Less than three months before Israelis go to the polls for the second time in just over two years, candidates for political parties are making and breaking alliances, and coming up with their rosters for Knesset lists. Polls show the largest political parties getting only 21 – 24 seats, meaning that whoever forms the next government will be even more dependent on their smaller, coalition partners than they have been in the past. Only two political parties – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Bayit Yehudi headed by Naftali Bennett – will bring the whole membership together to choose their candidate for Prime Minister. In each case, it is clear who that will be.
However, the bigger question is how each party chooses their Knesset list. As Israel is a parliamentary democracy, voters choose a party, rather than a candidate. The President usually asks the party with the most votes to put together a coalition. If they do not succeed, the next party is given a chance.
In 2009 for example, Tzipi Livni, who just struck a unity deal with Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog, won 29 seats for her Kadima party – one more seat than the Likud. She proposed a joint government with current Prime Minister Netanyahu, and a rotation for Prime Minister, but he turned her down. She was unable to put together a governing coalition with 61 seats out of 120 in the Knesset and Netanyahu ended up as Prime Minister.
This time around, at least nine of the parties contesting the election will not be holding any type of primary.
In four of the parties – Livni’s Hatnua, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Yair Lapid‘s Yesh Atid, and a new party formed by a charismatic former Likud member Moshe Kahlon, the party leaders will decide on the slate of candidates.
“The US is the only country in the world that regulates how parties choose their candidates – it’s state law in all 50 states,” Reuven Chazan, the chair of the department of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem told The Media Line. “Outside the US, the party is a voluntary organization and each party can pick its candidates as it sees fit.”
However, said Chazan, allowing the party leader or a group of rabbis to choose the slate weakens democracy in Israel. In some cases, people can “buy” their way onto a party list by signing up voters.
Polls also show none of the parties getting more than 22 seats, meaning they will be even more dependent on coalition partners than in the past.
“Instead of large parties, there are more medium-sized parties,” Guy Ben Porat, a professor of public policy at Ben Gurion University told The Media Line. “It means that that the smaller parties will be able to demand whatever they want as a price for joining the coalition.”
It also means that any governing coalition may have conflicting agendas.
“We will have many parties – none of them are dominant – clashing on issues and ideologies and these are the people who have to run the country,” Chazan said. “We desperately need some sort of electoral reform that will bring us back to the days we had larger parties which could have a stabilizing effect.”
A new Israeli law could also make it difficult for smaller parties to get into the Knesset, leading to the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of votes. Earlier this year, Israel raised the election threshold to 3.25 percent, from 2 percent, meaning any party needs 3.25 percent of the vote to enter the Knesset.