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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Seventy Years of Free Israeli Elections: Democratic Resilience in the Face of Adversity


David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, casting his vote for the Israeli Constituent Assembly on Jan. 25, 1949. (Israeli Government Press Office)

On April 9, Israelis will go to the polls to vote for the 21st Knesset—Israel’s parliament—70 years this month after the first Knesset election was held. During these seven decades of wars, terrorism and the absorption of millions of immigrants from around the world, Israelis voted 20 times for their political leadership in peaceful, democratic elections.


Remarkably, only 22 other nations among the world’s 193 have similarly conducted uninterrupted free elections since 1949—none in the face of such daunting challenges. This extraordinary democratic resilience makes Israel a uniquely reliable U.S. ally in the unstable Middle East, where no other democracy exists. Israel stands as a beacon of hope, and it is the United States’ interest that Israel remains safe and secure.


Israel’s First Legislative Election


On Jan. 25, 1949, 440,000 Israelis—a remarkable 87 percent turnout—went to the polls to vote for Israel’s first legislative body, then called the Constituent Assembly; the Assembly changed its name to Knesset three weeks later.


This first Israeli election was perhaps unique in history. Not only was it held a mere eight months after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, but at the time of the election, Israel’s War of Independence had not yet ended; all four war-ending armistice agreements with Israel’s neighbors had yet to be signed. By comparison, the first U.S. legislative election was held 12 years after the Declaration of Independence and more than five years after the end of the War of Independence. Israel’s deep commitment to free elections has not wavered in the seven decades that have passed since its first election.


Although the 1949 election was Israel’s first, it already had deep roots going back nearly three decades. As early as 1920—shortly after the establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine—the local Jewish community elected an Assembly of Representatives, which functioned as an autonomous parliament. Three more elections to the Assembly followed during the Mandate—in 1925, 1935 and 1944. The last Assembly of Representatives functioned until February 1949, one day before the first Knesset was sworn in.


For its first official legislative election in 1949, Israel adopted the electoral system first implemented in 1920: a nation-wide proportional representation for a unicameral parliament. The number of seats that each party list received in the 120-member Knesset was proportional to the number of votes it had obtained. The government, headed by a prime minister, was elected by the Knesset with a simple majority; the Knesset could remove the government from office in a vote of non-confidence.


Continuity and Change


Continuity:

Except for a brief period (1996-2001) when Israel experimented with direct elections for the prime minister, its electoral system has remained virtually unchanged.

An important element of continuity has been the representation in the Knesset of almost every shade of opinion in the country’s population. Four blocs of voters have been represented on the religious-secular continuum: ultra-Orthodox, religious, traditional and secular. In terms of national identity, both Jews and Arabs have always been represented in the Knesset. The same goes for representation of the right and left wings, and everywhere in between, on social and security issues.


And just as in 1949, no party since has succeeded in securing a majority of seats in the Knesset. Every prime minister needed to form a coalition government with other parties, a prescription for political volatility. Thus, although Knesset elections are scheduled to be held every four years, recurrent early elections resulting from the collapse of Knesset coalitions have yielded 20 Knesset elections in 66 years—from the first election in 1949 through the latest election of 2015—instead of 16. Moreover, prime ministers have frequently been forced to form one or more new coalition governments during the term of a single Knesset due to a coalition partner’s withdrawal from the government.


Change:


Israel has passed the most crucial test of any genuine democracy—a peaceful transition in the country’s elected leadership. From 1949 until 1977, the Knesset was dominated by coalitions of Socialist and religious parties headed by Mapai—the predecessor of today’s Labor Party. The right-wing Likud—the same party leading today’s coalition government—won the largest number of Knesset seats in 1977 and formed the government. The idea that Mapai would refuse to peacefully yield power to Likud, its bitter political rival for decades, did not even arise. Since then, the government has changed hands several times, and in a few cases, the two main parties formed national unity governments.


A seemingly technical change—raising the qualifying threshold for a party to enter into the Knesset—changed Israel’s historical trajectory. Originally the threshold was only 1 percent of the vote. It was raised to 1.5 percent ahead of the 1992 election. Consequently, the right-wing party Tehiya (Renaissance), which won 1.3 percent that year, failed to enter the Knesset as it would have if the 1 percent threshold had been kept. Consequently, instead of a right-wing government headed by Likud, a left-of-center government headed by Labor was formed. Led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, that government signed the Oslo Accords, which had profound, long-lasting effects on Israel’s domestic and international situation.


The electoral threshold was raised again, to 2 percent, in 2003. The current threshold of 3.25 percent was enacted in 2014. Consequently, the number of parties elected to the Knesset dropped from a record 15 (1955, 1984, 1988 and 1992) to 10 following the latest Knesset election of 2015.


Who’s Running?


As in previous elections, in addition to the parties represented in the current Knesset and some of those that had run in the past but failed to pass the qualifying threshold, new parties have been formed ahead of the April election. All parties must submit their lists of candidates by Feb. 21, so more parties may still register, but here is the current breakdown:


Parties in the Coalition:


Today, the 61-member governing coalition is headed by the right-wing Likud, the party that won the largest number of seats (30) in the 2015 election. It is led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009 and had also headed the government from 1996 to 1999.


The second-largest party (10 seats) in the coalition is the center-right Kulanu (All of Us), headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who split from Likud in 2013. It mainly focuses on socio-economic issues, seeking to improve the economic conditions of working-class and middle-class Israelis.


Kulanu is followed by The Jewish Home (eight seats), a national-religious party headed, at the time of the 2015 election, by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett. It is seeking to annex at least part of the West Bank and bolster the nation’s observance of Jewish laws. On Dec. 29, Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced they were quitting The Jewish Home and forming a new party (more below).


Next is Shas (seven seats), an ultra-Orthodox party representing mainly Sephardi Jews (originating from the Middle East or North Africa). It is headed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and seeks to promote both observance of Jewish laws and the socio-economic interests of its less-affluent Sephardi constituency.


Finally, United Torah Judaism (six seats) is an ultra-Orthodox party representing Ashkenazi Jews (originating from Western, mostly European countries). Headed by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni, it focuses on the strict observance of Jewish laws, exemption of yeshiva (religious seminary) students from military service and large subsidies for yeshivas and multiple-children families.


Parties in the Opposition:


The largest Knesset list in the 59-member opposition elected in 2015 was The Zionist Union (24 seats), an alliance of the Labor Party, headed by Avi Gabbay, with the much-smaller Hatnuah (The Movement), led by Tzipi Livni. Since Gabbay is not a Knesset member, Livni was declared “Leader of the Opposition.” The Zionist Union was a center-left alliance calling for a two-state solution (i.e., the creation of a Palestinian state that would live side-by-side with the Jewish state of Israel). On Jan. 1, Gabbay announced the dissolution of the Zionist Union. The Labor Party remains under his leadership, with Labor Knesset Member Shelly Yachimovich declared Leader of the Opposition. Hatnuah is once again a separate party under Livni’s leadership.


The second-largest party in the opposition is The Joint List (13 seats), an alliance of four Arab-dominated parties. Headed by Ayman Odeh, it reflects the broad ideological spectrum of its constituent parties—from Communism to Socialism to Islamism, and from support for a two-state solution to anti-Zionism. On Jan. 9, the leader of the anti-Zionist Ta’al (Hebrew acronym for Arab Movement for Renewal) announced his party was leaving The Joint List and would run separately in the April election.


Next comes the centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) with 11 seats, headed by Yair Lapid. It supports a two-state solution, economic liberalism and secularism.


Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), a right-wing party headed by Avigdor Liberman, won six seats in the 2015 election but lost one seat when Orly Levy-Abekasis left the party in 2017 to form her own Knesset list. The party, which has traditionally relied on the votes of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, is a nationalist-secularist party calling for the transfer of Arab-inhabited parts of Israel to a future Palestinian state in return for keeping the Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank in order to maintain a large Jewish majority in Israel following the conclusion of a peace treaty. Last November, Yisrael Beiteinu quit the coalition government.


Meretz (Vigor), with five seats, is a left-wing party headed by Tamar Zandberg. It calls for immediate steps leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and for turning Israel from a market economy to a welfare state.


Finally, Gesher (Bridge)—a one-seat independent list—is headed by Orly Levy-Abekasis, who left Yisrael Beiteinu in 2017 because, she said, the party did not pay enough attention to social issues.


            Existing Parties That Had Failed to Enter the Knesset in Previous Elections:


Founded in 1999 and headed by Boaz Wachtel and others, Ale Yarok (Green Leaf) announced it would run in the April election. Its primary goal is to legalize cannabis.


Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power)—a far-right party founded in 2012 by supporters of Meir Kahane, is led by Michael Ben-Ari and Aryeh Eldad.


On Dec. 30, Eldad Yaniv announced he would resurrect the party Eretz Hadasha (New Country), which he founded in 2012, under the name The Protest Movement. A prominent leader of activists demonstrating against what they say is corruption in government, Yaniv said the party’s purpose is to replace “the old, corrupt leadership.”


Yachad (Together) is an ultra-Orthodox, right-wing Sephardi party founded by former Shas leader Eli Yishai in 2014.


Zehut (Identity) is a right-wing party founded by Moshe Feiglin in 2015.


Social Justice, headed by Yom Kippur War veteran Motti Ashkenazi and social activist Gad Haran, was founded in 2007 and failed to cross the qualifying threshold in the 2013 election. It calls for reducing the socio-economic gaps in Israeli society.


Numerous additional parties that had run in previous elections but received only a few hundred votes have registered to run in the April election.


New Parties:


As early as last July, Adina Bar-Shalom—daughter of the late Haredi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef—registered a new party called Ahi Yisraeli (My Israeli Brother). She announced her party would appeal not only to the ultra-Orthodox but also to other religious and secular Israelis. The party’s declared goals include “reducing wealth inequality, promoting societal coexistence and respect, advancing equality for women, and renewing a drive for a peace accord with the Palestinians.” Bar-Shalom announced in December that she would run in the April election.


Next came Salman Abu Ahmad, who announced in mid-December that he would form a new centrist Arab party named New Horizon; he registered the party on Dec. 31. The party’s registration documents say its goals include “improving the status of Israel’s Arab citizens…, upgrading the education system…, uproot[ing] crime and violence in Arab society…, promot[ing] the status of women in Arab society and serving as a bridge to a historical reconciliation between the [Israeli and Palestinian] peoples and peace with Arab states.”


On Dec. 25—one day after the government decided to hold a snap election on April 9—former IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced he is forming a new party and will run in the coming elections. Ya’alon had previously cited Israel’s economic and social woes as issues he would seek to address in a leadership position. On Jan. 2, Ya’alon registered his new party under the name Telem (the Hebrew acronym for Stately National Movement).


On Dec. 27, another former IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, registered his new party—Israel Resilience—announcing he would run in the upcoming election. The party seeks the “continued development and strengthening of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state according to the Zionist vision as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, while establishing and changing national priorities in the fields of education, development of national infrastructure, agriculture, rule of law and internal security, peace and security,” according to its registration form.


On Dec. 29, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked announced they were quitting the Jewish Home to form a new party that would appeal both to religious and to secular Jews, called The New Right. They said the party would promote the integrity of the Land of Israel and oppose the creation of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan. Jewish Home Knesset Member Shuli Moalem-Refaeli announced she would join the new party.


On Jan. 7, Maj. Gen. (res.) Dr. Yom-Tov Samia registered a new party, B’Yahad (Together; Hebrew acronym for Security, Jewish-Israeli, Social-Educational, Democratic). Its declared goals are freedom, the rule of law, a solid Jewish majority, security and peace within secure borders.


On Jan. 8, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Gal Hirsch registered a new party, Magen Yisrael (Shield of Israel), which will run in the April 9 election. Previously, Hirsch described the settlements as a “defensive wall” and expressed opposition to withdrawals.


On Jan. 15, former Israeli special forces warrior Amos Danieli and Israeli Arab social worker Walid Diab announced the formation of a new Jewish-Arab party, L’Ma’anenu (For Us), to promote the socio-economic interests of the Israeli-Arab community, which, they said, had been neglected by The Joint List.


It is likely that additional new parties will register ahead of the Feb. 21 deadline.


A Stable Democracy Makes a Reliable Ally


Although Israel’s myriad parties and byzantine politics have often produced political volatility, Israeli democracy has remained rock-solid for 70 years and is on par with the most advanced Western democracies. Of course, like any other country, Israel has its flaws. But in addition to free elections, Israel has maintained the rule of law, freedom of expression, assembly and religion, equal civil and human rights for all its citizens, and a free-market economy.


From the perspective of U.S. regional interests, Israel’s democratic stability is priceless. Over the decades, the United States has worked with multiple other Middle Eastern allies, none of them democratic. In the long run, non-democratic allies can become enemies virtually overnight. To cite two examples: As a monarchy, Libya was an important U.S. ally with a huge U.S. Air Force base on its territory; when Col. Muammar Qaddafi took over in a 1969 coup, he turned Libya into a bitter enemy of the United States. And Iran, under the Shah, was considered America’s top regional ally. As soon as radical Islamists under Ayatollah Khomeini took over in 1979, Iran became—and still is—America’s most dangerous and hostile adversary in the region. Americans need not worry about such upheavals in Israel.


Israel’s military and economic might, its legendary inventiveness that earned it the nickname “the Startup Nation,” its vibrant democracy and its people’s deep affection for America make the Jewish state a uniquely valuable U.S. ally in the Middle East and beyond. Among other contributions, Israel has provided the United States with vital intelligence on America’s and Israel’s common enemies, and Israeli innovations have saved countless American lives on the battlefield, at home and beyond.


The U.S. Must Continue to Help Ensure Israel’s Security


For its part, the United States has greatly bolstered Israeli security. For five decades, American weaponry has been the mainstay of Israel’s military power. After Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur of 1973, a massive U.S. airlift to Israel helped turn the tide and enabled Israel to win the war. When Iraq launched dozens of Scud missiles into Israel in 1991, the United States rushed Patriot anti-missile batteries to Israel. Since the 1990s, more than $1 billion in American materiel has been prepositioned in Israel to be made available both to the U.S. armed forces and, if needed, to the Israeli military. In 2016, the U.S. administration committed to grant Israel $38 billion over 10 years in military assistance—an unprecedented aid level. And U.S. diplomatic support has prevented the adoption of countless biased, anti-Israel U.N. Security Council resolutions.


U.S. security assistance and diplomatic support for Israel are based on the twin pillars of common strategic interests and shared values—particularly, a firm commitment to stable democratic governance. Israel is currently facing increasingly grave security threats from the same enemies that menace American security, mainly Iran and its surrogates and other Islamist terrorist organizations. For the sake of both democratic allies, it is incumbent on the United States to continue to help ensure Israel’s security.


Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report