14 Points to Help You Make Sense of Israeli Politics

Benjamin Netanyahu just called me up on the phone! I couldn’t believe it! He asked me to vote for him and told me what a good job he has done the last four years. However, when I tried to talk, he just kept talking… like I wasn’t there. Shelly Yacomovich (Labor Party) called me last night! She too, just wanted to talk and not listen.

I am not special. Israelis are getting recorded phone calls like this from various characters—ultra-religious extremists who are ruled by the rabbis, to left wing doves, who still think Hamas just wants peace. They all want our votes. Yes, election time is here.

I realize that most of my readers are in the US, where there are only two major parties, and therefore can’t fully appreciate how crazy the Israeli political system is. With elections coming on January 22nd, I figured I would try, in as fewest words as possible—14 points—to give you an understanding. Here we go…

1) Israel uses a parliamentary system of government. That means simply that you vote for your party (or the one you dislike the least), not the candidate. Of course calling them parties is a bit confusing, because there is no fun, no music, no cake—just adults acting like children, fighting for position.

2) The party with the most seats is asked by the Israeli president (the president has no authority like in the US—but is more like the Queen—ehh, no, strike that—it is a procedural position) to work with other parties to form a coalition.

3) There are 120 seats, and no party ever wins a clear majority, so they must compromise, promise, give-in to blackmail, forcing them to work with people they wouldn’t even carpool with, in order to garner enough partners to present a coalition of at least 61 members.

4) A rare exception would be, as we saw in the last election, when the leading party cannot muster up enough partners to form a coalition. (Like being the kid with all the toys, but still no one will play with you, because frankly, they can’t stand you.) In this case, the president would turn to the party that he deems most viable of forming a coalition. Four years ago, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima (Move Forward) party had the most seats, but no one wanted to play with Tzipi (and they still don’t). So, the president turned to Netanyahu’s Likud party to form a coalition.

5) In the forming of the coalition, agreements are made, cabinet posts are promised and smaller parties, such as the orthodox parties, exact a price. In the end, the orthodox parties typically control immigration, defining ‘who is a Jew’ and who can get married in Israel.

Once, because the Labor party came in second, their leader ended up with the Defense ministry post. Despite the fact that he was a life-long union leader and knew virtually nothing about defense, he found himself leading the most advanced army in the Middle East. His incompetence was highlighted when, during a photo op, he looked through a pair of binoculars with the caps still on.

In our most recent government, a fellow who is better suited to be a Russian crime syndicate boss found himself in the delicate position of Foreign Minister, where you can’t just threaten to break the legs of an opposing Foreign Minister as starting point for negotiations. Oh, he just had to resign because he is b