Hard Questions, Tough Answers- Knesset Elections (September 19, 2022)


For the past 21 years, APN had the benefit and privilege of receiving a weekly analysis of current affairs from one of Israel’s leading national security experts, Yossi Alpher. Today, Yossi sent us his 1000th column. We are very grateful to Yossi for his dedication to the weekly Q&A and to Americans for Peace Now. We are proud and privileged to serve as the platform for this top-notch publication, for which we receive consistent positive feedback. If you’d like to send us your feedback, please email us at apndc@peacenow.org and we will share it with Yossi.

Q. Last Wednesday and Thursday, following extensive party politicking, Israel’s political parties submitted their election lists for the country’s fifth Knesset elections since 2019. What does this mean?

A. (Apologies to readers who understand Israel’s system. They can skip this first, technical, answer.)

Voters have only one vote, for a party list. They can now see precisely whom they are voting for by perusing the parties’ lists. A list that passes the 3.25 percent threshold of total votes will now witness the first four candidates on that list entering the Knesset (3.25 percent of 120 Knesset members), with additional percentages of the vote placing more candidates, following the order on the list, in the Knesset.

From herein until Nov.1 election day, the composition of a list can change in only one of two ways. First, the Electoral Commission, followed by the High Court, can disqualify an entire list, or a candidate on that list, if it accepts the arguments of an appeal from any of the parties. In this election, the target of an appeal anticipated from parties on the right will be the Arab party Balad with its extreme Arab-nationalist leanings. Parties on the left might appeal against the combined Religious Zionism/Jewish Power/Noam list--the far-right Kahanist/ultra-nationalist coalition list led by Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Second, a party list may dissolve itself prior to the elections. Here the prospective candidates are two parties whose chances to pass the 3.25 percent threshold are generally considered poor: Balad, weakened by its decision to break away from the Arab Joint List, and Jewish Home led by Ayelet Shaked (still minister of the interior in the transition government), which has been deserted by a number of potential partners on the right and is also currently deemed unlikely to pass the threshold.

If either of these parties (or any other small party, like Meretz on the left or Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu on the secular center-right) stays in the running and fails to get 3.25 percent of the vote, the votes it did get are deducted from the total count. This reduces the numerical total of voters, both overall and within the bloc that the list is understood to belong to: a Balad failure at the polls hurts the Arab bloc by wasting its votes; Shaked’s failure would hurt the pro-Netanyahu bloc which she now identifies with.

As an electoral casualty, failure of a party list to pass the threshold on election day benefits the larger parties: their overall percentage of the vote yields more mandates.

Q. What does the political picture look like now? Were there last-minute surprises in the countdown to filing party lists? Who pulled off the smartest maneuvers?

A. At the broadest level, Leader of the Opposition Netanyahu has mustered his political forces, his right-religious bloc, more successfully than Prime Minister Lapid with his center-left ‘change’ bloc. This does not necessarily guarantee Netanyahu the 61-mandate majority he needs to unseat Lapid and form a government after November 1 election day. But it improves Netanyahu’s chances.

Netanyahu managed, through truly alarming inducements, to keep the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism list together, after its two component parties, Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah, had a falling out over the issue of government financial support for their education systems. Netanyahu’s solution? He promised 100 percent budgetary support even for those ultra-Orthodox who refuse to integrate core subjects like English and math into their extreme religious curricula.

Netanyahu’s achievement guarantees that no ultra-Orthodox votes will be lost because one of the two component parties of United Torah Judaism, running alone, fails to pass the threshold. But it potentially perpetuates what secular Jews view as a parasitic, ignorant lifestyle among hundreds of thousands of Israelis, to the long-term detriment of the entire country. And it demonstrates that Netanyahu will do anything--inflict any evil on Israeli society--to get elected.

Next, Netanyahu united the far right: the Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir with the messianic Betzalel Smotrich and the anti-LGBTQ Noam party, whose rabbi/leader was treated to a special visit by Netanyahu. Here, too, no votes will be lost to Netanyahu’s bloc. And more than one fascistic right-winger will be able to claim a ministerial portfolio in a Netanyahu government.

The only right-winger left dangling with a tiny party not likely to pass the threshold is Ayelet Shaked. In order for the Netanyahu bloc not to lose Shaked’s votes, Netanyahu will have to decide either to encourage right-wingers to vote for her (and not, say, for the Likud) thereby pushing her over the threshold, or to campaign aggressively against her in the hope of erasing her party completely.

Q. And Lapid and his center-left ‘change’ bloc?

A. Lapid was not as skillful as Netanyahu at aggrandizing the maximum number of votes for the bloc he leads. He tried to persuade Labor and Meretz, both parties of the left, to unite their lists, lest one of them fail to pass the 3.25 percent threshold and waste votes. Meretz, ever pragmatic, was willing. But Labor (whose leader, Merav Michaeli, actually fancies herself a future prime minister) was not. Lapid, who lacks Netanyahu’s unprincipled killer instinct, won’t try to erase one of these parties and will hope that both pass the threshold.

By the way, past experience shows that a combined Labor-Meretz list gains fewer total mandates than separate lists, as long as they both pass the threshold.

Q. The Joint List of Arab citizens of Israel fragmented. How will this affect the bigger picture?

A. The three parties of the joint list, Hadash, Taal and Balad, were never candidates to join any coalition, whether with Netanyahu or with Lapid. Now Balad, having abandoned the Joint List to run alone, could well fail to pass the threshold, thereby reducing the total Arab vote to the benefit of the bigger parties, starting with Likud. On the other hand, without the more extremist Balad, its former Joint List partners Hadash and Taal, still united, might consider some form of support for Lapid and the center-left bloc or even for a Benny Gantz-led coalition, thereby improving the center’s chances to form a government.

Meanwhile, the moderate Islamist Raam, a veteran of the outgoing coalition, continues to present itself as a candidate for membership in any coalition, including one led by Netanyahu. Yet Raam leader Mansour Abbas, who has proven highly skilled as a politician and whose platform is confined to improving the lives of Arab citizens of Israel, would have trouble fitting into a right-wing coalition that includes the out-and-out racists of the far right.

If Israel’s four Arab parties (two in a joint list) want to aggrandize their political influence, they have to get out the vote. A few elections ago, the four running together netted 15 mandates. This time, it looks like running separately they will be lucky to garner 10, with Arab participation in the vote under 50 percent and at least one of the four failing to enter the Knesset. And note: there are no Muslim or Christian Arabs in ‘safe’ slots on any of the Zionist lists. Arab representation in the Knesset is liable to regress to its status 20 years ago.

Q. Benny Gantz, at the head of the National Unity party, also openly aspires to form a coalition, with parties from both the left and the right.

A. Gantz claims to be capable of bringing under his coalition-roof the Likud, the ultra-Orthodox, the far right and the left. His problem is that the polls currently award National Unity a mere 12 mandates. This means that, at best, President Herzog will probably give him a crack at coalition-forming only after Likud (currently 32 mandates) and Yesh Atid (23) have had a chance.

Indeed, National Unity offers an example of a party that refuses to take off in the polls, thereby making a mockery of Gantz’s aspiration to form a coalition. Even after former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot joined Gantz and Gideon Saar, their combined forces poll no better than Smotrich and Ben-Gvir on the far right.

One sad conclusion? Abhorrent as his politics are, Ben-Gvir exudes charisma. So does Lapid in the center. Gantz, Saar and Eizenkot do not.

Q. At this point in time, is Netanyahu in the lead thanks to his aggressive campaign to combine friendly party lists?

A. Not really. His bloc is still polling between 59 and 61 mandates. It looks like in this election a lot will depend on the Arab citizens of Israel. Will they get out the vote, thereby enhancing their parties’ size and bargaining potential? Or will Balad or even Raam disappear, to the benefit of the Zionist right?

Q. Bottom line: the strategic picture?

A. Nothing has happened to affect the basic dilemma: the Israeli system does not work. Even if this election produces a government, its chances to prevail and govern will be low. It is more likely that yet another election, sixth in a row, will follow this one shortly. The outgoing Bennett-Lapid government may have carried out a few important reforms, but it failed to change the basic stalemate equation.

The system is broken, and it cannot easily be fixed precisely because of political stalemate. Yet nowhere on the entire electoral scene is there a candidate for the Knesset, let alone a party list, who has leadership qualities and whose sole platform is to reform the system.

Q. Finally, we note that this is your Q & A number one-thousand, posted in the course of more than 20 consecutive years. Does this give you pause for thought? Any insights?

A. Doing this weekly Q & A keeps me focused, disciplined and, I hope, creative. Because this is about Israel and the Middle East, the variety of available topics appears to be endless: rarely do I have to scratch my head and wonder what to write about.

My thanks to APN readers, and the many others on the mailing list, for their continued interest. And in case you were wondering who writes the questions . . .

Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.