel says his words were taken out of context and that it was part of a discussion about the biblical book of Ezra. “The controversy is ridiculous,” Gimpel told the Jerusalem Post. “In order to make the lecture more lively I made a few jokes and you clearly hear the audience laughing. This is a cheap political attack and I would urge anyone to watch the video in its entirety and decide for yourselves.”
LEFT WING PARTIES
Labor Party (17 seats)
The Labor Party is headed by former journalist Shelly Yachimovich and is running predominantly on a social platform, that is, higher taxes on the rich, more government handouts and public housing.
The social-democratic party hired former Clinton strategist and Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg to spearhead its campaign strategy. The party has recruited two key players in the social protests of 2011, and has attracted other left-leaning journalists to its ranks. Yachimovich has said her key goal is to unseat Netanyahu and that she would not join any coalition led by Netanyahu.
Meretz (6 seats)
This left-wing party is dovish on security and supports territorial compromise as part of any peace process with the Palestinians. It believes in a separation of religion and state and supports equal rights for homosexuals. It has the only openly gay member of Knesset, Nitzan Horowitz. It is headed by Zehava Gal-On.
Hatnua (8 seats)
This centrist party is led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and has made the campaign promise that if elected it will push for an immediate renewal of the peace process with the Palestinians which has been nonexistent for the past two years. With an estimated eight seats it may win, Livni will be in the position to join Netanyahu’s government, which she has not ruled out.
Yesh Atid (12 seats)
Created by former TV anchor Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid (“there is a future”) is presenting itself as a centrist party and is reaching out to undecided voters. The central tenet of the campaign is distributing the military service burden more equitably, a hot-button issue among cash-strapped Israelis. At present, ultra-Orthodox men are exempted from IDF service, yet receive large monthly stipends from the government to fund their full-time yeshiva seminary study. Lapid has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu coalition.
Kadima (2 seats)
This centrist party is headed by former IDF Chief of Staff and former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. His campaign ads revolve around his defense experience, his humble roots as an immigrant from Iran, and being a family man. His ads compare the modest Mofaz to "the journalist,” "the one with the cigars and the whiskey" and "the aristocrat.” If the party passes the minimum threshold and is elected to the Knesset, it will likely join a Netanyahu coalition.
Shas (12 seats)
Shas is an ultra-Orthodox party made up of Jews of Sefardi heritage, that is, those whose ancestors came from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. This party wants a continuation of government handouts for the Torah studies of ultra-Orthodox men and wants to continue their exemption from IDF service. It is also campaigning on a social platform of more government support for the economically weaker segments of society.
Besides these largest parties, there are other parties running, including those that aim to represent Israeli Arabs, supporters of legalized marijuana, supporters of internet freedom known as the Pirate Party, and even divorced husbands.