Israel’s electorate didn’t “choose” their government

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August 15, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

One of the criticisms I have heard about Israelis over the past month is that if they were interested in peace they wouldn’t have voted for a government as right-wing as they have got. The truth is that they didn’t vote for that government. It was formed. To understand how that works – we should look at the electoral system (how votes are converted into seats in Parliament) that Israel operates.

As the website of Israel’s Knesset (Parliament) explains – “Israel has an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation, and the number of seats which every list receives in the Knesset is proportional to the number of voters who voted for it. The only limitation is the 2% qualifying threshold. In other words, a party must receive at least 2% of the votes in order to be elected. According to this system, the voters vote for a party list, and not for a particular person on the list.”

Essentially, then, rather than have constituencies, Israel, which I should remind you is about the size of Wales, is treated as one constituency. The parties decide on a “list” of their politicians, so that when seats are apportioned, those politicians highest up the list fill the seats. For example, there are 120 seats in the Knesset, and if a party gets 10% of the votes, they get 12 seats, and the top 12 politicians on their lists fill those seats. I will come back in a later blog onto how this affects their personal behaviour. But what you need to know if how it affects Israel’s behaviour.

As you can imagine, it is extremely difficult for any party to achieve a majority of the seats in the Knesset (50% of the vote making 60 seats). Therefore, to have a working government, coalitions have to be formed. Parties negotiate on policies and cabinet positions to join together, and if the seats for those parties add up to over 60, the President of Israel will appoint the leader of the largest party in the coalition to be Prime Minister and form a government. Sometimes, these coalitions can consist of quite a few parties.

This had led to some odd situations, such as in 2009, when Tsipi Livni’s left-leaning Kadima Party won the highest proportion of the votes, and thus the most seats, but it was Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party, with less seats, that was able to form a coalition (after Livni had been given first go). To do this, he created a coalition with quite a few right-wing parties. By the way, when I mention “right” and “left” wing, I am talking about their attitudes to making peace with the Palestinians. Therefore, to keep the government together, and not end up having to call a new election, Netanyahu had to make concessions to these right wing parties on issues like settlements, and also on how and if to pursue peace.

This got far more important following the 2013 election, when a coalition was formed that had to include people such as Naftali Bennett of The Jewish Home, and Avigdor Leiberman of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel our Home) who are extremely hawkish about peace. The coalition also included Tsipi Livni’s new party, Hatnuah (‘The movement’), and Yesh Atid (‘There is a future’) – run by TV personality Yair Lapid, who are more doveish.

So Netanyahu has to satisfy a lot of people in order to keep his government functioning. The truth is that his ear is more open to the right-wing parties, but he will occasionally need to throw a bone to his left-hand side.

More importantly, the Israeli people didn’t “vote for” Netanyahu to be Prime Minister. They didn’t “vote for” a right wing government. The history of Israeli elections has seen the voting public swing back and forth between trusting their government and also the surrounding Arab nations to be interested and able to make piece and wanting to prioritize their security instead. Those who say “if the Israelis wanted peace they wouldn’t have voted for Netanyahu etc” need to learn a bit more about the Israeli election system.

When judging Israel’s recent behaviour, it is important to understand that Israel isn’t a person. Israel is a fully functioning Western style democracy with a free press, civil liberties, trade unions, freedom to form political parties etc, and the government has to respond to that electorate, because unlike political parties here, they don’t have a disproportionate election system they can manipulate – what the public vote for, they get, in terms of seats in Parliament, although they often may not be voting for the party they vote for to end up in a coalition with who they do.

Back to Israel’s behaviour, the first role of a government is the security of its people. In response to an article I wrote recently, someone pointed out that no democratic government that wants to stay as a government is ever going to respond to 3000 rockets fired into their country by doing nothing. That is not to justify what Israel actually did, but it is important to point out that SOMETHING had to be done. It is important to note here that in a recent poll, 98% of Israelis, including many who are committed peaceniks, said they were in favour of their Government’s actions. If you think that is because they are the barbaric imperialists they have been presented as, feel free to go and live there and be bombarded with 3000 rockets, having to constantly flee to bomb shelters. It gives you a different perspective.

The next election will be very interesting. It could happen in 2017, but it could happen a lot earlier, especially if the fallout from the recent situation in Gaza results in an inability for this government to stay together. Watch this space.

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