Unraveling Israeli Partisan Elections

Summary of the System

On February 10, 2009, many watched and waited to see who Israel would elect as its next prime minister. Choosing Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party would send a message to the world that Israel was prepared to move forward with “land for peace.” An opposite message would be delivered by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, who was perceived by some as an opponent of Palestinian sovereignty (though he has softened somewhat on this position). But what many did not understand is that Israelis do not vote to choose the highest executive leader of the nation.

The only nationally elected officials in the government of Israel are the 120 members of the Israeli Parliament, called the Knesset. It was in fact the Knesset that was elected on February 10. The parliamentary electoral process in Israel is carried out through a proportional representation system. This means the number of seats a party gets in the Knesset is proportionate to the number of votes it receives nationally. To win an initial seat, a party must curry only 2 percent of the national vote. The main point here is that voters do not cast their ballots for specific candidates, but only for specific parties, which are determined in advance of the elections by the parties themselves.

From this group of 120 newly elected Knesset members the Prime Minister is chosen. Even then, he is not directly chosen by the Knesset, but by the President. (The President himself is elected to his position by a previous Knesset, not by the general public.) The President chooses as Prime Minister the candidate he believes to be most likely to “form” a government. In order to “form” a government, the future Prime Minister must put together a coalition of at least 61 members of Knesset. This coalition will then function as a voting block. Decades ago, when there were only a few political parties in Israel, a single party could represent more than 60 seats in the Knesset, and the head of that party would become the Prime Minister. However, today there are so many small political parties that the popular vote is highly diluted, and no single party comes close to winning a majority in the parliament. Therefore, a government must be “formed” by piecing together a coalition from many parties. This inevitably puts the smaller parties—which typically focus on more obscure issues and represent a very small percentage of the populace—in the position of making or breaking a government. As a result, the Israelis sometimes call these unlikely little parties their “kingmakers”.

Livni Gets More Votes but Netanyahu Wins

So what happened after Israel’s recent election? Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party received more votes and Knesset seats than any other party. However, the number of parties aligned with Kadima were clearly insufficient for her to form a coalition. Therefore, President Peres appointed Benjamin Netanyahu as the prime minister elect. At that point, Netanyahu’s coalition building process began.

A main tool for this coalition building is the awarding of specific ministries (akin to cabinet posts) to members of the various parties helping form the coalition. There is often natural affinity between political parties based on agreement over key issues. However, there are also sharp differences between many parties. Often these differences are overcome by the appointment of cabinet ministers from otherwise cooperative parties. These appointments can make somewhat uncomfortable political arrangements more palatable. Unfortunately, they can also lead to ministers being placed in positions for which they are inexperienced, or even at times, outright unqualified. Some claimed that Israel’s rather poor outcome in the 2006 Lebanon war was due to the Minister of Defense having virtually no military experience, but having been appointed to his post solely for political, coalition-building reasons. Many are raising similar concerns regarding ministerial appointments in Mr. Netanyahu’s new cabinet. He has formed the largest cabinet in Israeli history—indeed, the sixth largest cabinet of any nation in the world—to join factious competing parties willing, at least for now, to cooperate under his governance.

A vote of “no confidence” by the Knesset can at any time cause a government to fall, prompting new elections. Mr. Netanyahu hopes to lower this risk by his broad-based, national unity coalition consisting of parties from all political spheres. Kadima’s presence in the coalition, which he sought to obtain, would have likely helped stabilize matters even further. But led by the disappointed Tzipi Livni, Kadima instead announced it will actively oppose the new coalition in order to “bring down the present government and force new elections”.

Coalition Building and the “Kingmakers”

After his inaugeration, Mr. Netanyahu
prays at the Western Wall

Mr. Netanyahu was successful in bringing Israel’s longstanding Labor party, led by Ehud Barak, into his coalition. By joining the coalition, Mr. Barak, the most decorated military officer in Israel’s history, remains Defense Minister, the position he held during the latter half of Olmert’s administration. However, because of Labor’s traditional left-wing stance, that party has now undergone a painful split. A sizeable chunk of Labor opposed what it regarded as Barak’s “sellout” compromise to the more right-wing Likud.

Following protracted negotiations, Mr. Netanyahu succeeded in knitting together a coalition of multiple parties representing mostly right, and one left-wing, party. But it is a shaky coalition at best, governing by slim majority. It has left deep rifts and wounds in Israel’s government. And the taxpaying public is not too pleased to pay for the salaries of so many ministers and their staffs during a period of severe economic recession.

Coalition building of this nature can result in reduced governmental efficiency at best, and at worst, governmental collapse if thinly knit alliances unravel. Such scenarios have sadly and repeatedly taken place in the past. Previous governments have been brought down by small constituencies wielding power out of proportion to their size—the so called “kingmakers” phenomenon. Multiple calls for election reform have been issued to correct such systemic dysfunctions; however, parties in power have never succeeded in enacting proposed changes. One barrier to change is that any government reforming itself potentially works itself out of a job.

What Might God be Saying to Us?

Israel’s recent election seems to convey the following:

► Since God places men in authority, and many of His people have been praying fervently throughout the process, we believe He has raised up Prime Minister Netanyahu to lead Israel at this critical hour. We urge you to be optimistic, to persevere in faith, and in prayer.

► Our trust must not lie in the governments of men, but in God alone, the One on Whose shoulders all governments of men rest. He is working toward that end.

► During this critical hour, when Israel’s existence as a nation is so seriously threatened, national unity is essential. The enemy would attempt to destroy us not only through outside threats, but through disunity within.

► Just as individual partisan interests in Israel must now be sidelined for a greater good attainable only through national unity, so too must the Church in the nations embrace a spirit of corporate unity against the world’s mounting evil.

► For both Israel and the Church, it is time to remember our biblical foundations, seeking revived ancient paths to walk in today, in the power of the Spirit.

► God is giving Israel a gracious opportunity to navigate serious challenges ahead, in His strength, wisdom and anointing. Please pray for Prime Minister Netanyahu, a God-fearing leader, for all the Israeli government, and for the government of your own nation. Pray that righteousness and justice would be the foundation of their “thrones” even as they are the foundation of God’s throne.

► Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, her protection and her prosperity by the Spirit of God. Thank you and God bless you!