Israeli Politics

By Rabbi William Kuhn

 The political situation in Israel is more interesting than you can possibly imagine. During the recent Convention in Jerusalem of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), we heard from several members of Knesset (the Israeli parliament), who tried to give us some insight into the current situation. It could be loosely termed “a mess.”

In the United States, we have a two-party political system. You are either a Democrat or a Republican. We have blue states and red states. Occasionally, a third party candidate arises, but most people think they are a bit unusual. Whatever you think of our system, it seems to work for us.

But in Israel, there are thirty-three political parties! That old adage about “Ask two Jews a question and you get three opinions,” seems to be the rule in Israeli politics. In a nation of approximately six million people, it is a wonder that there are only thirty-three political parties. But it makes life very complicated when it comes to governing.

Israel has a parliamentary form of government. There are one hundred and twenty seats in the Knesset (parliament). In order to govern, the prime minister must control a majority of the seats, or at least sixty-one seats of Knesset. This means that in order to be the prime minister, he or she must put together a coalition of at least sixty-one seats. When there are thirty-three parties, this is no easy task.

In the recent elections in February, Tzipi Livni and her Kadima party won the most number of seats (twenty-eight seats). Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party came in second with twenty-seven seats. But even though Livni beat Netanyahu, she was not able to put together a coalition of sixty-one seats, so Netanyahu becomes Prime Minister, because he could put together the sixty-one seats required to govern. His coalition will be quite right-wing, composed of some ultra-Orthodox parties as well as those parties dedicated to continuing building Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Also in the coalition will be the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman. Some believe this is not a natural coalition, and that it will not hold together for too long. There will probably be another election fairly soon.

Netanyahu attempted to entice Livni to join his coalition, thus forming a National Unity Government, but at the time of this writing, they have not agreed on terms sufficient to allow that to happen.

Many observers believe that this right-wing government will be less likely to make peace with the Palestinians, and to move toward a two-state solution any time soon. They will also take a very hawkish position regarding Iran. It is thought that Israel will find it necessary to attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to defend itself against the threat of attack by Iran.

While these are very serious times for Israel, the mood there is delightfully upbeat. Thank God, there have been very few terrorist attacks in quite some time. The people seem in better spirits than I have seen there in years. Tourists are everywhere, and life is good, in spite of the economy.

I hope you will visit Israel soon, as this is a marvelous time to be there.