Israelis go to the polls tomorrow for an election that could decide the political fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose appearance before a joint meeting of Congress early this month sparked anger from the Obama White House and controversy on Capitol Hill.
Foreign elections are typically not something most Americans follow particularly closely, but this one’s different. The fresh controversy over Netanyahu combined with the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which Netanyahu has denounced, has sparked more interest than usual.
Here are three things you need to understand when tomorrow’s election results roll in.
Israel’s Government Is a Parliamentary System
Strictly speaking, Israeli voters aren’t electing a Prime Minister. They are electing a new Parliament. Unlike the de facto two-party system in the U.S., there are numerous thriving political parties in Israel, none of which is expected to garner anything close to enough seats in Parliament to constitute a majority.
As a result, when the tallies come in Tuesday night, it may not be immediately obvious who the next Prime Minister will be. Netanyahu’s Likud Party, according to the most recent polls, is expected to win fewer seats than the left-leaning Zionist Union Party (itself the product of a merger between two other parties.) However, both are predicted to win between 20 and 30 seats, leaving them far short of the 61-seat majority needed to form a government.
That means when the polls close, the dealmaking begins. Likud and Zionist Union begin bargaining with small- and medium-sized parties in an effort to build a coalition that will boost one side to the necessary 61 seats. It’s far from clear who will have the easier time of it, and it can be a messy process. Coalitions are formed on the basis of bargains – a top cabinet post for a leader who can bring key lawmakers with him, or a promise to pay particular attention to issues important to another bloc in exchange for their continued support.
Netanyahu currently leads a coalition government, and the reason he has called this election, only 26-months into what could be a four-year term, is that he has found his coalition unworkable.
Israelis Have More on Their Minds than Iran
In the U.S., it will be tempting to view the results on Tuesday as either an endorsement or a repudiation of Netanyahu’s position on Iran. In fact, Netanyahu himself has done his best to make the election about foreign policy in general, and the threat of a nuclear Iran in particular.
However, the average Israeli has a lot more on his or her mind that the prospect that the mullahs in Tehran might decide to ramp up their nuclear program at some unknown time in the future.
The cost of living in Israel has been rising relentlessly, driven in large part by high housing prices. Living space in Israel has become extremely expensive, largely due to a shortage of available properties. Already one of the more densely populated countries in the world, Israel’s population grows by about 188,000 people annually. That’s roughly equivalent to adding the population of Pasadena, California to Israel every year. Except that Israel is only about the size of New Jersey.
While Netanyahu has promised to prioritize the construction of new apartments if he wins another term as Prime Minister, his primary opponents in the Zionist Union Party have been hammering on kitchen-table issues for weeks, working hard to characterize themselves as the champions of everyday Israelis.
Israeli Arabs Could Be Key Players
Israel was founded as a Jewish state, a homeland for Jews who have been historically persecuted. That does not mean, however, that all Israelis are Jews. About 21 percent of the Israeli population is made up of people of Arab descent.
Israeli Arabs have not, historically, been major players in the political system. Many feel alienated from the government, and they typically turn out to vote in smaller numbers than Jewish Israelis.
Until recently, Israeli Arab representation in Parliament has been distributed across an array of minor parties. However, in tomorrow’s elections, the Arab Israeli candidates will run under the combined banner of the United List party. Current estimates suggest that United List will emerge as the third-largest party in the next Parliament.
This could have two possible effects on the election results. First, expanded Arab turnout driven by the promise of more influence could make it even harder for Netanyahu’s Likud to gain the seats it needs to take the lead in forming a government. Second, and more potentially explosive, United List might throw in its lot with the Zionist Union in an effort to form a new government.
This last is a bit of a long shot. Israeli Arabs in Parliament have not typically joined in coalition governments in the past. However, if they could be persuaded to do so, it would significantly alter the political dynamic in Israel’s parliament – likely driving conservative and pro-national security parties toward Likud, but possibly forming the base of a new breed of Israeli government.
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